The Motorcycle Diaries (Book Review)

En route to Kentucky from Kansas I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara. It was a fitting book for a road trip, and really made me take myself a lot less seriously during the inevitable snags of traveling. It also reinforced my commitment and drive to learn about the people of the world, and the risks we must take to gain knowledge and equality.

Guevara, a medical student from Argentina took to the road on his motorcycle at the age of 24 with his friend Alberto. They planned a trip up the South American coast with no real plans except to open themselves up to the world. They traveled through Chile, Peru, Colombia and finally made their way to Venezuela. It was incredibly eye opening to read an account of these countries from the perspective of an Argentinian man, as opposed to a U.S. adventurer in South America.

At one point their motorcycle breaks down, and Alberto and Guevara stow away on a ship, thinking the trip up the coast might be easier on ship than on land.

“At night [on the ship] … we would look over the immense sea… There we would understand that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only ever faintly- not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice,” Guevara writes.

They stayed with the locals along the way in every town, passing up comfortable hostels that were a “bourgeois” insult to their hobo traveler identity. They got sick with the locals, they pissed off the locals, they fell in love with the locals, they cleaned toilets for the locals and they stole wine from the locals. They learned about the connections between poverty, hunger and disease by experiencing it all with the people. They begged for food and lodging from local hospitals while staying at various leper colonies. Guevara and his friend began as rebellious, adventurous and entitled medical students, but throughout the book and you see their transformation into blossoming revolutionary forces for and with “the people.”

Most of it was probably complete physical and mental hell, but they did it with intention, and Guevara became radicalized by the trip. Following the trip he settles in Guatemala and works to curb what he sees as capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the United States.

Ever the traveler, Guevara meets Raul and Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joins them in their 26th of July Movement in which they sailed to Cuba with the intention of overthrowing U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Throughout the two year insurgency in Cuba, Guevara rose to prominence and when Batista was overthrown, he was a respected leader in the Cuban Revolution.

Guevara’s medical training and lessons from his travels influence his vision for a communist Cuba. He notes that the doctor must also be the farmer, and Cuba must diversify its food supply for health. Still to this day, the country of Cuba is one of the only countries on Earth free of pesticides and GMOs. Cuba also practices a system of co-ops to grow this food. Though there are inevitable problems with their food system just like everywhere else, I believe there is a lot we can learn from Cuba.

My copy of The Motorcycle Diaries, ends with a lecture by Che at a Cuban medical school in 1960 titled “A Child of My Environment”:

“The revolution is not, as some claim, a standardizer of collective will, or collective initiative. To the contrary, it is a liberator of human beings’ individual capacity. What the revolution does do, however, is to direct that capacity,” Guevara states.

Guevara became a voice for third world countries, using Marxist-Leninst framework to state that underdevelopment and dependence on first world countries was a direct result of imperialism, neocolonialism and monopoly capitalism. In his speech to the medical students he states that “our enemy, the enemy of all Latin America, is the monopolistic government of the U.S.A.”

In 1965 Guevara left Cuba to continue revolution abroad in the Congo, committing to the international revolution.

“We must then begin to erase our old concepts and come ever closer and ever more critically to the people. Not in the way we got closer before, because all of you will say: “No, I am a friend of the people. I enjoy talking with workers and peasants, and on Sundays I go to such and such a place to see such and such a thing.”Everybody has done that. But they have done it practising charity, and what we have to practise today is solidarity… we should go with an investigative zeal and with a humble spirit, to learn from the great source of wisdom that is the people.”

Guevara returned to South America in 1967 to lead a revolution in Bolivia. There he was captured by U.S. CIA- assisted Bolivian forces and killed. Guevara lives on as a symbol of anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and equal rights manifested in his ideals of communism. His memory continues to reinforce the radical idea of solidarity, not charity.

“The first thing we’ll have to do is not go offering our wisdom, but showing we are ready to learn with the people, to carry out that great common experience…To be a revolutionary requires having a revolution… but also knowing the people with whom he or she is to work. I think we still don’t know one another well.”

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Originally published at on March 10, 2017.

midwestern librarian, writer, activist