Thousands in Miami’s sunny Orange Bowl stood and cheered as one, thrilled to ecstasy and even tears of joy by what they’d just witnessed on the field.
“On behalf of my government and my country, I welcome you to the United States,” President John F. Kennedy told 1,183 men of Brigade 2506 on Dec. 29, 1962.
The brave but bedraggled members of this Cuban refugee assault brigade had just been released from a Cuban prison, where they’d been held since their 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs failed, dooming (maybe just for a while, most believed) their liberation of Cuba from Fidel Castro’s still-new dictatorship.
They were swapped by Castro’s Cuba for $53 million worth of food and medicine.
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The brigade presented its blue and yellow flag to America’s new president that day in the Orange Bowl — and their fellow Cubans in the stands burst into cheering and tearing when Kennedy replied: “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.”
Much has happened around the world in the half century since America’s president made that promise. But in a real-politics sense, nothing has happened in Cuba.
The Soviet Union made Cuba its communist client and built a Soviet nuclear submarine base at an island off Cuba’s city of Cienfuegos.
During the heat of that Cold War era, Europe’s socialist left intellectuals initially were enamored of Fidel Castro — until Castro arrested a famous Cuban poet, Heberto Padilla, for counter-revolutionary thoughts in 1971, releasing him two months later only when Padilla confessed to intellectual sins.
The Soviet empire collapsed and shattered. Eastern Europe’s Soviet satellites became capitalist democracies. But Castro’s Cuba remained ever communistic, a politically orphaned island, economically adrift in the Caribbean to this day.
On Wednesday, another American president made another famous speech about Cuba, this time heralding a decidedly different prospect for the future.
President Obama is reopening diplomatic relations and embassies in Washington and Havana, exchanges will increase and he will work with Congress to ease, if not end, the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that clearly has outlived its limited usefulness.
Reactions varied. But interestingly, incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker of Tennessee issued a thoughtful response, promising to “closely examine” Obama’s initiative.
Corker added: “The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping.”
While the yellow and blue “Brigada Asalto 2506” flag remains displayed at Miami’s modest Bay of Pigs Museum, Corker’s carefully chosen words may be a harbinger that a hopeful new era in U.S.-Cuba relations has begun.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist.