The Woman Who Attempted to Etch Herself into the History of the Cuban Revolution


Ms. Gulliver is a Research Fellow in history at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. Her website is http://www.katrinagulliver.com.

Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuban revolutionary leader and close comrade of Fidel Castro, disappeared on 28 October 1959. The small plane in which he was travelling from Camagüey to Havana did not arrive, and searches of the Cuban coast and the Florida everglades failed to locate a crash site. Speculation and conspiracy theories began almost immediately: that the plane had been shot down by accident, or that it never took off and the story of the flight was covering up a murder.

A Florida woman contacted the newspapers with another version. Vani L. Maris told the Miami News that she had given blood to Major Cienfuegos in Havana on 5 November 1959. Described as a nurse and former medical technician,

Mrs. Maris, wearing nun’s dress because it ‘opened doors’ went to Camp Liberty near Havana after reports that Cienfuegos was injured in a plane crash. She asked to give blood for the major, whom she new personally.

The transfusion was made in 30 minutes, and Mrs. Maris left with a receipt which said she gave blood for Cienfuegos, one of Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s top revolutionary lieutenants.

And after this live transfusion, she ‘left Cuba for Miami at the request of a Cuban officer’.

In the course of research, a historian sometimes stumbles across marginal figures: people whose participation in the ‘central’ event is peripheral, minor, but not always inconsequential. I decided to look further at this woman’s participation, or self-insertion, in a news event of the day.

While the text of Maris’ account remained largely the same, different newspapers which ran the syndicated story added different headlines, some casting aspersions obliquely on Maris, and some giving credibility to her while casting doubt on the official Cuban narrative: ‘Woman Donated Blood to Cuban; Said Missing’, ‘Woman Claims Blood Given to Missing Cuban’, ‘Gave Blood To Cuban Leader After Alleged Disappearance’, ‘Cienfuegos Alive Nov. 5, Nurse Says’. Some papers also ran a photo of Maris.

Two years later, (as Vani Maris Lake, inverting her maiden and married names), she appears with a different version of the fate of Camilo Cienfuegos. This time, she claims she had accompanied Camilo, his brother Osmany, and his bodyguard Cristino Naranjo to the Presidential Palace on 27 October 1959. Camilo went inside alone, and while the others waited in the car:

We heard two shots inside the palace.

We decided to leave, and just as we were leaving we saw some guards carry out Fidel Castro. Fidel was completely hysterical, and was struggling.

Later they took Camilo to the Columbia Military Hospital. He was given blood transfusions there. He died, and the body was taken to the home of Celia Sanchez (Fidel Castro’s former secretary) in the Vedado section of Havana.

From there the body was transferred to a house at Arroyo Arenas (south of Havana), where I had been staying.

When I went from my room to another to use the telephone, I saw the body. There were gunshot marks on the face and body.

They buried him in the garden of that house. They applied sulphuric acid to destroy the body.

Her backstory has also changed, she is now described as ‘Miss Lake, who goes by the name “La Peregrina”’ (the traveller), and claiming to have been a nurse in the Sierra Maestra (the site of the guerilla campaign during the revolution, from 1957-1959).

The elements of her practically stepping over the body to make a phone call, the gruesome injuries, and the acid destruction of the corpse, all sound like plot devices from a gangster film. Nonetheless, her story – again syndicated by the Associated Press – was reprinted by newspapers across the USA. Her story has changed to be hostile to the revolution, depicting Castro as a violent man, murdering his friend. In this way, her story paralleled the disillusionment that was evident in other depictions of Castro’s Cuba in the United States at this time.

Her own life becomes more curious still, with the report in 1962 of her deportation from the Bahamas.

Stateless Vani Lake Maris, 42, a native of Key West Florida, who lost her United States citizenship in 1959, has been denied entry into the Bahamas, it was learned today.

Miss Maris, according to her statements to the Press, renounced her United States citizenship while in Cuba. After Fidel Castro's rise to power, she was expelled. Since then, she said, her attempts to regain her citizenship have failed.

On July 28, Miss Maris phoned the Nassau DAILY TRIBUNE from Bimini and gave a statement for publication. In it she described herself as a ‘stateless person’ seeking asylum in the British Commonwealth, bringing with her ‘capabilities as a qualified histology technician, field naturalist, and practical nurse.’

Her ‘first preference as to location in the British Empire’, she said, was British Honduras. ‘I would also enjoy working in British Guiana,’ the statement went on. She denied she was ever at any time a ‘member or follower of the Communist Party’.

There is a passing reference in Hugh Thomas’ Cuba or The Pursuit of Freedom, to ‘a nurse, later found insane, said in Miami in 1960 that she had nursed Cienfuegos in a Havana clinic’ and this is presumably the same woman.

She had also made earlier appearances in the media. Miss Vani Lake is reported in 1953 as marrying fellow herpetologist Jack Maris in California. ‘Jack N. Maris and Vani Lake, both 33, have decided to get married to pool their most valuable assets – 117 snakes’. Vani is described as a ‘pretty brunette from Hilo, Hawaii’ and they met eight years earlier in New York, ‘when Jack was returning from Army service in Europe and Vani was attending college’.

In September 1955, she appeared (as Miss Vani Maris) on What’s My Line? as a self-employed snake collector, working in Chihuahua, Mexico; and is described as being from Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico. (Where she is from changes several times in these accounts).

A desire for publicity or personal fame would explain appearing on a television game show, and persistent attempts to insert herself in current events with the disappearance of Cienfuegos. (As possibly would a need for money, if she was paid for her stories.)

In the 1959 version, ‘Mrs Maris said she went to Cuba April 22 because of interest in the revolution, and was offered a job as medical technician and teacher’. This puts her arrival after the revolution claimed power in January 1959. However, in her later version she had participated in the Revolution, as a nurse in the Sierra Maestra. Whether or not she ever even met Camilo Cienfuegos is unclear, and possibly unlikely.

She picked a mystery about which there was public curiosity, and to which other witnesses (from Cuba) were unlikely to appear in US papers. But Vani Lake Maris’ story reflects more: from having (possibly) saved the life of a hero, she becomes the passive observer of his death, not by accident but by human hand.

As conspiracy theorists wanted to see a reason for Cienfuegos’ death, the idea that he was eliminated for failing to support Castro’s Communist agenda gained some traction (and anyone with access to the internet can find half a dozen competing theories). Biographers have differed but the consensus seems to be that the plane crash was likely an accident.

But the hidden truth of his death, and the lack of finality in the absence of a crash site, gave Maris a window in which to create a counter-narrative, an evolving version of events for American readers in which Fidel Castro was increasingly culpable. As her story developed during changing United States government attitudes to Castro’s rule and the Bay of Pigs invasion, this shift can be seen as reflecting the increased demonization of Castro’s revolution in the USA.

Vani Lake Maris’ ‘evidence’ is a blind alley for any historian seeking insight to the life and death of Camilo Cienfuegos. However, her narratives form part of the public discourse on his disappearance. As such, they highlight the level of American interest in the case (that her second account still made front page news in the US, two years after Cienfuegos’ disappearance), and the stretch of the pursuit of celebrity in the television age.

The circumstances of her renounced American passport and the insanity diagnosis remain murky. Vani Lake Maris disappears from the press after the Bahamas deportation in 1962. For a historian, such figures whose lives trail off the edge of the page are both intriguing and frustrating. People who held the front page for a day manage to melt back into the crowd, and Freedom of Information requests can only get a researcher so far.

As newspapers are the first edition of history, Vani Lake Maris attempted to etch herself into the history of the Cuban revolution, and Cuban-US relations. In her final public role, which she did not script, she is a confused woman, still wanting to use her skills as a nurse, and barred from entering the USA. Her identity as an American was one she obviously assumed she could resume even after her symbolic renunciation of citizenship. And again, she responded to this personal difficulty by picking up the phone and calling the nearest newspaper, to get her side of the story out.


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