The US Flights That Helped Fidel Castro Clear Out Dissidents
Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat tried not to squirm as he sat in a bunker in Havana’s airport in 1971, waiting to board the DC-3 that would jet him and other Cuban nationals off the island. He was tense, as they all were. Eyes darted. His mother felt scandalized because authorities had seized her wedding ring just before the flight. His father felt battered; he had done two years in a work camp before being able to request leave. Orlando and his family knew that this flight would finally mean relief from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship. They also felt like they were leaping off a cliff.
“Between 1968 and 1973, they finished wiping out whatever resistance had remained,” says Gutierrez-Boronat, who now lives in Miami. Once that plane took off, he and his family soared over the Atlantic toward Spain, free from repression — but also exiled from their home.
The 5-year-old’s flight to Spain was part of a U.S.- and Spain-sponsored humanitarian airlift that removed Cubans from Fidel Castro’s communist grip during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some 300,000 fled Cuba during those years and ended up in places like New Jersey, Madrid and Miami. The Freedom Flights — as they were called by their passengers — “became a vehicle of reunification” for Cuba’s exiles, explains Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami. Gomez describes Fidel’s art of cleansing the island of dissidents by using American money as “masterful … when there was any kind of opposition, he would open the spigot and let the water flow.” That spigot saw half a million people trickling out of the dictatorship over the subsequent decades.
In 1961, the Kennedy administration botched a bid to throw out Castro and install a U.S.-friendly democracy: Washington trained Cuban exiles to invade, but when they landed in the Bay of Pigs, U.S. bombers sent to blaze the trail missed their targets — leaving the 1,400-strong group, labeled Brigade 2506, in a David vs. Goliath contest with 20,000 Cuban troops. Bogged down in bad weather, guns jammed and without reinforcements, most of the exiles wound up surrendering, and about 100 were executed. A year later, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara saw labor communes on a tour of Maoist China and brought the idea back to Cuba, where it was used to punish and discourage dissent. The following year, under newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson, Washington made a quiet truce with Castro: The U.S. would foot the bill to peacefully fly out those who wanted to leave Cuba, and Castro would get rid of his opposition. Gutierrez-Boronat and his family were free.
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