About Case Profiles
The profiles in this section represent a mere sample from thousands of documented cases. See details on all individual cases in this website’s section Database of Documented Deaths and case summaries in the section Research Reports.
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On April 27, 1978, Francis Brown, a 68-year old U.S. citizen and former World War II veteran, died at the emergency room of the General Hospital of Guantámano after receiving an injection reportedly intended to kill him. That same day the full-term baby boy his daughter was carrying was killed and she was almost killed at a hospital in Havana. See details on this case here->
Border Guard killings at Guántanamo: Maleras and Valverde, 1994
ISKANDER MALERAS PEDRAZA, Age 26, AND LUIS ANGEL VALVERDE LINFERNAL, Age 33. Assassinated January 19, 1994 while trying to obtain asylum at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo, Cuba.
Maleras was a resident of Guantánamo, Cuba. He had been repeatedly harassed and threatened by police, State Security, and neighborhood Communist Party watchdogs, for openly declaring his opposition to the Castro regime. Detained on numerous occasions, in one instance he had endured three months of prison on a fabricated charge of stealing horses. The case had been thrown out on trial only when another plaintiff testified the parties did not know Maleras and had been instructed to lie about his involvement.
On January 19, 1994, Maleras and Valverde with two other young men, Luis Gustavo Matos and Eduardo Serante Gonzalez, attempted to flee Cuba trying to reach the Guantanamo Naval Base by raft. Maleras, not knowing how to swim, was on top of the very small raft, while the others pulled it as they swam towards the base.
When they were about 50 meters from the shore of the U.S. Naval Base, two Cuban border guards (José Barceló Escalona and Iván Fuentes Ramírez) opened fire with AKMs, killing Maleras and Valverde. The other two pled for clemency and took cover under water. Matos was injured on one foot and left to bleed to death, but was able to swim away at nightfall and made it into the U.S. base. Serante was captured, tried, and sentenced to house arrest instead of prison due to the great public commotion the assassinations had caused. He later went into exile and currently lives in Florida.
The government refused to return the bodies of Maleras and Valverde to their families for a funeral and burial. Instead,in humiliating punishement, they were buried naked in unmarked graves at the St. Raphael Cemetary of Guantanamo, in a special area designated by the government for victims of border guards or mine fields by the U.S. Naval Base.
The crime greatly shook the citizens of Guantamano, as the parents were very well known and respected professionals. Government authorities did not allow visits to the family home or the cemetery and posted patrols on the streets. The border guards were given awards for their deed, while prominent government figures went on local radio and TV to denounce the young men as “traitors, counter-revolutionaries and anti-social elements.”
Soon after the killings, neighbors told the family that a local school had on display the photos of the two bodies ravaged by bullets to impress upon the children the high cost of attempting to escape the country.
Iskander’s sister was fired from her job as a music teacher at the university and was unable to find employment due to the stigma that befell the family. They endured so much harassment from the government that they had to go into exile after obtaining political asylum in the United States.
Iskander was the youngest of three siblings. He was very generous, had many friends, and was an avid cyclist. His loss was devastating to his family and his mother says she will not rest until justice for her son is done.
Luis Angel Valverde was a Physical Education teacher with a wife and two young children who wanted a better future for his family and thought that escaping to the United States was the only option available. After his death his family was harassed, persecuted and eventually forced to seek political asylum in the United States.
Sources: Written and telephone testimony of Eulalia Nilda Pedraza, Iskander’s mother, Resident of Florida, February and April of 2006; Personal testimony by mother of August 2006; Testimony to La Nueva Cuba of Eulalia Pedraza of January 12, 2006, http://www.lanuevacuba.com/nuevacuba/notic-06-01-1370.htm.
Note: See case records for both Iskander Maleras and Luis Angel Valverde at www.CubaArchive.org/database/
Roberto Pereda López, in his 40s. Disappeared September 26, 1972.
Pereda was a research scientist with the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas(CENIC)in Havana. In the early 1960s, a close friend, scientist Yamil Kourí, got in trouble with the law and was sent to prison. The friendship with Kourí had marked Pereda as suspicious.
Later, at CENIC, Pereda refused to carry out certain scientific work and openly declared himself against the government. He told his family his life was at risk. On September 26, 1972 he left for work and was never found again. He left two sons, ages twelve and thirteen.
In 1977, five years after his father disappeared, the older son Alex had to enter the obligatory military service. He refused to go on an internationalist mission overseas, saying he opposed the government and wouldn’t kill on its behalf. He was sentenced to three years of prison. Alex Pereda was 17 at the time of incarceration at Nieves Morejón Prison, Santi Spiritus, in Las Villas, province (a prison that is now closed). In prison, Alex took part in a protest with fellow political prisoners, demanding they be held separate from common prisoners. A fight with the guards ensued and he was sentenced to four more years in prison.
During his imprisonment, Alex befriended two men serving sentences for common crimes (non political). Peñate (he did not know his first name), who was in his 30s, was a taxi driver from Havana imprisoned for killing a woman, although he always sustained his innocence. “Samurai,” was in his 20s, was from Jatibonico, Sancti Spiritus province, and did not have a family. He did not know his real name, as they only used the nickname he was given in prison for having beheaded a man with a machete. In 1982 or 1983, Peñate, Samurai and a few others, started a group in prison to allegedly overthrow Fidel Castro. When prison authorities found out, Samurai disappeared and Peñate was found dead, hanging in his cell. Fellow prisoners presumed he had been killed by prison authorities, as he was not suicidal.
Released in 1984, Alex left Cuba in 1988 for the United States and currently lives in Miami.
PEPE MILLÁN, ONE OF NINE VICTIMS
José Santos Millán Velasco
November 1, 1929 – April 22, 1961
José, “Pepe,” was born in Mexico City unexpectedly, as all his family was Cuban. His mother, Isabel, had given birth prematurely while accompanying his father, José, during a tour as a professional jai-alai player.
Pepe studied law at the University of Villanueva in Havana, but was an avid sportsman, competing in both crew and swimming. After college, he followed in his father’s path and became a professional jai-alai player. In 1955, he married his neighbor Myrna Pardo. They had two children in short order, Myrna María and José Ángel.
Myrna’s father had been a member of Cuba’s House of Representatives, belonging to a party that had supported Batista in the last elections held in Cuba before Batista’s coup d’etat. Even though he had opposed Batista’s takeover, the alarming wave of violence that followed the Revolutionary triumph convinced him to seek refuge in Miami. Batista supporters, real or suspected, were being rounded up and sent to prison and to the firing squads in large numbers.
In February 1959, Myrna’s parents left for exile in Florida. A few months later, she, Pepe, and the children went to Miami to visit them. They had planned to return to Cuba, but Pepe decided they had to stay, as the situation in Cuba was getting worse and he had been concerned about Communist influence within the Rebel Army since its days fighting Batista. Myrna was shocked to find herself so unexpectedly leaving behind their beloved Cuba and their small beachside home with all of their belongings. But, as most people who were leaving, they thought the situation in Cuba would soon be resolved and they would be able to go back home.
In Miami, their daughter Delia Isabel was born and Pepe was hired to play jai alai. Although in Cuba he had not been politically active, in exile he soon became involved in several political groups. His concern for his country’s future grew as the Castro regime committed itself to a communist path. Because he wanted his children to grow up in Cuba, when the 2506 Brigade was formed to invade the island and overthrow Castro, Pepe convinced Myrna that he had to help free Cuba. They both felt, as devoted Catholics, that it was their Christian duty. Pepe had also long admired the United States for its role in freeing Europe during the First and Second World Wars.
Pepe left in January of 1961 to train with the Brigade. He was sent to the training camps in Guatemala, although all the families of Brigade members ignored the whereabouts of their loved ones. Pepe trained in the Heavy Arms’ Batallion and obtained the rank of Mayor. His letters to his wife speak about how he attended mass and took communion daily and how he felt entirely in the hands of God.
From the camps, the invaders went straight to Cuba. Early on April 17th 1961, the invasion landed on the southern coast of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs. That night, as the men headed to the beachhead, Myrna had a dream that Pepe had called her on the telephone. When she asked if they had won, he responded: “We have neither lost nor won. But be calm. Whatever you hear, be calm, be calm.”
President Kennedy made last minute decisions to conceal U.S. involvement that crippled the invasion plan. After three days of arduous fighting, it was clear the effort had failed. Pepe was in a small group attempting to reach the Escambray Mountains to the north, seeking to join the resistance there. Exhausted and disheartened, on April 21st they were taken prisoners while gathering water at a nearby pond. They were taken to small shacks that were part of a local tourist beach facility at Girón beach. Castroite militias spit on them, hurled insults, threatened to execute them, and brutally attacked some of the prisoners. Pepe was beaten despite having visible battle injuries to the head.
A few fellow Brigade members were executed on the spot. Early on the following day, they were loaded with over a hundred other prisoners onto a forty-foot sealed trailer (“rastra”) used to transport frozen merchandise. Several dozen of the men were injured; most had not eaten or slept for days. They were to be taken to a prison in the capital city of Havana, 250 miles to the northeast. Despite the sweltering heat, the refrigeration system was not turned on. The men were lined up and those whose names were called were thrust into the trailer.
Commander Osmani Cienfuegos, Cuba’s Minister of Public Works, was in charge of transporting the prisoners. To the protests that the trailer had no ventilation, he is reported to have responded: «Why would we care if they all asphyxiate to death? That would spare us of having to execute them. Bring me forty more pigs!”» Once it was impossible to shove more men into the trailer, the doors were forced shut for the trip to Havana. It had already been three hours since the first men had been led into the trailer.
Inside the rolling prison, a terrifying version of hell unfolded. In total darkness and blistering heat, air was soon lacking. A rising tide of sweat and urine covered the floor and condensed into a hideous mist over their heads. The stench was unbearable. Soon, men began to pass out on top of each other. Some prayed aloud, others became crazed.
The truck, moving at a grueling pace, stopped several times along the way, presumably for the guards to eat and rest. Each time it stopped, the prisoners tried to turn the truck over by pushing against the sides. But the guards ignored the knocks and screams coming from inside. Some believe the leisurely pace was premeditated, intended as a slow delivery of a death sentence.
With their belt buckles, some men managed to carve small holes that allowed for a minimal amount of air to seep in. Some of those who were near death were passed from shoulder to shoulder to place them near the small cracks, in desperate attempts to revive them. But, men began to die.
Pepe was next to fellow Brigader Emilio Valdés Calderón. It took decades for him to muster the courage to face Pepe’s family and tell them what he witnessed. He told them how Pepe had been praying the rosary. Suddenly, he jumped up and hit him on the face unintentionally. He then told him his name, said he had a wife and children in Miami, whom he loved dearly, and asked for him to tell them how he died. Pepe told him he had Christ in front of him and knew he was about to die, but that they (presumably those next to him) would be saved. Moments later, he fell dead.
Another Brigade member, Carlos Bravo, has recounted how Pepe was next to him, unable to stand due to the injuries he had from the beatings. In the dark chaos and desperation inside the trailer, Pepe was praying the rosary and asked God to forgive their killers, as Christ had done on his cross. Moments before his death,
Bravo heard him cry out smiling that he saw the cross. When his body was carried out from the truck, the guards could not yank from his hands the rosary he was still clutching.
Eight to nine hours after it left the Bay of Pigs, when the truck reached its final destination at Havana’s Palacio de los Deportes stadium, the doors were finally opened. Pepe and eight others lay dead. Shortly after their arrival, another man died. The survivors could barely walk, many had to be carried out.
At the stadium, members of the Cuban military who witnessed the massacre did not hide their displeasure. Survivors estimate that between one hundred and one hundred sixty men had been piled into the trailer.
Back home, the family was desperate for news, distraught by the failure of the expedition. Pepe’s name had appeared on a list of survivors published in a Cuban newspaper on April 21st which had been brought from Cuba and delivered to the family in May. But, the initial relief turned to crushing sadness when they received a letter from a survivor in prison, learning not only of his death, but also of the horrific circumstances.
The young widow and their three children -ages four, three, and a few months old- were left in dire economic straits and emotional turmoil. Pepe’s parents were devastated and died just a few years afterwards in exile. The oldest daughter insisted on mailing her drawings to her dad, as she had done when he was in the training camps. The younger daughter kept asking why they couldn’t at least talk to him on the phone. And, when the son who had been three when his father died was about seven, he said that what he wanted when he grew up was to go to heaven with his Daddy.
EIGHT OTHER VICTIMS OF THE TRAILER TRUCK MASSACRE
Alfredo José Cervantes Lago, José Daniel Vilarello Tabares, Hermilio Benjamín Quintana Pereda, Jose Ignacio Maciá del Monte, Santos Ramos Alvarez, Pedro Rojas Mir, René Silva Soublete and Moisés Santana González.
Alfredo “Cuco” José Cervantes Lago had been an executive at Standard Oil in Cuba. He had become an activist in the struggle against Batista, but turned against the Castro government soon after the Revolution came to power, realizing it was putting in place a Communist dictatorship. At age 27 he married Rosa Maria (“Ia”) Fryere, who was only eighteen. They left Cuba in 1960, taking exile in Miami with their daughter “Rosita,” who was just a few months old. Like other Cubans who left, the government allowed them to take $150 and the jewelry they were wearing. Also like most other exiles, they thought they would be going back soon, believing the United States would not allow a Communist dictatorship just 90 miles from its shores.
In Miami Cuco and Rosa Maria’s brother “Tito,” who was only eighteen, decided to join the 2506 Brigade. Rosa Maria recounts how she believed it was heroic and beautiful and never thought things would turn out like they did. Cuco, who suffered from asthma, died in the trailer truck. At first Rosa Maria thought it was a lie. But, his parents in Cuba identified the body. She had just turned twenty, had a small child, and was overwhelmed by sorrow. Her sister “Conchita” urged her to confront her pain with dignity, telling her “You have been given a cross and a hardship. Today you must choose between being admired or pitied. It is in your hands.” Those words stayed with Rosa Maria forever. Conchita died just a few years later of leukemia.
Hermilio Benjamín Quintana Pereda, 34 years old, was a graduate of Havana’s School of Journalism and worked for Cuba’s electric company.
Pedro Rojas Mir was from Victoria de las Tunas.
René Silva Soublete, 22 years old, was an engineering student.
José Ignacio Macía del Monte, 38 years old and a father of four, was a sugar cane grower.
See short interview with daughter Cecile Macia de Sanchez in Multimedia section of this website and coverage in Spanish: “Una herida que no cicatriza, (“A wound that does not heal”), El Nuevo Herald, April 13, 2011.
Cruz, Máximo. “La rastra de la muerte,” Girón, Órgano Oficial de la Asociación de Veteranos de Bahía de Cochinos Brigada de Asalto 2506, enero-abril 2008, p. 13.
De la Vega, Benjamín. «Yo iba en la rastra de la muerte: Narración del Brigadista Emilio Valdés Calderón,” Reportaje especial, Revista Tridente (www.autentico.org).
García Negrín, Ricardo. “Historia de cuatro jovenes,” Manuscrito. Ponce, Puerto Rico, 28 de abril del 1989.
Fernández Veiga, Rolando. “Pepe Millán,” Diario Las Américas, date unknown.
Lynch, Grayston L. Decision for Distaster: Betrayal at Bay of Pigs, Washington: Breassey’s Inc. 1998.
Maciá Sánchez, Cecile. Photographs provided to Cuba Archive, February 20, 2007.
Pardo Millán, Myrna. Telephone interviews, july 13, 2006.
Pardo Millán, Myrna. Written testimony, April 2005 and July 2006.
Triay, Victor Andres. Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Died September 29, 1964, of medical negligence while imprisoned for a political cause
Rosario’s family was from the north of Camaguey province. The whole family was accused and tried for helping the rebels in the mountains tried (Docket No. 533 of 1964). The husband and one son served 12 years in prison, another son served 18 years. Rosario was sent with other women in similar circumstances to a mansion in Miramar, Havana, left by a family that had fled the island, that had been turned into a detention center. She was denied medical treatment for her high blood pressure and died of a heart attack.
Sources: Interviews, in person and by telephone with Amado Marquez, son, 2005- 2007. Cuban American National Foundation, Quilt of Fidel Castro’s Genocide, 1994. WAQI-Radio Mambí, List of victims, p. 41.
Assassinated May 12, 1965 at “El Castillito,” State Security headquarters in Santiago de Cuba. Resident of Holguin, Oriente Province, Cuba. Radio-TV operations’ specialist.
The year before his arrest, Parera had resigned from his post as head of the Radio and TV station for State Security in Holguín, refusing to collaborate any longer with the government. Although he and his family had been staunch revolutionaries in the struggle against the Batista regime, they had become disaffected with the Castro regime. Parera had been arrested and held incommunicado at State Security headquarters, accused of being a “counter-revolutionary.” Approximately three months later, a police car came to his family’s home to inform them he had died. That same night, an ambulance delivered the body. No explanation was given and a death certificate was not provided. The authorities said they would return with documents, but never did. A forensic specialist who was a family friend examined the body. Parera’s hands were burned and he had swallowed his tongue. His conclusion was that he had died of asphyxia after receiving electric shocks (torture). He left a wife, a six-month old son, and a four-year old daughter.
Source: Written and telephone testimony (April 2006) of brother, resident of Miami, Florida, who left Cuba in 1994.
To download Case Profile click here parera_pern_jaime
From an early age, Pete Ray had dreamed of being a pilot. As a small boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he lived up the hill from the Air National Guard’s base and watched planes take off or land all day long. The pilots took notice of his presence year and year, and when Pete became a teenager, they would bring him on certain flights.
Convinced that flying was what he wanted, Pete played football in school and was class officer. Though not the brightest student, he was dedicated and persistent about his work. When one of his teachers asked why he was so enthusiastic about his studies, he said he wanted to become a pilot. On his last day of high school, Pete did not even wait to receive his diploma. He was already making his way to Texas for military training. Too young to join, he had lied about his age.
Back in Alabama after training, Pete married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Rebecca Hayden. They soon had two children, Thomas and Janet Joy. From 1950 to 1952, Pete served in the Air Force. In December of 1952, he started working as an inspector for an aircraft modification company, the Hayes International Corporation. Meanwhile, he kept up his piloting skills flying for the Alabama National Guard.
In 1960 he took leave from Hayes and was in active duty, transitioning from flying with the Alabama Air National Guard to training to fly helicopters for the Army. He was approached by the CIA to train Cuban pilots for three months in secret Guatemalan and Nicaraguan bases and then fly bombing raids for the Bay of Pigs Invasion itself. He left without telling his family where he was going.
The invasion of Cuba by the exile Brigade 2506 started on April 17th 1961. Pete flew a B-26 World War II-era bomber and wore no uniform to satisfy the U.S. government’s illusion that Americans were not involved. When President John F. Kennedy changed the plan at the last minute, the American fighter jets scheduled near Cuba to escort his fleet abandoned him. Pete and three other Alabamian pilots were left alone to carry out their part of the invasion. Without the expected U.S. air support, the situation was an obvious death trap. Whether Pete knew of the last minute orders to keep the Americans out is unknown. But, it is certain that the decision to fly or to stay in Nicaragua was his. And, he flew.
Back in Alabama, Pete’s family received word of his disappearance and presumed death. On that fateful day of April 1961, six-year old Janet was at recess at Tarrant Elementary, across the street from her maternal grandparents’ house, when a shiny dark car pulled up at their house and three men dressed in suits got out. She knew something was unsusual. When school was out that day, she rushed back home to find her grandfather there looking somber and as if had been crying. Her mother looked distraught and was barely able to talk. Janet recalled the events for the Palm Beach Post: “And what I didn’t realize is that it was that day that my mother slowly started to die. The bright, beautiful woman that I knew that was rated ‘most poised’ in her high school yearbook slowly began to die.”
Her mother told her to stay close to home because she had something important to tell her. Janet later that the men in suits, U.S. government operatives, had come to tell her the story would be released to the press the following day. All they said was that Pete had died in the Caribbean Sea, providing no other details. Finally, she and her brother were told that God had come to take Daddy, who was now their guardian angel. After sobbing all day, she and her brother slept in their mother’s bed, all crying and crying.
They had last sent Pete three weeks before the invasion, when he had come home for a visit. Now, their lives were forever changed. The family lived secretively, they would not answer the phone, and she and her brother were not allowed to play outside. Janet felt marked and isolated at school, where the sight of the railing adjacent to the school courtyard looked to her like prison bars, reminding her she had heard Castro kept people in jail.
Forever marked by her father’s disappearance and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts, Janet grew up unwilling to accept her father death unless she found substantiating evidence. She was determined to find the truth and, most importantly, justice.
The U.S. government denied any involvement in the invasion and declared that any American involved had been a mercenary. But, Pete’s wife knew the government was lying to the public. Before leaving, he had told her of his work for the CIA. The Ray Family was horrified that their beloved Pete had died in service for his country, a country that was now denying him rightful recognition for his honor. Worse yet, they grew increasingly frightened as strangers made threats when they tried to uncover the truth.
Pete’s mother contacted the General in charge of the Air Base to try to find out more about her son’s death. The following day, a man was hired at the JC Penney where she worked. He walked up to her in the lunchroom and told her she would be in trouble if she didn’t stop asking questions about the Bay of Pigs and what had happened to her son. Several months later, when she quit, he quit.
Eighteen months after the invasion, Castro began releasing some of the prisoners. One day, as Janet was on her way home from school, a strange man stopped her and asked her, “Is your daddy coming home today?” When she heard this, she dropped her books and ran home apprehensively. As the prisoners were flown into Homestead Air Base in Miami, Florida, Janet watched the television coverage in hopes of coming across her father’s familiar face, a face she so dearly longed to see. Her father was not among the men coming home…
Janet’s love of her father and her loyalty to him led her on an eighteen-year search to find him and to find out what had happened to him. As she got older, she would leave her tape recorder around the house to catch the adults’ conversations. The eavesdropping provided her the names of other pilots or some of her father’s friends. She carefully wrote them down in a spiral notebook so she could find them later on. She saved newspaper articles on any related subject matter. When she was older, she would go to the local library to look up more information. She carried with her everything she collected on her father, including an impression of his teeth. She knew that if she lost that material, it would hinder her search.
Beginning at age 15, in 1970, Janet wrote monthly letters to Fidel Castro seeking information about her father’s body. She wrote over two hundred letters during nine years without receiving a response. When she got her driver’s license, her investigation gained momentum. She traveled to libraries or to people’s homes. She made calls to those whose names she had gathered. But, she was only met with refusals, as government officials had also threatened them.
The need for security before the Bay of Pigs operation might have been understandable in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. But, once Robert Kennedy publicly conceded in 1963 the role of the United States and of the CIA in planning the invasion, it was hard to comprehend the continued cloaking of the story of the four Americans.
As a college student on Spring Break, Janet traveled to Miami with a few of her friends. While they went to the beach, she wanted her questions answered. She roamed the streets of Little Havana in hopes of finding someone who knew of her father. She gathered information piece by piece. The one thing she was told consistently was that her father had been a good pilot.
During more trips to Miami and visits with Cubans in exile there, Janet found comfort in sharing the pain that engulfed her. She felt an instant kinship with the children of Cuban pilots who had never returned from the invasion. She was finally with people who understood her. And she realized why her father had given his life in an attempt to liberate Cuba.
Her trips to Miami also provided a new wealth of information on her father. She heard there was a body as well as photographs taken after his death. There were also rumors that a morgue in Havana was housing an American’s body.
As her hunt continued, Janet met her future husband, Mike Weininger, a pilot-in-training with the Air Force. She immediately felt comfortable -the smell of fuel and the flight suit reminded her of her dad. Though she didn’t talk much about her father with Mike, he fully supported her dedicated pursuit.
With the help of her cousin Tom Bailey, a Birmingham News journalist, Janet began to persuade politicians to help her. While she sent telegrams to the presidential palace in Cuba, she held a local letter writing campaign. She met Senator John Sparkman, whom she persuaded to work on the case, helping her write letters to Washington and to other influential people. She told Sparkman that the families of the four Americans had been promised medals by the CIA that were never awarded. Shortly afterwards, the family was presented the highest awarded medal, the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Cross, and the Exceptional Service Medallion. Finally, Pete’s government had honored his “devotion to duty and dedication to the national interests of the United States.” The family had been told to keep it in secrecy, but Janet had her cousin journalist snap pictures of the men who came to deliver the award.
Janet continued to push for answers from government officials. While living at the Hahn Air Base in Germany with her husband, on the 18th anniversary of her father’s death, she received an envelope from Peter Wyden, who was writing a book on the invasion and had interviewed her months earlier. During the interview, he had mentioned coming across a picture taken by the Cuban government of two dead American pilots. The envelope contained a picture of her dead father.
In the summer of 1979, the Cuban government finally caved in to the pressure. Confirming it had Pete Ray’s body, it agreed to return it. For eighteen years it had remained frozen, intact, at a Havana morgue. They sent the Ray family a bill of over $30,000 for storage charges. Janet refused to pay. The body was still shipped back.
Pregnant with her first child, Janet waited at Birmingham Municipal Airport for the plane carrying her father’s body. Coincidentally, this was the same runway her father had taken off from some eighteen years prior. At the morgue at Cooper Green Hospital, Janet, her husband, her cousin Tom Bailey, her brother, and her father’s brother sat in front of Pete’s coffin. Before the autopsy was performed, Janet insisted on seeing the body. She had traveled to far in her quest, she wanted to see for herself. She needed closure.
Thomas (Pete) Willard Ray was buried on December 8, 1979 with full military honors. There was a twenty-one-gun salute and four jets flew overhead in his memory. Janet tucked a five-page letter she had written him into the pocket of her father’s uniform. It spoke of her happiness over his return home and how proud she was of him. In it, she wrote to him that at first she didn’t understand why he had risked his life to fight in someone else’s war. But, after years of talking to Cuban veterans and their families, she knew he had done it for the sake of freedom.
On July 21, 1980, Janet gave birth to a baby boy whom Mike and Janet named Pete in memory of her father. Several years later, they had a daughter, Christina. Over time, the story of what happened to Pete Ray was pieced together. On the second day of the invasion, his B-26 had been hit by fire from a Cuban T-33 fighter just as it had finished a run bombing Castro’s headquarters at the Australian sugar mill. In a forced landing, the copilot, flight engineer Francis Baker, was killed. Pete had survived the crash landing and had disembarked the plane with his pistol in hand, firing. He was hit by automatic gunfire in the abdomen and right hand. As Cuban medics tended to his wounds at a Cuban medical installation, one of Castro’s militiamen, following orders of the Castro brothers, shot him pointblank to the right temple. The body had been kept in a freezer at a morgue and exhibited as a war trophy, pulled out on occasion to kick and spit on it.
In 1998, Janet went to the remote mountains of northern Nicaragua with the families of two Brigade 2506 pilots who died during the Bay of Pigs invasion on the return flight to the base in Nicaragua. Her quest to bring home the pilots to their loved ones, for a burial with honor and dignity, she had secured funds from the CIA for a mission led by the U.S. Army after another persuasion campaign, knocking on doors of government officials, politicians, and other influential people, and repeatedly traveling to Washington. She helped recover the remains near the village of San Jose de Bocay in the Department of Jinotega.
When the mission was completed, Janet’s heart was broken with grief. She had to say good-bye to the local people who had lived and fought a war and now were forgotten, living in extreme poverty in a remote and rough terrain. So, she founded Wings of Valor Inc. (wingsofvalor.org), a non-profit organization “dedicated to rebuilding lives torn apart by war, poverty, and disaster.” Over several years, she has delivered tons of humanitarian assistance to Nicaragua and other Central American countries.
After Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America, Janet persuaded Delta Airlines to provide an airplane for her to bring aid to a remote area where no other humanitarian organizations are helping even today. When the well-funded humanitarian organizations weren’t willing to help in the remote areas, Janet called for the Calvary. The USAF Reserve unit at Homestead answered the call and volunteers mobilized the youth of the community to participate in Operation Backpack, a school relief project where schools were asked to donate those items that would have been throw away. Some of Wings of Valor other projects include Operation Tambourine, a music relief project; Operation Team Spirit, a sports relief project; Operation Medic, a medical relief project; and Operation Needle and Thread, a sewing relief project. In some cases, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA) have provided assistance and transportation. Once at the destination, teams travel by mule into areas where no roads exist to reach those in need.
In the Spring of 2003, as the Castro government cracked down on dozens of peaceful dissidents and writers, Janet decided she would present a wrongful death case against the Fidel Castro and the Cuban government to seek some justice for its deeds. As 75 Cuban dissidents were sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison, Janet knocked on doors again and found a legal team that would represent her. In November of 2004, she was awarded nearly $87 million for the execution of her father and the desecration of his body. $65 million were in punitive damages and another $18 million as compensatory damages for pain and suffering. More than $3.5 million was awarded to her father’s estate, for which Janet is the representative.
But, the funds for compensation, Cuban government funds held frozen for over four decades in U.S. bank accounts since the U.S. embargo was imposed, were not made available by the U.S. government. In November of 2006, a New York federal judge ordered J.P. Morgan bank to turn over $23.9 million in the frozen funds to Janet and $66 million to the family of Howard Anderson, which had won damages in 2004 against the Cuban government.
The plaintiffs used a 1996 law that allows victims of designated terrorist states to sue for damages. The 101-page ruling marked the first time that a 2002 anti-terrorism statute was applied to allow the terrorism victims to recover damages from blocked assets of a designated terrorist state. And it marked only the second time that families who sued the Cuban government for wrongful death claims could collect from the country’s frozen U.S. bank accounts. The families of Brothers to the Rescue pilots murdered by Cuban Air Force MIGS in 1996 had won judgments and had been compensated with frozen Cuban funds released at the order of the Clinton Administration.
Janet says the award could never fill the void left by her father’s death and plans to set up a foundation to help the children of Castro’s victims, those whose parents and grandparents never came home. The Cuban government issued a statement in January 2007 calling the awards to the Anderson and Ray families illegitimate and contrary to international law and declaring the funds “stolen” by the U.S. government.
Today, Janet lives in Miami, Florida, where her husband Mike is a pilot flying out of Homestead Airport. She has a son, Pete, a daughter, Christina, and a baby grandson.
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The Miami Herald, Sunday Magazine, June 21, 1987.
“CIA Widows,” Look magazine, June 30, 1964.
“Cuba slams payment for American Bay of Pigs dead,” Reuters (The Washington Post), Havana, January 10, 2007.
“Families get $91M in frozen Cuban assets,” Associated Press, The Miami Herald, November 18, 2006.
“La Habana denuncia el “robo” en EEUU de “fondos cubanos ilegalmente congelados en bancos norteamericanos,” Europa Press, La Habana, 10 enero 2007.
“Putting the pinch on tyrants’ finances,” Editorial, The Miami Herald, October 3, 2006.
Perez, Evan. “OfficeMax Thwarts Families’ Attempts To Tap Cuba Funds,” The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2006, Page A1.
Ray Weininger, Janet. Telephone and personal interviews, July and August 2006.
Liz Balmaseda, “U.S. women battle Cuba over dads’ executions,” Palm Beach Post, January 15, 2007.
EXECUTED ONE INFAMOUS NIGHT WITH DOZENS MORE
Executed by Firing Squad on January 13, 1959 in Santiago de Cuba. U.S. citizen by birth born In Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Policeman and pilot. Resident of Reparto Aguero, Santiago de Cuba.
Both Benito’s mother and father were from Puerto Rico. The family was well off and his father wanted to extend his enterprises to Cuba. Benito left with his father for Cuba to establish businesses there. They did very well, owned three coffee plantations and even their own private plane. Benito loved the police force and when he came of age, decided to join. He married a Cuban woman and had five children. The family lived in Palma Soriano, Oriente province.
Benito was a pilot. Guillermo, his oldest child, remembered how hearing him circling the family home from above. He would get so excited knowing his father was coming to get him. Benito was very dashing and loved the life of uniform. He joined the police force and served under Batista, the man who happened to be in power, but his family says he was a good and respected man who did harm to no one.
When Batista fled and the revolutionaries came to power, on January 1, 1959, a fellow policeman had gone into hiding and asked him to join in. He had declined, saying he was well known and regarded, has always done his duty, never committed any crimes, and had nothing to fear. But, he was detained and on January 11 or 12 and taken to Santiago, falsely accused of raping a woman. Raúl Castro decided to have scores of “Batistianos” killed. They fabricated charges and on the night of January 12th and until the next morning, executed dozens –some say up to 164 men.
They took them to an old airfield, dug trenches, stood them in front, and shot them. A witness , someone who participated but later turned against the government, told the family he had fallen down, shot in the leg. A lieutenant walked over and shot him on the head.
Guillermo was 14, an intern at the Escolapios de Guanabacoa school, when they notified of his father’s death. The family left Cuba in 1960 for New York. Guillermo enlisted in the Army, served during the Cuban Missile Crisis, married, had children, and is a Protestant Chaplain. He adored his father and all his life he wanted to be like his father, becoming for example a pilot, like him and living Puerto Rico for ten years. He often serves a Chaplain on cruise ships that circle Cuba. He stares at the island, with grief in his heart. He cannot go to Cuba, is on a government black list.
When he attended the Memorial Cubano 2004 in Miami and saw the cross with his father’s name, he broke down, sobbing. He had never had a chance to mourn his father at his tomb.
Source: Personal and telephone interviews with Reverend Guillermo Cortes, son, living in Miami, 2006 and 2007. Copies of birth and death certificates.
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THE CUBEÑAS FAMILY
Ramón Cubeñas Ibern, Age 56
Resident of Manzanillo, Oriente province, Cuba. Executed March 3, 1966 in Bayamo, Oriente. Landowner / Businessman. Longtime member and former President of the Manzanillo Rotary Club.
Cubeñas Ibern had filed a complaint at INRA (Instituto de Reforma Agraria, the government entity managing the Castro government’s agrarian reform) for having confiscated his land despite not meeting the plot size that called for confiscation. A known anti-Communist, he was given a citation in Santiago, told his case would be reviewed. When he arrived, he was arrested at taken to “El Castillito” prison in Santiago. (This was in 1965.) A few days later, government forces searched and ransacked his house and arrested his wife, Maria del Carmen Conde, and accused her of being his co-conspirator. She served two years in prison.
Cubeñas Ibern was tried at a theater in his hometown of Manzanillo, with speakers blasting the proceedings, and was not allowed a defense. He was sentenced to death, accused of conspiring against the government, committing arson against a sugar mill, and spying. During the trial, his demeanor is reported to have been serene, composed, and firm.
He was survived by his wife and his daughter Rosa Maria. His son, Ramón Cubeñas Conde, had been killed at age 23 in 1961 in an anti-Castro infiltration mission from overseas.
After Castro came to power and imposed a socialist regime, Ramón went into exile and took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion that failed to topple Castro. He became a member of U.S governmen-sponsored infiltration teams to Cuba in opposition of the Communist regime. On October 26, 1964, the boat loaded with explosives in which he was traveling to the island exploded, presumably by accident. He and three other team members died.
Ramón Cubeñas Labrada (No Photo Available)
Father of Ramón Cubeñas Ibern and grandfather of Ramón Cubeñas Conde.
In 1961, told that his land was being confiscated by the Castro government, he committed suicide by firing a pistol to his head.
A young man killed whose family paid dearly
José Adonis Peña Calzada, Age 17
Anti-Castro rebel killed in combat on January 6, 1961 during the Escambray uprising. Resident of Trinidad, Las Villas (near the Circuito Sur highway).
Enrique Encinosa’s book Unvanquished: Cuba’s Resistance to Fidel Castro (Los Angeles: Pureplay Press, 2004) offers a superb account of the rural uprising in the early 1960’s, in which thousands of Cubans lost their lives and entire families were sent to concentration camps. Eventually resettled, they were never allowed to return home. Most of the rebels were small farmers opposed to the Communist government’s confiscation of their land. Many were also former members of the Rebel Army against Batista who felt that Castro had betrayed the ideals of the Revolution.
To squash the uprising, the Castro regime sent waves of thousands of men to comb the countryside area in what it called “limpias” (“clearings”). The small groups of rebels would end up trapped, many deliberately burnt alive in the fields. Insurgents and peasant families in the combat areas endured other horrible atrocities. Scores of those captured were executed, often after summary trials or no trial at all. Among the victims, Cuba Archive has documented 14 minors executed for taking part in the anti-Castro uprising, and more than a dozen under age 18 are documented to have died in combat. Often, all the men in the family joined the uprising. Many men on the side of the Castro militia and army also died in combat.
José Adonis, age 17, left to join the Escambray rebels in July of 1960. His brother, 15, left a month later. His father also joined. They all opposed Castro’s rule and Communism. They were all in separate groups of insurgents. Fellow rebels related the story of his death to his family. José Adonis had a Remington rifle that was malfunctioning. To recharge, he had to hit the cartridge against something. In a combat situation on January 6, 1961, the order to retreat was given. Because of his rifle’s malfunction, he was left essentially disarmed.As he tried to retreat, he was shot from the side. The government confirmed his death to the family, but his body was not returned for burial, which was customary in the case of rebels. They were buried elsewhere, in locations unknown to their loved ones.
His brother, Juan Antonio Peña Calzada, was captured February 6, 1961 and was sent to several different prisons. After serving one and a half years, he was released conditionally because he was a minor. On December 15, 1971, most former insurgents from the area (about 3,000) were rounded up and taken to Pinar del Rio, where they were put to work building houses and paid very low wages. A few months later, over 200 of them were sent to Miraflores, Camaguey, to work in a concentration camp setting. After they built the houses, their families were forcibly relocated there. They could not leave the premises without authorization and were given very little and awful food. He spent 24 years there. Both his father and mother died there. He left for exile in 1999. The Escambray uprising was finally extinguished in 1964. It was mostly composed of small farmers and peasants whose lands had been confiscated by the government.
Sources: Encinosa, 1989, p. 156. Ruiz, 1972, p. 56. Circuito Sur, July 2002, p. 64. Testimony of cousin, Rafael Catoni, in person, Miami, February 22, 2004. Written testimony of brother, Juan Antonio Peña Calzada, March 6, 2005 input form to Cuba Archive and telephone conversation of April 3. 2006.
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The Martin Family
Residents of Mariel, Pinar del Rio, Cuba. Drowned August 7, 1994 in the Florida Straits attempting to flee Cuba for the United States.
The family left on a small boat from Mariel, Pinar del Rio Province, with another family of three, by the last name Busot. On another boat was a group of 5 or 6 relatives, also from Mariel.
On August 7, 1994, in the Florida Straits, a storm developed and their boat capsized and they plus the Busot couple drowned. Only the child of the Busot family was saved, as he was pulled to safety unto the other boat.
Sources: Testimony by Armando Martín’s uncle, resident of Florida, March 2006.The survivors, who made it to Florida, told the story on local media, including Channel 23.
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Juan Owen Delgado Temprana. Asesinado el 3 de marzo del 1981.En Villa Marista, Seguridad de Estado, La Habana.
Juan Owen, de 15 años, era estudiante de secundaria. Su padre, Rómulo, había sido jefe de seguridad marítima en Pinar del Río y era capitán del Ministerio del Interior (MININT). Se dio cuenta de que no estaba de acuerdo con el gobierno y que se sentía traicionado. Pero él y sus cuatro hermanos tenían una larga historia de servicio a la revolución. Habían sido miembros del movimiento 26 de julio, que dirigía Fidel Castro en oposición a Batista y, al triunfo de la revolución, cuatro fueron a trabajar a Seguridad de Estado, para el Ministerio del Interior. El quinto se unió a las Fuerzas Armadas, peleó en Argelia y tenía el grado de teniente. Pascual Ovidio peleó en Argelia en los años sesenta y obtuvo el grado de teniente. Domingo Jorge y Rafael pelearon en Angola. Rafael, con grado de capitán, fue a Portugal a desempeñarse como oficial de inteligencia. Domingo, con grado de teniente, pasó a ser juez. Jesús peleó en Yemen en los años sesenta y estaba a cargo de ideología para las Fuerzas Armadas. Rómulo y Pascual Ovidio fueron los primeros en desencantarse y se integraron a la oposición.
Fueron traicionados por un allegado, el Dr. Otto Hernández Cosío y les avisaron que los iban a detener. Decidieron que la única opción que tenían era la de pedir asilo político y lo hicieron en la embajada de Ecuador con sus familias. Rómulo, su esposa y tres hijos, Juan Owen, de 15, Germán de 12 y Reylán, de 11, junto con nueve otros familiares (catorce personas en total -tres mujeres y cuatro menores de edad) penetraron la embajada de Ecuador con un revolver viejo y una pistola. Tan pronto entraron a la embajada, entregaron las armas. El embajador, Jorge Pérez Concha, les dio asilo enseguida y empezaron las negociaciones para sacarlos del país.
Una semana más tarde, salió a buscarles comida. Casi de inmediato, tropas cubanas tomaron la embajada, sin autorización del gobierno de Ecuador. Todos fueron detenidos, los menores separados de los padres. Nueve días más tarde los padres fueron informados que su hijo Juan Owen había muerto. Los llevaron al cementerio sólo unos minutos para enterrarlo. Luego supieron que el cadáver había sido desenterrado y llevado a otro lugar. Como el caso estaba recibiendo atención internacional, el gobierno cubano dio dos versiones de muertes accidentales. Según testigos de la familia, Juan Owen había sido devuelto a casa luego de sufrir una salvaje golpiza a mano de sus captores en la sede de Seguridad de Estado de la Habana, en el antiguo colegio de Villa Marista. Una de las orejas le colgaba de la cabeza. Su rostro estaba lleno de moretones y los ojos hinchados. A los pocos días entró en coma y murió.
A pesar de las protestas de Ecuador, los padres y tíos de Owen fueron sentenciados a prisión, la madre por quince años, el padre por 42 años y medio. Los demás, salvo los menores, también. Domingo, el hermano juez que no había participado del intento de asilo, abandonó su cargo y los representó en el juicio. Por esto, fue puesto en prisión por ocho años. Gracias a las gestiones del gobierno ecuatoriano y cierto apoyo internacional, se acortaron algunas sentencias. Rómulo salió de prisión a los quince años.
Fuentes: Testimonio del tío, Pascual Delgado, al Archivo Cuba, 18/2/2007 y 1/3/2007. La familia conserva amplia documentación de las gestiones del gobierno de Ecuador a partir del pedido de asilo. Mirta Ojito, “A Heartfelt Campaign for Cuban Hostages,” The Miami Herald, Sunday, October 25, 1992, p. 1J.
This document is available only on the Spanish page of this website. If you wish to look it up, please see “Asesinado intentando escapar de Cuba: Miguel Guerra, 1991” in the section “Reseñas.”
This document is available only on the Spanish page of this website. Pñease see “Asesinado al rehusarse a la extracción de su sangre antes de fusilarlo,” in the section “Reseñas.”
This document is available only on the Spanish page of this website. Please see “Policía fusilado sin causa: Raúl Clausell, 1959” in the section “Reseñas.”
A daughter’s testimony: “My father lived and died for his beliefs.”
By Maria C. Werlau
Armando Cañizares Gamboa, Age 28, from Camaguey, Cuba, exiled in Miami, Florida.
Member of Brigade 2506, Missing in Action, presumed killed April 21, 1961 at Bay of Pigs, Cuba.
My father, Armando, had fought in the Sierra Maestra under Che Guevara. He and his two brothers, Francisco and Julio, had joined the Rebel Army to help free Cuba of the Batista dictatorship. Although they were only in their twenties, their commitment to restore democracy was deep.
My father was particularly anti-Communist and, in fact, told as much to Ché Guevara during a conversation they had in the mountains. Later, in his memoir on the anti-Bastista fight, Ché wrote that the Cañizares brothers had returned “to fight as traitors in the invasion.”(1)
The three brothers left the mountains with a large group that took leave for opposing the cold-blooded assassination of a young member of the Rebel Army. A high-ranking Castro protégé, Lalo Sardiñas, had shot the young recruit, who was of very humble origins, for taking off his boots despite orders to keep them on,
even to sleep. Fidel had stepped in to override the legal code of the Rebel Army and the deed had gone unpunished.
After hiding for a few months inside Cuba, my father, his brothers, and a friend left for exile in the United States. While in hiding, he had met my mother. She too was a member of the 26th of July opposition movement, supporting in the fight against the Batista dictatorship within the clandestine urban resistance move-ment. They married in Miami in November 1958.
On January 1, 1959, at dawn, Batista fled the country and the revolutionary forces assumed power. My parents arrived on one of the first planes to land in Cuba with the leadership of the 26th of July movement in exile. My mother, several weeks pregnant, was carrying me in her womb.
my parents became very concerned with the turn of events and were particularly appalled at the executions and summary trials immediately initiated by the new Castro government. Realizing Castro had no intentions to restore democracy, my father and his brothers joined the underground opposition that quickly organized against Castro, whose ranks were filling with old-timers from the anti-Batista struggle. Eventually, a former comrade in arms from their days in the Sierra tipped my father off that a case was being prepared against him. In those days, people caught conspiring against the government were quickly executed. So, in May of 1960 we left the country in a hurry, arriving in Miami. I was only eight months old. My mother was six months pregnant with my brother.
In the fall of 1960, a military force of Cuban exiles was organized and trained covertly by the United States to invade Cuba and topple Castro. My mother pled with my father for him not to join. They had two babies and, newly exiled, very little money. But he told her that he had helped put Castro in power and his moral duty –to his children and to Cuba- was to help get him out.
My uncles Julio and Francisco, as well as my aunt’s husband, José, joined the Brigade. Four wives and seven small children stayed behind in the United States, praying and waiting. My father left for the training camps in Guatemala on January 18, 1961. We never saw him again. Luckily, my uncles made it back.
The invasion began on April 17, 1961. At the Bay of Pigs, my father and his brother Julio were part of a small group that fought intensely and had managed to avoid capture for four days. Dismayed at the lack of promised air support, they were outnumbered many times over and clobbered by Castro’s airplanes, which were to have been disabled. Realizing the invasion was doomed, they were attempting to break through surrounding Castro forces to join the insurgency in the Escambray mountains. Exhausted and hungry, they fell asleep; the man designated to keep guard was also overcome by exhaustion. A group of militiamen shot at them and a gunfire exchange ensued. He and a friend, Manuel Rionda, were badly injured with grenade shrapnel and gunfire. Their captors refused to call in medical attention and forced the rest of their group to leave them. Manuel and my father were never seen again.
My grandparents in Cuba had been confined with thousands of Cubans suspected of counter-revolutionary sentiments as part of the mass raids that followed the invasion. After their release, when my grandmother learned of my father’s likely death and my uncle’s imprisonment, she was consumed by grief and suffered a heart attack. Luckily, she survived. My father’s death -real or presumed- had fallen on her birthday.
The families in Cuba desperately searched for Manuel and my father. The Cuban government refused to provide information or confirm their deaths despite insistent pleas, including those channeled through the International Red Cross. Manuel’s mother was extorted of a considerable sum of money, hard to come by in Cuba in those days. The promised return of both bodies for burial was only a scam by a member of the Cuban military preying on a grieving mother.
While my uncle Julio was held with the rest of the Brigade captives, more suffering was showered on the families of the prisoners. Visits by family members were opportunities for the Castro government to humiliate and abuse them. My grandmother later related how the women would be stripped, searched disrespectfully, and mocked. Among appalling things she witnessed were female prison guards tossing about the breast prosthesis of an elderly woman who had gone to visit her son.
Back in Miami, ample drama and turmoil surrounded our lives. My mother and her parents, with almost no money, had two infants and several trauma-tized teenagers in their care. Cousins had been sent from Cuba without their parents to escape Communism as part of a Catholic Church sponsored program known as “Peter Pan.” Many of my mother’s best friends were going through the same situation, their husbands captured, injured or killed. Many didn’t even die in combat. They were hunted down after their ammunition was gone or executed on the spot. Nine Brigade members were murdered by asphyxia -their captors had viciously piled over a hundred men into a sealed, unventilated, trailer. Their oven of death had taken eight hours to reach Havana as the men desperately cried for mercy.
A few weeks after the invasion, my mother was at a doctor’s office in Miami seeking treatment for chronic headaches, likely brought on by stress. She picked up a Life magazine with a photo report of the invasion. There, she found a picture she took to be of my father, seemingly dead. When my uncle was released from prison, he confirmed that he had tied my father’s ID tag 3
to his pants, as it had been broken off by the bullets, as seen in the picture. I learned of the existence of this photograph when I was seventeen. My mother refused to show it to me. She didn’t even keep it at our house. I went to the library at university and found it.
Years later, in 1981, I received information from a very persistent man living in Las Vegas that my father and his cousin were alive in a prison in Cuba. He described my father physically, referred to his deep green eyes, knew he was from Camaguey, and spoke of his two brothers by name. Because I wouldn’t submit my mother to the emotional turmoil, I called my uncles for help. After investigating, they found out the man was a suspected Castro spy living in the United States. We assumed he just wanted to prey on whoever he could find. My mother didn’t learn of this incident for years, but this cruelty could not have been better timed. Just a few months earlier, my family had suffered a devastating loss -my beloved only brother, Armando Cañizares III, had been killed in a car accident.
My mother never remarried. She and my father had been very much in love. She remained passionately committed to seeing Cuba free and worked tirelessly on human rights issues, including participating actively in the Cuba Archive project and in the group Mothers Against Repression (M.A.R.). She succumbed to cancer in July of 2008. This was a devastating loss for me, but she left a great trail of love that is always with me. Her love of others, of her country, and of freedom, her commitment to global harmony and justice, her deep faith in God, and her stoicism in the face of profound trials and suffering, constantly inspire me.
My brother was nineteen when he was so unexpectedly taken from us. In my deep grief, what probably hurt most was knowing he had needed a father more than I had -and I had a great deal. The loss of my father marked his parents and siblings forever. The extended family and friends also grieved. I have seen how the effect of these losses is like that of a drop on a pond, reverberating as in concentric rings, causing pain to many, many, people at varying levels of intensity depending on their closeness. I see this all the time in my work with loved ones of those who’ve died. In other words, the highest price is paid by those who’ve lost their lives, but there are many more victims, at all sorts of levels.
My grandparents managed to leave Cuba and came to the United States in 1965. Their country’s fate was sealed -a system sustained on hatred and by an iron fist now seemed irreversible. They had suffered the loss of their son, the separation from all their children and grandchildren, and the defeat of the best attempts to liberate Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and through the rebellion in the mountains, mostly in the Escambray. Their land had been taken as part of the confiscation of private property by the Communist state. With nowhere else to go, they had to remain in their house at the ranch, facing daily humiliations and watching as inept state cadres destroyed their life’s work.
I remember vividly when my grandparents arrived at the airport. I was six years old. It was a big day, my brother, my cousins, and I were very excited –we had never met them. We even got to miss school! My grandmother had a reputation of being very strong of character; the thought of being in her presence scared me. Yet, since our very first meeting, we bonded. She would often tell me that looking at me was like seeing my father. Indeed, she was very strong, but tears would always come to her eyes each time my father’s name was mentioned.
My uncle Julio, who was with my father at the Bay of Pigs, has never really gotten over his death and the trauma of their failed effort to make Cuba free, …still, after all these years. They adored each other and were always together. One of my earliest memories is seeing him sitting on the front steps of his home in Miami, recently released from a Cuban prison, watching his small daughter and my brother and I play. I must have been just three years old, but i could grasp that he was a very, very, sad, man.
My other uncle, Francisco, died last year. After the invasion, he had risked his life repeatedly as part of the infiltration teams organized and funded by the Kennedy Administration to support the resistance inside Cuba. We still have a beautiful seashell he brought back from one of the trips.
My four grandparents are all now gone, they never saw their homeland again. My maternal grandmother had the most positive personality imaginable. She endured her many sorrows in private, never complained about anything, and was fun and funny until the very last day of her 91 years. Yet, the last words she uttered, as she lay dying, were pining for her native city, which she had last seen 37 years before: “Ahhh, the streets of Santiago…” In her hand, she held on tightly to the miniature silver statue of the Virgen de la Caridad, the patron virgin of Cuba, one of the few things she had brought with her to exile. My uncle on mother’s side also never returned, sadly succumbing to cancer much too young in 1999. We always talked about Cuba. An engineer with the noblest of characters, he had a deep love for his country and was developing a plan for the reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure.
All these good people, who I loved so, left this world with a heavy heart for not being able to return to their beloved homeland and see it free. Theirs is the story of so many Cubans who’ve endured the deepest of sorrows. The shared pain weighs heavier because this long nightmare is not over. And, in many ways, we have been the lucky ones -people on the island have it much worse.
One day, Cuba will be free and the Cuban people will finally forge their destiny, in peace, and with hope in their future. Meanwhile, the dream lives on. It is our duty to make it come true.
(1) Ernesto Che Guevara, Pasajes de la Guerra Revo-lucionaria, 3ra edición, México, Editorial Era, S.A., 1969, pp. 146-147.
–Originally published in New Jersey, USA, April 2006. Updated and re-edited April 19, 2017.
The author: Maria Werlau is Executive Director and founder of Cuba Archive. She now resides in Miami, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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