When is the sobering ritual of burying war dead an act of treason? Virtually never, unless you happen to be a member of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, also known as Brigade 2506.
But that extraordinary situation isn't stopping a small group of brigade veterans from taking care of some unfinished business lingering from their catastrophic landing on the southern coast of Cuba nearly 41 years ago. During a trip to the island last year, two of them -- Mario Cabello and José Luis Hernandez -- cleared the way for relatives to locate the remains of those killed during the disastrous April 1961 invasion and give them a proper burial in Cuba or elsewhere. To that end they recently founded the Bay of Pigs Dead and Missing in Action Recovery Committee (BOP-MIA) to coordinate the effort. But instead of support, they are receiving some rather ugly flak from their former comrades in arms. Strangely enough, the man many brigadistas prefer to call The Tyrant -- Fidel Castro -- is cooperating with the reburial project.
Does an anticommunist become a communist simply by engaging in discussions with one? Nixon went to China. Former POW John McCain returned to Vietnam. But the rules of reconciliation are different in the Cuban conflict. If you are a Brigade 2506 veteran and you make a return trip to Cuba, odds are your compatriots will label you a traitor.
An incident last year serves as a case in point. Cabello, who is 59 years old; Hernandez, who is 65; and three other Brigade 2506 veterans attended "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years After," a conference in Cuba in March 2001. The others were Alfredo Duran, Roberto Carballo, and Luis Tornes, who had been expelled from the veterans association in 1995 after they advocated dialogue with the Castro regime. The conference was organized by the University of Havana and the National Security Archives, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in declassifying government documents related to U.S. foreign policy. The event marked the first time since the invasion that veterans from both sides had held face-to-face discussions. Not surprisingly, it was emotionally charged.
During the conference, in private encounters with Cuban officials, the five brigade veterans appealed for discussions regarding the remains of their fellow veterans. Encouraged, they promptly submitted a letter to Fidel Castro. To their surprise the response was delivered personally by Gen. José Ramon Fernandez, one of the field commanders who had vanquished the invasion force in 1961. He told them Castro would cooperate.
According to the veterans association, 108 brigade members died in the CIA-planned operation, which remains a gaping psychological wound in the minds of survivors, many of whom still condemn President John F. Kennedy for not delivering promised U.S. air support. The Revolutionary Armed Forces captured about 1200 others; all but 9 were released a year and a half later after negotiations between U.S. officials and the Castro regime. Five were executed for alleged criminal acts committed in Cuba before the invasion. The Cuban government says 157 of its soldiers and civilians were killed. According to Alfredo Duran, a former Brigade 2506 president, the Cuban military buried dead invaders in three places: the city of Colón in Matanzas province, the Colón cemetery in Havana, and at the Bay of Pigs.
When Cabello and Hernandez returned home to Miami following the conference last year, about 200 of their fellow brigadistas unceremoniously voted to expel them from the organization.
Several months later, hoping passions had cooled, Cabello's group registered BOP-MIA as a nonprofit corporation and decided to move ahead with the project. Believing it was sensible and correct, they petitioned the directors of Brigade 2506 in a document they called a convocation. "Military history shows that respect for fallen soldiers has always existed," it stated. "Temporary truces are made, during wartime, for the purpose of caring for the wounded and burying the dead." The document noted that 50 years after World War II ended, former enemies continue to cooperate in the search for remains. Another example they cited is the National League of POW/MIA Families, which the convocation declared "never hesitated in [its] appeal to the Vietnamese when it came to locating soldiers missing in action. This comes into stark contrast with today's attitude by the [Bay of Pigs Veterans] Association."
The official reply from Brigade 2506's Little Havana headquarters: The letter was returned unopened.
Cabello's group resolved to contact individual brigadistas and last month began mailing out about a thousand copies of a letter explaining the project, requesting information about any relatives of the dead, and asking whether the recipient supported or rejected the effort. The tally so far: seven opposed, five in favor. In anticipation of belligerent responses, Cabello decided on a post-office box for his organization's address (P.O. Box 170309, Hialeah, FL 33017). "I didn't want to have my tires cut or my car windows broken or something stupid like that," he explained. He also is wary of someone trying to harm him. "Why not take precautions?" he said. (The group's e-mail address is email@example.com.)
One anonymous opponent returned the convocation with some editorial revisions, preferring "Tyrant" Fidel Castro instead of "President," and "the Tyranny" rather than "the Government of Cuba." Others who cast aspersions bravely signed their screeds. "I don't think any of you," brigade member Luis Boik wrote, "have the right or will ever have the right to speak about or convoke anything related to the heroic action of April 17, 1961." He added that Cabello and the others were traitors for opening relations with "murderers" and therefore too morally deficient to address the veterans association.
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At a Kendall outlet of the Latin American Café on a recent Saturday morning, Cabello and Hernandez were equal parts angry, anxious, and flummoxed about how their fellow brigadistas could reject a centuries-old military tradition. They were joined by 62-year-old Luis Bandrich, who remains a Brigade 2506 member. "It should be up to the families," Cabello said. "The only ones who should be able to accept or reject the [Cuban government's] offer are the families. If the families want to leave the remains in Cuba, that's up to them. The fact that the Cuban government agreed to return the remains is proof that conversation works and dialogue works."
"Is working," Bandrich added.
Although they have not ruled out the possibility some 2506 members might attempt to hurt them physically for their project, the trio believes the likelihood of that diminished sharply after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. "In a perverse way, we're safer now," Cabello noted.