My mother’s brave work to release Bay of Pigs prisoners

This weekend, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release from Cuban prisons of 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs and their arrival at Homestead Air Force Base — and then an emotional reunion at Dinner Key Auditorium with their relatives in time for Nochebuena.

My mother, Berta Barreto de los Heros, a member of the Cuban Families Committee, played an important role in the personal negotiations with Fidel Castro to win the freedom of the brigadistas. The family group had been led by then famed lawyer and negotiator, James B. Donovan, who had recently won the release of Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the U-2 American spy plane. The brigadistas had been captured on April 1961 following the failure of the invasion.

All were eventually tried in the courtyard of El Principe prison and sentenced; the majorities received 30 years in prison or given a ransom of $500,000 to $ 25,000 per prisoner which could win their freedom. Five decades later, it is important to emphasize the efforts the families — wives, fathers and mothers like mine — played in winning the release of the brigadistas 20 months after their captured. My mother, who lived in Havana at the time, became involved because my late brother was among the captured fighters. She was instrumental initiating negotiations with Castro and inviting the Miami committee members to meet with the new Cuban leader at her home on the island — with the promise that millions would be paid for the men.

The committee first managed to secure the release of 60 prisoners wounded who needed urgent medical care. The committee and Donovan then went to work in winning the release of all the remaining prisoners in exchange for $52 million in medicine and food to be delivered to Cuba in cargo ships by the American Red Cross.

Thanks to the negotiating skills of Donovan and the herculean effort of the family committee, along with the complete support of the American people, they achieved the release of these brave men just before Christmas 1962. In a final drama, on December 23 my mother and Donovan stood on the tarmac at San Antonio de los Baños military airport arguing with Castro who suddenly stopped the prisoners’ freedom flight until he received additional cash payment.

Eventually, the same planes and ships carrying merchandise to Cuba returned to South Florida with 7,857 Cuban refugees.

My mother, who died in Miami in 1998 and at the time was writing a book about her experience, considered her efforts to free her son and the other brigadistas a proud moment in her life.

I eventually finished the book, called After the Bay of Pigs, and as her son, whenever possible, I spread the word about her brave work those 20 months.

Pablo Pérez-Cisneros Barreto is the author of After the Bay of Pigs.

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