Camilo Cienfuegos

One of the ways of understanding Venezuela today is by studying the history and development of the Cuban revolution. Aside from the obvious military, economic and intelligence alliances between Castro and Chávez, what’s clearly evident is that the Venezuelan “revolution” is based on the manipulation of icons and narratives. One need only look at the billions of dollars being spent on marketing Venezuela internationally, through publications, web sites and by means of paid intellectuals and artists of varying merit. Those who use Venezuela as a revolutionary banner today usually haven’t bothered to inform themselves about the totalitarian precedents of the Cuban revolution and what these signal for Venezuela. Or, as with some on the far left in the U.S. and Europe, they’re willing to excuse any type of anti-democratic and reactionary behavior in Latin America for the sake of fulfilling their rigid political fantasies (at a safe distance, of course, from Cuba and Venezuela). Revolutionary tourism in the Third World par excellence.

The case of the legendary Cuban guerrilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959) comes to mind as a clear example of how revolutionary projects almost always end up destroying their very best elements. I’m in the midst of reading the memoirs of another Cuban comandante, Huber Matos (1918), titled Como llegó la noche (Tusquets Editores, 2002), which has yet to be translated into English. Matos was a close friend of Cienfuegos and his own experiences within the Cuban revolution are closely tied to the latter’s early and mysterious death. In October of 1959, Matos resigned from his position in the newly-established revolutionary government in protest of the rising influence of communism within that project. The communist tendency within the revolution hadn’t become explicit until the middle of 1959 and among those in oppositon to it were Matos and Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos was sent to arrest his friend Matos and within days of that event he himself vanished. While the official story remains that Cienfuego’s airplane disappeared en route to Havana from Camagüey, there have been persistent theories that he was killed by Castro. His missing airplane was never found and Cienfuegos was immediately transformed into a martyr, yet another in a growing list of symbols for the revolution to exploit. Castro had good reasons to eliminate Cienfuegos, since the latter was widely popular among Cubans, his charisma and Christ-like appearance often eclipsing the more rigid, authoritarian qualities of Latin America’s most famous caudillo. As several of his friends and associates have testified, Cienfuegos was not an enemy of the communist faction of the Cuban revolution in its early stages, but he was definitely not a partisan of its totalitarian methods.

In a recent interview in the magazine Letras Libres (November 2006), the revolutionary and historian Carlos Franqui (1921) discusses the death of Cienfuegos, proposing the theory that he was eliminated before he could threaten Castro’s authority:

“In your biography of Camilo Cienfuegos you speculate that his death was not an accident. What is the basis for this affirmation?

The basis is, first, Camilo’s independent thinking. Second, his popularity. Camilo wasn’t scared of anyone and he was the only person who really contradicted Fidel. Given that Fidel was planning to make a communist revolution, he wasn’t going have problems with Che or Raúl, but he was going to have them with Camilo. Besides all that, there are the facts. One, the contradictory orders before the final victory in order to downplay Camilo’s merits. Two, Camilo is removed from the armed forces in October of 59, shortly before his death, and Raúl is given that position. Three, events such as the conversation I witnessed, when Camilo told Fidel: “We have to write the history, because you’re going to be old, you’ll tell many lies, and Camilo won’t be here to tell you that you’re on the wrong path,” which he didn’t just tell him that one time, but on many other occasions.

Camilo Cienfuegos is invited by Fidel to be the witness for the accusations against Huber Matos, who is being accused of conspiring against the Revolution. It seems that Camilo discovers that, behind the Matos case, there’s a set-up. And Castro knows that Camilo has reached that conclusion and, given his personal honesty, he won’t play along with the lie. This already creates a crisis, because imagine what a trial against Matos would have been like where Camilo denies the central accusation. Besides, the accident itself has many loose threads and suspicious elements. How is it possible that Camilo could leave – and this is registered in all the documents – and not arrive in Havana on schedule? Radio communications from those days have been published in newspapers. How is it that Juan Almeida, the chief of Aviation, sends a message the magazine Revolución, saying that they’re looking for him, and Fidel Castro waits for an entire day before speaking publicly, as if he had just found out about the accident. It seems to me there are too many elements. Why does Fidel, in his long speech, never analyze these things, never mention the military plane that followed Camilo, only the civilian ones? Why did he put on a tragic face while they were searching for Camilo, but as soon as the search was over, he began to hand out food? All that leads to the conclusion that Camilo was never going to appear. And it’s very curious because, in my opinion, the only revolutionary figure that the Cuban people today still admire is Camilo.”

Both Huber Matos and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez (1939), in their memoirs, verify the fact that Cienfuegos was never completely convinced by the communist faction of the Cuban revolution. Alarcón Ramírez (alias Benigno) fought under the command of Cienfuegos, later served as an associate of Che Guevara in Bolivia and defected to France in 1992. In 1997 he published an account of the Cuban revolution which apologists for the Castro dictatorship immediately labelled as apostasy: Memorias de un soldado cubano, ed. Elizabeth Burgos (Tusquets Editores, 1997). Likewise, this book has yet to be translated into English. The truth is always “counterrevolutionary,” especially when it comes to totalitarian projects such as the Cuban revolution. Alarcón Ramírez points to the mystery surrounding the death of Cienfuegos:

“Today we known that Huber Matos never planned a rebellion, but that instead, tired of asking Fidel to meet with him in order to express his disagreement with the communist direction the Revolution was taking and the amount of power that was being given to the PSP, he sent him a letter of resignation. Seeing the danger that represented, because of how popular Huber Matos was, Fidel ordered him arrested and he chose Camilo, who was never in agreement with communism, to carry it out. Fidel took advantage of Camilo’s disappearance to blame it on Huber Matos, in that way awakening the anger of the Cuban people against him, and taking away from him any chance of support. It was on his return from arresting Huber Matos that Camilo’s plane disappeared.”

Matos was eventually sentenced to 20 years of prison, which he served completely, his persecution by Castro yet another example of the moral bankruptcy of the Cuban revolution. Matos now lives in Miami and his recent book serves as a crucial document for anyone interested in studying how a genuine movement for liberation quickly degenerated into a single-party dictatorship under the rule of one person. As Matos delineates in his memoir, there were multiple ideological currents within the revolutionary movement in the Sierra Maestra. Once Batista was overthrown, however, figures like Matos and Cienfuegos became dangerous to Castro, who began to favor the communist factions of the revolutionary process, to the alienation of all other currents. Matos and Cienfuegos were at times even more popular than Castro himself. But above all, their ideology was nationalist and democratic, as opposed to the totalitarian designs of the communist factions. In his memoir, Matos describes his final encounter with Cienfuegos and the pressure they were both under, as the revolution was degenerating into a totalitarian situation:

“Camilo enters the garrison with a group of heavily-armed men, not knowing what might happen. When he gets to my house, he leaves his men outside and we go to speak alone in the second floor of my house. The first thing he does is apologize to me for having to arrest me, which is why he’s been sent. His face reflects concern and confusion.

– Huber, you have to understand this isn’t very pleasant for me. You know that we both maintain the same position regarding communism. I believe Fidel is making a mistake, but I want you to understand me.

The he adds:

– I can’t believe I have to carry out this mission...I feel embarrassed right now, but I have to obey orders.

He remains quiet again. Camilo is tense, disconcerted. Suddenly, he exclaims:

– Hey, can we have some coffee?

I ask for some and we proceed with our conversation, and he continues to reveal his confusion based on the contradiction he’s now facing. He sips his coffee and says:

– Well, you have to come with me, Fidel wants me to arrest you and for you to hand over your command to me, none of this makes any sense. ”

This is not a hagiography or a lament for Cienfuegos. As a revolutionary, he was surrounded by death and he was surely aware of the risks his choices entailed. I simply want to note the insidious nature of most revolutionary projects themselves, how they almost always degenerate into tyranny. Those figures within revolutionary movements that stand in the way of totalitarian designs usually get eliminated, jailed or exiled. As Franqui, Alarcón Ramírez and Matos mention about their friend, Cienfuegos was caught in an impossible situation. His bravery in combat, his charismatic nature and his personal integrity made him a figure who was loved by the Cuban masses. This was a threat to Castro, who has always conceived of himself as the sole leader, someone unable to think in democratic terms such as dialogue or compromise. Soon after his death, Cienfuegos was used by Castro as a symbol for re-writing history.

The Venezuelan government today is desperate for a figure of integrity and charisma such as Cienfuegos, so as to create a revolutionary mythology. That, however, has been impossible so far, because Chavismo is simply a poor imitation of Cuban totalitarianism. There is not a single figure within Chavismo that can even come close to the integrity and strength of someone like Camilo Cienfuegos. Instead, what one finds within the Venezuelan “revolution” is servility, corruption, hypocrisy, militarism and dictatorial aspirations. Chávez himself is charismatic and astute, but his greed for absolute power relegates him to the long list of Latin American caudillos who would ruin their own countries for the sake of their reactionary delusions of grandeur.

[All translations from Spanish here are my own.]

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