Simon Calder visits Ernesto Guevara's eventual resting-place
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Saturday 26 July 1997
At first sight, Santa Clara does not appear to be notable for anything. After a 150-mile haul from Havana along the Carretera Central (central highway), the first you see of this sleepy city is a huge factory complex of the sort that is popular in Minsk. Inpud, as the enterprise is known, produces many of Cuba's domestic appliances - or rather, it used to; since the collapsing Soviet Union dragged the Cuban economy into the abyss, the country these days isn't producing anything much but tourism.
To help boost hard-currency earnings, expect Che-for-a-day trips to be offered from Havana to Santa Clara. These will start shortly after 8 October this year, the 30th anniversary of Guevara's execution in a corner of some Bolivian field. This is when the bones of the asthmatic Argentinian who thought Cuba was worth fighting for will be interred.
Che met Fidel Castro in Mexico, where Castro was exiled following the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953. Together they plotted the next near-disaster, sailing a cabin-cruiser full of revolutionaries over to Cuba and attacking the frighteningly well-entrenched regime. Of the 83 revolutionaries who landed in the south east of the island in December 1956, all but 23 died in the first encounter with government troops after just three weeks. Yet two years later, the survivors - led by Castro and Che - succeeded two years later in overthrowing the regime.
And Santa Clara was the location for the most crucial battle of all. In December 1958, Che's rebels - having endured incredible hardships on the long march west - swept down to the city at the centre of the island. If they could capture Santa Clara, they would cut Cuba in half and divide the diminishing rule of Batista.
Conveniently for those on the revolutionary trail, the only place in town where you can stay bears the scars of the battle even today. The front of the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, overlooking the handsome main square, is pocked with bullet holes. (The "Libre", of course, was added after the Revolution when many Cubans believed they were for the first time free.)
The most decisive action in Cuba's history took place 10 blocks north of the main square, close to the cheerfully decrepit old railway station. You round a corner and suddenly stumble upon the Tren Blindado - "Blind Train". Batista sent reinforcements east along Cuba's main railway line in enclosed wagons. "Borrowing" a bulldozer, Che's score of rebels ripped the track apart. The wagons are still lying where they fell, resembling debris from a giant train set. The site has been turned into a revolutionary shrine, with good reason. Batista's commanders realised their game was up. Forty-eight hours later the dictator fled, leaving Castro to march triumphantly into Havana for a stay that has outlasted nine US presidents.
Che, meanwhile, or at least 23 bronze tons of him, stands guard over the city from a plateau two miles east. The Plaza de la Revolucin is already a shrine, dominated by the huge statue that was erected on the 20th anniversary of Che's death. Here, building for the mausoleum is under way. On 8 October, the day Che was killed, Cuban schoolchildren will solemnly promise that, should the need arise, they will "die in a hail of bullets like Che". Had he lived, the revolutionary would be in his 70th year now. Yet as far as the Cuban politburo is concerned, his value as ideological martyr remains immense. And as the ultimate political tourist attraction, his grave will help to keep Cuban socialism alive.
To reach Santa Clara, fly on Cubana (0171-734 1165) to Havana, then go by train (around six hours on a good day).
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