Was a Cuban revolutionary born in Lawton, Havana. Raised in an anarchist family that had left Spain before the Spanish Civil War, he became a key figure of the Cuban Revolution, along with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Juan Almeida Bosque, and Raúl Castro.
In 1954 he became an active member of the underground students movement against Dictator Fulgencio Batista. This involvement led him to be wounded by firearm on December 7, 1955, during a popular protest organized to honor Cuban independence hero Antonio Maceo. After being harassed by police and without a job, he decided to leave Cuba and travelled again to the U.S., in particular to New York. He was later expelled from the U.S., when his residence permit expired, and relocated to Mexico.
During his stay in Mexico, Camilo met Fidel Castro, who was organizing a revolutionary expedition that would return to Cuba to fight Batista. Thereafter Cienfuegos was one of the 82 revolutionaries who set sail aboard the boat Granma in November 1956. Allegedly, he was the last one to board the boat and was only allowed to join because of his thinness.
The Granma arrived in Cuba on December 2. After a three day nightmare of swamps and mangroves, the rebels were surprised by the Cuban (Batista’s) army at Alegría de Pío. The surviving rebels escaped in small dispersed groups, wandering for weeks in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Camilo was one of the twelve who survived the attacks and executions carried out by Batista’s forces not long after they landed. He was able to rejoin Castro in the Sierra Maestra a month later.
In 1957 he became one of the top leaders of the revolutionary forces, appointed to the rank of “Comandante”. In 1958, with the defeat of Operation Verano (Summer), Cienfuegos was put in command of one of three columns which headed west out of the mountains with the intention of capturing the provincial capital city of Santa Clara. Che Guevara was in command of another column and Jaime Vega was in command of the third. Jaime Vega’s column was ambushed and defeated by Batista’s forces.
Cienfuegos and Guevara’s two columns reached the central provinces, where they joined efforts with several other groups. Cienfuegos’s column fought the Battle of Yaguajay in December and, after a fight, forced the garrison to surrender on December 30, 1958. This earned him the nickname “The Hero of Yaguajay”. With Yaguajay captured, Cienfuegos’s column was able to advance against Santa Clara in conjunction with Guevara’s forces, and the other non-Castro forces from the Escambray front. Together, the two columns captured Santa Clara on December 31; most of the defending soldiers gave up without shooting. Batista fled Cuba the next day, and the guerrillas were victorious.
Later, Cienfuegos would serve in the Cuban Army’s high command, fight anti-Castro uprisings, and play a role in agrarian reforms.
Several days before his death, Cienfuegos arrested his former revolutionary comrade Huber Matos on Castro’s orders. Comandante Matos had complained to Fidel Castro that the 26th of July Movement was being rapidly infiltrated by communists, who were assuming positions of power. Receiving no response, Matos sent a letter to Fidel relinquishing his position as military chief of Camaguey province . Cienfuegos was under the impression that Matos was leading an open revolt, but he found that was not the case. Nevertheless he carried out the arrest.
On October 28, 1959, Camilo’s Cessna 310 disappeared over the ocean during a night flight from Camagüey to Havana. An immediate search was called which lasted several days, but no plane could be found. By November the search was called off and Cienfuegos was presumed lost. He quickly became a new hero for the Cuban revolution.
Rumors concerning Cienfuegos’s disappearance have been rife. Some have speculated that Cienfuegos was killed on the orders of Fidel Castro; These rumors have been difficult to uphold, however, as Cienfuegos had appeared exceptionally loyal to Castro throughout his involvement, and had vigorously supported the arrest of Matos only days earlier. Che Guevara, who was also close to Cienfuegos (naming his son Camilo after the fallen revolutionary), dismissed any rumors of Castro’s involvement. Another rumor circulating was that a Cuban air force fighter plane shot Cienfuegos down mistaking his plane for a hostile intruder. Historians seem to agree that Camilo’s death is more likely to have been an accident, and not the result of foul play.
“Camilo was the subject of a thousand anecdotes; he created them naturally wherever he went. To his ease of manner, always appreciated by the people, he added a personality that naturally and almost unconsciously put the stamp of Camilo on everything connected with him. Few men have succeeded in leaving on every action such a distinctive personal mark. As Fidel has said, he did not have culture from books; he had the natural intelligence of the people, who had chosen him out of thousands for a privileged position on account of the audacity of his blows, his tenacity, his intelligence, and unequalled devotion. Camilo practiced loyalty like a religion.” -Che Guevara