Cuba releases last Bay of Pigs prisoner
New York Times News Service
MIAMI - The last imprisoned member of a United States-sponsored force that launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 was released from jail in Havana and arrived here Saturday.
The man, Ramon Conte Hernández, 56, who fought with the 2506 Brigade was freed at the request of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Conte, smiling and looking fit, was accompanied on his flight from Havana by his mother, Maria Hernández Ojeda, 81. He was greeted by his wife, Hilda, whom he married in Cuba in 1956, and by family members and many of his brigade friends.
Kennedy, in a statement Saturday welcoming "this brave soldier," said Conte's release "marks the end of a long and tragic chapter in the history of relations between Cuba and the United States" so that "we can begin a new and more productive chapter in our relations."
Calling Conte's "release" a humanitarian gesture, Kennedy said he hoped "it will help pave the road to the normalizing of refugee, emigration, and family reunification procedures" between the two countries.
Relations between the United States and Cuba appeared to be improving with an agreement of December 1984 that provided for the return of 2,700 Cuban criminals and mental patients who entered the United States on the Mariel boatlift in exchange for allowing 20,000 Cubans to come to the United States. The agreement was suspended in May 1985, when Castro objected to the introduction by the United States of Radio Marti, a Voice of America station created in response to pressure from Cuban-American exile groups.
Conte, at an airport news conference, thanked Kennedy for his release. "My ideas have not changed," Conte said. "It is difficult to retire from the struggle for freedom and against communism, which I have done since I was 16 years old."
Conte was taken prisoner on April 20, 1961, when the 1,200 men of the 2506 Brigade were defeated by superior Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs beach in southern Cuba.
Like many other brigade members, he received a 30-year jail sentence in Cuba. But unlike the rest of the brigade, which was released by the Cuban government in December 1962 in exchange for some $50 million in medical supplies, he and eight others, for reasons never made clear, were not freed.
Conte served his sentence in various Cuban j ails. In August 1969, while at a hard labor camp near Havana and working on the garden outside the camp's perimeter, at a prearranged time he managed to crawl toward a nearby road. Shortly afterward, Roberto Arias, a friend, passed by on a motorcycle with a sidecar. Conte jumped into the sidecar and was driven to the house of another close friend, Jose Ignacio Yaniz, near the Havana Airport.
"Ramon was in my house until Feb. 2, 1972, when we were denounced and arrested," said Yaniz, who now lives in Miami and who was at the airport to greet his friend.
"Outside of my immediate family only my brother knew about his presence there," Yaniz said. "Even when my parents, let alone my friends came to visit, Ramon had to hide in a closet that was especially prepared for him. My 2-year old daughter was trained to knock on the door of the closet to signal Ramon that the coast was clear for him to go out. He never left the house."
Yaniz said because of an indiscretion by Arias, his sister learned about Conte's hiding place. She denounced the brother to the authorities, and obtained his modest dwelling as a reward.
Yaniz and Arias received a six-year prison term each and eventually came to the United States. Conte's sentence was increased to 40 years. When he was released Friday at 5 p.m., he still had 15 years to serve.