55 years ago today, Camilo Cienfuegos and 300 men from his column drove into Havana, where the remaining generals of the Cuban Army handed over their control to the rebel army.
Only a day before, the dictator Fulgencio Batista had given his usual New Year’s party. Then, at two in the morning, he and his family, along with a few of his generals and some 300 million dollars, climbed into a plane and flew to the Dominican Republic, yielding his rule to Fidel Castro. But the first of the rebels to reach Havana was not Fidel, who was in Santiago at the eastern end of the island, nor Che Guevara, who arrived a day later and took over a lesser post at the El Morro castle. It was Camilo Cienfuegos, the Cuban Revolutionary hero most Americans have never heard of.
Every Cuban (and almost every Cuban-American) knows Camilo well. In early 1959, aside from Fidel, he was the most-respected and most-loved of the revolutionaries. His column had been fighting in the town of Yaguajay in Santa Clara province, and almost at the same hour that Batista abandoned the country, the army chief of the Yaguajay barracks signed a surrender to Camilo and his rebel troops. Camilo and the general shared some champagne (I admit to imagining a few of the minor details of this scene), Camilo went to bed at four in the morning, and at five he was woken by a phone call from Fidel, telling him to get on the road to Havana.
Here was the triumph of Fidel’s two-year fight to take over the country from Batista. Here was the culmination of the Americas’ most dramatic revolution, in which 82 men boarded a cabin cruiser in the Mexican port of Tuxpan, met with almost complete disaster after landing in Cuba (only 15 of the 82 managed to make their way into the Sierra Maestra)—yet only two years later were able to rout a powerful and corrupt dictator supported by the U.S. government.
Today Cuba can look like a shambles. The record of Castro’s idealistic political and social changes is bleak in many ways. But in January of 1959 many of the families that wound up in Miami (and Tampa and New York and Union City, New Jersey) were cheering wildly for Fidel and his soldiers. For many, that enthusiasm later faded—but on the day Camilo Cienfuegos took over Camp Columbia in Havana, the city was on the edge of delirium
55 years ago I was a boy of 17, buried in my junior year of high school. I knew nothing of any revolution in Cuba. Yet Camilo’s story has gripped me for decades now, and here I am on another January 2nd, remembering his first dramatic days as head of the Cuban Army. What glory he enjoyed over the next ten months, at which point he disappears from Cuban history—but not from the novel I’m writing.