By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba restored citizenship on Friday to seven veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in a gesture of reconciliation toward Cuban exiles living in the United States.
The seven men were members of the CIA (news - web sites)-trained Brigade 2506 that landed on Cuba’s south coast in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the fledgling leftist government of Fidel Castro.
They were captured and spent two years in jail in Cuba before being exiled to Miami and stripped of their Cuban citizenship.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque handed them Cuban passports and a copy of a resolution signed by Castro giving back their citizenship at a conference attended by 450 Cubans living abroad.
“It is an act of reconciliation toward the exile community,” said Luis Tornes, one of 1,200 invaders taken prisoner at the Bay of Pigs and freed in a food exchange with the United States.
“This shows that, however serious our problems are, we can resolve them among Cubans, without foreign involvement,” said Tornes, who became critical of U.S. policy on Cuba 17 years ago.
Officials of Cuba’s communist government said the symbolic gesture showed they wanted to improve relations with the Cuban emigre community of 1.5 million, half of whom live in South Florida and are staunch opponents of Castro.
About 200 moderate exiles who oppose the four-decades-old U.S. sanctions against Cuba and favor dialogue with Castro’s government traveled to Havana for the three-day conference.
“The economic blockade is the main obstacle today to normalizing relations between the Cubans who live in the United States and Cuba,” Perez Roque said in a speech.
The Bush administration this month decided to tighten sanctions by limiting cash remittances and visits by Cuban Americans to their relatives in Cuba—a move the White House said was aimed at hastening the demise of Castro’s rule.
Perez Roque said Havana had taken major strides to ease travel restrictions since it first allowed exiles to return in 1979, and 115,000 Cuban Americans visited last year. As of June 1, emigres will no longer need a visa to go to Cuba, just a valid Cuban passport authorized for multiple visits.
Cuba will begin offering university scholarships for children of emigres. It also wants to reduce the customs bureaucracy for tens of thousands of exiled Cubans who visit each year and complain of costly duties on gifts for relatives.
Perez Roque welcomed investment by emigres and called on retired Cuban Americans to settle in Cuba, though the embargo bars them from receiving U.S. social security payments if they move to the island.
Once branded “traitors” for fleeing after the 1959 revolution, Cuban exiles in Miami are now seen as a welcome source of remittances and tourist dollars for Cuba.
Migration since the mass exoduses of boat people in 1980 and 1994 has increased the number of Cuban Americans who seek closer ties with their families on the island rather than the ouster of Castro to recover confiscated property.
Havana said hard-line opponents cannot return, though one prominent exile, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a former commander in Castro’s guerrilla force, was invited to the conference.
Menoyo, who rebelled against Castro and spent 22 years in jail, returned to Cuba last year from exile in Miami, saying he wanted to establish an opposition party. His status has not yet been decided by the government.
“My presence here is a very positive gesture,” he said.