Beginning in December 1951, Ernesto “Che” Guevara took a nine-month break from medical school to travel by motorcycle through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. One of his goals was gaining practical experience with leprosy. On the night of his twenty-fourth birthday, Che was at La Colonia de San Pablo in Peru swimming across the river to join the lepers. He walked among six hundred lepers in jungle huts looking after themselves in their own way.
Che would not have been satisfied to just study and sympathize with them – he wanted to be with them and understand their existence. Being in contact with people who were poor and hungry while they were sick transformed Che. He envisioned a new medicine, with doctors who would serve the greatest number people with preventive care and public awareness of hygiene. A few years later, Che joined Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement as a doctor and was among the eighty-one men aboard the Granma as it landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956.
This is a fantastic article by Don Fitz, the author of the book pictured above, which I would really like to read. I “rediscovered” my interest in Che Guevara recently when I used a brief version of his biography as the core of an EFL tutorial. That lesson can be found at this website. It’s a broad brush bio in about two paragraphs meant for English learners not already familiar with his story. So, naturally it leaves a lot out. But the episode Fitz relates at the beginning of this CounterPunch article is one that I certainly don’t remember from reading the biography of Che that came out in the mid-1990s when I was in high school, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson, a journalist at the New Yorker.
I could be wrong, I do remember there being a section on Che’s becoming a doctor and his famous motorcycle tour. I could be conflating Anderson’s account with the fictionalized film version “Diarios de motocicleta” (2004). I was certainly more interested in the guerrilla fighter aspect of El Che than I was in the more practical embodiments of his revolutionary character. I suppose, I was tricked by CIA propaganda that depicted a one-dimensional figure, a dangerous killer, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man.
But Fitz does a great job of re-calibrating the machinery here, centering Che’s liberatory social health work, against the present day back-drop of post-Cold War Cuba’s breakthrough medical mutual aid in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and now COVID-19.
The figure of Doctor Che is almost too perfect, to have served in the most lasting, arguably most successful anti-capitalist revolution in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. But I suppose that’s why the man is a legend. My intuition is that there are plenty of teachers who have also acted in some respect as revolutionaries in their own times and places. But who has had the conviction to risk their own life, to abandon prospects of career and personal gain to lend what power they possess to a larger cause. I guess it is Che’s selflessness that I am most impressed by, and his ability to adapt to the conditions he saw in the world around him, whether as a medical student in a leper colony, or as a revolutionary fighter suddenly at the reigns of a new country’s financial system.