With his back to the beach where he had landed in an invasion to liberate his country, 16-year-old Humberto Martinez was just minutes away from execution.
“Hold up, El Caballo wants them captured,” Martinez recalled a lieutenant saying, relaying orders from Fidel Castro — nicknamed “the Horse” — to the improvised firing squad that was getting ready to execute seven members of the Brigade 2506 captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
He had no time to think of anything before death. He was too young to fear it, said the now 76-year-old Martínez, who after six decades still has fresh memories of that April 17, 1961.
“I wasn’t very afraid, more like uncertain about what was going to happen,” he said. “We were very excited about landing. We were very anxious to do something for Cuba, not just for the politics but because we had seen it fall apart socially and as Christians.”
Martínez, Col. Johnny López de la Cruz, who later served 26 years in the U.S. Army, and his cousin Humberto Codina, who later served in the Florida Legislature, were less than 20 years old when they joined Brigade 2506.
“Most of us were young guys with ideals, ready to give our lives for Cuba,” López de la Cruz, now president of Brigade 2506, told el Nuevo Herald at the group’s headquarters and museum in Little Havana.
Before him was a wall with the photos of Brigade members who have died. One hundred and four died in the operations to liberate Cuba, and eight were executed by firing squad.
Following Castro’s executions of opponents, expropriations of properties and shifts in politics — he first said he was not a communist, then said he had been one since his youth — Brigade members were part of a generation that rebelled against a government which betrayed all the promises it had made before reaching power.
“Our goal was to return democracy to Cuba, and 60 years later that has not changed,” Cortina said.
“Proud to be members of the Brigade, without regrets and committed.” That’s how they feel, six decades after time proved them right, they explained while sitting around a table last week as they organized to mark the 60th anniversary of the invasion on Saturday.
One day before that, the Cuban Communist Party will launch its Congress as the island faces its worst economic crisis in 30 years, which it blames on the U.S. embargo even as it tries to hide its inefficient rule.
Raul Castro, almost 90 years old, is expected to surrender leadership of the party. But analysts do not expect important changes because Miguel Diaz-Canel, who succeeded Castro in the presidency in 2018, has promised “continuity.”
Brigade members say that they and many other Cuban exiles are aware of a fundamental change on the island: Cubans are protesting in the streets and even clashing with police who try to attack activists.
“Those men, those young guys who are on the street, they are not afraid of protesting anymore,” López de la Cruz said.
The protests come from the activists in the Movement San Isidro, or MSI, the popular song “Patria y Vida,” the hunger strike by members of the UNPACU dissident group in Santiago de Cuba and the courage of Luis Robles, jailed for carrying a sign through a busy Havana street demanding the release of Denis Solis, an MSI member.
“We are here to support, but the freedom of Cuba will come from the inside. That’s where the spark will come from,” said Cortina, who went on to explain why the Brigade supported former President Donald Trump.
“I will support anyone who opposes my enemy, which is the Castro regime,” Cortina said, although “the cause of Cuba and its freedom does not have a political party. The first thing that Brigade members are looking for is who can help us in this cause.”
Who were the members of Brigade 2506?
That’s the question asked by filmmaker Eliécer Jiménez-Almeida, who spent almost two years making the documentary “Veritas,” being shown Thursday at the Brigade headquarters, as part of his master’s degree in journalism.
“Even when I was living in Cuba I was curious to know what was behind the word ‘mercenary,’” Jiménez-Almeida said, using the epithet attached by Castro to the Bay of Pigs members.
Castro was an expert at putting tags on people — “mercenaries, bandits, employees of the empire, CIA agents,” added Jiménez-Almeida, who focused his film on “the youthful energy of the Brigade members.”
Their average age at the time of the invasion was 26 to 28, and they were from all levels of Cuban society, including students, teachers, fishermen, lawyers and other professionals.
“We did not have military ranks, just responsibilities, to preserve the brotherhood,” López de la Cruz said as he showed one of the objects in the museum — a Japanese flag captured during World War II by the oldest of the Brigade members, Manuel García, who joined when the invasion force he was more than 50 years old.
The best-known Afro-Cuban member of the Brigade was Erneido Oliva, one of its top leaders along with José “Pepé” Pérez San Román and Manuel Artime. Artime represented a civilian government led by José Miró Cardona and Tony de Varona and based on the Cuban Constitution of 1940.
Oliva, who brought vast military experience to the Brigade, later became a career U.S. National Guard officer, reaching the rank of major general in Washington, D.C.
Also remembered for his courage is Black Brigade member Tomas Cruz, who was confronted by Castro for his skin color during the televised trial of the captured Brigade members in Havana.
“What are you doing here, Black man?” Castro asked him. “Don’t you know that we ended discrimination in this country? Now you can go anywhere, swim in any of the clubs, do whatever you want.”
“I didn’t come here to swim. I came to liberate my country,” Cruz shot back, in a gesture that could have ended in his execution and earned him the admiration of all fellow Brigade members.
López de la Cruz, who was part of a parachute unit, said its 37 members included six Black Cubans. The discrimination that Black Cubans on the island suffer today validates their actions in 1961, he said.
Some of the objects preserved in the Brigade headquarters reflect its members’ complaint that they were “abandoned on the beach” by President John F. Kennedy.
The Eisenhower administration had started organizing the invasion, and Kennedy continued with them, despite deep misgivings, because the plans were so far along, according to López de la Cruz. But Kennedy wanted to hide the U.S. government’s involvement, which López de la Cruz said was “ridiculous” because Cuban exiles could never mount such a huge invasion without U.S. backing.
So the parachutists jumped wearing American football helmets and hunting clothes because Kennedy did not want them using U.S. military equipment, López de la Cruz recalled.
Those were just some of the mistakes made before and during the invasion.
Initially, the plan was for the attackers to fight a guerrilla war, but that shifted to a conventional war because it would take less time. At the last minute the U.S. planners also changed the landing target away from Trinidad, a city near the Escambray mountains where the invaders could have received support from residents or fled into the hills in case of trouble.
But the critical mistake, pointed out by all the experts, was denying the promised support by U.S. warplanes, which could have protected the attackers from the Cuban air force and resupplied them.
Most Brigade members were captured, some were summarily executed by firing squad and the rest spent 22 months in prison before a ransom was paid for their release.
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