She showed me the original notebooks, but I couldn’t read a word due to my poor Spanish and Camilo’s difficult handwriting. She also brought out a cap, which she said her father had entrusted her with just before he died; claiming it to be the cap that Che gave him in Bolivia. We are all familiar with the picture of Che in a beret, but this was a flat cap, the sort of thing I would expect to find on a head in rural Scotland than rural Bolivia. But it was an incredible moment, to hold in my hands a piece of cloth that may indeed have been worn by Che Guevara himself. It made me want to believe in Camilo’s story. I still do.
My meeting with Tina was the start of a ten year journey which has seen us work together to translate and publish a very personal story. To begin with Tina wasn’t convinced the story should be told. Her father himself had kept it secret until after Che’s body had been returned to Santa Clara in 1997. And he did not let Tina read his diaries until all 30 of the guerrillas who died in the Bolivian Campaign were interred at the memorial on the 40th anniversary of Che’s death – 8th October 2000. He was fifty then and already aware of the cancer that would kill him. He was regretful that his own death would not be glorious – despite having served with distinction in Angola and Nicaragua – and that on his death he would not join his compañeros in the Mausoleum. It was in this frame of mind that he revealed the full story of his time in Bolivia to his daughter and son.
After his death trouble ensued. Tina’s brother Camilo Jnr, having researched into both Che and Pombo’s diaries, pointed out that no mention of their father existed in either of these works.
‘He accused our father of being a fantasist,’ Tina told me, with barely concealed emotion. ‘It split our family.’
Because of this, Tina kept the diaries to herself for the next few years, and there was a lot of trust to be built up before she even allowed me to read them. It was a trust made harder because of the difficulty of ongoing communication with Cuba – email and Skype are not the norm and the blockade makes postal communication all but impossible. However, and sometimes through a network of intermediaries of which the Bolivian guerrillas would have been proud, we have managed to keep in touch. We were both primarily motivated by the desire to honour the memory of her father and the ideals of Che Guevara himself. Tina believed in Camilo and when I finally convinced her that I believed in him also, she agreed I could publish the diaries in English. This was the start of a very long journey, which has taken a decade to achieve.
During that time I have researched long and hard and dealt with the accusations of ‘fiction’ and ‘fantasy.’ Suffice it to say that I believe in this story. That is all the truth required for me. It is a story I believe needs to be told. Beyond that, it is for the individual reader to believe or disbelieve as they will.
After the family rift, Tina herself did some research, to honour her father. She spoke to Pombo (Harry Villegas) and told me that he confirmed a meeting between him and her father took place as late as 2001. This points to a corroboration of the suggestion I found in the appendix to Camilo’s diary – written in 2002 - that his name was never mentioned as part of a ‘pact’ to protect him and his family. When Camilo joined the guerrillas he was just sixteen and Che initially felt him too young to join the struggle. Camilo convinced him otherwise but Che determined that he would be un arma secreta.
On his deathbed, Camilo told Tina that he had been distraught when he discovered Che had failed to mention him in his diaries, first published in 1968. Camilo himself had just returned to Cuba when the diaries were published and the furore over them caused him to bury his own diaries (and memories) and get on with the business of building a revolution. But when Pombo also published his reminiscences in 1997 with no mention of his involvement, he was crushed. Tina remembers at this time he sank into a depression which no one could understand. The death bed revelations explained it all.
‘He felt his life invalidated,’ she said. ‘He was a hero of the Cuban people, decorated as such for his work in Angola and Nicaragua, and he had always striven to ‘be like Che.’ He totally believed in Che’s vision of international revolution. But he felt he had been airbrushed from history and he could not cope with that.’
When the last of the guerrillas was interred at the Mausoleum, Camilo met with Pombo and got confirmation that Che had instructed him not to write about his protégé during the Bolivian conflict. Pombo had acted out of loyalty to Che.
‘Che told me to say ‘you were never there,’ Pombo stated. ‘Who we were as individuals was unimportant. But Che cared most for you. He wanted to be sure you may return home safe, to go on and live your life, whatever happened to us. And so, Jejénito, you were never there.’ Finally Camilo understood this. He determined that the story would never be told. For those with Spanish as poor as mine, I should point out that Jejénito is the diminutive form of the word Jején which is a sort of Spanish midgie. It was the nickname Che and the guerrillas used for Camilo during the Bolivian campaign. The reasons will become clear.
Over the years, Tina and I have come to the conclusion that this is a story that should be told. Camilo is denied his place beside his friends in the Mausoleum, but we believe that his revolutionary legacy should shine a light on him. And in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the murder of Che Guevara on October 9th 1967, we agreed it was time to publish Camilo’s story.
Tina works in the Mausoleum. That is where I first met her. She spends time daily in the room where the remains of the 30 guerrillas are interred. It is the most profound and peaceful place I have ever been. It is low-lit and one is not allowed to take photographs out of respect for the dead. Therefore it is one of these memories that exists only in my mind and perhaps is all the more powerful for that. Tina tells me that she feels close to her father and all the guerrillas there. She feels a sense of connection with the past which she craves all the more as Cuba faces an uncertain future. It was Camilo’s great sorrow that he would not pass eternity with the companeros. With this publication he is now once more in their company. And, with a smile, Tina tells me she has done something else to ensure that her father is, at last, resting with the guerrillas he served with in Bolivia. I cannot tell you what that is. Let it just remain to say he was always Che’s ‘arma secreta’ and that if asked to tell the truth we will always say he was ‘el jején que nunca estuvo allí’ (The midge who was never there.)
Hasta la victoria siempre
Cally Phillips, October 2016