Santa Clara holds a special place in the mythology of the Cuban Revolution. It was here at the end of December 1958 that two columns of Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries – one commanded by Che Guevara, the other by Camilo Cienfuegos – fought what would prove to be the final and decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution. It also cemented Guevara’s reputation as a guerrilla leader and military strategist.
The swift defeat of government forces in Santa Clara convinced President Batista that the war was lost. He fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic less than twelve hours after the city had capitulated. It was 1st January 1959, and within two days the city of Cienfuegos had fallen and Castro’s forces entered Havana without a shot being fired.
While this was happening, Fidel Castro was far away in the south attacking Santiago de Cuba. Once it was confirmed that Batista had fled and his government had fallen, Santiago capitulated and Castro was able to undertake a ‘victory parade’, driving in a convoy through Cuba to reach Havana.
Castro’s victory parade is celebrated each year by a reenactment that leaves Santiago and visits numerous places en route to Havana. We weren’t aware of it before we arrived, but this revolutionary travelling circus was scheduled to descend upon Santa Clara the morning after we arrived.
We’d arrived late in the evening after taking the ViaAzul bus from Playa Santa Lucia. This itself was a stroke of luck. This bus service wasn’t listed in any guidebooks and, again, we had Rafael, our casa owner from Camaguey, to thank for providing us with the information. The bus left at 11am and arrived in Santa Clara a gruelling ten hours later. I was very happy we weren’t going all the way to Havana.
A taxi whisked us through pouring rain from the bus station to our casa close to Santa Clara’s main square, Parque Vidal. Tired and hungry, we were glad we’d asked if we could have dinner at the casa. The food was excellent and, after some beer had been found, we chatted with our young hosts and then headed to bed for an early night.
The next day the rain had been replaced by sunshine and we headed out to explore Santa Clara proper. Our first port of call was Parque Vidal, where the peculiar sight of throngs of schoolchildren were noisily gathering. We asked a teacher what was going on, and found out about the imminent arrival of the reenactment of Fidel Castro’s victory parade.
We didn’t have long to wait, soon a police car entered the square with its lights flashing, next came several army vehicles and trucks filled with banner waving school children and soldiers. They drove three times around the square, horns blaring and the small crowd cheering. It was fascinating but, to be honest, a bit underwhelming.
If the only people who show up for one of the most important days in the revolutionary calendar are school children, a few adults and a handful of tourists, the revolution’s in trouble. The whole thing had the feeling of being antiquated even though the Castro government is still in power. Give it a year or two and, I suspect, there won’t be a parade anymore. Certainly not one with actual veterans.
After all that excitement we went for a walk around the town to see what else Santa Clara had to offer. While it lacks the charm of other cities we visited, and was definitely less clean than most, the streets had more life and energy. All of which is probably thanks to the large number of university students that live in the city.
We strolled the streets for a while, and then headed off to visit two memorials to the revolution that are also dedicated to its most famous son, Che Guevara…