Santa Clara is the site of the decisive battle in the Cuban Revolution – Batista fled Cuba within twelve hours of the fall of the city. The rebels were led by Che Guevara in the fight that made his reputation. Because of that, the city is a shrine to Che.
As always, we are running on Cuban time. We have hired a driver to take us from Trinidad, but he doesn’t arrive until the early afternoon. Unfortunately, his car is not a classic but a modern Chinese model, although this does mean that we have air-conditioning for the journey.
There is a checkpoint on the edge of town. The police are checking that nobody is transporting rum or beer. The authorities have cancelled a nationwide celebration in honour of Che that was to be held tonight. Fidel’s death, just a few weeks ago, is still affecting festivals.
Our driver takes us through the palm tree covered hills and through small villages. These look to be places that tourists never stop – and we won’t have time to either.
We pass tobacco and maize farms but most of the land looks to be uncultivated. Much of Cuba was an industrial fruit farm under capitalism. When Castro came to power, and took over the international corporation’s farms, he left much of it to grow wild again. We have been told that forty per cent of Cuba has been rewilded since the revolution.
We arrive in Santa Clara in the late afternoon and drop our bags at our casa. Our host gives us directions to the Che Guevara Monument and warns us that it will only be open for another hour. We start to walk.
Our march takes us through suburbia and along a small, polluted river. We spot the only shanty house of our trip built on its bank. It is a ramshackle construction of old wood and tin.
Our directions break down as we near the monument. Immediately, the taxi drivers spot that we are a bit lost and point our way. Two minutes later we walk through the trees and climb the back steps.
We pass through a small gap onto a raised slab of stone and into the sunset.
A large, constructivist square spreads out before us. To our right, a sculpture depicts Guevara leading his men. On our left, a letter to Fidel is written, in full, on another pillar. A verdigris Che, carrying his rifle into battle, is raised above everything. “Hasta la victoria siempre,” is written underneath – until victory, always.
In December 1958, Che Guevara, Jaime Vega and Camilo Cienfuegos were leading three columns towards Santa Clara while Castro fought for control of the south of the island. The city was the last before Havana, and the regional capital.
Batista’s forces ambushed and destroyed Vega’s column and Cienfuegos was bogged down in Yaguajay. The plan had been to join and take Santa Clara together, but Guevara decided he couldn’t wait and ordered his men in.
He sent a suicide squad to take Capiro Hill, where Batista’s army had their command and a train of ammunition, and divided the rest of his troops in two to take the city.
Capiro fell easily, but the army withdrew the train to the city centre. Guevara had anticipated the withdrawal and had ordered his men to destroy the tracks with a bulldozer. The train derailed and the soldiers surrendered.
The suicide squad began sledgehammering their way through the terrace houses towards the centre of town and the Hotel Santa Clara. Snipers lay on the city’s tallest building.
The people of Santa Clara began to attack Batista’s forces with molotov cocktails while the two sets of rebels fought street to street.
Colonel Rosell commanded Batista’s army, and Rosell’s brother was a local politician. As the battle for the city raged into the night, they quietly slipped out in disguise and left their men without command.
Cienfuegos rushed to join the fight but by the end of the next day, Guevara had taken the hotel and the city. His three hundred men had defeated three thousand.
Batista prepared to board a plane, along with his family, advisors and at least three hundred million dollars, to the Dominican Republic.
The revolution had been won.
The train and the bulldozer are preserved for posterity in Santa Clara but we have no time to see them. Darkness is falling and we are leaving for Havana first thing in the morning.
We walk past a series of murals, devoted to world peace, towards the city centre and find a formerly grand hotel in which to eat. The town square is alive but we have no one to meet here.
We pass through the back streets to our casa and our beds for the night.