No other city, no other fair could offer the kind of readers I found at the Miami Book Fair. Almost everyone I talked to there knew about Camilo Cienfuegos. Some of them were in Havana in January, 1959, and saw Castro roll into town after his victory caravan, with Camilo at his side. Two had gone to Castro’s speech at Camp Columbia that night and seen the white dove that landed on his shoulder as he spoke. They heard him ask, so all would hear, “How am I doing, Camilo?”
The woman I shared a booth with had grown up throwing flowers into the sea on the day Camilo disappeared, October 28th. One guy who stopped to look at A Hundred Fires in Cuba told me that his mother had been at the National Institute for Agrarian Reform the day of Camilo’s disappearance, and had heard Castro yelling at Camilo over the phone.
In Havana (at least when talking to me), people echo what the government says, that a freak storm came up and blew Camilo’s two-engined Cessna out to sea. In Miami this line gets no traction. Florida Cubans are united in believing that Fidel had Camilo killed: because he wasn’t enough of a socialist, because his vast popularity with the people of Cuba might have endangered Castro’s control of the government.
I did hear, however, conflicting stories about the evening Camilo’s plane disappeared. One lean, intense guy, the point of his finger tapping Camilo’s photo on the cover of the book, assured me that his Cessna never left the ground. “They pulled him out of the plane, took him away and killed him. Then they chopped the plane into little pieces and buried it.” This, like many of my conversations at the fair, was in Spanish: “Lo sacaron del avión, se lo llevó a otra parte, y lo mataron. Luego, machacaron el avión en pedacitos y lo enterró.”
I pointed out that the reports about Camilo’s takeoff were consistent and precise. His pilot called the tower for clearance, and the plane took off at 6:01. No, no, I was told. The plane never left the ground. This was the truth that the government had long kept hidden.
Two hours later, when I mentioned this conversation to another Cuban, younger and somewhat milder, he assured me that his compatriot was wrong. ‘My uncle was in the tower at Camagüey,” he said. “He heard the pilot talking. He saw the plane take off.”
Naturally, I pointed out to these potential readers that they would discover in my book what actually happened to Camilo. That is to say, they’d find my own resolution to the mystery of Camilo’s disappearance. The novelist has certain freedoms, and I’m in good company, because for almost sixty years Cubans in Miami have been imagining what became of Camilo.