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Message from Camilo 5

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

camilo-with-cigar

Yesterday, on the anniversary of my disappearance, I had a surprising visit here in Costa Rica. An American writer named John Thorndike has been putting a book together about my life, and came to see me, unannounced. Of course I was glad to see him–how could I resist someone who’s fascinated by my story and wants to write a book about it? Who has written a book about it. Who says he might have a publisher, and wants to ask me a few more questions.

We’ve talked before, here on the Villamano family farm. I don’t know how he tracked me down the first time, but he was most respectful. He was going to write a book, but he wouldn’t expose me, wouldn’t use my Costa Rican name (it’s not Villamano, that’s a pseudonym), wouldn’t disrupt my life. I don’t know why I trusted him, but I did. I guess I had to, since he’d already figured everything out. It’s a novel he’s writing, anyway, so when he wants to change a few details, he does. When he tells the story of my flight out of Cuba, for example, he includes my pilot, Luciano Fariña, but omits my escort, Félix Rodriguez. I felt this was disrespectful, but listened to the writer’s explanation about the demands of fiction. Well, okay.

I’ve read a draft of the manuscript, and he got most everything right. Some of the scenes with me and Clare in bed are kind of embarrassing–but at the same time I love thinking back to that time in our lives. What passion! And this Thorndike has a grip on the dilemma I felt in those days, when I was caught between my passion for the beautiful Clare, and my passion for the Revolution. I don’t know if I’d ever have resolved that if someone hadn’t put a bomb on my plane and banished me from my country.

We sat last night under the coffee trees in back, the yanqui writer and Clare and I, talking late into the night. He has brought the latest draft of his book, and I’ll be reading it soon. None of us could get over the fact that my flight out of Camagûey–and Clare’s from Havana, a year and a half later–happened almost sixty years ago. At the same time, everything we talked about fed into a debate that’s gotten stronger in my household: Why should I go on hiding my past? Why not tell the truth and let people live with it? Let me live with it.

So much discussion these days–these decades, actually–about the failures of the Revolution. And life isn’t easy for Cubans, I understand. Of course, I see it from the position of an almost-retired physician in a most civilized country. But I won’t ever forget the poverty and injustice, the disgrace that was Cuba in the nineteen-fifties. People can criticize Fidel for plenty of bad decisions, because he’s made them. But his basic changes for Cuba were long overdue, and admirable. Socialism, Communism, I don’t care what you call it, we had to pay more attention to the poor of our country, and that’s what Fidel devoted his life to.

Ah, I can still go off on a rant. I went off on one last night, with Clare listening quietly and that writer, Thorndike, taking notes. Then Clare went off herself, all about the retrograde health system of the great U.S.A., and in the end we broke out some mangos and started laughing as we ate them, because it’s always such a mess.

A novel about my life! And Clare’s life, too. I have to say, I look forward to seeing it in print.

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55 Years Ago Today

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

camilo-cienfuegos_1959_revista-life_habana

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.

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