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The time a dead Cuban revolutionary was seen in Tampa

Fidel Castro, right, embraces Camilo Cienfuegos in Santiago, Cuba, in January 1959. Cienfuegos was hailed as a hero when the revolution declared victory. (Associated Press, 1959)
Published Nov. 25, 2018

Tupac Shakur is alive in Cuba.

Or, at least, that's the tabloid rumor about the American hip-hop artist who was gunned down in Las Vegas in September 1996.

While it is probably not true, Cuba would be a likely spot for him. It's where his godmother, Assata Shakur, has lived since her 1984 escape from prison, where she was serving time for murdering a New Jersey state trooper.

Conspiracy theories about deceased famous and infamous people being alive are common. Adolf Hitler, for instance, supposedly faked his suicide and escaped to Argentina. Elvis Presley allegedly staged his death and spent much of his time at Waffle Houses.

And then there is this story: Cuba's revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos was reportedly sighted in Tampa 59 years ago this month despite dying weeks earlier in a plane crash.

"The informant, who asked that his identity be withheld, said he has talked with Cienfuegos recently," reads a November 18, 1959, article published throughout the United States. "He said the officer, a right-hand man of Cuban premiere Fidel Castro, has shaved his beard and is living in Ybor City."

Cienfuegos was part of Castro's inner circle since the start of the Cuban Revolution.

Cienfuegos was hailed as a hero when the revolution declared victory in January 1959. His celebrity, like Ernesto "Che" Guevara, reached rock star status among the supporters of their cause.

Then, on Oct. 28, 1959, a small plane taking him from Camaguey to Havana disappeared. Presumed lost at sea, Cienfuegos was pronounced dead.

Those working against the revolution spread two theories.

One: Castro, fearing Cienfuegos' popularity was approaching his own, was behind the deadly crash.

Two: Cienfuegos fled, unhappy that Cuba was moving toward Communism. Knowing such an opinion meant Castro would want him dead, Cienfuegos escaped the island nation.

Too embarrassed to admit a leader of the revolution fled, went the theory, Castro was willing to pretend Cienfuegos was dead. And, fearing Castro would still seek to murder him, Cienfuegos changed his identity.

Ybor might have been friendly to Cienfuegos had he sought anonymous refuge. Its Cuban population played a role in the revolution. They sent money, food, medical supplies and guns to Castro's troops.

But as Cuba embraced Communism, many of those same people turned on the revolution and Castro.

According to news archives published throughout November 1959, Cienfuegos allegedly arrived in Tampa in the following way:

He and three other Cubans flew their plane from Camaguey to an abandoned World War II airstrip on Cayo Largo, a small island off Cuba's southern coast.

They then filled the gas tank and flew to a deserted strip of highway north of Naples where automobiles flashing high beams created a makeshift landing strip.

From there, they went to Ybor.

"It would be such a place that a man like Cienfuegos would go to lose his identity," reads one article that said Ybor was known to provide haven to mafiosos and revolutionaries.

"There, he would meet others who have had to take to the shadows for one reason or another, some within the law, others outside the law."

Chief of the Tampa Police Department Neil Brown was quoted in news articles saying the claims were "ridiculous."

Journalists were split. Some said the rumors had credibility while others agreed with the police chief's opinion.

Still, the U.S. Border Patrol took the tale seriously enough to send agents to Tampa. "We are heading down all leads, but we have had no success," John Bradord, head of the Border Patrol, told the press.

One tip led the Border Patrol to the home of Tampa doctor Jose R. Suarez, according to news archives. Instead of Cienfuegos, they discovered Radio Crenata, a Cuban senator who served under Fulgencio Bautista, the president overthrown by Castro. He was there legally as an alien resident of Tampa visiting Suarez.

Other news reports tell of Lawrence G. Gifford, a Bradenton mailman moonlighting as a private investigator. After he had spent the evening in the Latin District asking questions about Cienfuegos, Gifford said, he was assaulted in the dark near the Ybor railroad tracks by a Spanish-speaking man. He could not further identify his attacker.

Neither the press, law enforcement nor private investigators ever found proof that Cienfuegos was in Ybor.

In Cuba, he remains a hero.

Cienfuegos statues and paintings can be found throughout the island. A museum, military schools and other buildings have been named in his honor. And a 100-ton steel outline of Cienfuegos' face is on the side of a building in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución.

Still, the plane that carried Cienfuegos on that fateful night in October 1959 was never found and his body has never been seen, thus there remains no proof of his demise in Cuba.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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