April 17, 2004

Former Bay of Pigs POW Seeks Cuba Trade

Associated Press Writer

AUBURN, Ala. -- As Fidel Castro worked his way through a line of American agricultural officials in Havana last summer, he complimented a visitor on his excellent Spanish.

Diego Gimenez smiled. He didn't tell the Cuban dictator that he learned the language growing up there -- or that he was a prisoner of war during his last visit.

Gimenez, who was captured following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion 43 years ago Saturday, doesn't hold grudges, even against the man who held him captive for almost two years.

"It's not any different from when a World War II veteran goes to Europe," says Gimenez, now an agriculture professor at Auburn University. "Yeah, you have those memories.

"But you might as well let it go and reconcile with yourself."

Now, having failed to open Cuba to democracy as a soldier, he sees trade as the way to help his countrymen.

Since Congress approved limited exports of food and medicine to Cuba four years ago, 45 states have sought to take advantage of a new market for American products, Gimenez says.

"I'm concerned with the Cuban people, basically," he said. "And I will do everything possible so that the 55 percent (of Cubans) that don't have access to dollars will be able in the near future to be able to buy products."

Not everyone agrees. Many Cuban-Americans feel the embargo should stay in place until Castro leaves power, citing the United Nations' continuing criticisms of Castro's human rights record and Cuba's inclusion on the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami, said the embargo alone won't get rid of Castro, but it limits the regime's ability to get U.S. taxpayer credits to finance itself.

Gimenez said his August trip to Cuba seemed like the right thing to do, despite his experiences as a POW.

During the Bay of Pigs invasion, a force of 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the U.S. military landed on Cuba on April 17, 1961.

Gimenez was a sophomore at the University of Florida when he began hearing of a liberation force being gathered. Already, his mother and 12-year-old sister had fled Havana, along with other relatives. As he learned more about the situation back in his homeland, "it became obvious that something had to be done."

"I think we were never told, `You have to go,' but it was expected to a certain extent," he says.

The would-be liberators went first to Guatemala, then launched the invasion from Nicaragua, Gimenez recalls. They planned to establish a beachhead and secure the major roads leading to a nearby airport, where exiled Cuban leaders would land and proclaim themselves the rightful government of the island.

Instead, the Kennedy administration denied involvement in the raid and, under intense international pressure, abandoned plans to provide air cover. The invasion collapsed within three days, out of ammunition and supplies.

Gimenez remembers trying to escape to the Escambray Mountains with a group of five or six fellow soldiers. Hungry after running from Castro's militia for days without food, they came upon a small hut inhabited by charcoal makers.

"And then within 20 minutes, we could hear all the noises -- the militia. They told the militia, `We have some people.' So we were captured."

They eventually were shipped to Havana, where they were interrogated and paraded before the international press. Fear, however, isn't the emotion Gimenez remembers feeling.

"I can say that most of us, our concern was ... if we died in there, would our family ever know what happened to us? That was in most of our minds," he says.

Gimenez finally was shipped home Dec. 23, 1962. He returned to Florida, completed his bachelor's degree and eventually came to Auburn, where he teaches and works as an animal scientist with the Alabama extension system.

Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press