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DOWNEY – Fernando Marquet, one of the 1,400 Cuban exiles who took part in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro and lived to tell about it, vows to propagate the cause of freedom in Cuba “until the day I die.” (In all, 114 were reported killed in the 3-day battle; the rest were captured and jailed.)
According to him, conditions in the Communist island nation of 11 million people continue to deteriorate today, even while Fidel, who’s pushing 88 and in bad health, has supposedly transferred the reins of power to his brother, Raul: repression is still very much the rule in the once vibrant country, there’s zero tolerance for dissent more than ever, and young minds are fed a steady diet of ideas and values fundamentally, diametrically opposed to our treasured ideals of liberal democracy.
Marquet was not yet 18 when he dropped his business classes at the University of Havana and flew to Florida because “I didn’t like what I was seeing” and didn’t want to live under Castro’s oppressive Communist regime. He soon after joined a like-minded group that continued to grow committed to unseating Castro, just as the latter, with the help of the charismatic Che Guevarra and Raul, overthrew Fulgencio Batista as 1959 began.
They were made to believe that the U.S. (courtesy of the CIA) would back them, including providing air cover and sea support. They would receive training, and when the invasion began, an uprising of dissident Cubans would join the battle. This added fervor to their undertaking.
Most of them, including Fernando’s group, trained in Guatemala. The organization came to be known as Brigade 2506, in honor of one of its earliest recruits who while undergoing training one day slipped and plunged into a ravine: his serial number was 2506.
Fernando was an infantryman in the 5th Battalion, as was his older cousin, Jorge Marquet. Together they survived the landing and fighting (they were strafed as well by one of Castro’s B-26 planes) on Red Beach, or otherwise referred to as Playa Larga.
Their ship was the commercial freighter “Houston.” When its captain managed to run it aground on a sandbar, 400 yards from shore, he saved the ship from sinking, while the men scrambled to reach the shore; some jumped in the water where sharks took care of a few of them.
To make the story short, Fernando was captured and, along with the other brigadistas, made the horrific trip to Havana. Horrific because the trip, which ordinarily took three hours, was stretched to nine hours. Making matters worse, infinitely worse, was the fact that the men, numbering about 150, were packed into this one paneled truck which had no opening whatsoever.
Here is how Jim Rasenberger describes the ordeal in his book, “Brilliant Disaster”: “As the truck rumbled north under the beating sun, the air became hotter and more stifling…Men shouted out for help. The devout prayed with rosary beads. Others desperately began to claw and scrape the walls, some using belt buckles to gouge small but precious air holes. ‘At one point, we felt rain inside,’ recalled one. ‘It was the condensation of our sweat falling from the ceiling. People drank it’. A paratrooper passed out and had a vision of his own death…By the time the truck reached Havana that evening and the doors finally opened to the fresh air, nine more men were dead.”
Most of them ended up in the Castillo del Principe prison. The prison featured stone dungeons “with thick, damp walls, snarling guard dogs, scurrying rats. The toilet was a hole in the ground. The food was tasteless gruel. Infectious diseases were rampant,” writes Rasenberger. ”
The biggest problem was the hygiene,” says Fernando. “I don’t know how we survived that ordeal.”
After almost a year of captivity, the brigadistas were tried and sentenced to 30 years of hard labor. During this time, though, efforts were already underway to have them released.
Finally, before the year 1962 was out, most of them were home.
One day after he touched down in Miami, Fernando, always alert to opportunity, was on his way to L.A. along with a few others, where Fernando eventually found work with Pan American Airlines, from 1968 to 1991. He says he did everything, ticketing, baggage handling, etc., and ended up as an accountant.
In the meantime, in 1972, he started his own cleaning business here in L.A. Today, he says, with a staff of 10, his thriving business cleans 18 major airlines.
There have been many accounts written of the plight of these Bay of Pigs ‘brigadistas’-but the basic narrative consists of how the invasion was doomed from the start because of aborted critical sorties, indecision and miscalculation at the top, unanticipated situations, loss of vital supplies of food, ammunition, and fuel, miscommunication, etc.
It was thus, alternately, a glorious and a tragic time. Historians, political pundits, and others agree the events that roiled those days shaped the course of history in many ways. But certainly one of its basic themes, perhaps its main theme, that’s safeguarded to this day is the inviolability of our democratic ideals.
It is in this context that, politically and socially, Fernando relishes his role as an ex-political prisoner and human rights activist.
His imprint is everywhere: he has organized, produced, and promoted video materials, projects and events for the benefit of former colleagues, friends, artists, and other worthwhile causes; he has fundraised for favorite politicians; he once went out of his way to assist a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses just because he realized they were in a real bind. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he says.
“What we hope to see is Cuba’s peaceful transition to a civil society,” he says. “Can you imagine a day when Cuba has free elections?”
This reporter is not exactly sure if the majority of the estimated 75,000 Cuban Americans living in Los Angeles has heard of the man and his “message.” Not to worry, that day is bound to come.
“Spread the word-this is my mission,” he says.
Published: June 28, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 11