40 years after Bay of Pigs, veterans face new battle
Men who fought in 1961 invasion fighting Fidel Castro, each other
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
For some, 40 years is enough time to change one's mind.
For others, another 40 years would not begin to make a difference.
For the men who fought and lost in the Bay of Pigs invasion April
17, 1961, there is a new battle to fight: This time it is within the membership
of Brigade 2506.
Most of them are loyal to the old ideals: God, fatherland, democracy
and liberty. But some, a relatively small number, have changed their
strategy and want to open a dialogue with the Castro government.
Juán Pérez-Franco, president of Brigade 2506, or the Association of Bay of Pigs Veterans, is one of the loyalists.
"I would do it all over again,'' said Pérez-Franco. "If there was an opportunity today to go back to Cuba to fight for liberty, for my fatherland, I would go back with pride and love for my country.''
So would many of his compatriots.
"The only thing we have against us is time,'' Pérez-Franco
said. "Maybe we can't physically do the same things, but we feel morally
the same. We wish we could go
back and try again.''
Pérez-Franco is 72 today. His fellow brigade members are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The oldest: Manuel Pérez García, 96, a U.S. Army veteran with more than 15 medals -- including three purple hearts from tours in World War II and the Korean War.
The youngest, Pérez-Franco says, is 59.
He no longer counts Mario Cabello, who is 58 and was expelled from the group last weekend after he defied the association's policy of no dealings with Cuba. Cabello participated in last month's conference in Havana on the ill-fated mission, in which 114 men were killed and another 1,189 were captured and imprisoned.
Cabello joins at least eight others who have become personae non
gratae, kicked out of Brigade 2506 for the same reason: a softening stance
toward Castro, a
willingness to dialogue.
Luis Tornés publishes The Miami Post, a periodiquito different from the others found at Hialeah and Westchester strip malls. His publication regularly insults Miami's exile community and defends the Cuban government position on most, if not all, issues.
"They are cowards,'' Tornés said about the veterans who criticize his trips to the island. "Because they won't go to Cuba to plant the same ideas they talk so much about on the radio.''
Tornés participated Saturday in a Miami conference titled "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years Later'' and sponsored, in part, by the Miami Coalition to End the U.S. Embargo of Cuba. He returned from Cuba Thursday after participating in the conference there, then having a personal meeting with Castro, Economic Minister Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque.
Tornés says his participation, along with that of the other
Miami veterans, was significant because they were able to secure a promise
from the Cuban government to
return the remains of those brigade members who were killed during the invasion and buried in common graves in Colón and Girón.
"It is a triumph for the families of the fallen,'' Tornés said. Nevertheless, he adds, he broke with the veterans group before they could expel him.
"When the Brigade Association formed, it was like a brotherhood, to help each other out. It was not a political group,'' he said. "I respect their opinion, but I don't agree with the way they gave themselves the right to represent the brigade.''
Other former brigade members expelled include:
Alfredo Durán, one of the leaders among Miami's
growing dialogue-minded community. He was kicked out years ago and is now
first vice president of an anti-embargo
lobbying organization called the Cuban Committee for Democracy.
Roberto Carballo, who was expelled the same time as Durán. He owned a Mexican company doing business in Cuba for years, and reportedly is living in Cuba today.
Miguel Gonzalez Pando, a filmmaker and scholar who died in 1998, who was kicked out for wanting to document history that included the regime and for laying flowers for the soldiers who fought on both sides at Playa Girón.
These men are considered traitors and scoundrels, called sin verguenzas -- having no shame.
Pérez-Franco said at one time he would have taken a bullet for any of them. "They were my friends,'' he said. But today, he wouldn't shake their hands.
"It is sad. But there is no choice,'' he said.
A unanimous vote among more than 200 brigade members April 8 expelled Cabello and Jorge Luis Hernández, who could not be reached for this story.
"They sold themselves to Castro,'' said Amado Cantillo, 62, a frogman who sneaked in on the eve of the invasion. "If you belong to a group like 2506, you should be united with the way of thinking of the others.''
But Uva de Aragon, assistant director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says the veterans aren't remembering the reason for their fight: to defend democracy and free expression.
"If you're true to the principles of democracy and pluralism that took those young men to fight in Cuba in 1961, then you should respect the right of someone who differs with you,'' she said.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says the brigade is a representation of greater exile Miami.
"The great majority of the Bay of Pigs veterans are still very sore and are really not ready for any kind of approach while the Castros are still there,'' Suchlicki said. "It represents the view of the majority of the Cuban community, [who] are not ready to kiss and make up with Fidel.''
'WE ARE AT WAR'
Pérez-Franco is proud of the association's hard line: "Our position is one of total and complete intransigence. We are at war. War is not just shooting,'' he said, holding out an imaginary rifle. "We are fighting them ideologically, intellectually, in a war of principles. We have no army, no money for an army and no country to help us. The only weapon we have is our intransigence.''
And yet, there is a softening even here, among the photographs of 396 dead comrades lined up on the wall, like a shrine, in the museum.
While the brigade's latest campaign is one that denounces travel to the island, Pérez-Franco said he would not deny his members the right to go home -- to see a loved one.
"It's not the same as if you go on an excursion, like you would to Disney World, and stay in the Hotel Nacional, go to Varadero Beach,'' Pérez-Franco said. "If you're going to Cuba de paseo, you're a sin verguenza.''
Pérez-Franco and others say there would have been more acceptance had Cabello and Hernández gone to participate in the conference, represented the brigade's history and spoken against the war crimes they say were committed after they were taken prisoners.
"They can go, but not to shake the hand of Fidel Castro,'' agreed Esteban Bovo, 63, a B26 pilot. "Tell me what Jew is going to shake hands with a Nazi war criminal? The worldwide scandal would be enormous.''
THE BRIGADE TODAY
Brigade members are distributing free bumper stickers: "Don't give money to the tyrant Castro.'' The group also established a small library of more than 1,000 books and their Bay of Pigs museum of war memorabilia, which is open to visitors and occasional field trips. They provide their space for other Cuban exile groups to meet.
The 200-plus active members in Miami plan demonstrations whenever they are warranted -- including a vigil at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Bay of Pigs Memorial, 13th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street, followed by a Mass at St. Juan Bosco Church, 1301 W. Flagler St., in honor of the 40th anniversary of the invasion.
The brigade has chapters in 16 other U.S. cities and four countries: Spain, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
But for the core group, the Miami men who meet often at the Casa Brigada headquarters in Little Havana, there is no change of heart.
"The only regret is that we lost. But in that moment, we fulfilled our duty,'' Pérez-Franco said.
"Imagine if we had won,'' he said, and now his eyes sparkle. "How many lives would have been spared, how much blood would not have spilled.''