Fidel Castro had ignited the Cuban Revolution in 1953 with his attack on the Moncada garrison. Five years later, his war of attrition against the government of Fulgencio Batista was beginning to show signs of wearing down the dictator. After a disastrous summer campaign, Batista was on the ropes and Castro moved in for the kill. Standing in his way was the city of Santa Clara with its large force of federal soldiers and weapons. Castro sent one of his most trusted lieutenants, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, to capture the city. The Battle of Santa Clara would eventually become the largest and most important battle fought during the Revolution.
The Cuban Revolution leadership (the Castro Brothers, Ché Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others) had returned to Cuba in 1956 aboard the yacht Granma and had been hiding out in the southern Sierra Maestra Mountains, undermining the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship with hit-and-run attacks all over the country. Batista ordered a major offensive in the summer of 1958 against the rebels but it turned into a debacle that exposed the weakness of the regime. By late 1958 Batista was scared enough to call for new elections and Castro smelled blood. He sent three small armies into the interior, commanded by Jaime Vega, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ché Guevara. In December, Guevara and his force moved into position to assault the key strategic city of Santa Clara.
On paper, Guevara’s attack looked suicidal. The army garrison at Santa Clara consisted of 2,500 soldiers and officers and ten tanks: another thousand soldiers were scattered at key points throughout the city. In addition, an armored locomotive containing another 400 well-armed soldiers was on its way from Havana. Ché had barely 300 men, weary from their long march and constant skirmishing with federal forces. He was outgunned, out-supplied and outnumbered ten-to-one. The numbers do not tell the whole story, however: Batista’s men were demoralized while the rebels were fired up, and the population of Santa Clara for the most part supported the insurgents. On the morning of December 28, Guevara and his men arrived and moved into position.
Guevara and his men were met by some of Batista’s soldiers and one of the tanks as they approached the town: some rebels were killed and others wounded. Federal airplanes strafed the rebels, who took cover in the city. The soldiers on the train took up positions on a hill outside of town and began shooting at the rebels as well. The troops in the barracks did not enter the fight, however, remaining in the military compound. Morale was very low among the soldiers, many of whom no doubt felt sympathy for the rebel cause.
Guevara knew that his success would depend on three factors: keeping the large garrison bottled up, neutralizing the armored train (whose soldiers had shown the most willingness to fight) and getting the civilians of Santa Clara involved. As darkness fell, Guevara’s men moved into the city, taking up positions for the next day. The local populace helped out, creating barricades which would prevent the garrison and tanks from moving freely through the city. They also were able to destroy some rail tracks, which would come into play the next day.