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Che Guevara was not the reason I took the Number 13 train from Havana to Santa Clara, Cuba, though it's true Guevara is buried in Santa Clara, along with 23 of his comrades in arms, all of whom died 32 years ago in a quest to spread Cuba's communist revolution to South America. Their remains lie in an elegant minimalist mausoleum on a grassy hill. From here, under the panoramic sky of central Cuba, a monumental bronze statue of the martyred Che surveys the town that, more than any other in Cuba, was marked by his brief passage through history. He stares down on the faded façades of seventeenth-century homes lining narrow streets that run from the central square; the hulking, dilapidated housing projects near the edges of town; then beyond to red-dirt roads disappearing into green sugar cane fields.
These days Che Guevara is a hot property and has lent a chic luster to Cuba's fourth-largest city. At least one tour bus can always be found parked outside the museum that has been erected at Che's burial site. Yet this hardly is a Disney World for revolutionaries: There is no admission charge and nothing is on sale, not even a single Che key ring or T-shirt.
Reverent groups of Canadian and European tourists come to pay their respects to the Argentine revolutionary, whom Fidel Castro has proclaimed to be a role model for all Cubans. In the museum's grottolike chapel, visitors gaze at a bust of Che and an entire wall quilted with bas-relief portraits of the other fallen guerrillas. Che's 39 years of life are chronicled in letters, photographs, and text on display in the main exhibit space. Clothing, guns, and other mementos fill glass cases (even the lacy gold-pattern plastic spatula with which Che and Santa Clara native Aleida March cut their wedding cake during a 1959 ceremony). Correspondence includes Castro's wartime missives from eastern Cuba to Che: military instructions and discussion of political strategy during the long campaign by divided rebel forces to overthrow the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista.
But no, I didn't come to Santa Clara to soak up history or the Che mystique. I simply wanted to see more of Cuba outside Havana, and the relatives of a Miami friend had graciously offered me lodging in their home on Calle Real, just a short walk, as it turned out, from the museum.
In Santa Clara I did nothing more exciting than share a Mulata with my hosts -- that's a bottle of Mulata rum, about which Cubans have been known to make such ribald jokes. Mainly I met a lot of ordinary people who were well educated, who had an acute sense of their history, and a curiosity about their future. That's partly because family ties run deep here; it's not the unwieldy and transient melting pot that Havana is. It's also because Santa Clara played a major role in the revolution, Cuba's defining historical event of the Twentieth Century.
During the final days of 1958, Che Guevara and about 300 rebel troops under his command moved north from the Escambray Mountains and launched an attack on Santa Clara, defended by Batista's demoralized, reluctant government army. By December 31 the rebels had captured a trainload of weapons, taken 400 soldiers prisoner, and had used the arms and the support of civilians to gain control of most of the city. Only two military garrisons and a nest of snipers in the Gran Hotel downtown were still holding out. When Guevara's men finally forced a surrender, Batista's last hope to retain power disappeared, and he fled into exile on New Year's Eve. A week later Castro and Che rode a military tank into Havana and claimed the nation.
Reminders of the battle of Santa Clara are all over: Bullet holes are preserved in the façades of downtown buildings and in the army barracks; trenches dug by Guevara's men in outlying hills remain; those two military barracks, somewhat symbolically, have been converted to schools. The local newspaper, Vanguardia, still runs stories about the battle of Santa Clara and its heroes.
This past October, as Castro was preparing to host the ninth Ibero-American Summit, his brother Raul presided over a ceremony at the Santa Clara museum commemorating the 32nd anniversary of Che's death. The well-publicized event was overshadowed, though, by the international media's increasing focus on Cuba's political dissidents and their plans to protest at the summit. Santa Clara, as the largest city in central Cuba, isn't immune from occasional muted political unrest. Two years ago a half-dozen hunger strikers received some attention from exile organizations three months into their fast, but then faded from view. No one I spoke with in Santa Clara professed knowledge of any organized government opponents, or the desire to know. The official media ignores dissidents altogether, except in the rare cases when Fidel Castro decides to denounce a person or group.
But while they were in Havana, heads of state and foreign ministers from ten nations met with opposition groups, and other leaders in attendance spoke out in favor of freedom of expression on the island. Many observers concluded that the Castro regime would no longer be able to disregard its internal opposition.