Biography of Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuban Revolutionary

Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos Lighting Cigars to Celebrate Victory
Lois Herman / Contributor / Getty Images

Camilo Cienfuegos (February 6, 1932–October 28, 1969) was a leading figure of the Cuban Revolution, along with Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara. He defeated Batista forces at the Battle of Yaguajay in December 1958, and after the triumph of the Revolution in early 1959 he took on a position of authority in the army. Cienfuegos is considered one of the greatest heroes of the Revolution and every year Cuba celebrates the anniversary of his death.

Fast Facts: Camilo Cienfuegos

  • Known For: Cienfuegos was a key guerilla leader in the Cuban Revolution.
  • Also Known As: Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán
  • Born: February 6, 1932 in Havana, Cuba
  • Died: October 28, 1959 (Presumed dead after his plane disappeared over the Straits of Florida)
  • Education: Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes "San Alejandro"
  • Notable Quote: "Vas bien, Fidel" ("You're doing fine, Fidel") (Uttered during a revolutionary rally in 1959 after Fidel Castro asked Cienfuegos how his speech was going)

Early Life

Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán was born in Havana, Cuba, on February 6, 1932. As a young man, he was artistically inclined; he even attended art school but was forced to drop out when he could no longer afford it. Cienfuegos went to the United States for a time in the early 1950s in search of work but returned disillusioned. As a teenager, he became involved in protests of government policies, and as the situation in Cuba worsened, he became more and more involved in the struggle against president Fulgencio Batista. In 1955, he was shot in the leg by Batista soldiers. According to Cienfuegos, that was the moment at which he decided that he would strive to free Cuba from the Batista dictatorship.

Revolution

Cienfuegos moved to Mexico, where he met up with Fidel Castro, who was putting together an expedition to head back to Cuba and start a revolution. Camilo eagerly joined up and was one of 82 rebels packed into the 12-passenger yacht Granma, which left Mexico on November 25, 1956, and arrived in Cuba a week later. The army discovered the rebels and killed most of them, but a small group of survivors was able to hide and later regroup. The 19 rebels spent several weeks in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

Comandante Camilo

As one of the survivors of the Granma group, Cienfuegos had a certain prestige with Fidel Castro that the others who joined the revolution later did not. By the middle of 1957, he had been promoted to comandante and had his own command. In 1958, the tide began to turn in favor of the rebels, and Cienfuegos was ordered to lead one of three columns to attack the city of Santa Clara (another was commanded by Ché Guevara). One squad was ambushed and wiped out, but Guevara and Cienfuegos ultimately converged on Santa Clara.

The Battle of Yaguajay

Cienfuegos's force, joined by local farmers and peasants, reached the small army garrison at Yaguajay in December 1958 and besieged it. There were about 250 soldiers inside under the command of Cuban-Chinese captain Abon Ly. Cienfuegos attacked the garrison but was repeatedly driven back. He even tried putting together a makeshift tank out of a tractor and some iron plates, but the plan was not successful. Eventually, the garrison ran out of food and ammunition and surrendered on December 30. The next day, the revolutionaries captured Santa Clara. (Today, a museum in Cienfuegos' honor—the Museo Nacional Camilo Cienfuegos—stands in Yaguajay.)

After the Revolution

The loss of Santa Clara and other cities convinced Batista to flee the country, bringing the revolution to a close. The handsome, affable Cienfuegos was very popular, and upon the success of the revolution was probably the third most powerful man in Cuba, after Fidel and Raúl Castro. He was promoted to head of the Cuban armed forces in early 1959. In this capacity, he assisted the new Castro regime as it made changes to the Cuban government.

Arrest of Matos and Disappearance

In October 1959, Fidel Castro began to suspect that Huber Matos, another one of the original revolutionaries, was plotting against him. He sent Cienfuegos to arrest Matos, as the two were good friends. According to later interviews with Matos, Cienfuegos was reluctant to carry out the arrest, but followed his orders and did so. Matos was sentenced and served 20 years in prison. On the night of October 28, Cienfuegos flew back from Camaguey to Havana after completing the arrest. His plane disappeared and no trace of Cienfuegos or the airplane was ever found. After a few frantic days of searching, the hunt was called off.

Death

Cienfuegos’s disappearance and presumed death have caused many to wonder if Fidel or Raúl Castro had him killed. There is some compelling evidence on both sides, and historians have not yet reached a conclusion. Given the circumstances of the case, it is possible that the truth will never be known.

The case against: Cienfuegos was very loyal to Fidel, even arresting his good friend Huber Matos when the evidence against him was weak. He had never given the Castro brothers any cause to doubt his loyalty or competence. He had risked his life many times for the Revolution. Ché Guevara, who was so close to Cienfuegos that he named his son after him, denied that the Castro brothers had anything to do with Cienfuegos's death.

The case for: Cienfuegos was the only revolutionary figure whose popularity rivaled Fidel’s, and as such was one of a very few people who could go against him if he wished. Cienfuegos’s dedication to communism was suspect—for him, the Revolution was about removing Batista. Also, he had recently been replaced as head of the army by Raúl Castro, a sign that perhaps they were planning to move on him.

Legacy

It will probably never be known for sure what happened to Cienfuegos. Today, the fighter is considered one of the great heroes of the Cuban Revolution. He has his own monument at the site of the Yaguajay battlefield, and every year on October 28 Cuban schoolchildren throw flowers into the ocean for him. Cienfuegos also appears on Cuban currency.