Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.
At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.
The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.
This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.
The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.
Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.
Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.
In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.
The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.
Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.
Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.
The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.
Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.
To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.
Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.
My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.
Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.
We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.
After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”
One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”
He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”
He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.
The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.
After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)
The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.
Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.
By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”
But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!
Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.
Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.
Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.
* * *
Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.
Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.
Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.
In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.
Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.
And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.
* * *
The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.
“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.
Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:
Cultivo una rosa blanca I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero in June as in January
para el amigo sincero for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca. that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo, the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo, I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca. I cultivate a white rose.
I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.
* * *
After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.