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Gen. Erneido Oliva: Second in Command at the Bay of Pigs

He still yearns for a free Cuba

Kennedy Erieno Oliva Bay of Pigs

Erneido Oliva, right, presented the Brigade 2506 flag to President John F. Kennedy during a ceremony on Dec. 29, 1962 at the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami honoring the exile fighters released by Cuba. — Courtesy

En español | Now that baseball season is here, retired Maj. Gen. Erneido Oliva will be spending a lot of time with his two grandsons watching the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

See also: Recording veterans' voices.

Oliva, whose last post was deputy commander of the District of Columbia National Guard, is hoping for a better season after the team's dismal 2010 showing. "They have only one place to go — up," he told the AARP Bulletin recently, laughing. In baseball, as in life, hope springs eternal, and nobody knows that better than Oliva. Fifty years ago, he was second in command at the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, on April 17, 1961. He plans to mark the half-century anniversary of that historic action in a church near his home in suburban Baltimore, quietly praying for his compatriots who lost their lives in the failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Oliva still harbors the same commitment to a free Cuba he carried into battle that day with the 1,400 other Cuban exile fighters who made up Brigade 2506. He was 28 at the time and certain from the moment the first shot was fired in the CIA-backed operation that Castro's two-year-old dictatorship would fall within days. It didn't happen, of course, due in part to the fact that promised American air support never came.

The brigade lost 114 men during 72 hours of combat with Castro's much larger Soviet-trained army. Oliva and the rest of his remaining men were captured when their ammunition ran out. They spent the next 20 months in a Cuban prison before the administration of President John F. Kennedy negotiated their release for $53 million in private contributions of food and medicine to Castro's government. The Cuban dictator also demanded $1.5 million in cash — the price he set for the heads of Oliva, brigade commander Jose "Pepe" San Ramon, and the brigade's political leader, Manuel Artime.

Oliva, the highest-ranking brigade member still alive, maintains to this day that he did not feel betrayed by Kennedy's refusal to authorize U.S. air strikes. "At the end of the day, I was a Cuban national fighting for the freedom of my motherland, not a 'mercenary' [of the United States], as the communists continually portrayed us," he said in a phone and email interview.

In fact, after they were freed on Christmas Eve 1962 and flown to Miami, Oliva and his fellow commanders began working almost immediately with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on other covert plans, including one already established as "Operation Mongoose," aimed at overthrowing Castro. As a symbol of their commitment — and to bury any doubts within the Cuban American community about their feelings toward President Kennedy — they presented him with the flag of Brigade 2506 during a ceremony honoring the exile fighters on Dec. 29 at the Orange Bowl stadium.

Next: Summoned to the White House. >>

Three months later, Oliva was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and began work on the secret operations as a liaison to then-Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance and his aide, Lt. Col. Alexander Haig, each of whom would later become secretary of state. His new assignment didn't last long, however. On Jan. 14, 1964, Oliva said, he was summoned to the White House, where President Lyndon Johnson personally informed him that he was scrapping operations directed at Cuba.

He said Johnson told him "the moment was not appropriate for any activity against Fidel Castro." At the time, more and more U.S. intelligence and military resources were being shifted to Vietnam.

A U.S. Army career

After that, Oliva settled into the U.S. Army. He became a company commander with the 82nd Airborne Division before retiring from active duty in 1967. A few years later, he joined the Army Reserves and rose to brigadier general. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to deputy commander of the District of Columbia National Guard, a position he held until his final retirement from the military in 1993 with the rank of major general. Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen in 1970 and worked for a brief time as a staff member for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., on the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and refugees. In 2002, President George W. Bush appointed Oliva to a three-year term on the USO Board of Governors.

Oliva is still confident a free Cuba will happen in his lifetime. He doesn't believe Castro can hold out much longer. If death doesn't get the dictator first, then "disintegrating" economic and social conditions in Cuba will, he said. He predicted a backlash against Castro and his brother, Raul, the current president of Cuba, similar to the recent upheavals in the Middle East.

Oliva's main focus, however, is on achieving a peaceful solution. That goal was part of his mission statement in 1996 when he founded the Cuban-American Military Council (CAMCO). The organization's efforts, he said, are aimed at establishing direct ties to members of Castro's military and reassuring them that the Cuban American community has no interest in fighting them or seeking vengeance for the last 52 years since Castro took power.

"There is no war in our repertoire," Oliva said, stressing the importance of the military being seen as an ally and friend of the Cuban people, not a threat, when the regime crumbles.

An Egyptian model for Cuba

"Egypt is an example of what may happen in Cuba," he added, noting how the Egyptian military assumed a nonthreatening neutral role that helped keep down violence in the recent revolution there.

Next: His 'closest friend and wisest adviser.' >>

Erneido Oliva Bay of Pigs

Erniedo Oliva, surrounded by members of his family in a recent photo. From left, seated, Vladenka Rose Oliva, Antonio Oliva, Graciela Oliva, Erneido Oliva and Michael Hemker; standing from left, Kevin Hemker, Maria Oliva-Hemker, James Hemker. — Courtesy

In addition to his CAMCO activities, Oliva also maintains what he describes as "a good relationship" with Cuban American members of Congress and with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He endorsed McCain for president in 2000 and 2008.

Oliva doesn't hide his disdain for U.S. officials who consider the Cuban exile community "too emotionally involved," as he put it, to be part of any policy decisions.

"They are correct that my Cuban generation indeed has emotion. But this is the same type of emotion that we are seeing in the daily news today coming from the Middle East and other regions where people are now rebelling against oppressive or dictatorial regimes," Oliva wrote in his email exchange with the Bulletin.

"For me personally it's very difficult to accept that it's been 50 years since our defeat at the Bay of Pigs, and 52 years since the Castro brothers have been in power," he continued. "It is difficult to believe that during half of a century and going through 11 U.S. administrations since Fidel Castro overthrew [Fulgencio] Batista, we have gone halfway around the world — to Iraq, Afghanistan — to spread freedom and democracy while a small country remains enslaved only 90 miles from our shores."

Living a quiet family life

Today, Oliva lives a quiet life in suburban Baltimore with his wife of 52 years, Graciela Ana, whom he describes as "the pillar of the family" and his "closest friend and wisest adviser." They have two children and two grandchildren, and Oliva said he's grateful and proud of what his family has been able to achieve "in this wonderful country."

His daughter, Maria, who was born in Cuba, is chief of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. She and her husband, Kevin Hemker, who chairs the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Hopkins, have two sons, James Andrus, 11, and Michael Jose, 7. The Olivas' son, Antonio, is an aeronautical engineer who did some work on the space station. He lives in Houston with his wife, Vladenka Rose, a technical writer and editor.

When he's not working on the struggle for a free Cuba, or following the Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens, Oliva said, he's "busy making the last touches to my memoirs." He's turned down several book contracts because the ending — his possible return one day to Cuba — hasn't been written yet.

"I never considered that it was the right time," he said. "I can only hope the right time will come."

Greg McDonald is a freelance writer living in Warrenton, Va.

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