Washington Forty years ago, Mario Cabello and Juan Perez Franco were comrades in arms, fighting together at the Bay of Pigs to free Cuba from Fidel Castro's communist grip. Today, the two veterans of the failed invasion are barely speaking.
Their quarrel personifies current debate about the future relationship between the United States and the island nation 100 miles off the Florida coast.
Like President Bush, Franco wants the United States to continue its hardline stance against Castro. Cabello thinks it's time to thaw relations.
Their falling out occurred on April 8 at a meeting of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Assn. in Miami's Little Havana. To shouts of "scoundrel" and "traitor," Cabello and another member were booted out of the association for attending a conference in Cuba marking the 40th anniversary of the failed invasion in the early months of John F. Kennedy's presidency.
"It's like I've been excommunicated from the church," says Cabello, who works for a Miami-area trucking company. "It saddened me the reaction of my friends.
"I exercised my freedom of travel, my freedom of expression in going to Cuba. How can they reconcile that they went to the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to fight for freedom and then now are trying to muzzle me?"
Castro, the charismatic Cuban leader who turns 75 in August, also attended the conference, which was jointly sponsored by the private, Washington-based National Security Archive, which works to declassify national security documents, and the University of Havana.
For Franco, president of the association known as Brigade 2506, that amounts to fraternizing with the enemy.
"For us, this 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs is one more reason to reaffirm our uncompromising position not to have dialogue" with the Castro government, he says.
The three-day Bay of Pigs invasion at a swampy, mosquito-infested part of Cuba's southern coast was doomed from the start.
Trained by the CIA in Guatemala, Brigade 2506 comprised about 1,500 Cuban exiles who badly wanted to overthrow Castro's government. Kennedy's refusal to provide sufficient air cover for the invaders left them vulnerable to air attacks from Castro's military. At the end, more than 1,000 had been captured and imprisoned. One hundred of the invaders and 150 of Castro's defenders were killed.
Despite some easing of charter flights and narrow openings to allow U.S. sales of food and medicine, U.S. policy toward Cuba remains much as it was during the Cold War. The 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo continues. Despite a growing movement in Congress to soften relations, Bush says he has no intention of lifting the embargo.
"Capital that goes into Cuba will be used by the Fidel Castro government to prop itself up," Bush said. "It's in our best interest to keep the pressure on Fidel Castro, until he allows free elections, free press and frees the (political) prisoners on that island."
Cabello, who was ousted from the Bay of Pigs veterans group, says it's time to diminish rhetoric on both sides. But for Franco, time has changed nothing. At 72, he wishes he could go back to the Bay of Pigs and try one more time to oust Castro.