Santa Clara: Che Guevara Mausoleum
Santa Clara, Cuba
I am standing under a statue of Che, thinking: a hero or a murderer?
I could also ask: Was Mao a hero or a murderer? He built communist China, but his policies killed many people. And how about Stalin? The same story. And what about Fidel Castro? Death was a necessity for revolution, they would all say. I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and we had our fair share of murders of politicians by other politicians who claimed to have done it in the interest of a better society. And then that 'better' society collapsed. Communism simply did not work.
I came to Santa Clara with my family in January 2019, as part of our three-day road trip from Havana. My son and his friend Daniela were working on a review of Cuba when it marked the 60th anniversary of the Revolution. Daniela is Che's fan. I am not a fan of socialism. You can just imagine the talks we had on this trip. And where else would be a better place to look under the lid of a revolution? Santa Clara is Che's city, without question. The last battle in the Cuban Revolution took place here and it is fitting that Che Guevara was buried by Fidel Castro in this particular place. He owed him that much, I dare say.
So what did we learn at Che's Mausoleum and Museum? That he was certainly a legend and a martyr. That his revolution did succeed. That he was the Apostle of the poor. All that made him a hero. But what the Museum does not show is that the Revolution also harmed many people. That it stopped progress. That Che set up concentration camps and ordered the deaths of hundreds of people in Cuban prisons during the revolution, without any trials. He personally executed some of them. Did he make a positive impact on the human condition? I still don't know the answer to that question. Was his hatred of imperialism and the desire to create a 'better' society sufficient to justify those deaths? What is your view?
Here are my notes from our visit to Che's Mausoleum and Museum.
The PeopLe: Che Guevara
Ernesto Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, fighting the cause of the poor elsewhere. He was born in 1928 in the city of Rosario, Argentina. He studied medicine in Buenos Aires. During his studies he undertook several formative journeys throughout Latin America, in which his view of the world was shaped. Ernesto wrote a memoir called the Motorcycle Diaries where he declared that he would fight and die for the cause of the poor.
After graduation Ernesto went to Guatemala where he joined an armed militia, to fight for the leftist government. It was here where he developed his hatred of American imperialism and their meddling in other countries. Then he went to Mexico where he practised medicine and became acquainted with Fidel Castro. He dropped out of his medical studies to join Fidel in Cuba; he gave Guevara command of his own battalion. He was nicknamed Che by his Cuban comrades because he frequently used this Argentinian slang word, which means 'pal' or as a greeting, 'Hey!' In Santa Clara it was Che's forces that captured an armoured train, along with three hundred soldiers and their ammunition. Camilo Cienfuegos also fought the battle in this city. After the victory, Batista fled the country and the revolution was over.
After the revolution, Che worked alongside the Castro government and helped to shape the future of Cuba. At one point he was the Minister of Industries and the Finance Minister for Cuba. In 1965 he resigned (some say he was dismissed) from his Cuban government post, possibly over differences with Castro about the nation’s economic and foreign policies. He felt that as a foreigner he has done enough for Cuba's cause and that he was needed elsewhere.
After that he spent some time in the Congo to aid revolutionary activities there, and eventually made his way to Bolivia where he planned to form a guerilla army that could spark a revolution against the government. There he was captured in 1967 by Bolivian forces, backed by the US military and the CIA. He was executed two days later. Guevara's body was buried in an unmarked grave along with the corpses of other two prisoners, his hands chopped off so that his fingerprints could be used as proof of his death. The remains were found in 1997 and brought to Cuba.
For a lot of people Guevara remains an icon of revolution and change. However, from my brief discussions with the people of Cuba, they are tired of the communist system that the Revolution gave them.
The FOCUS: The Monument
A giant bronze statue of Che Guevara sits atop a column, a huge wall with a stone relief to its side. He is looking towards the mountains in the distance. What is he thinking about? Would he change the course of history, if he could?
The sculpture dominates the immediate surroundings, a large open square, and it is very impressive. I dare say the style is that of communist realism, built to glorify not just the revolutionaries, but the revolution itself and communist values.
At least that is how I felt about it. Communist Czechoslovakia was full of such monuments (all of them are destroyed now). Communist propaganda through art.
The long wall has a 3D mural chronicling Che’s life.
The Mystery: Who killed Che Guevara?
Behind and directly underneath the monument Che's remains are interred in a wall in the mausoleum room. The mausoleum also houses the remains of twenty-nine of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during Guevara's attempted armed uprising in Bolivia.
The atmosphere in the mausoleum is rather sombre. Photography is not allowed. The room is small and dark, full of niches with the names of the deceased revolutionaries.
The visitors pause in front of the niches; they don't speak, just show respect or meditate. There is a lot to think about. Was Che a hero or a murderer? Was he a defender of the poor or a cold-hearted executioner? Or both? It depends on people's political views or opinions of the man himself. In any case, it is an emotional moment for everybody visiting the place because it provokes thought.
Another question that the visitors are likely asking themselves is about the assassination. Who killed this charismatic revolutionary? The Bolivians or the CIA? CIA operative Felix Rodriguez was with the battalion that captured Guevara and interrogated Che ahead of his death. According to him, the order to execute came from the Bolivian military's high command, while his orders as a CIA officer were to keep him alive. Of course, the Americans have denied responsibility for the killing, a claim dismantled by two American lawyers, Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, in their book Who Killed Che?
While standing in the Mausoleum, another thought crossed my mind: who killed Camilo Cienfuegos? He also fought in the battle of Santa Clara, alongside Che, and became a hero of the Revolution. However, he was lost in 1959 when flying between Camagüey and Havana. Lost or assassinated? Was the story of the flight covering up a murder?
The main question now is whether Che and Camilo are no longer missed. From my talks to people in Havana and elsewhere on our road trip, they are not. They are remembered, because their statues and posters are everywhere, but they are not missed as the makers of a better life any more. Not in the sense before, when people hoped Camilo had just fled the country (from fear) and would return one day to make a real change. The change did not come. They are still waiting.
And to those that proudly wear the iconic picture of Che on their T-shirts, it must be asked if it is 'idealism' they are revering. Che has a broad following around the world, as a generic symbol of the underdog, the idealist, the martyr. How resilient is his ghost? Well, his T-shirt has become a pop icon, in Andy Warhol style. In my view, the Cult of Che is deplorable because the followers don't bother to find out the details of 'their' hero. They idolise him without any knowledge of the real Che. To me, it would be like wearing a T-shirt with the portrait of Mao or Stalin.
Don't miss: The Museum
The museum next door to the mausoleum has a number of personal items of Che's, such as his diaries, beret, uniform, flask, dish, radio, photographs and some guns of the revolutionaries. The room was full of visitors who come here with tour agencies. One busload was full of Russians, and the other full of French. Well, countries with great history of revolutions. No wonder. The Russians seemed to be rather excited and animated, reading texts from Che's diaries and admiring his personal artefacts. The French tourists, on the other hand, were quiet and sombre. I wonder if they were thinking of their own 'yellow vests' movements and which way it was going for them. Is it going to bring a positive change for France? During our visit, there were no Cubans in the museum. A coincidence?
In the garden outside the mausoleum there is a stunning Monkey Flower Tree. It was in full bloom during our January visit, with large red flowers. Under the tree there were Cuban soldiers keeping guard over the outside garden with more tombs of the Cuban revolutionaries. I addressed them, and to my astonishment they responded. We managed to have a chat about life under communism and the changes that the Cubans were eager to happen for their society. Yes, straight into the core questions. One of them just wants a better TV, he told me, as his set was old, from the Soviet era. Technically, he should not be speaking to civilians but as his duty was to navigate the tourists to the tomb garden, it was hardly avoidable. It seems his feelings were not different from all the other people that I managed to talk to: they can't wait to embrace the changes. They all want wifi, to connect with the world. They all want better TV. They all want to trade with the world. They don't want to be left behind. They have been waiting for so long.
How to get there:
To get to Santa Clara by car, you will enter the city on the Carretera Central. From the east, turn off at Colón, from the west at Rafael Tristá. Both are one-way streets that will lead you to the hub of the city, Parque Vidal.
Che's Monument, Mausoleum and Museum Complex is 2km west of Parque Vidal (via Rafael Tristá on Av de los Desfiles), near the Víazul bus station. The best way to get to the monument is a 20-minute walk, or by hopping on a horse carriage on Calle Marta Abreu outside the cathedral for a couple of Cuban pesos. Or you can take a bici-taxi from the Parque Vidal. All prices are by negotiation.
MIX and Match
Just walk about the colonial town of Santa Clara.