Biochemist and Che's motorcycle companion


ALBERTO GRANADO:ALBERTO GRANADO, who has died aged 88, was a biochemist from Argentina whose name was indelibly associated with that of Che Guevara, his revolutionary friend and former travelling companion. Their travels together through Latin America in the early 1950s were given fresh currency more than half a century later in Walter Salles’s popular film, The Motorcycle Diaries(2004). Both men wrote diaries of their journey that fed into the creation of the myths associated with Guevara’s life and death.

Granado was born in the Argentinian province of Cordoba, the son of an impoverished Spanish immigrant and trade unionist who worked on the railways. He became friendly with the teenage Guevara largely because Alberto’s younger brother, Tomas, was at school in Cordoba with the future revolutionary; Guevara was soon enrolled in a rugby team that Alberto had organised. Granado was six years older than Guevara, but they shared literary and political interests, combined with a romantic enthusiasm for foreign travel. Coming from a leftwing, working-class family, Granado was already a Marxist. He was briefly imprisoned for anti-Peronist activities in 1943. He studied biochemistry at Cordoba University and then went to work in the laboratory of a provincial leprosarium, while Guevara studied medicine in Buenos Aires.

When Granado abandoned his job at the leprosarium, Guevara gave up his medical studies to embark on a foreign adventure.

In December 1951, the two set off on a journey through Latin America on Granado’s motorcycle, a 1939 Norton 500cc nicknamed La Poderosa II(“The Mighty One”). After a few months’ travelling through the south of Argentina and Chile, the motorcycle broke down and was abandoned in Santiago. The two were obliged to make their way north by ship, bus and riverboat. Granado recalled that “the trip would not have been as useful and beneficial as it was, as a personal experience, if the motorcycle had held out . . . This gave us a chance to become familiar with the people. We worked, took on jobs to make money and continue travelling . . . We hauled merchandise, carried sacks, worked as sailors, cops and doctors.”

After arriving in Venezuela in the summer of 1952, Guevara headed to Miami while Granado stayed behind. He secured a job in the laboratory of the Cabo Blanco leprosarium in Maiquetia. Three years later he went to Europe, with a scholarship to the Istituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome, and travelled through France and Spain. On his return to Caracas, he married his Venezuelan girlfriend, Delia Duque, and transferred to the school of biochemistry at the university there.

After the victory of the Cuban revolutionaries in 1959, Granado was invited to Havana by Guevara, and he moved there with his family and took a job in the faculty of medicine at the University of Havana. In 1962 he co-founded a new medical school in Santiago de Cuba. In those years he helped Guevara organise a guerrilla movement in Argentina. He made contact with Ciro Bustos, an Argentinian artist who had come to Cuba attracted by the revolution, and also worked with an Argentinian journalist, Jorge Masetti, who had set up the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina. Bustos and Masetti helped prepare the future Argentinian guerrilla force that would be led by Masetti.

Granado went to Buenos Aires in 1962 to revive contacts in the Argentinian communist party. The guerrilla campaign in northern Argentina, in 1963-64, was a dismal failure.

Many guerrillas died, including Masetti, and only Bustos survived to take part in a later campaign in Bolivia.

Granado returned to his scientific research, and never referred again to his participation in this Argentinian episode, which was rarely referred to in Cuba. After Guevara’s death in 1967, Granado became the director of the genetics department of the National Health Centre for Stockbreeding and Farming, one of Fidel Castro’s favourite projects. He retired in 1994.

Short of stature, and with a broad smile, Granado remained a benign observer of Cuban developments and, in later years, was a source of anecdotes about Guevara. In a recent television documentary, My Best Friend, the producer Clare Lewins asked Granado why Guevara was still such a continuing attraction.

“He was a man who fought and died for what he thought was fair,” Granado replied. “So for young people, he is a man who needs to be followed. And as time goes by and countries are governed by increasingly corrupt people . . . Che’s persona gets bigger and greater, and he becomes a man to imitate. He is not a god who needs to be praised or anything like that, just a man whose example we can follow.”

He was taken on as an adviser by Salles, who had embarked on the filming of The Motorcycle Diaries. Already in his 80s, Granado enthusiastically followed the film crew as they retraced his and Guevara’s journey. Invited in 2004 to its screening at the Sundance film festival, he was refused a US visa. “It’s always easy to blame the imperialists,” he reflected, “but maybe we didn’t ask for the visa in time.” He had a walk-on part at the end of the film.

When Granado returned with the crew to the leprosarium of San Pablo, close to Peru’s frontier with Colombia, he found some of the people he had treated half a century earlier. “It was wonderful and amazing that they could still remember me,” he recalled.

Delia and their children, Alberto, Delita and Roxana, survive him.

Alberto Granado Jimenez: born August 8th, 1922; died March 5th, 2011