Saturday, 12 March 2011

Alberto Granado dies in Havana

Farewell to the real Poderoso: Alberto Granado dies in Havana aged 88.

by Helen Yaffe, 12 March 2011.

On Saturday 5 March 2011, Alberto Granado, friend of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, died in Havana, aged 88 years. He was born in Cordoba, Argentina in 1922. At university Granado studied biochemistry and joined student protests against the pro-fascist military regime and subsequent President, General Juan Domingo Peron. In 1943 he was imprisoned for one year. In 1945, Granado and Guevara first met when Guevara, still a teenager, began accompanying Granado’s younger brother to visit him in police detention. The two became friends.

Helen Yaffe with Alberto Granado, 2005.

Granado recalled: ‘Che impressed me from the first time we spoke. He was this young asthmatic, skinny kid. I saw that he had an important capacity to change seemingly negative things into positives, though his personality and intelligence…He had other positive traits which in my twenties I thought were negative and that was being unable to lie.’[1] The friends were united by their appreciation of literature and their desire to travel. ‘We didn’t have political direction, just the spirit of adventure and yearning for knowledge.’

Their friendship made history as their travels through South America from late December 1951 to summer 1952 have been immortalised in print and on screen as ‘the motorcycle dairies’, recounting their journey of discovery in ‘our America’ on Granado’s 500cc motorbike which they named La Poderosa (the powerful one). By exposing them to the poverty, exploitation and domination of imperialist corporations, the trip woke Guevara’s political consciousness and helped shape his future as a revolutionary internationalist. Granado explained: ‘After seeing that life was harder that in the movies, that exploitation was worse than in the books, that discrimination was Machiavellian, we began to feel differently about life.’

Following that trip, Granado stayed in Venezuela working in a leprosarium and before studying in Italy on a scholarship. Meanwhile, on this second journey though Latin America, Guevara met the Cuban Revolutionaries who nicknamed him ‘Che’ and with whom he set sail from Mexico to spark the revolution against the Batista dictatorship, arriving in Cuba in December 1956. According to Granado, ‘Ernesto always held the position that reactionary violence had to be combated with revolutionary violence.’[1]

The Cuban Revolution seized power in January 1959, following which Che took up key positions in the new revolutionary government and was pivotal in radicalising the revolutionary process and adopting socialism. In 1961, having visited Che the previous year, Granado moved to Cuba to live with his family and took up a biochemistry post at the university of Havana’s School of Medicine. Che was then serving as President of the Cuban National Bank. Granado recalls ‘The Che who we saw in the Bank was not the same one who rode on and fell off that motorbike…Ernesto had taken a great leap in his philosophy.’[1] Granado continued to be Che’s close friend and confidant, although he regretted not visiting Che more often in his office once he became the Minister of Industries in February 1962. ‘He told me to visit him at 2am or 4am, but because I knew he went to bed so late I didn’t want to bother him. I just rang him to say “hello”.’[1].

For fifty years Granado remained in Cuba, contributing to the development of science and biochemistry teaching and research. In 1962 he helped found the Faculty of Medicine in Santiago de Cuba in the east of the island. In the late 1980s, he contributed to the establishment of the Cuban Genetics Society. He retired in 1994, but continued his research and to represent the Cuban Revolution at home and abroad. In 2002 to 2003 he assisted filmmaker Walter Salles in the production of The Motorcyle Diaries, based on Che’s diaries and his own account of their journey which was published in 1978.

On 24 February 2005, I had the privilege of interviewing Alberto Granado in Havana during the research for my doctorate and subsequent book publication Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Then aged 82, Granado was full of energy and enthusiasm and for over an hour gave robust and entertaining replies in peculiar Spanish which, reflecting his own internationalist past, combined Argentinian, Venezuelan and Cuban accents. It is in these three countries that, according to his wishes, Granado’s ashes will be spread.

Part of the interview focussed on Che’s economic work and his contribution to socialist political economy. As Minister of Industries, Che had established a unique system of economic management for transition to socialism in an underdeveloped, trade-dependent and blockaded country. Che claimed that his ‘Budgetary Finance System’ was an alternative to the policies operating in the Soviet bloc. According to Granado, on return from a visit to the USSR as early as 1962 Che told him, ‘the Russians are heading for capitalism. They only think about money.’ Granado goes on to affirm: ‘Many people say Che was anti-Soviet, but I say that’s not true. He was anti-lying.’ [1]

I asked Granado what he considered to have been Che’s most important contribution to the Cuban Revolution. He replied, ‘I believe it is the image of the new man. Che was a good lad, intelligent, a medic, poet, guerrilla, studious, brave, hard worker. Many people say, “you have to be like Che”, but I tell young people the most important thing is that Che never told, nor accepted lies. He never allowed someone else to do what was his responsibility. This is what makes the new man.’

Che left Cuba in 1965 and when news of his death in Bolivia reached Alberto, he said: ‘my world collapsed. But what consoles me is to know that every day there are more people who believe in Che.’ Alberto’s death marks the end of a key character in the shaping of Che and consequently, in that course charted by the Cuban Revolution. His humour, generosity and commitment to humanity will be deeply missed.

[1] Interview by Helen Yaffe with Alberto Granado, 24 February 2005, in Havana, Cuba.