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Alberto Granado: Doctor who was Che Guevara’s companion on a fabled motorcycle journey

Alberto Granado was the young doctor who accompanied his fellow Argentinian and childhood pal Ernesto “Che” Guevara on an idealistic motorcycle odyssey through South America in the early 1950s.

The poverty and injustice they witnessed on their trip, on a 1939 British Norton 500 they nicknamed “La Poderosa” (“The Powerful Babe”), motivated Guevara to join Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. Their journey was immortalised more than half a century later in the highly successful 2004 movie The Motorcycle Diaries.

The film, produced by Robert Redford and directed by the Brazilian Walter Salles, was based on both Guevara’s travelogue The Motorcycle Diaries and Granado’s later memoir Travelling With Che Guevara: The Making Of A Revolutionary. In the movie, Gael García Bernal made his Hollywood breakthrough as Guevara, while an Argentinian actor, Rodrigo de la Serna, put in a moving, humorous performance as Granado.

Granado and Guevara went their separate ways at the end of their trip in 1952, during which they famously served as doctors at a leper colony in Peru. After moving on to work as a leprosy specialist in a Venezuela hospital, Granado was convinced that his role in life was to help individuals as a doctor. Guevara, six years his junior, looked beyond individual suffering to its causes and moved north with thoughts of changing the world. The two men did not meet up again for almost a decade. By then, Guevara (whose nickname Che was possibly first used by Granado since it is the Argentinian equivalent of “buddy” or “pal”) had gained iconic status for his role alongside Castro in the Cuban revolution.

At the invitation of Guevara, a government minister and right-hand man of Castro, Granado moved to Cuba in 1961, where he would spend the rest of his life. He became professor of biochemistry at the University of Havana and founded the School of Medicine in the eastern city of Santiago, where he also served as senior professor. After Guevara left Cuba in the hope of spreading revolution across South America, Granado stayed on, fearing the worst for his childhood friend but knowing he could not stop him. Guevara was killed while trying to foment revolution in Bolivia in 1967 at the age of 39, and Granado played a key role in returning his mortal remains to Cuba.

After obtaining a doctorate in biological sciences, Granado represented Cuba at numerous international scientific conferences, helped to found the Cuban Genetics Society and was appointed its president. He published his account of his motorcycle travels with Guevara in 1978 under the original Spanish title Con el Che por Sudamerica, later to become a major influence on the Motorcycle Diaries movie, on which he was hired as an on-set advisor and made a cameo appearance in its epilogue.

García Bernal, who played Guevara, looked to Granado for advice during shooting and became his close friend. “We were re-enacting a journey that was done 50 years ago,” the actor said after filming. “And what is surprising is that the social problems of Latin America are the same. Which is heartbreaking in a way, but it also makes you feel how important it is to tell the story.”

After his retirement in 1994, Granado campaigned for international solidarity with Cuba in the face of the US blockade and for the promotion of Guevara’s ideals both in Cuba and abroad.

Alberto Granado was born in 1922 in Hernando, in Argentina’s Córdoba province, to a Spanish-born railway employee known for his militant union stance. It was after moving to the state capital, Córdoba, that Alberto met the teenager Ernesto Guevara. Granado had obtained a Master of Sciences degree in biochemistry by the time he and Guevara, two decades before Easy Rider, decided to “discover South America” on board the Norton motorbike on which Granado had lavished his life savings – US$800 – and which he nicknamed “La Poderosa”. They started off calling themselves “rambling tramps” and, when they got truly broke, “motorised scroungers”.

In his definitive biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, the US author Jon Lee Anderson wrote that Granado was “barely 5ft tall and had a huge beaked nose, but he sported a barrel chest and a footballer’s sturdy bowed legs; he also possessed a good sense of humor and a taste for wine, girls, literature and rugby”.Already 81, Granado was invited by Robert Redford to the world premiére of The Motorcyle Diaries at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The old man was hardly surprised when the US authorities did not deign to grant him a visa. Shortly afterwards, however, the German government showed greater dignity by ensuring he was present at the Berlin Film Festival for the screening of Travelling With Che Guevara, a documentary by Gianni Mina about the filming of The Motorcyle Diaries. In the documentary, Granado retraced his and Guevara’s motorbike tracks across South America.

In another documentary, My Best Friend, Granado was asked what he believed was the reason for his old friend’s iconic status worldwide. “Because he was a man who fought and died for what he thought was fair, 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, in always giving our best in everything we do.”

In accordance with his wishes, Granado’s ashes will be scattered in Cuba, Argentina and Venezuela. Although Cuba’s state-controlled media made no mention of them, Granado is believed to be survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Delia, and their children Alberto, Delita and Roxana.

Alberto Granado, doctor, biochemist and scientist; born Hernando, Argentina 8 August 1922; died Havana 5 March 2011.