Why Camilo Cienfuegos?


Often I’m asked, Why this guy? Who was Camilo Cienfuegos?

Most people in the U.S. have never heard of him, but every Cuban knows his name. On January 1st, 1959, the day Batista fled the country, Fidel named Camilo the head of the Cuban Army. He didn’t choose his brother Raúl, he didn’t choose Che Guevara, he chose Camilo.

Camilo was a good fighter, and famous for his courage. But I think Fidel liked having him as a face of the Revolution because of his humble background. Camilo’s parents were tailors, they ran a little shop in Havana in their home, with a pair of sewing machines in the front room. While Fidel, Raúl, Che and almost all the other comandantes had come from the middle class and were university-educated, Camilo had never gone past the eighth grade. Fidel called him “el cubano de verdad,” meaning the true Cuban, a man of the people.

Camilo was also more relaxed, not as straight-laced as the more doctrinaire revolutionaries. Almost all the barbudos came down from the Sierra wearing beards and long hair, looking like beatniks or the saints of old—but Camilo’s beard was thicker and his hair longer than any of them. He was also the one who liked to dance and drink and tell jokes. He was not only devoted to the Revolution, he could dance the merengue.

From the start, Fidel made sure that everyone knew how vital Camilo was to the new government. On Fidel’s first night back in Havana, in the middle of a speech to the nation, he paused to ask, “Voy bien, Camilo?” Am I on the right track?

Vas bien, Fidel,” and the crowd roared.

Reading about Camilo, I was drawn to his easy charisma. Later I learned that before he joined up with Fidel he had traveled around the United States, working in restaurants and sewing shops. At one point he married an American citizen, and enlisted in the U.S. Army, though he never reported for duty. And one detail I could not resist: that he had once been a dishwasher at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria.

At the tine I read that, I’d been making notes for a novel about a woman based loosely on my mother. In the book she’s a young American photographer, and I knew she was going to wind up in Havana. Now I saw that she and Camilo could meet in New York City, that ten weeks later she would be pregnant by him, and that Immigration would sweep in and deport him.

Only three years later, at the age of 27, Camilo is one of the new leaders of Cuba. It doesn’t hurt for my story that he likes to drink and dance, or that he loves women, and that too many women love him. For fiction you load the dice, and in the case of Camilo Cienfuegos the dice were already loaded. Ten months after Fidel rose to power, Camilo disappeared on an official in-country flight, and was never seen again. For a novelist, that was perfect.

Also, I think I looked like him at that age.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. nc

    I just returned from Cuba, and this was just the tidbit of info about Camilo I was craving.
    Thanks; delightful reading!
    Now; what is your novel that is based on this?

    1. John

      The novel, Hundred Fires, pairs Camilo with a woman much like my mother. I found Camilo’s story fascinating and little known—even in Cuba. Everyone knows his name, they all know his face, some people seem to know about the controversy surrounding his death—though that is not something people are likely to debate in Cuba. But I talked to no one who knew anything about his youth, his trip to the U.S., the fact that he once joined the U.S. Army. Che Guevara has been written about endlessly, but not Camilo. Understandable, I’m sure, as he died so young. There are two interesting books about him, both inadequate in their way. Carlos Franqui’s Camilo Cienfuegos is a light read full of lively and perhaps debatable impressions, but it gives only the bare bones of biography. Hard to find: I bought a paperback published by Seix-Barral, printed in the U.S. but only in Spanish. Paid a hundred dollars for it, it was so rare. The second book is a fat tome by William Galvez I bought in the book-selling plaza in Havana: Camilo, Senor de la Vanguardia. I read every word, and there were plenty of details, but almost all about his military and political duties. Little of controversy there, and little of the lively and engaging Camilo.

      It was the fact of Camilo’s disappearance that intrigued me. To a novelist, it opened a world. Surely Camilo died on Oct. 28, 1959—but after that, in a novel, he was mine. Or more precisely, my mother’s. As you read, he made his escape to Costa Rica, where he started a new life, or so I like to imagine.

      I hope to get the novel published soon. An agent has it, and we shall see. Cuba is so much in the news these days, and that should spur on a publisher.

      Best wishes,

      PS: I discovered just now that there is now an English version of Carlos Franqui’s book, Camilo Cienfuegos. It’s translated by Paul Sharkey and available from England’s ChristieBooks, on Kindle, for U.S. $4.07. A bargain!

    2. John


      It’s called Hundred Fires. Not in print yet, but coming soon I hope.


  2. Paige

    Is this book still in the works? Sounds interesting!

    1. John

      Still in the works. I’m going to say: next spring. I’m just about to start a final look at the MS.

  3. Tim

    I visited Cuba for the first time earlier this month and while there fell under the spell of Camilo Cienfuegos, thanks initially to being intrigued by an anonymized photograph of him in the “Rough Guide” that I was using during my trip. The more I learn about him, the more I want to know. Amazing how his charisma is timeless. So glad that you are working on a novel about him, and can’t wait to hear news that it has been published!!

  4. John Thorndike

    Tim—I’ve been up to my neck in publishing details, but the book is now ready to be printed. Reviews and blurbs are in (Kirkus gave it a starred review, which is a delight), the cover is finalized, and it will be available on August 15th. I just watched an hour-long video on YouTube about his disappearance. It’s slanted, as almost all reporting (from either side) is about Cuba, but quite fascinating, including interviews with Huber Matos, Carlos Franqui and many others: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZJZU1m5Iio

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