Message From Camilo 7


Here it is again, January 8th, the day of Fidel’s victory celebration in 1959. I wonder if I might be the last surviving barbudo who came down from the Sierra, slogged across most of Cuba, and joined Fidel’s caravan as it entered Havana. Raul wasn’t with us, he was back in Santiago. Huber Matos was with us, on Fidel’s left, as you can see in the photo—but Huber is dead, and now Fidel is dead. Juan Almeida is dead. There’s some sailor in the photo as well, but he had never set foot in the Sierra. Unless William Galvez is still around, it’s likely that I’m the last of us.

It’s crazy to think that after all this time, Cubans are still abandoning their country. Last year over 45,000 of them entered the U.S. through an official Port of Entry, hoping to become citizens, or at least residents. What pains me is that for so many Cubans, their agonizing choice has remained the same all these decades: do they stay in Cuba or try to get out? Of course for me it has been just the opposite. My choice has been, Should I go back, or not?

Lately I’ve been thinking that my choice not to go is a form of cowardice. Camilo the Coward! The joke is that my fame has always been just the opposite. I was always El Señor de la Vanguardia, meaning that in battle I was always at the front of every column. I’ve never liked that pompous phrase, because El Señor can mean either Mr. Big, or the Lord. I came from a plain family, and was always closer to obrero than patrón, more worker than boss. And if anyone confused me with El Señor in the clouds, that would really be a joke. It seems to me that if I were truly daring, I’d be in the vanguard of those returning to Cuba. Instead, the ones going back are investment tycoons like Alfonso Fanjul, or writers like Raúl Ramos y Sanchez, who gets to visit with relatives he hasn’t seen in half a century, while I sit here under the coffee trees, fighting off retirement.

My excuse is Clare, who doesn’t want me to go. She’s happy with our family here in Costa Rica, which now includes children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. But then, Clare was never Cuban. She loved Cuba, but after Fidel threw her out of the country she never forgave him for anything. He was too powerful, too full of himself. She respected what he’d done to change the great injustices of Cuba in the 1950s—but much of the same was accomplished here in Costa Rica by Pepe Figueres, within a social democracy. No, she fears for me if I ever set foot on Cuban soil.

Maybe I fear it myself. But that’s not supposed to be me. I’m supposed to be brave. Nowadays, being brave is going over to my granddaughter Elena’s house and looking after her three young ones for a long afternoon. Now that’s enough to completely exhaust an old man, to make him think a random push might topple him into the grave. These are the tyrants I deal with now, two girls and a boy, all under seven. But such darling tyrants! For hours on end, they make me forget about my choices.

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