By KYLE WINGFIELD | The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. (AP)—As Fidel Castro worked his way through a line of American agricultural officials in Havana last fall, he complimented one visitor for his excellent Spanish skills.
Diego Gimenez simply smiled and moved on. He didn’t tell the Cuban dictator that he learned the language growing up in that very city — or that his last visit there was as a prisoner of war following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion 43 years ago Saturday.
He doesn’t hold grudges, even against the man who held him captive for almost two years.
“It’s not any different from when a World War II veteran goes to Europe,” says Gimenez, now an Auburn University agriculture professor and supporter of Alabama’s efforts to build limited trade with the island nation. “Yeah, you have those memories. ... But you might as well let it go and reconcile with yourself.”
Now, Gimenez hopes the United States and Cuba can reconcile four decades of poverty and distrust born of Castro’s communist government and the American government’s strict trade embargo against it.
Since Congress approved limited exports of food and medicine to Cuba four years ago, 45 states have sought to take advantage of a new market literally starved for American products, Gimenez says. Having failed to open Cuba to democracy as a soldier, he sees trade as the way to help his countrymen.
“I’m concerned with the Cuban people, basically,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “And I will do everything possible so that the 55 percent (of Cubans) that don’t have access to dollars will be able in the near future to be able to buy products.”
Not everyone sees eye-to-eye with Gimenez. Many Cuban-Americans feel the embargo should stay in place until Castro leaves power, citing the United Nations’ continuing criticisms of Castro’s human rights record and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
“I think a lot of policies that are in place aren’t going to be the be-all and end-all, and certainly the embargo’s not the be-all and end-all in Cuba,” says Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami. “The embargo alone isn’t going to get rid of Fidel Castro.
“But what it does is limit the regime’s ability to get U.S. taxpayer credits to finance itself. Cuba is the largest debtor nation per capita in the world. Why should U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for Cuba to continue to owe money? Especially to U.S. citizens?”
Gimenez points out that the legal actions of many Cuban-Americans already are undermining the stated goals of the U.S. embargo: to isolate Cuba economically and to deprive it of U.S. dollars. Each year, Americans send tens of millions of dollars to Cuban citizens, and more than 150,000 Americans citizens legally visited the island in 2002.
Given those facts, has the embargo been a failure? “You make your own judgment,” he says.
Failure aptly describes the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a force of 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the U.S. military landed on Cuba on April 17, 1961.
Gimenez was just a sophomore at the University of Florida when he began hearing of a liberation force being gathered. Already, his mother and 12-year-old sister had fled Havana, along with many of his aunts, uncles and cousins. As he learned more about the situation back in his homeland, “it became obvious that something had to be done.”
“I think we were never told, `You have to go,’ but it was expected to a certain extent,” he says. “It was a duty.”
The would-be liberators went first to Guatemala, then launched the invasion from Nicaragua, Gimenez recalls. They planned to establish a beachhead and secure the major roads leading to a nearby airport, where exiled Cuban leaders would land and proclaim themselves the rightful government of the island.
Instead, the Kennedy administration denied involvement in the raid and, under intense international pressure, abandoned plans to provide air cover. The invasion collapsed within three days, out of ammunition and supplies.
Gimenez remembers trying to escape to the Escambray Mountains with a group of five or six fellow soldiers. Hungry after running from Castro’s militia for days without food, they came upon a small hut inhabited by charcoal makers.
Inside the hut, “a woman was screaming ó she thought we were going to do harm to them ó and we said no, all we want is some food,” Gimenez recalls. “And then within 20 minutes, we could hear all the noises ó the militia. They told the militia, `We have some people.’ So we were captured.”
They were shipped eventually to Havana, where they were interrogated and then paraded before the international press. Fear, however, isn’t the emotion Gimenez remembers feeling.
“I can say that most of us, our concern was ... if we died in there, would our family ever know what happened to us? That was in most of our minds,” he says. “But when we were captured it was a sign of relief to a certain extent ... because our family would either see us on TV, or they would get a notice saying `He was captured.’ Now we didn’t know what was going to happen after that. But at least we knew that they would know we were captured.”
Gimenez finally was shipped home Dec. 23, 1962. He returned to Florida, completed his bachelor’s degree and eventually came to Auburn, where he teaches and works as an animal scientist with the Alabama extension system.
His August trip to Cuba might not have ended in capture like his previous trip, but it too seemed like the right thing to do.
“Like it or not, the future of Cuba will depend on how well the people in Cuba and other people get along,” he says. “Like it or not, the people in Cuba will have a big say-so in what happens in Cuba in the future.”