Cuba's Santa Clara pays homage to revolutionary icon
In the centre of bustling Santa Clara, Cuba, the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, with its bullet-hole-riddled facade, is a reminder of a battle between Che Guevara’s fighters and Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s snipers, who were in the hotel.
amy sharaf/metro toronto
The Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara watches over a sprawling square in Santa Clara.
His image has adorned books, souvenirs, billboards and just about every item of clothing.
But nowhere is revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s image arguably more iconic than in the Cuban city home to a pivotal battle and the landmarks honouring the Argentine who helped shape Cuba’s history.
Often overlooked by tourists in favour of the pristine Cayo Coco beaches, the nightlife of Varadero or the charm of the Cuban capital, Havana, Santa Clara is a must-see for history buffs and/or fans of Guevara.
Dubbed the city of Che, Santa Clara, a bustling university city, is the capital of Villa Clara province and the site of the Battle of Santa Clara, widely seen as the decisive battle of the Cuban revolution.
In the city’s lively centre, Parque Vidal, evidence of the key confrontation is etched in the landscape. Children in school uniforms mingle with the elderly as tourists walk by the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, whose façade is riddled with bullet holes. Here Che’s fighters faced off with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s snipers who holed up in the hotel, says a tour guide accompanying a group of journalists, and the fading green and white outside of the building still bears the evidence.
Away from the winding streets riddled with cafes, outside the main city centre lies the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, the remnants of an armoured train and the bulldozer used by Guevara’s soldiers in 1958 to derail the coach that carried troops and supplies sent by Batista, a key turning point in the revolution.
Inside the train are items from the scene, including weapons seized and a small slice of Canadiana — a replica of a Molotov cocktail made with a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale. For a small fee pictures are permitted inside the train. But Guevara’s grandest and most sentimental monument is found in another part of Santa Clara, in a sprawling expanse surrounded by pristinely groomed shrubbery, the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara.
It’s the massive statue you see first. A giant bronze figure of an intense-looking Guevara clutching a rifle, with the saying “hasta la Victoria siempre” (which roughly translates to “keep striving for victory”) etched into the base towers over the Plaza de la Revolucion.
Largely used for military marches and parades, the square is lined with 14 palm trees on either side, a nod to Che’s birthday: June 14, 1928, says the guide. Two massive billboards with inspirational slogans are on either side, one a quote from Cuban leader and Che comrade Fidel Castro, urging people to be like Che and the other roughly translates to: “It was a star that put you here and made you of these people.”
Next to it is a massive depiction of a battle scene carved in stone, flanked by smaller blocks that depict other images and text.
Because the entire scene, including the statue, is elevated (large steps lead up to the display), the display towers over the plaza giving it an even grander appearance. The complex was inaugurated in 1988, 30 years after the battle of Santa Clara.
Under the display is a museum filled with mementos and memorabilia belonging to the famed fighter. Pictures of Che with a much-younger Castro line one wall of the tiny museum where history buffs and Che fans can examine everything from his student report cards and family pictures to his various weapons, helmet, letters and more. Knowledge of Spanish or at least a dictionary would come in handy as the captions detailing the items are in Spanish.
But while the grand gesture of the display and the inside glimpse at Che’s life the museum provides are fascinating, the final stop on this Che tour is what many come from far and wide to see — the final resting place of the fallen fighter, whose remains were brought to Cuba in 1997 from the Bolivian jungle where he died.
Inside the small, dimly lit mausoleum lie Che’s remains along with those of some of the 38 fighter comrades of varying nationalities killed alongside him in Bolivia. Shrubbery decorating the room is meant to recreate the jungle in which he died.
A hush falls on the mausoleum as tourists enter and for good reason, no talking, photos or even note taking are permitted in the room.
On one wall are tombstones with carvings of the faces of the dead fighters with a single, uniform flower next to each one. When it’s a fighter’s birthday the flower next to them is replaced with one of a different colour, a simple gesture to honour the man or woman, the guide whispers.
As visitors file out of the mausoleum they pause. In one corner is an eternal flame meant to honour all the people who died during the revolution.
For visitors to Cuba who want both a beach getaway and want to visit Santa Clara, one bet is to stay at one of the charming resorts in Cayo Santa Maria, a less popular tourist destination when compared to Varadero or Holguin, but one touted as the next big thing.
Air Canada currently offers direct flights from Montreal and Toronto to Santa Clara, which is roughly a little more than an hour’s drive to Cayo Santa Maria.