BY ANTONIO NÚÑEZ JIMÉNEZ
Pathfinder Press recently released a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War: 1956-58.
To promote this book, the Militant is running this series, featuring articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
This week's installment - the seventh- is on the battle of Santa Clara, one of the most decisive actions of the war. Santa Clara, Cuba's third largest city and the capital of Las Villas province, was attacked Dec. 29, 1958, by 300 Rebel Army troops under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara, opposed by an enemy force ten times bigger. The rebel forces, however, were aided by the city's population who hampered the movement of the army's tanks and armored vehicles by clogging up all the streets with parked cars.
By the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1959, Rebel Army troops controlled the entire city except the main army garrison. Early that day Batista fled Cuba, ceding power to a military junta led by Gen. Eulogio Cantillo.
The account below describes the surrender of Santa Clara that day. The author was a captain in Guevara's Rebel Army Column no. 8. An internationally known geographer and cave specialist prior to the revolution, Antonio Nú ñ ez Jiménez has held a number of posts since 1959, including executive director of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, president of the Academy of Sciences, vice minister of culture, and ambassador to Peru.
The following is excerpted from an article published in the January-February 1968 issue of the Cuban magazine Casa de las Américas. Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.
By Antonio Núñez Jiménez
After a prolonged discussion in which the evidence of our superior position and the demoralization of the dictatorship's army were both important factors, the officers [of Batista's army] agreed to surrender when we stated that we would be willing to let the soldiers and officers who resided in Santa Clara go home-once they had turned in their weapons-and that they would be given safe-conduct from us. It was understood that their records would later be examined to ascertain whether any of them were guilty of crimes or torture. Those living outside Santa Clara would be transported to Caibarién, where they could leave by boat for their respective homes.
Just when the surrender was about to be made official, Major Fernández stepped forward on behalf of all those who were congregated there and asked if we would allow him, as a delegate of all the officers, to speak personally with Che. Knowing that this officer was unaware of Che's character, we accepted his proposal, reiterating that if the surrender did not go into effect by 12:15 p.m., we would resume fire.
The officers consented to having Major Fernández represent them and he came with us. We left the Leoncio Vidal Garrison amid shouts from the officers expressing their almost unanimous desire to end the battle. Major Fernández walked between the two of us, both officers of the Rebel Army. The enemy soldiers opened the heavy iron door. Outside, an automobile driven by Lieutenant Ríos was waiting for us. The people who saw us go by greeted us with shouts of "Long live the revolution!" "Death to the tyranny!" and "Down with tyranny!" The high-ranking Batista officer lowered his head, as if ashamed, confronted with the first sight of a rebel people giving free rein to their genuine feelings. The scene was indescribable -thousands of men and women, many of them with Cuban flags and the flags of the July 26 movement, shouting out with burning enthusiasm. And amid this sea of people our car passed through, bearing a white flag. The crowd cooperated and opened a small passageway among them. Occasionally a car or truck blocking our path had to be moved, so that we could reach the building of the Third District of the Ministry of Public Works, where Che was waiting for us.
Upon arriving at Rebel Command, we made our way through, bringing the officer to a small room filled with rifles and ammunition captured from the enemy. Present were Che, [Adolfo] Rodríguez de la Vega, Major Fernández, and the author of these lines.
The officer of the government's army tried to convince Che that he should extend the truce...that in Havana a provisional government had been formed...that General Cantillo...and so on and so forth.
Che listened to him without batting an eye. Leaning back in his chair, he looked steadily at the enemy officer. He stuck a tiny cigar butt into his mouth, which he had to do with his fingertips, while moving his arm - which was in a cast - with difficulty. The cigar smoke drifted slowly upward, partially covering his face and leaving only the ridges of his brows showing.
"Look, Major, my assistants already spoke for this Command. The question is either unconditional surrender or we open fire-but true fire, without any truce. The city is already in our hands."
The enemy officer Fernández tried to stammer a few words about prolonging the fight. Raising his voice, Che told him:
"At 12:30, I will give the order to resume the attack with all our forces and we will take the garrison at all costs. The responsibility for bloodshed will be on you."
He then spit out the following words:
"Furthermore, you should know that there is a possibility that the United States government will intervene militarily in Cuba and if that happens, your crime will be worse because you will have supported a foreign invader. In that case, nothing will be left for us to do except give you a pistol to shoot yourselves with, since you would be guilty of a conscious act of high treason against Cuba."
Upon hearing these last words from Commander Ernesto Guevara, Major Fernández asked to meet once again with Colonel Cándido Hernández and his general staff, and promised to answer Che's proposal before 12:30 p.m.
We accompanied Major Fernández back to the Leoncio Vidal Garrison.
Another meeting with the enemy officers took place. Fernández explained what happened. The officers became restless and began to talk among themselves, consulting one another. We remained quiet, speaking only after a long deep silence:
"Gentlemen, there are only ten minutes left before we resume fire. Commander Guevara already explained that this is the last chance you'll have to save your lives before dying locked up in here, fighting for a lost, unjust cause."
Colonel Hernández stated that all was lost and, sensing the mood of his officers, agreed to the unconditional surrender proposed by Che and stated that he had confidence in the honor of the revolutionary command.
When the municipality of Santa Clara came under the control of the revolutionary forces, not only was a territory of 1,128 square kilometers with 142,176 inhabitants liberated, but this historic fact, combined with the decisive victories of the Rebel Army in Oriente, meant the liberation of the entire central region of Cuba. The surrender of the Third Military District, encompassing the whole province of Las Villas, amounted in practice to the surrender of those parts not yet liberated. This facilitated the surrender of the entire region to the west of the heroic city.
The road to the capital of the republic was left open and Fidel ordered Column 2, under the command of Camilo Cienfuegos, to march on the Columbia military camp, and he ordered Column 8, under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara, to take the La Cabañ a fortress in Havana.
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