"Y morir por la
patria es vivir."
Cuban National Anthem
From my airplane window
I look down at the coast of Cuba, an island known by many names
the Bulwark of the Indies, the Faithful Isle, the Pearl of the Antilles,
the Lady of the Mexican Gulf.
does Carmelo fit in our long familial tradition of war-mongering,
rebellion and political involvement? Thats what Ive
come to Cuba to find out.
'Cuando salí de Cuba
says a popular 60's tune. 'When I left Cuba, I left my life, I left
when I left Cuba I left my heart buried in there.' I have
never left Cuba, but I am returning to the country my father fled in
1961, to visit for the first time the cities and landscapes I have imagined
since childhood. Ive considered these cities kidnapped, frozen
in a Spartan, alien lifestyle, while the rest of us, the Cuba that left,
The island below is the
land my ancestors discovered, populated and built. Looking at the beautiful
landscape bathing in the Caribbean I struggle to hold back my tears.
It must have been difficult to leave. Maybe that's why my uncle, Carmelo
Gonzalez del Castillo, chose to stay, even though most of his family
went to exile.
Who was Carmelo Gonzalez?
From what I know, he was an idealistic young man deeply involved in
one of the most important events in the history of the Western hemisphere:
the Cuban Revolution.
Carmelo was a revolutionary,
a counter-revolutionary, and the once again part of the Revolution.
Some say he despised Castro, but some say that after serving time in
Castros prisons, he lived out his life as a committed Communist.
How does Carmelo fit in our long familial tradition of war-mongering,
rebellion and political involvement? Thats what Ive come
to Cuba to find out.
courtesy of Angel Gonzalez
his wife, Josefina
"Hay sol bueno, mar
" 'There's good sun and a sea of foam', reads an
advertisement at the airport, promising perfect beaches to the hordes
of tourists who come looking for sex, music and sun. To me, those words
say much more: they are from a poem written in 1889 by Jose Marti when
he lived in exile in Newport Beach, a poem that, line-by-line, my grandmother
asked me to memorize when I was a small child.
I too lived in a kind of
exile, born in Venezuela, but brought up in the Cuba of my grandmother's
memory. From her I learned Marti's poem, the name of Cuba's first seven
cities, the order in which they were founded, and the sweet Caribbean
accent of the Cuban province of Camaguey.
My grandmother Elba del
Castillo is an aristocratic woman, a descendant of Mambises, the liberal
Cuban planters who rose against Spain in the wars of 1868 and 1895.
She was born in the early years of the Republic. Her father, Ángel
Castillo y Quesada, a Cuban Cavalry commander in the war of 1895, followed
the military tradition of his father, General Ángel del Castillo
Agramonte, one of the original conspirators behind the birth of the
First Cuban Republic in 1868. My grandfather was killed, according to
the Cuban history books I used to read as a child, by a Spanish bullet,
crying out "see how a Cuban general dies!"
Their battles became my
childhood fantasies, and in my grandmother's room, full of books of
Martí and maps of Cuba, I forgot entirely about Caracas and the
limited life of a five-year-old. The endless stories about pirates,
elegant ballrooms, revolutions and the strange Marquis of Santa Lucía
- a distant relative of my grandmother who had lived in England and
ate canaries and mockingbirds - were far more interesting, far more
My little brother and I
commuted between kindergarten lessons about Bolivar's liberation of
South America, and my grandmother's Cuba. In both worlds, we indulged
in the cult of Independence heroes, but in my grandmother's country
we had heroes that bore our name.
In the same shelf where
my grandmother placed a glass of water to our ancestors - a magical
custom inherited from her black nanny - there was an album that contained
a picture of her family: my grandmother, my grandfather, Carmelo González
de Ara, a dark, elegant Spanish accountant and Rose-Crucian, and their
two sons, Ángel and Carmelo. Ángel, my father, a student
at the University of Havana when the photograph was taken, had inherited
his mother's fair skin and ironic smile. Carmelo, my uncle, was a revolutionary
student leader still in high school at the Liceo de Segunda Enseñanza
of Camaguey. He bore his father's dark skin and fiery, Arab eyes.
was killed, according to the Cuban history books I used to read
as a child, by a Spanish bullet, crying out "see how a Cuban
The picture was taken in
1960, barely a year after the fall of Batista and the triumph of the
Cuban Revolution. In the following months, that family¸ like many
others of the time, would be divided by the Revolution.
Many members of the middle
class had supported the ousting of Batista, but couldnt stomach
the executions* and opposed Fidel Castro's embrace of Communism. "Even
the music is sad," my grandfather used to say of the socialist
hymns of the era. In 1961, he arranged for my father and Carmelo to
take a ship to Venezuela. My father left, but his brother stayed. By
this time, Carmelo had turned from revolutionary to counterrevolutionary
and he was determined to oust Fidel
grandmother still says when calling my brother Miguel, mistaking him
for her son. "Your father was very smart, but Carmelo was always
surrounded by women. And he was a 'guapo', " a Spanish word that
means 'handsome' but in Cuba, also reckless and brave. A 'guapo' like
our grandfathers, the legendary fighters for the Cuban independence,
by Mimi Chakarova
A view of
Its an early, fresh
Cuban morning, and I wake to the sound of Fidels voice on TV.
I am staying at a splendid 1950s apartment in El Vedado. Sunlight fills
the room, the smell of the sea, mixed with gasoline, is everywhere,
just like the chirping of canaries. The caged is a Cuban obsession
my father has had dozens of the little birds.
This is the center of Havana,
where the great hotels are. The Nacional, the Capri, the Habana Libre.
Amid the ruined high rises and faded condo buildings, crowds wait for
the camellos, the huge Hungarian-made buses that transport
up to 400 people, to take them to work. I try to picture Carmelo as
an eight year old in 1950, taking a different, American-made bus to
"Habana, quien no la
ve no la ama," who hasnt seen it, cannot love it, goes the
saying. And it is true: even though I was brought up with stories about
its splendor, I never imagined it like this, the most beautiful city
I've ever seen. Its late 19th cenutry architecture reminds me of the
monumental constructions of Madrid and Barcelona. Its warm climate and
veranded houses remind me of Sevilla. A huge Cuban flag flies from the
Hotel Nacional, its lone star waving in defiance. In the presence of
this flag I feel something resembling pride, nationalism. Its
the symbol my grandfathers fought for.
I try to picture how it
must have been back then, in the times of Cuba Libre. Some
things must look the same: the Art Deco buildings, the incredible abundance
of 1950s cars. But many things that my father talked about are missing:
the street vendors who used to sell mussels in lemon juice, the advertisements,
the elegantly clad people, the bourgeoisie that built these modern houses
and apartments, now crumbling structures.
New things are there, though:
the Yara movie theater that shows films by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, and
Coppelia, the nationalized ice-cream parlor where Cubans stand in line
to feed the national obsession for 'helado', or icecream. My father
wouldn't recognize the Soviet-made Ladas and the Eastern German Trabbis,
symbols of the alliance with the socialist countries; and he would be
surprised at the Toyotas and the Nissans driven by the European, Canadian
and Mexican managers of the new economic regime.
I feel vaguely at home,
for the weather, the colors, and the sounds of the street are remarkably
like those of Caracas. These high rises are part of a city that used
to be American: they wouldnt be out of place in Miami's South
Beach. The streets are lined with trees, and their shadow, combined
with the ocean breeze, ease the tropical warmth. But
what fascinates me is that Havana is frozen in the 1950s. Cuba was very
developed back then, while Caracas, the capital of a far bigger and
richer nation, was barely emerging. Life in Cuba now happens inside
structures that bear the façade of another era, like insects
dwelling on a hollow, fallen tree.
of foreigners walk the streets amid thousands of Cubans. Everyone
is a hustler: I can barely walk a couple of blocks before an Habanero
coming at your side to peddle cigars, a tour of the city, or a fine
But its also dynamic
here. There is energy. Hundreds of foreigners walk the streets amid
thousands of Cubans. Everyone is a hustler: I can barely walk a couple
of blocks before an Habanero coming at your side to peddle cigars, a
tour of the city, or a fine woman. Bicycle taxis swarm around tourist
hotspots. The bar at the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra is as alive with
music as it was during its heyday in the 1930s. Life is returning to
the frivolous city the Revolution set out to change.
From the steps
of the imposing University of Havana, founded in 1737, I can see the
ocean, and I imagine my father and Carmelo meeting there, by the Malecon.
My father, the practical 22-year old engineering student on his way
to Venezuela, trying to talk his little brother into abandoning the
fight against Castro, a fight that was not Cuban anymore. It was in
the hands of the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cold War superpowers.
Carmelo refused. And so my father left his brother standing there, by
the Malecon, an angry youth stranded on this tragic island. That was
the last time they saw each other.
Carmelo Hector Antonio Gonzalez
del Castillo was born in the city of Puerto Principe de Camaguey in
1942, at a time when the world was at war and Hemingway was chasing
Nazi submarines off the coasts of Cuba. He belonged to an increasingly
Americanized middle class that profited from the prosperity brought
by the war.
by Mimi Chakarova
When I fly to Camaguey,
I see first the red tiles of his city, so different from the Bourbonic
glitz of Havana and so reminiscent of the early days of colonization.
I can picture our great-grandparents riding on horseback through the
surrounding plains, their sugar cane factories set on fire by the Spanish
'What a joy. The city of
Ignacio Agramonte, Angel Castillo
this is the birthplace of immortal
feats, and the immense dust of the streets seemed luminous to me. "
These lines were written in the late 1880s by Enrique Loynaz del Castillo,
a distant relative of mine and Carmelos cousin, who eventually
became one of the main figures of the war of 1898. Loynaz was born in
exile, and the Camaguey he returned to was the Cuban city that kept
the traditions inherited from the Conquest in their purest form, and
many families, like the Castillos, kept a strict record of their genealogy,
tracing it back to the Conquistador Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa.
Thats the immemorial
Camaguey of my implanted memory snapshots from my grandmothers
stories and Caracas and Miamis nostalgic exile newsletters. But
as I descend from the Soviet-made Antonov whose safety signs are still
imprinted in Cyrillic letters, I wonder if 40 years of Communism will
have erasedall traces
of my familys past.
It's dusk already, and churches
and royal palms dominate the skyline. It's hot, and humid, and there
are very few electric lights on - it looks sinister and impoverished,
this city of my ancestors. But in the central plaza, as if to assuage
my fears, theres a statue of a man closely related to Carmelo
and to our family: Ignacio Agramonte, Camagueys most prominent
warrior in the struggle for Independence against Spain.
Yolanda del Castillo is
my grandmother Elbas sister, the youngest of the 13 children of
Colonel Angel Castillo Quesada. She is 86 years old, and I am meeting
her for the first time. I talked to her couple of times by telephone,
and when I call her from the Gran Hotel in Camaguey, she recognizes
"Family is a strong
tie," she says, adding that I talk just like my father, who lost
his Cuban accent a long time ago and now speaks like a Caraqueño.
Yolanda lives on Jaime street,
right behind the Iglesia de la Soledad, Camaguey's impressive Romanesque
church. In the entrance a young woman awaits. She has very pale skin,
and she looks exactly like my grandmother, but sixty years younger.
"Hola. I am Livia. We are family," says Livia del Castillo,
Yolanda's niece, embracing me cautiously.
by Mimi Chakarova
When we enter my great-aunts
house, a lone oil painting of my great-great-grandfather dominates the
wall - General Ángel del Castillo Agramonte, his mustache fashioned
to a point, his beard clipped, and his military uniform adorned with
the stars of his rank. That portrait was painted in 1868, and it is
present in every house of every branch of our family, be it in Miami
or in Caracas. We were taught to venerate it, and I always carry a copy
with me. But I never imagined the original to be in color - all the
copies my family has, which come from a photograph taken in in a hurry
before leaving in 1960, are in black and white. "That is the portrait
of Abuelito," says Livia. I had never heard anyone refer to our
glorious ancestor with such intimacy.
captured the first canon used by the Cuban Liberation Army during the
First Independence War, which the revolutionary government baptized
as "The Angel" in his honor.
"Angel del Castillo
had created the best trained and most brilliant nucleus of the Liberation
Army at the time," says Jorge Juárez Cano in his book "Apuntes
de Camagüey." His exploits ended in 1869, when he was killed
trying to defeat a Spanish garrison. He is described by historians as
an impulsive, violent man with endless courage. La tempestad a
caballo, the storm riding on horseback, as he was called by his
followers. Carmelo and my father grew up in the shadow of this portrait,
surrounded by war memorabilia and the past glory of a patriotic family.
"When Carmelo was a child, he wanted to be as brave as Abuelito,"
Yolanda reminds me of my
grandmother-- aristocratic, headstrong, orderly. She and her husband
were like parents to Carmelo and my father when they were children.
At times, they spent as much as six months a year living at their home
and at their hacienda. "We never had any children, so they were
like ours," she says. The Carmelo of Yolanda's stories is a brave,
impulsive and intelligent little kid.
"He was courageous,"
says Yolanda. "We gave a horse to your father and Carmelo when
they were little. We kept it in our ranch. One morning, upon hearing
that the animal had fallen inside a hole in the field, Carmelo woke
up and ran outside, screaming 'I am going to save my horse.'" He
was only five, but willing to save the horse upon which he would become
a tempest, like his great-grandfather. The horse could be saved, but
was eventually sold. With the money, Yolanda bought Angelito and Carmelo
their first suits, preparing them for a bourgeois, capitalist Cuba that
was entering the fifties under the wing of the United States.
I walk by the "Casablanca"
movie theatre, a whitewashed remainder of the times when the Cubans,
the most avid moviegoers of the Western Hemisphere, came to watch Humphrey
Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In 1959, revolutionaries, my uncle among
them, put a bomb in this place.
Carmelo had grown up to
be a popular student in his high school, always surrounded by friends.
At 17 he was elected as the president of the school's student federation.
It was Carmelo who identified the most with the family's Independence
heroes - and for a young man interested in politics at the end of the
1950s, the budding revolution against the corrupt dictatorship of Batista
offered an irresistible draw. He prepared Molotovs, distributed political
fliers, and sold revolutionary bonds that Yolanda bought in quantity.
The Revolution triumphed
in January 1959. Fidel entered the city and my grandmother, like many
other middle class housewives, offered shelter to the long-haired olive-clad
barbudos on their march to Havana. The students expressed their sympathy
towards the new government by wearing red and black armband with the
colors of the M-26 movement. Many thought democracy would follow.
But the Revolution proved
to be 'olive green on the outside, red on the inside,' as many Cubans
say. When Castro embraced Marx, Carmelo, like many others who had cheered
the revolution, objected.
Huber Matos, the revolutionary
commander of the province of Camagüey, wrote a letter to Castro
in October 1959 resigning from his post and warning him of Communist
infiltration. Castro answered by sending the legendary commander Camilo
Cienfuegos to Camaguey to arrest Matos who was then charged with plotting
an uprising and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Others were unhappy as well.
When Soviet foreign minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba, in April
1960, he placed a wreath in the shape of a hammer and sickle on the
grave of José Martí. A group of students led by Alberto
Muller protested by placing a wreath in the shape of a Cuban flag on
the following day.
The students carried banners
that read 'Long live Fidel' and 'Down with Communism'. The police broke
the march and threw many of the students, including Muller, who knew
my uncle, in jail. "It was there when we realized that Castro had
the intention of establishing a totalitarian regime," says Muller,
who now lives in exile in Miami.
was Carmelo who identified the most with the family's Independence
heroes - and for a young man interested in politics at the end
of the 1950s, the budding revolution against the corrupt dictatorship
of Batista offered an irresistible draw.
prepared Molotovs, distributed political fliers, and sold revolutionary
bonds that Yolanda bought in quantity.
In the next couple of months,
my uncle and others created the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil
to overthrow Fidel. Muller said that at the root of this group were
the student organizations that led the fight against Batista. Carmelo,
then the president of the Federation of Students at his high school,
was among those ready to form the counter-revolutionary Directorio.
"We are going to do to Castro the same thing we did to Batista,"
he told a cousin back then, and it wasnt long before he came the
Directorios provincial leader in Camaguey. "Cuba has a very
violent history," says my great-uncle Laines as we enter his beautiful,
run-down house in Tomás Betancourt street. "We have always
been under attack. Even our ancestors came here attacking." He
hugs me frequently, not quite believing the fact that I am there. Lagnes
was a baseball player, an adventurer. "I was the black sheep. There
is always one in every generation, " he says, referring to his
favorite nephew. I know I am following the steps of Carmelo, for he
lived in this house for a while.
He points to his brown and
white square shirt. "This was a gift from your uncle," says
the tall 90-year old. "What a great man he was. What strength,
what character," he says.
And the time he lived in
called for it. After the arrest of Huber Matos, the acts of violence
multiplied, and most Cubans unable to live with a regime that had turned
Communist, left. When the revolutionary governor of Camaguey heard that
my father and his family were leaving, he summoned my father to his
office, asking him to convince Carmelo to leave as well. Carmelo refused.
During that year of 1961,
a strong guerrilla force composed of anti-Communist students and peasants
operated in the mountains of Escambray. Bombs exploded in the cities.
Electricity plants were sabotaged. Insurgent expeditions disembarked
every month and the government detained more than 100,000 people to
prevent an uprising on the eve of the Bay of Pigs. Sometimes it seemed
as if the Revolution would fail but its opponents, who counted
on American aid to counter the Soviet support to the regime, were crushed.
In a dark room, full of
portraits of old baseball legends and newspaper clippings, Laines keeps
an archive of our family's history. "Look at this," he said,
handing me a huge packet of newspaper clippings, containing the history
of the Castillos. "Our genealogical tree," he said. Its
a stack of yellow paper full of names of Spanish army officers, slave-owning
planters, arbitrary oligarchs, Cuban independence fighters and liberal
revolutionaries. They were men of wealth, men of violence. Among the
papers I find a yellow typewritten sheet, dated from June 1962. Carmelo
Hector Antonio González y del Castillo, it states, was part of
"a group of counterrevolutionaries that had been operating in our
country under the political direction of the State Department of the
United States, and its organization of betrayal and espionnage denominated
According to the transcript,
Carmelo and others were caught unloading a weapons shipment in Santa
Cruz, in the northern province of Pinar del Rio. They intended to set
out for South Florida to join 'mercenary forces' there. They were carrying
weapons, and fired them against security forces when they were discovered.
'Carmelo González y del Castillo was captured with an olive green
uniform and a pistol caliber .975,' says the report.
Yolanda and her husband
were the first to hear about the ambush, on the Voice of America. The
first radio report announced that Carmelo Gonzalez had been killed.
"That very same afternoon I had had an intuition", she says.
"I told my husband to prepare luggage, for we would have to make
a trip. When we heard the news, I knew that was it." Her husband
and my grandfather took Yolanda's car and went out to ask about Carmelo's
whereabouts. They finally found out with State Security that he had
been captured alive. Three months later, he was transferred to Camaguey,
unrecognizable behind his prisoner's beard.
According to Yolanda, young
Communists drove their cars around the prison screaming 'paredón
para Carmelo'. But Carmelo wasn't shot. At 20, he was sentenced to 30
years in prison. That was the end of his counter-revolution.
A bicycle taxi takes me
to the Children Hospital. "This used to be known as La Colonia
Española, a clinic for rich people," says my taxi driver,
pedalling furiously. I step down of the cab, pay my fare, and start
taking pictures of the yellow, formerly luxurious 1920s building.
A middle-aged man in a guayabera the Cuban white, plaid shirt
that is still a symbol of tropical elegance comes towards me.
Hes a state security agent, Im sure a journalist
friend who lived in Cuba told me once that the guayabera is the uniform
of state security. He asks me what am I doing, and why I am taking pictures.
"My grandfather died here," I answer.
do not belong to their parents but to their time.
In April 1964 - Carmelo
was allowed a short visit to my grandfathers deathbed. He arrived
to La Colonia escorted by a large number of state security guards. "Your
grandfather could barely recognize Carmelo, " says Laines, who
witnessed the encounter.
Carmelo was eventually transferred
to the infamous prison at Isla de Pinos, now rebaptized Isle of Youth.
My grandmother had to traverse the whole island to see him. His rebelliousness
earned him long periods of time in the "gaveta", literally
a "drawer", a small cell with no light, which damaged his
While in prison, he married
his girlfriend Miriam, the daughter of a prominent official of the regime.
Soon after, his sentence was commuted to seven years.
"Carmelo lived here
right after his liberation, " says Laines, showing me Carmelo's
shoes and college textbooks. "He slept in that very same sofa you're
sitting in." When Carmelo was set free in 1969, he found work as
an electrician at a local factory, and eventually divorced Miriam. The
next year he was admitted to the University of Havana, and became an
And in 1974, the same year
that he remarried, this time to Josefina de Quesada, a cousin of his,
and a Communist party militant, he started to work at the Triángulo
3, Camaguey's biggest ranch, of which he would one day become the director.
"Even after he left, he used to come here all the time in his jeep.
-Uncle! Uncle!- he used to yell, and drove me in all throughout the
city." He was 'una panetela', a candy bar.
There's a heavy atmosphere
in Camaguey. The land-locked city is extremely hot, the streets are
narrow, and everybody seems to be working, producing, doing something,
moving around in bycicles or horse-drawn carts. I am lost, buried in
newspaper clippings relating the story of Angel Castillo, watching the
statue of Ignacio Agramonte watch me, and walking the same streets Carmelo
walked once and again. My father made his life in Caracas, a big, cosmopolitan
city, where air conditioned cars clog the highways, and life goes from
offices to shopping malls to highrise appartment buildings to Miami
or New York.
Carmelo stayed in this colonial
city, whose laberynthine cobblestoned streets and one-story quintas
can send you back 200 years. Through these streets he drove his jeep,
in calle Maceo he shopped, in the surrounding countryside he worked,
in this city he died.
"Your uncle was a great
man," says Jesús Rodríguez, one of Carmelo's best
friends and the director of Triangulo 3. Camagüey differs from
the other provinces of Cuba in the fact that its wealth is based in
cattle and not on sugar cane.
The ranch's administrative
headquarters are located in the outskirts of the city. The office is
a small room with green walls, two metal desks and a large window, flies
buzz in. It's hot, and a small cohort of functionaries is waiting at
the door to meet Carmelo's nephew. Everybody seems to remember him,
and they tell me how much they loved him. Such a reaction for a man
who died more than 17 years ago surprises me.
courtesy of Angel Gonzalez
to an audience of farmworkers.
me of a Venezuelan hacendado, with his macho manners, straw hat and
an assurance that comes from years of experience. The only difference
is that he works for the State. He is a man in his late fifties, the
same age my uncle would be if he were alive.
"He saved me more than
once from being fired," Jesus remembers. I imagine Carmelo as his
friend describes him, sitting in his desk, going through two packs of
cigarettes a day, smoking the butts when he ran out. "He didn't
want to interrupt his work to look for more cigarettes," Rodriguez
That discipline enabled
Carmelo to become a leader in the Triangle. I have a picture of him
clad in a white guayabera, giving a solemn speech in front of an audience,
maybe talking about the wonders of the plan, defending the achievements
of the Revolution.
I ask Rodriguez about Carmelos
revolutionary involvement. In Miami, the font of all Cuban gossip, I
had heard that Carmelo might have been a double agenta circumstance
that would explain the commuted sentence, the decision to stay. Rodriguez
"Carmelo failed when
he was young," Rodriguez explains. "He was a Revolutionary,
but became involved with some people in this Province that betrayed
the ideals they had been fighting for, and he paid for it. But this
is a great Revolution, and it knows how to recognize a leader."
Josefina de Quesada is a
handsome woman in her fifties. A distant cousin of ours, she is the
daughter of Angel Carlos Quesada Castillo, my grandmother's favorite
cousin. Even though she works as chief nurse in one of Camagueys
hospitals and she teaches at the local university, she lives in a cramped
apartment in a modest neighborhood close to the train station.
She was a nursing student
when she started dating Carmelo. She became his second wife. According
to Josefina, he was a very picaresque man, always surrounded by beautiful
Josefina, who is accompanied
by her sister Elita, brings out a folder of pictures. And there he is,
larger than life. In one taken in Angola in 1978, he is standing in
front of a truck, shirtless, smiling, looking at the horizon while one
of his comrades aims a Kalashnikov at some unknown target. "He
was an agricultural advisor," says Josefina, who remains a Communist
When I ask again, specifically
what he was doing there, Josefina insists he was a private man, but
only an agricultural advisor. The picture suggests more, but I dont
bother to press. Instead, I cant help but feel proud to see my
uncle there, looking at the horizon, carrying the family's martial tradition
to other lands, other continents. I can picture him in the swamps of
Kuanza, giving instructions to Angolese farmers, or who knows, soldiers.
"In Angola they used to mistake Carmelo for a Moor," says
Josefina who was there for a two year stint that overlaped for only
one of the two years of Carmelo's mission, in 78-80.
by Mimi Chakarova
in Angola reached its paramount in 1975, when the Portuguese colonial
government retreated from the country. Cuban volunteers helped the Movement
for the Liberation of Angola, a Marxist guerrilla, gain control of the
situation. And during the next decade, more than 50,000 Cuban troops
went there, helping the newly established government control insurgency
and repel a South African military invasion. The fight became, in Cuba's
eyes, a war against Apartheid. And Cubas victory over South African
troops is regarded as one of the most important feats in Cuban military
history, celebrated both in Cuba and in Miami. Its victor, General Arnaldo
Ochoa, was regarded by many, both on the Isle and off, as a potential
successor for Castro. But he fell in disgrace in 1989, and was judged,
demoted and shot under drug trafficking charges by the same Revolution
that he defended.
Josefina dispels the notion
that Carmelo was a counterrevolutionary. "He failed when he was
very young," says Josefina, making his counterrevolutionary period
seem like an act of immaturity. "He got involved with some people
he shouldn't have been, with that traitor Huber Matos. But when he was
in prison they saw that he was a good man, brave and stubborn, and they
gave him the opportunity to join the Revolution."
"Carmelo could have
left but he didn't, " she says, "because he convinced himself
of the mistake he made when he was young." Josefina said that Carmelo
never became a Communist militant himself, but his honesty and character
were such that he was allowed to join the ranks of the Revolution abroad,
and was given a top responsibility at the Triangle. "He always
had a car," she adds, a sign of his privileged status.
"But the guilt of having
failed at such a young age haunted him for the rest of his life,"
she says. Carmelo, in her words, was repentant of his counterrevolutionary
involvement. And certainly, his life demonstrated it. He worked hard
in keeping up production at Triangle 3, collaborated with State Security,
and participated in the Revolutions exotic adventures abroad.
Carmelo's heavy smoking
developed into cancer in 1984. The disease was detected in September,
and three months later he died. More than 300 people attended his funeral.
According to several accounts, it resembled an official funeral. The
entourage included representatives from the Ministry of the Interior
who said that Carmelo had worked for State Security, and that his efforts
had been greatly appreciated by the Revolution.
believe that the ghost of my uncle still raises suspicions among
these people. Didnt he become a faithful revolutionary? Maybe
they don't know the truth either.
I join a funeral in the
cemetery of Camaguey, built in 1813 by Don Diego Antonio del Castillo
Betancourt, an ancestor of ours and the man who published the first
anti-Spanish proclaim in Cuba. Oddly enough, there's no place better
than this to realize that a mass exodus took place. Many of the graves
are in disrepair, for the family members that should take care of them
are either dead or in exile. The Zayas-Bazan, the Mirandas, the Varonas
- the great names of yore - seem stranded here. The lid of one tomb
has been broken. Morbid curiosity makes me peer inside. I see nothing.
The people in the funeral
march are crying for a dead soldier. Men in military uniform surround
us. I walk with Josefina and Elita, to pay a last homage to Carmelos
Suddenly, one of the graveyard
keepers, a man I had befriended on a previous visit to the place, comes
up to me and warns us to leave the place as soon as we can a
state security patrol is watching us. "I just received a phone
call from the local Vigilance Committee," he says, visibly nervous.
"They told me that theres a Venezuelan youth looking for
information about Carmelo Gonzalez del Castillo, who was in prison with
Huber Matos back in the sixties," he says.
I cant believe that
the ghost of my uncle still raises suspicions among these people. Didnt
he become a faithful revolutionary? Maybe they dont know the truth
either. Josefina senses my anger and tries to calm me. She takes me
away, tells me to be brave like a Castillo, and leads me to Carmelos
final resting place. "Sons do not belong to their parents, but
belong to their time," Josefina reminds me as we approach the grave.
The remains of Carmelo lay
in a state ossary, in a niche among hundreds. The small white tombstone
sits next to Josefina's father's, and fresh flowers adorn it. I touch
the tombstone and recite a small prayer. It is with mixed feelings that
I come from abroad to pay homage to this grave. I do not agree with
the Revolution my uncle made - especially when several men dressed almost
in rags, wander among the graves, looking at us from time to time. I
suspect they belong to state security, and Josefina's wariness confirms
it. I am sure she told them to come here. The 40-degree heat is making
me dizzy, I am scared, and I want to leave Camaguey forever. Finally,
Josefina, Elita and I join the young soldier's funeral entourage, and
we leave in peace.
Back in Havana I sit in
a terrace overlooking the Paseo del Prado, the city's equivalent of
Champs Elysees. From here I see the Capitol, a perfect imitation of
the one in Washington D.C. I also see the Teatro del Tacon, the Madrilene
buildings, the art-deco skyscrapers built by American banks, silent
monuments to a Cuba that might have been. I wish that Carmelo was here,
sharing a drink with me and telling me if it was worth it, if the country
he inherited is better off now than it was in 1959.
I would ask him if there
are not better ways to establish justice and to satisfy nationalist
pride than give away most freedoms and submit, even symbollically, to
the voice of a caudillo. I wonder if my uncle imagined that the voice
would last for so long. What would he think of his nephew, a student
in an American university, sitting in this terrace full of European
tourists, watching his Revolution come to an end?
In any case, what matters
is that Carmelo, when he was a kid, wanted to become like his great-grandfather.
In this, he succeeded: that photograph of him in Angola will hang next
to the portrait of Abuelito, for generations to come.
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