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In Rocinante’s Stirrups

Che Guevara’s quixotic journey
A portrait of Che Guevara on the side of a building in Havana Cuba.

Ernesto Guevara had a few names in his lifetime. When exiting Cuba six years after the beginning of the Revolution, he was Ramón Benítez, a common-sounding Latin American name that provided him with anonymity as he dressed in formal clothes, shaved his beard, and left the country incognito. In Congo, when fighting with the local communist guerrillas, he was “Tatu,” a nom de guerre from Swahili that means “three.” In Bolivia, he entered as Adolfo Mena González, a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman on an economic fact-finding mission for the Organization of American States. But it was much earlier, in a small town in the center of Chile, that he was first called by his universally recognizable, one-syllable sobriquet, “Che.”

The christening happened in 1952, in the summer month of February, during the year in which Guevara—a déclassé, asthmatic aristocrat from the Argentine city of Rosario—decided to travel to North America by land with Alberto Granado, his friend from medical school and a fellow epidemiologist. After crossing from their native country to the bordering Patagonian region of Chile, Guevara and Granado found lodging with the local fire fighters, where they hung out and observed the workers and the Chilean locals for a couple of days. There, the firefighters renamed him and Alberto as “Little Che” and “Big Che,” in reference to the Argentine word used repeatedly to call attention (a porteño interjection similar to “hey”). Guevara, standing five feet nine inches, was the latter.

This all ocurred in a town called Los Ángeles, north of the Patagonian city of Temuco. Without the grace of Hollywood but with a similarly cinematic pulse, Guevara would later dispose of the adjective and allow his nickname to become “Che,” an epithet that marked him as an Argentine worldwide and chased him and his myth—a name with the full force of his chameleonic quality, his evasive but illustrious spirit. By 1954, according to his diaries and letters, he had already adopted this as his sole moniker, using it to sign letters from Guatemala and Mexico while becoming radicalized and gearing up to the Cuban Revolution.

It is hard, and perhaps unnecessary, to evoke what his myth does, even today, worldwide. It might be sufficient to point to his photograph, imprinted in every corner of the world, in every leftist library and cultural center, in the smallest cafes in South Asia or the Middle East. Wherever there has been oppression, wherever there is some kind of revolutionary spirit left, Che’s image—not Guevara’s, but that of the nicknamed icon—accompanies and surveys, watching lopsidedly from the distance in Alberto Korda’s historical image. But what lies behind it remains elusive, his name now reduced to an almost empty signifier for individuals on the most confused sides of the political spectrum. Most notoriously, Che’s image has become a kind of symbol for a vaguely socialist masculinity, imprinted on the skin of bellicose sportsmen like Mike Tyson and Diego Armando Maradona.

This almost incomprehensible quality of Guevara is less daunting if it’s grappled with in language, with the words of the man himself. And indeed, Che left behind an extensive account of his sojourn around the world in the form of diaries, notes, speeches, and letters. These texts have been republished and reprinted since 2021 as part of an impressive editorial wave that includes new introductions from characters like Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez; forewords by Che Guevara’s daughter Aleida Guevara March; historical sketches; and biographical notes. The project was undertaken by Seven Stories Press in the United States—and, partially, Libros de la Cataratain Spain—who, in an effort both titanic and nostalgic, published, among others, The Motorcycle Diaries, a book that recounts Che’s experiences as a young doctor riding a bike through Latin America; Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, which details the guerrilla offensive waged from 1953 through the end of 1958; The Congo Diary, with notes on the year that Che spent aiding the revolutionary troops fighting the CIA-sponsored government in the newly independent Republic of the Congo; and The Bolivian Diary, an unfinished document which covers his revolutionary experiences in the Andean country until his death—likely at the hand of CIA officials—in 1967. 

If you read them as literature, Che Guevara’s travel diaries are grandiose. They are full of vivid imagery, lyrical details, and picaresque twists, almost as if the adventures lived were deliberately chosen for their aesthetic candor—indeed, as if he were hunting for stories he would later narrate. We see Che trying to steal wine from a barbecue prepared for him and Alberto Granado in the south of Argentina, getting caught by his hosts and put into shame; Che lying lazily in a hammock on the border with Tanzania and being interrupted by the sound of what he thought were stampeding elephants but were, in a comedy of errors, actually peasants passing by; Che being devoured by mosquitoes in the deep Bolivian jungle, battling ticks and insects with the same stubbornness he fought the imperialist forces of the world; and Che playing goalkeeper in an Amazonian soccer game with kids from the Yagua tribes, a day after turning twenty-four, and missing a “sneaky goal.” These stories are as deeply human as they are delightful—showcasing, more often than not, an inherently cosmopolitan, solidary spirit behind the famous photograph of the guerrilla man.

Che’s diaries offer, in sensibility and in word, an alternative to this new form of left-wing myopia.

The republished diaries provide a stark contrast to the atomized state of the global left today, which leans heavily towards provincialism. As Göran Therborn put it in a recent article in the New Left Review, in the twenty-first century, socialism has shifted its emphasis from “the working class” to “the people,” from organizations and parties to networks and movements, from clear (and often international) revolutionary programs to transitory bursts of protest. In this sense, Che’s diaries are a crucial read, insofar as they are reminiscent of a kind of openly contradictory, irreverent, worldly spirit that was concerned with maintaining a focus on the betterment of all workers’ lives. In a context where even the left-most American elected officials explicitly call for war and divide citizens by sexuality, nationality, gender and race, Che’s diaries offer, in sensibility and in word, an alternative to this new form of left-wing myopia.

Indeed, the way in which the Latin American, Cuban, Congolese and Bolivian diaries are followed by one another creates an inherently internationalist sense of Che’s literary and political projects, situating his writing in a tradition of Third Worldism that was in vogue at the time. As a doctrine, Third Worldism sought to enact the famous last line of The Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of the world, unite!” It was guided by the anti-imperialist idea, propelled by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, that leaders from historically oppressed nations could align themselves in solidarity, creating transnational political institutions that would assure their freedom from colonial rule. Third Worldism advocated for a type of unique transnational empathy whose axiom was that all beings belonged to the same community of ideas and working-class ethics (a dialectical materialist spin of Kant’s own cosmopolitan arguments.) If cosmopolitanism is now often used to describe international jetsetters, CIA-funded cultural activities, and Carrie Bradshaw types sipping martinis in Soho, Guevara’s diaries suggest the possibility of another kind of global citizen—and another kind of travel writing. The diaries aim to understand the common ground of working classes around the world while romantically positioning their struggles next to each other in one virtuous, ideologically driven movement.

The Motorcycle Diaries presents an opening act that is full of promise. A young Ernesto Guevara, still not a communist but already with a rebellious soul, leaves his bourgeois home in Buenos Aires to roam around the continent with a slightly older friend. Guevara travels north, going from Argentina to Chile to Bolivia and Peru, where he observes closely the ruins of the Incas and points out with disgust the massacres that European imperialists led in the New World. He continues into the Peruvian Amazon, visiting the San Pablo leper colony and living among those whom he calls “savage” (sometimes, especially when casting description upon native tribes, Guevara’s voice shifts into that of a nineteenth-century explorer, closer to Darwin than to Mao). Then he sails to Colombia, passes through to Bogotá, and finally arrives in Caracas, Venezuela, where the diary ends.

The last scene is an ominous encounter with a nameless man that also reads like an acid trip. “Everything solid melted away into the ether,” he writes of this encounter, in an apparent paraphrase of Marx, “eliminating all individuality and absorbing us, rigid, into the immense darkness.” In a passing note, Che quotes the unnamed man: “The future belongs to the people, and gradually, or in one strike, they will take power, here and in every country.” He adds, “I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.”

After The Motorcycle Diaries, there is a temporal and tonal jump in his travel writing: the reader goes straight from Che’s youthful reverie to his radicalization in Guatemala, portrayed in The Latin American Diaries. Here, he witnesses the fierce, U.S.-backed coup commanded by Carlos Castillo Armas and meets Fidel Castro after fleeing to Mexico[*]. The image is one of a specter chasing the continent—a land of military regimes and oppressed peasants, who are accompanied by a young, insurgent class of students finding common cause in their struggle.

His third diary, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War opens with the same intense prose as the young Guevara, this time with a bellicose twist: “We set out to make Fidel’s words—mocked by the official press—real: ‘In 1956 we will be free or we will be martyrs.’” This is where the diaries become less romantic and more strategic, sometimes to the detriment of the prose. Long descriptions of landscape and people are replaced with a more clinical and strategic point of view, where the logistics of travel are always in service of understanding a territory and gaining control of it. In Reminiscences, we encounter careful descriptions of the guerrilla fighters and the land they traversed, their relationship to the workers of Cuba, and Che’s almost unmediated assimilation into the leadership of the Central American army, known as Movimiento 26 de Julio. He was a driving force behind many structural events of the Cuban Revolution, such as the establishment of Cuba–Soviet relationships, the First Agrarian Reform, and the ideology of the “New Man,” which would later lead to anti-gay repression and persecution.

Within this peripatetic life, what, then, is the fatherland of Che Guevara, which he claimed he could die for?

But Guevara was also a man of his time, and he maintained his internationalist commitments first and foremost. In the early 1960s, the entirety of the world became a theater of war for the ideological and imperial struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. Che saw this global instability, the victories and losses of radical political movements and U.S.-backed coups, as a chance for the proliferation of guerrilla cells that would help armed revolutionaries gain power and land with the support of local peasants, similarly to how they had done in Cuba. In 1964, after mismanaging Cuba’s ministry of industry—and leading to tensions, some sources claim, with Castro himself—Guevara departed on a world tour. He visited the United States (including New York, a city his biographer John Lee Anderson writes that Che “wished to see for himself in spite of his visceral aversion to the United States”), Algeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, China, France, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, and Egypt. He also addressed the UN General Assembly, in Spanish, and claimed an internationalist loyalty to the world’s oppressed countries, crying at the end “Patria o muerte!” (“Fatherland or death”). By the middle of the decade, Che seemed to be a professional revolutionary, jumping from country to country and making war in the same spirit with which some people check into hotels. His ability to travel, to understand and relate to new people, was not distant from the one required for the advancement of geopolitical agendas (spies being the greatest cosmopolitans).

Within this peripatetic life, what, then, is the fatherland of Che Guevara, which he claimed he could die for? It doesn’t seem to be Argentina, despite the nickname, the machismo, and his noted proclivity to drink maté, a recurring theme throughout the diaries. (In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che endures one of his first crises after running out of maté on his journey; he begrudgingly switches to coffee.) It might also not be Cuba, which, still at loggerheads with Castro, he had to leave again shortly after his Third-Worldist grand tour; shifting gears, he traveled to Congo in 1965, a few years into the crisis that ensued after the murder of anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba. And it was definitely not Congo, where he encountered, for perhaps the first time, his own inability to relate to the locals—insensitively calling out their poor strategy, failing to learn proper Swahili, creating more problems than solutions for the small battalion of Afro-Cubans he traveled with, and being warned not to become “another Tarzan” by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Indeed, if there is something to be said about the Congo Diaries and the Bolivian Diaries, the last two Guevara would write, it is that the exasperation they convey cannot only be attributed to the international capitalist forces of the world (which are certainly there, and here) but also to the tedium of war, the incongruencies of Che’s own thinking, a certain myopia of difference in which his internationalist impulse was not exercised.

Take, for example, Che’s astonishment at his fellow guerillero, Congolese lieutenant-colonel Lambert, explaining to him the usage of dawa, a medicine that supposedly made a person invulnerable to bullets. Lambert says, “I’ve been a hit a number of times, but the bullets simply fell to the ground.” Instead of approaching this belief with more subtlety, Che notes only the damage it has done to military preparedness. Throughout this diary, he makes a detailed account of all the flaws in the Congolese strategy, but he hardly gets heard. Tensions accumulate, and the experience eventually collapses. Che, a revolutionary more than an administrator, notes in an epilogue that “a very important factor in the development of the struggle is the universality that it is acquiring.” But he fails to record any universals, or common ground, beyond oppression and the colonial experience. And throughout his travels, he did encounter fundamental differences from the Cuban experience: where in the Sierra Maestra and Havana, the revolution had the crucial support of local peasants, this support was less homogenous in Bolivia and Congo, where the doctrine of foco cells, or foquismo, failed to reproduce itself.

For many, 1967 came with the psychedelic renewals of the Summer of Love, but it spelled the beginning of the end of the guerrilla dream for Che. In Congo, the failure to foment revolution cost the country more than twenty years of bloody dictatorship. In Argentina, one of the guerrilla units that Che had prepared to take over the country failed, and his friend Jorge Ricardo Masetti was killed in the northeast while leading a guerrilla unit. In his letters from Congo and Bolivia, after a decade in the grueling revolutionary trenches, he finally comes to see his mission as doomed, describing himself to a friend as sitting “in Rocinante’s stirrups”—a reference to the horse that carried Don Quixote on his boondoggles across Spain. Like the iconic Spanish character, driven to madness by tales of the honor of medieval knights, Che continued making revolution nonetheless. Until October of 1967, that is. While leading a losing guerrilla battle against the Bolivian dictatorship forces of René Barrientos Ortuño, Che was killed near the village of La Higuera. His hands were cut off, and his body was disappeared. Declassified reports suggest that he was executed with an automatic rifle at the behest of Barrientos’s regime and CIA officials.

The Argentine writer Alan Pauls once wrote that underlying the act of keeping a diary is a conviction in the existence of a future. One keeps it in the hope, unconscious or not, that some day that diary will fulfill the function of a testimony, the confirmation of one’s suspicions, or even the witness of a terrible or magical event. But a diary is not historical reality, and it has to be taken with a grain of salt—especially in Guevara’s case. We can wonder at his life and colorful anecdotes, admire the spirit of a revolutionary in times of desperation (his or our own), but we shouldn’t forget what we are looking at, and we should at least question how these documents made it to our hands.

We cannot know for certain what we are looking at—what has been erased or cut; what has been added; what Che failed or refused to see.

Like many of the great writers of the twentieth century, Guevara’s papers are handled by a capricious estate, divided between his family and the Cuban government. Perhaps due to this, the diaries present some significant incongruities. For example, there is already a suspiciously strong Marxist inflection in The Motorcycle Diaries, as Guevara encounters Chilean peasants who have been imprisoned for their activities in the Communist Party, or as he crafts highly politicized descriptions of the landscape (see, for example, the description of a miner couple, whom Guevara describes as “numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert night . . . a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world”). His voice is almost a replica of socialist-realist aesthetics—even though, as John Lee Anderson notes in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, it was not until later, during a trip to Guatemala that began in late 1953, that Guevara adopted an orthodox Marxist worldview. In his letters from Central America, Che refers to reading “San Carlitos,” i.e. St. Karl Marx, but there are no mentions of revolutionary politics in his earlier correspondence.

There is also the contested origin of the Bolivian Diary, which arrived in Cuba on microfilm shortly after Che’s assassination but which, like Che’s body itself, wasn’t fully exhumed until decades later. And then there is the perhaps more pressing question of Che’s involvement in his own account of the facts. How can we trust a revolutionary so single-mindedly engaged with a cause to tell us how the Congolese were handling their own revolution? And how should we contrast his retellings with those who were native to these areas and who suspicious of Che Guevara’s presence in their country, let alone their military ranks?

Aleida Guevara March, the daughter and main executor of his family estate who authored introductions to some of the recently republished diaries, has recognized the distance between the original manuscripts and the published books eventually attributed to her father. In a 2004 article in the New York Times, March recounted the experience of reading, oedipally falling in love with, and then correcting, his diaries. She wrote, “To publish anything written by [Che] that he himself did not intend for publication—as is the case with the notes that became The Motorcycle Diaries—serious editing work is required. We can’t omit text, but at the same time we can’t be completely sure he would have given his permission for the text to be published as it was originally written. That is why we have a commitment to edit what he wrote without changing what he meant—a very difficult task.” 

So we cannot know for certain what we are looking at—what has been erased or cut; what has been added; what Che failed or refused to see. But we can know this for sure: if less ubiquitous than his image, Guevara’s diaries and letters still comprise a central piece of his mythology, one that has drawn people to read and marvel at his unique bravery, recklessness, and unmatchable life experience. Reading them calls for both an exercise in imagining an alternative present as well as critically observing Che’s own blind spots—for his is not only a myth of the left but also a myth of a leftist world. Indeed, his works compose, in their continuous republication and reprinting, the nostalgic apocrypha of a time when a different world seemed within reach—a world in which everything is as interconnected as now, but without the late-capitalist malaise, the ravages of globalization, the Sancho Panza-like pragmatism that has taken people’s imagination hostage. The myth of Che, unlike his writings, remains open and unabridged, inviting us to construct our own visions of radical cosmopolitanism, and holding within it as many contradictions as Che himself.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly identified Jacobo Árbenz as commanding the U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954. In fact, it was Carlos Castillo Armas who led the coup. He successfully deposed Árbenz and became the twenty-eighth president of Guatemala in July 1954. We regret the error.