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Where Are They Now?

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. >>

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