In the days before Christmas 50 years ago this weekend, 1,113 Bay of Pigs fighters captured by Fidel Castro’s forces and imprisoned for 20 months were finally released to a heroes’ welcome in Miami.
The first planeload of POWs arrived at Homestead Air Force Base on Dec. 23, 1962. Gaunt and betrayed by the John F. Kennedy administration, members of the proud Brigade 2506 were bused to Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium, where waiting relatives engulfed them with hugs at a massive reunion that made front-page news. Five days later, JFK and his wife Jackie would be at the Orange Bowl to welcome them, too.
On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of those pivotal days will be observed as surviving brigade members — now in their 70s and 80s — hold a and 11 a.m. Mass and reunion at the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana.
The release of the men was the one bright spot in the disastrous April 1961 CIA-backed invasion to overthrow the two-year old Castro government. Yet the fighters’ return also sent the somber message that exiles would not reclaim Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis that October had set the course of U.S.-Cuba relations until today.
Back then, it was sinking in: The Cuban exile community was in Miami to stay.
A defeated Jose Andreu, now 76, the first brigade member to sign up for the invasion, was among those who arrived home that bittersweet day.
“My wife to-be was there to meet me, along with my sister and my father,” Andreu said. “I remember a lot of hugging and crying.”
Among the young people waiting at the auditorium that day in 1962 was a teen-aged Ninoska Perez Castellon, there with her family to welcome her brothers and uncle, all brigade members.
“I remember being in that packed auditorium ... I can truly say as a child I viewed those men as my first heroes. I still do,” said Perez-Castellon, who grew up to become one of Miami’s most influential radio personalities.
Perez and her family still have black-and-white snapshots of the joyful reunion, showing her late grandmother proudly hugging her son.
The behind-the-scenes negotiations that finally led to the release of the brigadistas 50 years ago this week were the stuff of Hollywood movies. They involved months of haggling with Castro by everyone from a former first lady to a high-profile diplomatic negotiator who led the group that finally succeeded — a group of the prisoners’ mothers, wives and fathers who made up the Cuban Families Committee.
Their effort resulted in a now-forgotten 7,857 exodus of Cuban refugees, many relatives of the brigadistas, who arrived in cargo ships at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale from December 1962 to July 1963.
Two women in the committee played key roles — one in Cuba, motivated by a mother’s love; the other in Miami, seeking to free her husband.
Havana socialite, Berta Barreto, whose oldest son, Alberto Oms Barreto, had been captured during the invasion, made the initial contact with Castro and promised that the ransom he had set for the men would be paid. Years later, her second son, Pablo Perez-Cisneros Barreto, wrote the definitive book on the negotiations called After the Bay of Pigs, soon to be published in Spanish. “What my mother and the others managed to do, with no experience in high-level negotiating, was extraordinary,” Perez-Cisneros Barreto said.
The second woman was Virginia Betancourt, a housewife whose husband had been captured and who found herself as the only woman female member of the Miami brach of the families committee. She ended up typing up the final agreement signed by Castro sealing the release of the brigade members.
“When people talk about the Bay of Pigs invasion,” Betancourt said, “they focus on the defeat on the beach. They haven’t really heard about what came afterward, how we had to negotiate for the release of these men.”
Today, those who negotiated say Castro’s intention was to force the U.S. to pay millions as punishment for the invasion.
“He did everything he could to humiliate the brigade members and make fun of the Americans,” Andreu said.
The Kennedy administration, which at first denied involvement in the Bay of Pigs, now found itself in a precarious situation — how to win the freedom of the men without openly negotiating for them.
The first effort was the creation of the Tractors for Prisoners Committee which came up with the idea that the U.S. would give Cuba heavy farm tractors in exchange for the prisoners.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the committee, but the idea hit a snag in Congress when members said giving Castro’s new farm equipment that could be turned into war material was a bad idea.
The Roosevelt committee disbanded and others formed and also disbanded.
By late March 1962, relatives were growing desperate. In Havana, Barreto decided to take matters into her own hands — and she had a trump card. Her husband had dated Castro’s secretary, Conchita Fernandez. She implored him to call her and float the idea that exiles in Miami could raise the millions, her son recalls.
“Conchita made my mother write a proposal which she reworded and promised to give to Castro’s right-hand woman, Celia Sanchez,” Perez-Cisneros Barreto said.
At 3 a.m., the phone rang at the Barreto home in Havana; it was Castro. He wanted to know if Barreto could really get him millions for the men.
“My mother said she could find a way to get the money. At that time, she had no idea how they would do it,” Perez-Cisneros Barreto said.
She contacted members of the Miami family committee and reported her promising talk with Castro; committee member contacted the U.S. government. Enter, James Donovan, a high-powered New York attorney and star negotiator fresh from dealing with the Soviets for the release of captured U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Donovan agreed to help the committee pro bono.
In her memoirs, called The Bay of Pigs: A Long & Hard Road to Freedom, Betancourt said the group began making trips to Havana to negotiate. The locale was Barreto’s home, where Castro would show up to fight over terms with Donovan.
Castro first demanded millions in cash and Donovan — who frequently reported back to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — refused. Betancourt, who now lives in Las Vegas, remembers Donovan and Castro in heated talks, even arguing about religion. The negotiations were disrupted by the Cuban Missile Crisis but then picked up. Later, she said she found out there had been a plot by opponents in the island to kill Castro at the Barreto home during one of the sessions.
After months of back and forth, Donovan persuaded Castro to accept $52 million in medicine and food supplies which the U.S. government scurried to get pharmaceutical companies to donate. Plans feverishly were begun to make the trade before Christmas 1962.
But how to get the tons of goods to Cuba without involving the government?
The idea came up to recruit the American Red Cross to handle the delivery of the loaded-down cargo ships. They would leave Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale loaded with medicine and come back loaded down with Cuban refugees.
Gloria Villa, back then a 20-year-old active in winning the release of the brigadistas, was quickly recruited by the Red Cross to travel to Cuba and help process the prisoners because she was a bilingual U.S. citizen.
“It was very emotional for me; I knew many of the men from school and the entire experience was heartbreaking,” said Villa, who works at a downtown law firm. Her job was to check-in the prisoners for the flight to Miami. “Today. I consider it the most important thing I did in my life, including having children.”
On the second day of the prisoner flights — Dec. 24 — more drama broke out.
“At one point, my mother, Castro and Donovan were standing on the tarmac of the military airport as Castro demanded that no more prisoner flights take off until he was paid $2.9 million in cash,” Perez-Cisneros Barreto said.
Castro had been promised the money in April 1962 when he released 60 wounded brigadistas.
Finagling by RFK, with help from wealthy friends, secured a bank note for the Castro to get the money.
The prisoner flights to Miami continued until the early morning of Christmas Day.
Fifty years since his release, the one bright spot in the invasion effort, Andreu is still haunted by its failure and how it plummeted Cuba into communism and sent him permanently into exile.
“I don’t know if I have ever been truly happy since then,” he said.