For Bay Of Pigs Veterans, Fidel Castro's Death Feels Bittersweet

Nov 28, 2016
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some people see reason to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro - among them, surviving veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. That's when about 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA landed on the island's shores in a failed attempt to topple Castro's government. From Miami, NPR's Adrian Florido reports that for the surviving fighters, the celebration of Castro's death has been bittersweet.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The exiles who fought in the Bay of Pigs are called la Brigada Veinticinco cero seis, Brigade 2506. And they hold their meetings out of a house-turned-museum on a quiet street in Miami's Little Havana. There's a big and growing wall of photos of the veterans who've died. On Sunday, Eduardo Allen lifted his 8-year-old son up to see a photo of his grandfather.

EDUARDO ALLEN: That's your Abuelo Carlos.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: My grandpa.

ALLEN: That's right. He was a (unintelligible).

FLORIDO: Allen's father, Carlos, was captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and held for two years. He died when Allen was just a baby. Though he has no memories of his father, when Allen learned that the man who imprisoned him had himself finally died on Friday, he was unprepared for the emotions.

ALLEN: Everybody knew it was going to happen. But the emotions now that come with it and that's a reality, it's real. It really is.

FLORIDO: There's been a lot of joy over Castro's death in Miami, where Cuban exiles have settled for decades. But inside this house, the men who fought in Bay of Pigs and their families have not been celebrating in the same way.

HUMBERTO DIAZ-ARGUELLES: It's very sad. It's a very sad day.

DIAZ-ARGUELLES: Humberto Diaz-Arguelles is president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. He says it's sad because he and his fellow fighters had always hoped to see Castro toppled from power, even long after they were captured and released. When President Kennedy welcomed them home at a giant ceremony in Miami's Orange Bowl in 1962, they gave him their brigade's flag. What he said gave Diaz-Arguelles hope they would get to try again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.

DIAZ-ARGUELLES: And we wanted to continue fighting for the liberty of Cuba. And we thought at that time that if we organize ourselves again, we could go back to Cuba again. But that never realized. That never materialized.

FLORIDO: Of the roughly 1,500 men who fought at the Bay of Pigs, the association says only about 600 are still alive. Esteban Bovo, 78, is one of them.

What did you think? What did you feel when you heard that Castro had died this week - last week?

ESTEBAN BOVO: That we couldn't do it ourselves. That God did it instead of us.

FLORIDO: And that was disappointing to you?

BOVO: That's the only disappointment I have.

FLORIDO: He assures me every Bay of Pigs veteran feels the same way. Alicia del Busto de Conte, the wife of a veteran, tells me most of their wives and widows do, too.

ALICIA DEL BUSTO DE CONTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I wish Castro had paid for what he did," she said - "so many mothers whose sons were shot, so many wives whose husbands were shot." She herself was imprisoned 12 years for opposing Castro. By definition, the vast majority of the Cuban exile community despised Castro; the celebrations in the streets are proof of that. But for the Cubans who were members of la Brigada Veinticinco cero seis who tried and failed to overthrow him, celebrating just doesn't feel that satisfying.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.