In Chasing Che, Patrick Symmes retraces Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s 1952 motorcycle trip through South America, which opened the Argentine medical student’s eyes to poverty and inequality and helped radicalize him. The book, though, is not a worshipful tribute to the revolutionary; instead, it is an effort to see Latin America as Guevara did, as well as an assessment of Latin America itself. From the outset, Symmes makes clear that Latin America is a poor, often dysfunctional place, where class and ethnicity form clear social divisions.
Services are woefully lacking, roads are sometimes as bad as Guevara and friend Alberto Granado found in 1952, and throughout the book the author feels his foreignness not only as an Anglo-American, but also because he hails from a free, affluent society: “I came from the Other World, a place where rich, fair-skinned people lived, people with odd habits and the luxury of strangeness. Among the poor of Latin America, class trumps nationality every time” (Symmes, 2000, p. 5).
His descriptions of Latin America focus on the overall inefficiency, dilapidation, and underdevelopment – often, Symmes asserts, the product of dictators’ mismanagement and feudal social and economic relations. He sees a society that, by American standards, lacks compassion for the poor: “Philanthropy is a weak tradition in Chile, and landholdings have always been the measure of wealth in Latin America. . . . You were a landowner or you were nothing” (Symmes, p. 86).
There is deep suspicion of philanthropy, he says, citing the example of American entrepreneur Douglas Tompkins, who offered his extensive land holdings in Chile as a national park (as well as a place where peasants would live traditionally under his draconian rules). Symmes also notes that, among the poor themselves, a pragmatic sense of generosity prevails: “The poor are no more noble at heart than the rich, I suppose, but they certainly look that way. Their generosity is deeper precisely because it is so constricted by circumstance and so necessary to their collective survival” (Symmes, 2000, p. 147).
That collective spirit seems to prevail through much of Latin America, unlike the individualistic, competitive United States, where opportunity is far more abundant. More striking than his descriptions of poverty are Symmes’ discussions of Latin America’s oppression, which is as pervasive and perplexing as the poverty.
Its brutality, he claims, is widespread and seemingly unavoidable; “The fact is that Latin America in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s was one long bloodbath” (Symmes, 2000, p. 17), marked by rigid class structures, where even a relatively stable middle-class nation like Argentina can destroy itself with paranoia and by brutally repressing dissent. Furthermore, Symmes notes, its constant cycle of repression appears pointless, “a cycle of violence that has lost all meaning” (Symmes, 2000, p. 18). Symmes further describes Latin America’s political climate as a paranoid and arbitrary, where certain subjects in even relatively free nations (like post-Pinochet Chile) cannot be freely discussed, even by academics.
As an example, he discusses a Chilean history book that, though written recently, ends at 1972 and thus omits the still-volatile issue of Pinochet’s coup and brutal regime. Repression also enhanced Latin American literature: “the funny thing about a dictatorship [was] it was great for culture. The history books were empty, but the poets spoke volumes” (Symmes, 2000, p. 114). He also makes clear that oppression also has supporters, mostly among the educated middle and upper classes, whose American counterparts denounce such brutal regimes.
During a fishing stop along a Chilean road built by the Pinochet regime, Symmes meets a wealthy far-rightist who praises Pinochet’s achievements and his “heroic” defeat of Communism – which, says one political scientist Symmes meets, was truly never much of a threat but provided a convenient excuse for unleashing arbitrary brutality for decades. In addition, Symmes finds the “myth of Che” very much alive throughout Latin America – more alive than the concrete facts of Guevara’s life and career.
He writes, “Dead for more than thirty years now, Che has become ever more useful. His image has been appropriated for political, economic, and even spiritual purposes” (Symmes, 2000, p. xvii). While Europeans and North Americans embrace his image as a mass-marketed symbol of rebellion, in Latin America Guevara represents a great lost opportunity. Oddly, Symmes points out, throughout Latin America Guevara remains a powerful figure of myth, though Latin Americans know the real facts behind his life and career.
Myths about him distort his origins and activities but do not seem to diminish his popular standing throughout Latin America, especially among the poor who seem to genuinely need him for what he represents, however illusory: “For millions of dispossessed all over Latin America, there were no other heroes. Che was a necessity, not a possibility; if he hadn’t existed, they would have invented him anyway, and often did” (Symmes, 2000, p. 180).
His power was equally potent for military dictatorships like Pinochet’s Chile, though in the opposite sense; his example has inspired guerrilla groups like Shining Path, which he describes not as romantic revolutionaries but as brutal, psychotic, and no better than the dictators they fight. Symmes finds Latin America in a difficult condition – perennially poor, repressed, and divided. However, this is not an angry book; though he occasionally vents his annoyance at the lack of amenities, poor roads, and inefficient services, he also finds kindness and generosity among ordinary Latin Americans.
He implies that little has fundamentally changed in Latin America and that its poverty and oppressiveness may be impossible to eliminate, but the main change is that, for many, Che Guevara has emerged as a little-understood but widely embraced folk hero – a Communist demon to the ruling classes but a lost hope to the many poor.
Symmes, P. (2000). Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend. New York: Vintage.