One of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba, the provincial capital of Santa Clara, landlocked near the centre of Villa Clara province, has long been a place of pilgrimage for Che Guevara worshippers, with two large monuments and a museum commemorating the man, his life and his part in the rebel victory. Home to a large student population and the country’s third-biggest university, and with only two tourist hotels in the centre, there’s a strong sense here that the city is getting on with its own business despite receiving coachloads of visitors, and Santa Clara remains an idiosyncratically Cuban place. Its social life revolves around the vibrant central square, Parque Vidal, just a block away from the main shopping street, part-pedestrianized Independencia. The plaza is definitely one of Santa Clara’s highlights, though there are several other places worth visiting. On the square itself, the Museo de Artes Decorativas offers accurate reconstructions of colonial aristocratic living conditions, while within walking distance is one of two famous national Che Guevara memorial sites, the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. A derailed train here marks one of the most dramatic events of the Battle of Santa Clara, a decisive event in the revolutionary war of the late 1950s, while on the other side of town the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara is a eulogy to the man himself and is much more substantial.
The Villa Clara Naranjas, the local national-league team whose distinctive orange uniform is their chief trademark, are traditionally among the top four teams in the league and have consistently qualified for the playoffs over the last decade. They play their games at the Estadio Augusto César Sandino, a relatively intimate ballpark, founded in 1966, with a capacity of just 18,000; the entrance is on Calle 2. Enquire at the travel agents in town about excursions to see a game.
On the southwestern outskirts of the city, about 1km from Parque Vidal, the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara marks the final resting place of Che Guevara’s body and pays tribute to Santa Clara’s adopted son and hero, who led the Cuban rebels to victory against General Batista’s dictatorship here in 1958, in one of the decisive battles of the Revolution.
The large thundering monument is in classic Cuban revolutionary style: big, bold and made of concrete. Atop the grey-tiled steps of a hulking grandstand are four bulky monoliths; towering down from the tallest one is a burly-looking statue of Guevara, on the move and dressed in his usual military garb, rifle in hand. Next to the statue in a huge, somewhat jumbled mural, with Guevara’s march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara and the decisive victory over Batista’s troops depicted in cement.
Underneath the monument, the surprisingly small Museo and Memorial al Che occupies a single U-shaped room, and provides a succinct overview of Che’s life. Photographs line the walls, and it’s these that tend to hold the most interest, with depictions of Che from his early childhood all the way through to his life as a rebel soldier in the Sierra Maestra and a Cuban statesman in the early years of the Revolution.
Opposite the museum entrance is the mausoleum, a softly lit chamber where the mood of reverence and respect is quite affecting. Resembling a kind of tomb with an eternally flickering flame, this is the resting place of Che’s remains, as well as those of a number of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans who died with him in Bolivia, each of whom is commemorated by a simple stone portrait set into the wall.
No one embodies the romanticism of the Cuban Revolution more than Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the handsome, brave and principled guerrilla who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra during the revolutionary war of 1956–59. Referred to in Cuba today simply as “El Che”, he is probably the most universally liked and respected of the Revolution’s heroes, his early death allowing him to remain untarnished by the souring of attitudes over time, and his willingness to fight so energetically for his principles viewed as evidence of his indefatigable spirit.
Born to middle-class, strongly left-wing parents in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928, the young Ernesto Guevara – later nicknamed “Che”, a popular term of affectionate address in Argentina – suffered from severe asthma attacks as a child. Despite this life-long affliction, he became a keen soccer and rugby player while at the University of Buenos Aires, where, in 1948, he began studying medicine.
Before he graduated in 1953, finishing a six-year course in half the time, Che had taken time out from his studies and made an epic journey around South America on a motorbike (which he chronicled later in The Motorcycle Diaries), with his doctor friend Alberto Granado. These travels, which he continued after graduation, were instrumental in the formation of Guevara’s political character, instilling in him a strong sense of Latin American identity and opening his eyes to the widespread suffering and social injustice throughout the continent. He was in Guatemala in 1954 when the government was overthrown by a US-backed right-wing military coup, and had to escape to Mexico.
It was in Mexico, in November 1955, that Guevara met the exiled Fidel Castro and, learning of his intentions to return to Cuba and ignite a popular revolution, decided to join Castro’s small rebel army, the M-26-7 Movement. The Argentine was among the 82 who set sail for Cuba in the yacht Granma on November 24, 1956, and, following the disastrous landing, one of the few who made it safely into the Sierra Maestra. As both a guerrilla and a doctor, Guevara played a vital role for the rebels as they set about drumming up support for their cause among the local peasants while fighting Batista’s troops. His most prominent role in the conflict, however, came in 1958 when he led a rebel column west to the then province of Las Villas, where he was to cut all means of communication between the two ends of the island and thus cement Castro’s control over the east. This he did in great style, exemplified in his manoeuvres during the Battle of Santa Clara.
Guevara insisted on enduring the same harsh conditions as the other rebels and refused to grant himself any comforts that his higher status might have allowed. It was this spirit of sacrifice and brotherhood that he brought to the philosophies which he developed and instituted after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, during his role as Minister for Industry. The cornerstone of his vision was the concept of El Hombre Nuevo – the New Man – which became his most enduring contribution to Cuban communist theory. Guevara believed that in order to build communism a new man must be created, and the key to this was to alter the popular consciousness. The emphasis was on motivation: new attitudes would have to be instilled in people, devoid of selfish sentiment and with a goal of moral rather than material reward, gained through the pursuit of the aims of the Revolution.
Despite working out these abstract theories, Guevara remained at heart a man of action and, after serving four years as a roaming ambassador for Cuba to the rest of the world, he left for Africa to play a more direct role in the spread of communism, becoming involved in a revolutionary conflict in the Congo. In 1966 he travelled to Bolivia where he once again fought as a guerrilla against the Bolivian army. There, on October 8, 1967, aged 39, Guevara was captured and shot. The exact location of his burial was kept secret until 1995, when it was revealed by a Bolivian general. Two years later, in 1997, his body was exhumed and transported to Santa Clara, where it now lies in the mausoleum of the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.
Declared a national monument in 1996, Parque Vidal is the geographical, social and cultural nucleus of Santa Clara. A spacious, traditional, pedestrianized and always crowded town square, it exudes a vivacious atmosphere. Weekends are particularly animated, with live music performances on the central bandstand in the evenings, and on the porch of the ornate Casa de la Cultura. The square’s attractive core, a paved circular promenade laced with towering palms and shrub-peppered lawns, is traversed by shoppers and workers throughout the day and, in the evenings, fills up with young and old alike, when music is often piped through speakers in the lampposts.
Parque Vidal is elegantly framed by a mixture of predominantly colonial and neo-colonial buildings, the grandest of which is the Palacio Provincial on the northeastern side, once the seat of the local government and now home to the Biblioteca José Martí. Built between 1904 and 1912, its wide facade, featuring two bold porticoes, stands out as the square’s most classical piece of architecture.
On the northwest side of Parque Vidal is the Museo de Artes Decorativas, featuring furniture and objets d’art spanning four centuries of style, from Renaissance to Art Deco. Each of the eleven rooms is opulently furnished, with most of the exhibits collected from houses around Santa Clara; some of them appear as they might have been when the building – older than most of its neighbours but of no particular architectural merit in itself – was home to a string of aristocratic families during the colonial period. In addition to the front room, with its marvellous crystal chandelier, there is a dining room with a fully laid table, a bedroom with an ostentatiously designed wardrobe and individual pieces like the stunning seventeenth-century bureau with ivory detailing.
Santa Clara’s busy cultural calendar, the fullest in the region, includes a seven-day theatre festival at El Mejunje during the last week of January; the Festival Nacional de la Danza in April and, in November, a five-day city-wide film festival, the Festival de Invierno, and the Ciudad Metal heavy metal event.
Top image: Che Guevara Monument, Plaza de la Revolution, Santa Clara, Cuba © Frank Bach/Shutterstock