Santa Clara and the making of the myth of Che Guevara

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.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

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 bulldozer Che Guevara used to derail the train, Santa Clara, Cuba

The bulldozer Che Guevara used to derail the train, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

The nearby railway line to the derailment, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Revolutionary memorial of the train Che Guevara derailed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che t-shirt anyone? Guevara memorabilia, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che t-shirt anyone? Guevara memorabilia, Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Wall painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Wall painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Celebrating the Cuban Revolution, Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Cuban Revolution, Santa Clara, Cuba

Statue of Che Guevara, Santa Clara, Cuba

Scary statue of Che Guevara, Santa Clara, Cuba

Hotel Santa Clara Libre still with bullet holes from the battle, Santa Clara, Cuba

Hotel Santa Clara Libre still with bullet holes from the battle, Santa Clara, Cuba

Painting of Che Guevara, Cuba

Paintings of Che Guevara, Cuba

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.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Memorial at Che Guevara's mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Memorial at Che Guevara’s mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che Guevara number plates, Cuba

Che Guevara number plates, Cuba

Che Guevara versus Assassins Creed, Santa Clara, Cuba

Che Guevara versus Assassins Creed, Santa Clara, Cuba

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?

Viva La Revolución! Celebrating victory in Santa Clara

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.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

Celebrating the Revolution in Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

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.

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara, Cuba

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…