Santa Clara is awash with revolutionary sights and folklore. It was here, following a three-day battle, that the Cuban Revolution went from being a guerrilla movement to becoming Cuba’s government. For the last 57 years, the town has been the lodestone of the revolution; and, for all that time, it has nurtured the myth of Che Guevara as idealist turned military genius.
If the memorial to Che’s most famous role in the conflict is anything to go by, military genius means bulldozing a railway line to derail a train. True, the train was filled with heavily armed government troops who had been sent from Havana to crush the revolution; also true, the odds of the ragtag band of revolutionaries winning the battle were pretty remote.
On paper the attack on Santa Clara should have only ended one way: a resounding victory for the government.
The forces commanded by Guevara numbered no more than 300 men. Government troops in the city numbered around 2,500, and an armoured train had been dispatched with 400 reinforcements and lots of supplies. It should have been a bloodbath for the rebels. Instead, on the second day of the battle, the train was derailed and attacked with Molotov cocktails.
The majority of the soldiers on the train quickly surrendered and Guevara’s troops found themselves in possession of lots of new weaponry. The ease with which the train was captured led Batista to claim the officers had done a deal with Guevara. If true, this would undermine the foundation upon which the Che myth is based.
The fighting continued inside the city – bullet holes still pockmark the Hotel Santa Clara Libre where snipers were positioned on the roof. Stiff resistance came from police headquarters, but once that fell to Guevara the town was his. It was New Year’s Eve 1958, and when Batista heard that Santa Clara had fallen he fled the country.
The next morning the nearby army garrison surrendered. Santa Clara, and Cuba, was now under the control of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces. Che Guevara moved on to Havana which was ‘liberated’ two days later.
Guevara, his place in the revolution assured, led the round-up, trial and execution of many Batista regime loyalists. The trials, which almost always ended in a death sentence, have left a bloody stain on Guevara’s legacy. He went on to take up high positions in the Castro government, but his relationship with Fidel and others was already deteriorating.
In 1965 he was dispatched to Congo to foment revolution in post-colonial Africa. The whole sorry affair was a complete disaster. Frustrated by failure, Guevara’s Cuban troops were almost wiped out by a force of South African mercenaries. Tail between his legs, he returned to Cuba and shortly afterwards found himself in Bolivia trying to overthrow the government.
This too was a total disaster. He and his Cuban followers quickly found themselves in an impossible position. Quite where the idea of him being a military genius comes from is a mystery. It was here in the poorest country in Latin America that Guevara was captured, executed and buried in an unmarked grave. His remains were found in Vallegrande in 1995 and repatriated to Cuba in 1997.
To celebrate this, and to perpetuate the myth of Guevara, a mausoleum and memorial were constructed in Santa Clara. The monument is topped with a giant bronze statue. Underneath is a museum (no bags, phones or cameras allowed) that essentially deifies Guevara, communist-style. Stalin would have been proud.
Guevara’s cult-like status is everywhere in Cuba, but its epicentre is in Santa Clara. Fifty years after his death, he is still one of the most recognisable people in the world, and still revered by many. Yet, it’s fair to ask whether the myth flatters to deceive? After all, Alberto Korda’s famous photo hides a grim reality: he was a ruthless and unbending ideologue, capable of torture and murder. Is that really suitable for a t-shirt?