Thousands in Miami’s sunny Orange Bowl stood and cheered as one, thrilled to ecstasy and even tears of joy by what they’d just witnessed on the field.
Surely no football star had ever thrilled a crowd quite the way these faithful true believers were just moved by the young man down on the field, who was standing, bareheaded in the breeze and movie-star handsome.
“On behalf of my government and my country, I welcome you to the United States,” President John F. Kennedy had just told 1,183 men of Brigade 2506, on this day, Dec. 29, 1962. The brave but bedraggled members of this Cuban refugee assault brigade had just been released from a Cuban prison, where they’d been held since their 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs failed, dooming (maybe just for a while, most believed) their liberation of Cuba from Fidel Castro’s still-new dictatorship. They were swapped by Castro’s Cuba in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine.
“… Your conduct and valor are proof that although Castro and his fellow dictators may rule nations, they do not rule people; that they may imprison bodies, but they do not imprison spirits; that they may destroy the exercise of liberty, but they cannot eliminate the determination to be free.”
The brigade presented its blue and yellow flag to America’s new president that day in the Orange Bowl — and their fellow Cubans in the stands had burst into cheering and tearing, when Kennedy replied: “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.”
Much has happened around the world in the half century (plus two years) since America’s president made that promise. But in a real-politics sense, nothing has happened in Cuba.
The Soviet Union made Cuba its communist client and built a Soviet nuclear submarine base at an island off Cuba’s city of Cienfuegos. During the heat of that Cold War era, Europe’s socialist left intellectuals initially were enamored of Fidel Castro. Until Castro arrested a famous Cuban poet, Heberto Padilla, for counter-revolutionary thoughts in 1971, releasing him two months later only when Padilla confessed to intellectual sins. That led 60 famous European and U.S. leftists, including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, to publicly break with Castro, believing Padilla most have been tortured to issue such a confession.
(Interlude: As a young Newsday correspondent, I went to Cuba then hoping to find out what really happened to Padilla. Castro’s agents, who were wiretapping Padilla’s phone, got to him first, took him out of Havana to hide him from me. But, posing as a writer from then-Marxist Chile, I discovered Padilla’s whereabouts, found him working in exile on a citrus plantation and interviewed him. Padilla hadn’t been physically tortured, but was interrogated daily and knew he’d never see his wife and child again unless he trumped up a confession. Newsday published my story while I was still there — much to the clear discomfort of Castro’s intelligence agents who’d been tasked with preventing precisely that outcome.)
Fast forward: The Soviet empire collapsed and shattered. Eastern Europe’s Soviet satellites became capitalist democracies. But Castro’s Cuba remained ever communistic, a politically orphaned island, economically adrift in the Caribbean to this day.
Now this: It took a while, but on Wednesday, another American president made another famous speech about Cuba, this time heralding a decidedly different prospect for Cuba’s future. President Obama is reopening diplomatic relations and embassies in Washington and Havana, exchanges will increase and he will work with Congress to ease, if not end, the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that clearly has outlived its limited usefulness. It reportedly happened with an assist from Pope Francis.
Reactions varied, mostly as expected. Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, declared: “This is a hallelujah day!” And of course, some Republicans rushed to wail and lambast — among them Florida’s other senator, Marco Rubio.
But interestingly, incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, of Tennessee, issued a far more thoughtful response, promising to “closely examine” Obama’s initiative. Corker added: “The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping.”
While the yellow and blue “Brigada Asalto 2506” flag remains displayed, now and probably forever, at Miami’s modest Bay of Pigs Museum, Corker’s carefully chosen words may be a harbinger that a hopeful new era in U.S.-Cuba relations has begun. At long last.