The Long Memory of Henry Rodriguez
In Atlanta, there lives a man, almost 75 years old, who fought alongside more than 1,000 other Cuban exiles in an effort to retake Cuba at the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. The U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century of embargoes, but Henry Rodriguez wants the world to know his story — and his unceasing restlessness over Fidel Castro.
Once upon a time in Cuba, Henry Rodriguez looked into the eyes of two men who were alive and then suddenly dead as they were hit with bullets from a firing squad. Henry Rodriguez witnessed the grisly execution of those men. Henry wanted to be like those men.
Of course, Henry didn’t want to be like those men when they were flung backwards by rounds from the M1 Garand rifle. Rodriguez wanted to be like those men in the instant before the bullets struck. In his mind’s eye, 56 years later, Henry can still see the men, chests thrust defiantly toward their executioners. The lips of the doomed were shut tighter than purses that had just been snapped closed. The men would not whimper through clenched jaws; they would not beg for mercy.
The two men were among five before the firing squad. Two others begged for mercy; one other looked blank inside. But these other two, Henry remembers, wouldn’t let Fidel Castro’s jackals see them sweat. Don’t make a mess of it, the two men seemed to be saying silently to the shooters 20 feet away. Aim straight. Do it quick. Right now.
See you in hell.
“I decided right there as I watched those men being shot that when my time came, I would be stoic,” says Rodriguez, who was the circulation manager for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then a successful real estate entrepreneur in Atlanta. “I would stand there. No begging. Military men should not beg. Anger would not save me, either, so I wouldn’t show anger.”
Have courage, Henry Rodriguez told himself. The executed men were henchmen in the regime of the tyrant Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Henry says they had been convicted that same day and sentenced to death. No telling how many people the Batista men had murdered, Henry thought.
After the fusillade, the commander of the firing squad, a man named Dionisio Suarez, who was just 21 years old, told Henry to walk over and kick at the five men to see who was alive. The three who were lucky became unlucky as the commander finished each man off, once and for all, with a bullet from a Colt .45. Henry remembers the names of all five men who were shot.
Henry, who was applying to the military academy, had been taken to the execution to observe. He was just 18 years old.
It was 1959.
Henry Rodriguez was a paratrooper in Brigade 2506, the CIA-backed force of Cuban exiles that invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
It should have been chilling for a teenager, downright frightening, to see men slaughtered with harsh judgment, but this was Cuba, which was in a stampede of terror. Henry was accustomed to the worst men had to offer other men, because one dictator, Batista, had been replaced by another dictator, Fidel Castro, and there were retributions galore.
Two years after he witnessed the firing squad, it was time for Henry to follow his own advice and summon his courage. It was April 1961. He was certain there was a merciless firing squad being organized for him by Castro’s communists. In the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs operation, Rodriguez had the fearlessness to fight Castro, and his brother Raul, and the ruthless Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Henry’s side lost, and he was captured.
So in the hour before what he thought was his own doom, Rodriguez remembered the two men with the defiant glares two years earlier. Henry reminded himself he would be stoic like those men at his moment of doom.
“We lost,” Rodriguez says. “We lost. I cannot say it any other way. I was demoralized. We lost.”
See you in hell.
Sitting in the sun-room of his house in the Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, long safe from the calamity of Cuba, the 74-year-old Rodriguez remembers being a prisoner hauled out of the swamp in southern Cuba and being taken back to the beach at the Bay of Pigs for what he expected to be his execution. It was April 30, 1961, and he was in civilian clothes he had found in an abandoned hut. He figured the communists could have shot him right then and there, according to his understanding of the international ritual on combatants out of uniform. His paratrooper boots had given him away, and he had been caught. Others in the Cuban capital of Havana, suspected of spying, were executed by Fidel Castro’s forces in the days and weeks after the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Henry has a picture in his home of Castro walking among the captured paratroopers. Other pictures taken in his homeland 50-some-odd years ago cover the walls of his home. They are under the safe glass of their frames to preserve them and hold them close.
There is nothing on the walls that talks of the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba the last 10 months, the closing of the political/social/economic gap of two countries 90 miles apart. Fidel is feeble, but his brother Raul has met with President Barack Obama. Pope Francis has been in Cuba. The American Embassy is open after decades of being shuttered. Delta has announced flights into Cuba.
The fight is over, right? Not for Henry. He still holds the Castros accountable.
“They have made fools of us for almost 60 years,” Henry says.
Rodriguez is not a crackpot with a grudge. He is not the neighbor with bumper stickers galore fixed to his car prophesying the end of the world because of communism. Henry is a successful businessman who raised two sons in Atlanta and has been married 55 years and made himself a solid citizen here. He can still do 102 pushups in 90 seconds. He enjoys life and his family.
It’s just that Henry has strong, lasting feelings about Cuba, and he has written a memoir and would like to publish it. He is not a bitter old man clinging to every injustice.
His bookshelves are filled with hardbacks on revolution, civil war and finance. He is the kind of guy you want to listen to when he talks about history. When Castro took over on Jan. 1, 1959, Henry went back to Cuba and enlisted in the military academy only to realize — at age 18 — that Castro was a pure Marxist and had no intention of forming a representative government.
Henry was there when the Castros turned Cuba turned upside down.
He cannot forget.
No one can convince him that life is just and proper in Cuba these days, or ever has been, with the Castros in power. Cuba remains a police state with armed men on certain street corners. Engineers and doctors moonlight as workers in the tourist industry to make money. The country’s No. 1 import, Rodriguez says, is the money brought by mules — middlemen — from the U.S. to surviving Cuban relatives so they can eat properly. Castro’s taxmen take a cut, the middlemen get a cut, the families get the rest.
Yes, there is medicine, but there are two tiers of medicine, just as there are two tiers of markets in Cuba, one for the elite Marxists who run the country, one for the rest. Americans do not see the inequities, Henry says.
Henry just shakes his head side to side in dismay.
American tourists will romp on the spectacular beaches of his home country, but Henry wants the frolickers to come with eyes wide open to what has transpired the last 56 years. The executions, the seizing of $1 billion in U.S. assets, the prisons, the hardscrabble existence of a people. Henry wants it laid bare.
Henry met Fidel Castro in 1960 while Henry was on guard duty at the entrance to the military academy 30 miles outside Havana. “He talked to me like he knew me all my life,” Rodriguez says.
In his unpublished memoir, Henry writes of Castro: “He could have such a soft voice, but he could send someone to the firing squad without the slightest excitement.”
Henry says now, “He made fools of us.”
On April 17, 1961, just as dawn reached Cuba, Rodriguez parachuted in as part of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion. He was part of Brigade 2506, named after the membership number of a fighter who died training for the mission. The final force numbered about 1,400 when it came ashore on the Cuban sands or dropped into the swamps.
It was an ambitious cabal of Americans and Cubans put together to take the country back from Castro and the communists and restore a U.S.-friendly government and a democracy. Many of the exiles in Brigade 2506 that April had owned farms and businesses in Cuba, or they were sons of landowners and business owners. Many had backed Castro’s guerilla fight against Batista only to see Fidel and Raul Castro turn hard left to Marxism and a partnership with the Soviet Union. The CIA decided to lead a revolution against the revolutionaries, and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a budget for the operation in August of 1960.
Conducted three months after the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs Invasion failed. Miserably. The CIA, which trained the exiles in Guatemala and promised a supply of arms, was forced to abandon the 1,400 “invaders” almost immediately as they came ashore or, like Henry, landed inland via parachutes. Henry says America’s United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, told Kennedy he would resign if the U.S. supported the invasion with bombing of Castro’s military. Kennedy ordered the U.S. military to back down after the initial bombing runs at Cuba.
Henry says the Bay of Pigs failed — and Cuba was lost — because of decisive mistakes by the CIA. Martin Elena, the commander of the 2506, was relieved of his command in Guatemala by the CIA as the troops trained for the invasion. Elena, the CIA discovered, was not going to be a puppet once Castro was removed, Henry says. The men lost a trusted commander.
Then, three weeks before the Bay of Pigs, the CIA withdrew support for the anti-Castro guerrillas in the mountains, Henry says. The guerillas were surrounded by Castro’s army and whittled down little by little and were of no use by April 17.
The main landing force for the Bay of Pigs sailed away from Nicaragua the night of April 16, 1961, without Elena and without established support from the guerrillas. Men climbed off ships at the Bay of Pigs in the early morning of April 17. Rodriguez was part of an airborne phase of four parachute drops of 177 men, also that morning. The plan was for the airborne invaders to keep Castro’s army from getting to the beach to disrupt the landing.
Rodriguez remembers approaching the Cuban coast on a C-46 transport plane the morning of the invasion, and the sunshine illuminated the bright blue-green water washing onto white beaches.
“It was so beautiful,” he says. “What a sight.”
When the red light came on over his head, the signal to jump, he had no hesitation. This was for Cuba. This was for his family. Che Guevara, the revolutionary warlord who was idolized internationally, had crushed freedom of speech. Fidel Castro plundered still more freedoms.
The Castros and Che had to go. He leaped from the plane at a mere 900 feet.
As he floated to the ground, Rodriguez was elated. He could see Castro’s militia running away under the billowing chutes of the invaders. Castro’s militia were farm workers who had been handed guns and ordered to fight the imperialist invaders. This communist defensive force, northeast of the Bay of Pigs, scattered into the swamps.
“It looked like practice out there,” says Henry. The paratroopers had been trained by veterans of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. They were skilled, and now emboldened, when the Castro militia fled.
But Henry and the paratroopers had no idea of the disaster unfolding on the beach of the Bay of Pigs. The U.S. warplanes that were supposed to suppress Castro’s militia and strafe his tanks abandoned the attack. The supply ships of the invaders were sunk by Castro’s three planes. A U.S. destroyer that was supposed to offer protection floated a mile offshore without firing one shell. The 1,200 Cubans who had landed at the beach to fight Castro were isolated and had no element of surprise, and no means of resupply.
Castro, the head of the armed forces, was bringing 60,000 militia from the northwest right down on top of the unlucky on the beach.
Rodriguez landed with an M1 rifle, a dagger and a .45-caliber pistol. He did not land with food because this incursion was supposed to be over by dinner, or at least lunch the next day. He expected to pick up Castro defectors and build a swarm of counter-revolutionaries on the way to Havana.
That first day, the now-20-year-old Henry and his squad made their way toward the first objective, a sugar refinery on the other side of the village of San Blas. When they could see the refinery, they dug in. They were expecting the Castro militia to come their way, and sure enough here they came, the morning of April 18, the second day of the Bay of Pigs.
It was more euphoria for Rodriguez and the men. They opened fire with a .50-caliber machine gun and M1 rifles, and the militia, not even within the firing zone, ran away.
On April 19, the third day on the ground, Rodriguez got the first hint something had gone horribly wrong with the plan. Where Castro’s militias had previously scattered under the parachutes of Henry and his fellow invaders, there were now emboldened swarms of militiamen. They covered the roads, and they had tanks. Henry and his fellows had running firefights with the militias and ducked in and out of the cover of the swamp brush. Soon, the invaders were scattered in the swamp, three here, four there. They dodged in and out of the trees and tall swamp grass. They were eating leaves now because this surely was not going to be over by dinner.
On the 10th day, Rodriguez’ own squad was down to three men in the muck of the swamps. The thick, moist air made it impossible not to cough. They would cough and then hear 50 yards away in the bog another cough, then another, and then another. He was sure it was the militiamen of Castro, who were hunting them. Rodriguez would cough and move. He stayed in the thick brush because Castro now had helicopters combing the swamp.
He was in civilian clothes by now, a beige shirt and olive pants he had taken from a small house, whose inhabitants had fled the fighting. Henry worried that taking off his uniform would mean forfeiting any protection he had under military justice — that he could be shot as a spy, instead of being captured and made a POW. But he opted instead for the anonymity he hoped the clothes would give him.
So Rodriguez moved cautiously from abandoned hut to abandoned hut. The militia, he says, had hauled off the owners of many huts, accusing them of helping the invaders.
“I never saw people so frightened,” he says.
He had run out of chlorine tablets to purify the swamp water. And they had no food. “We ate the grasses,” Rodriguez says, “but we would not eat those little crabs. There were plenty of those, but we could not eat them.”
In the early evening of the 12th day, Rodriguez and two other men moved cautiously in the twilight around a farm house. They begged a farmer for something to eat. He gave them a pound of sugar and demanded they leave. The peasant did not want to go to jail, or be shot, if the militia came through. Rodriguez asked the quickest way to the town of Aguada, and the man pointed toward the woods where there was a railroad. Follow that for 14 miles, he says.
The trek to Aguada was Rodriguez’s undoing. There were quarter-sized blisters on his feet from the water sloshing in his socks and boots and the toll of walking the road. He was limping badly. In town, he walked past a group of militiamen, who considered him just another scruffy peasant. They didn’t notice the paratrooper boots.
As they walked out of town, Rodriguez told the other two men to go ahead without him. The pain in his feet was crippling. He rested by the side of the road. When a group of sugarcane workers came rolling down the road in a pickup truck, they offered him a ride. He was filthy, like them. Unlike them, he had the black paratrooper boots.
He hopped on the back of the truck. One looked at him carefully, then spied the black boots laced up tight around Rodriguez’ ankles. “You are an invader,” he shouted at Henry. Rodriguez was suddenly surrounded by 10 men with machetes. He had a grenade and a pistol, and he could blast his way out of the predicament, but these were not the men he came to kill, not civilians. He surrendered his weapons and was put in the back of their truck. The next stop was the jail in Aguada.
When the men unloaded Rodriguez at the jail, a startled military man recognized Rodriguez.
“Enrique, what are you doing here?” Orlando Rodriguez said.
Henry Rodriguez spread his arms wide and Orlando knew. They had been in high school together and Orlando had known of Henry’s distrust of the communists and that he had resigned from the military academy and disappeared.
“I must take you to the beach,” his captor said quietly.
Henry Rodriguez slid into the backseat of a red Cadillac that had been commandeered. It was a military vehicle of the communist revolution now and that would be the way of the world in Cuba. The Cadillac, and other luxury cars like it in communist Cuba, would no longer be objects to marvel over; they'd just be used up and repaired, over and over.
“Please, can we stop for some food?” Henry Rodriguez asked his old colleague. There was a small grocery open in Aguada, and Orlando Rodriguez went into the store and, with his own money, bought the Coca-Cola, the bread and the bologna. Henry ate with the bitter taste of defeat. He thought it would be his last meal.
It was the afternoon of April 30, 1961. The Cadillac, he thought, was his hearse, his death ride. Raul Castro had warned exiles who had fled Cuba in 1959, “If you come back to Cuba and fight us, and we catch you, you must die.” The 10-mile trip through endless checkpoints of Castro militia took over an hour. Rodriguez sat in the back of the Cadillac with a soldier of the revolution making sure Henry suddenly did not have a change of heart and fling open the car door and vamoose back into the swamp.
He was animal-hungry, tearing at that bread and bologna. More than that, Rodriguez was demoralized. Perhaps that’s why fear did not overtake him on that ride back to the Bay of Pigs.
“We lost,” he says. “We lost. I was in a daze.”
When they arrived at the beach an hour later, Henry Rodriguez found the tattered remains of the invasion force. Many had been rounded up in the preceding days and carted off as prisoners. There were 114 exiles killed by the Cuban militia before the force surrendered. Henry was one of the last to be hauled out of the swamps and loaded on a bus and carried away from the beach.
The unlucky, the really unlucky, tried to make a desperate escape in a 20-foot sailboat on Day 3 of the invasion. Twenty-two men found the boat and set sail from the Bay of Pigs hoping to make the U.S. mainland. They became stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. Ten men were alive on the boat when a freighter rescued them. The men were carried to New Orleans and freedom. Many kept the horrors of the voyage secret.
“There were unspeakable things done on that boat,” Rodriguez says. “I cannot talk about it. I knew one man, Muxo, who came back on the boat.… I’m sorry, I cannot speak of it.”
Fifty-four years later, Rodriguez remembers sitting on the bus as a prisoner when it pulled away from the beach of the Bay of Pigs, thinking he would never see his wife or his parents again. The militiamen sneered at the prisoners as they looked out the windows, and Rodriguez thought, “You should be on our side.”
“I thought they would drive away from the people watching all the celebration of the Castro victory on the beach, stop in a field, take us off the bus, and shoot us,” Rodriguez says.
The bus ambled on for several hours. Henry thought of death. The bus kept rolling.
They were being taken to Havana.
Castro had other plans for the vanquished.
After the 1,189 captured exiles were paraded in front of international media in Havana in a sports coliseum and described as “imperialist” tools of the U.S., Rodriguez and other Bay of Pigs survivors were jailed. Fidel Castro had decided executions would be poor public relations for his fledgling revolution. The new leader of Cuba fed more than a thousand prisoners in the Sport Palace to show off his humanity. Many others in Cuba were being dragged into the streets and shot, some by Che Guevara himself, who wasn’t even Cuban, just Marxist, an Argentine partner of the Castros. Executions were done off in the shadows away from the glare of international media, Rodriguez says. Anti-Castro plotters were lined up and shot, including two Americans who worked inside Cuba for the CIA, he says.
For two weeks, the communists interviewed Brigade 2506 prisoners one by one for details of the invasion. They took Henry’s watch and gold wedding ring. He wished he had time to flush them down the toilet. From the sports palace they were transferred to an old naval hospital.
There was talk for a while that Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt, was working a deal to swap tractors for the prisoners, but that deal collapsed. They languished in jail.
On June 2, 1961, Rodriguez was given a telegram by a guard who said, “You have another paratrooper.” His son, Raul Enrique, had been born. He would become “Ricky.” A week later, the men were thrown in prison, an old castle 200 years old, El Castillo del Principe — “the Prince Castle.” The U.S., so far, had demonstrated no inclination to pay Castro a ransom for the release of the men.
“We expected to be there 15, 20 years,” Henry says.
The cornmeal the prisoners were given at first had worms, and the inmates made a stubborn stand not to eat. After two days of going hungry, well, worms had protein, so they ate. They cleaned the inside of the filthy toilet bowl with gravel. They drank water from the water tank supply behind the toilet and they told the 15 men who shared the toilet, “We will make you drink water from the toilet if you do not clean it.” Fifty-four years later, Rodriguez has a sign in his office break-room for all his staff to see: “Clean the toilet if you do not want to drink from it.”
Rodriguez says some civilians in 1961 were being allowed to leave Cuba, but if you left Cuba it meant you left the keys to your home and the keys to your car and you could not come back. The communists snatched more than homes and cars. They claimed every American-owned company and the land on which it sat, which is worth billions in today’s economy.
At first, only female relatives, Henry’s aunts, were allowed to visit him in prison. No men. Then, suddenly, visitation was cut off for six months. They were isolated.
“We were given the best cigars in the world,” Henry says. But the food was rationed. Bread, three pieces a day, and water. The men played chess to while away the hours behind bars. They adhered to a chain of command in the dungeons. Some were lucky enough to be in cells above ground. Henry was among the unlucky for a time. He was underground, and the air was so thick the men developed a wheezing, as well as a bitterness toward Castro that still lasts.
Four years before the Bay of Pigs, Henry had been a member of the Student Revolutionary Directorate in Cuba, a teenage crowd that fought light skirmishes in the streets with the Batista thugs, who were plundering the country. Henry had a strong arm for hurling a baseball, but also for hurling Molotov cocktails. Bacardi Rum bottles were ideal because the gasoline inside the bottle could be mistaken for rum. Many people walked along Cuba’s streets with rum. Who could tell if the bottle was a good time or a walking bomb?
Henry could adorn his bottle with cotton wrapped around it and bathed in alcohol. The cap to the bottle was sealed tight at the top. Add a cinder off a lit cigar or cigarette and it was an explosive device. Henry was hauled into jail for questioning on his 16th birthday, Dec. 6, 1956, because he was suspected of being a marauder. A few months later, after a friend died in jail following questioning, his mother and father packed him up and he was shipped off to friends in the U.S. to finish high school.
That turned out just fine. Henry enrolled at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He met a young woman named Maria Diaz, who was also Cuban and the homecoming queen at the women’s college in town, Sacred Heart. She was studying to be a pharmacist.
Henry kept an eye on Maria and also on Cuba. Castro and his guerillas had traction against Batista and Castro looked like a better alternative to Batista.
When Batista fled Cuba on New Year’s Eve 1958, and Castro took control Jan. 1, 1959, Henry decided he would return to Cuba and enlist in the military academy. He was stationed at Camaguey and, for a brief time, he was on the winning side. He did not expect the hard left turn of Castro to Marxism. He thought Castro would stop the plundering of Cuba’s wealth and a thriving middle class would assume control.
The new government would not be a democracy, but a socialist government, even though Castro kept denying it at first. Henry heard of more and more firing squads. There was a limiting of free speech, and Guevara ransacked independent newspaper offices. Castro, it turned out, was just as repressive as Batista, but he was very calculating about it.
Henry met Fidel once at the entry gates to the military academy near Havana. “He called me ‘Chico.’ I called him ‘Fidel,’” Henry says. In just a short conversation, Henry could see the cunning and the brilliance of Castro’s personality. No wonder the man captivated a country.
“I knew people who were not communists, but when they had to choose, they would say, ‘I am with Fidel,’” Henry says. “He has a magnetism.”
Rodriguez married Maria in 1960 — they are still married after 55 years — but he was becoming uneasy, and finally angered, with the Castros. In the fall of 1960, Henry resigned his commission and left for Florida. It was there that the idea of retaking Cuba from the Marxists — the Bay of Pigs — became a patriotic obsession for Henry.
When Henry left with other Cuban exiles for training in Guatemala, Maria was pregnant with their first son. She was on the fringes of the American system. Maria stayed in a small apartment with her in-laws in south Florida. Her father-in-law was a dishwasher in Hollywood, Fla. Her parents were still in Cuba.
On the day of the birth of their son, June 2, 1961, Maria sat on a chair in a hallway of Mercy Hospital in Miami while Henry sat in prison. South Florida was still the white south, not a sanctuary for Latin Americans fleeing repressive regimes in their countries, including Cuba. The hospital wanted $100 from Maria. She didn’t have it. More ominous, they wanted to know where her husband was.
“He is in prison,” Maria said.
“Oh, he is a criminal,” they said to her.
“Have you heard of the Bay of Pigs?” she said. “He is a political prisoner.”
They shrugged at her, oblivious to the biggest news in the Western Hemisphere. They wanted some money.
When Maria’s pain became intolerable, she screamed and screamed. They wheeled her into a room and left her. She screamed again. The baby was coming. No one was there for the birth of their son. She started bleeding and it look 45 stitches to close the breach. Her husband was part of a U.S. backed effort to dislodge communists — and the Soviets — from a place 90 miles away, but she was at the mercy of Americans who judged her by her dialect or the cash in her purse. They felt no moral obligation to the men — and their families — who were doing the work of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and the CIA.
Finally, in October 1962, the American government began to acknowledge its moral obligation.
Castro had invited nuclear weapons from Russia into Cuba and President John F. Kennedy blockaded Cuba with the U.S. Navy. The Soviets turned their ships away. Guevara was furious and told Castro he would push the button on nuclear missiles himself to destroy Washington and New York, if the Soviets wouldn’t do it.
There was a spotlight on Cuba now and some in the U.S. felt a moral obligation to free the captured members of Brigade 2506. The U.S. started clandestine diplomatic maneuvers to rescue Rodriguez and the 1,200 exiles. A $60 million ransom of food and medicine was paid to Castro. When the ships with the supplies started docking in Cuba, Castro allowed the men to be flown out. There are some historical reports that $3 million ransom was paid eight months earlier for 60 prisoners who had been injured at the Bay of Pigs.
“No, no,” says Henry, “the $3 million was for the paratroopers. We were the last to be ransomed, the last to leave.”
Henry was given a one-way plane ride to Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base — and freedom. It was Christmas Eve 1962. When he landed he was given a check for $100. He had been in prison 20 months. It was an emotional reunion with his wife, the first sight of his young son, and hugs from parents and relatives. His ribs were showing clearly through thin flesh.
“I was given a 30-year probation instead of the firing squad,” Henry says. “If I came back before 30 years were up, Raul Castro said we would be sentenced again and back in prison.”
Rodriguez began a life in America, but he always had an eye on where he came from.
Henry and Maria Rodriguez have lived in Atlanta since 1963 and made a nice life for themselves, not far from the skyscrapers of Midtown Atlanta. He built a real estate development and leasing company with his wife and his second son, Henry. Maria was part of the start-up operation of Diaz Wholesale with her father, Domingo. It is now a successful international food distributing business called Diaz Foods.
Henry hosted a Cuban sports delegation during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The attache sent by Castro to make sure the dictator’s prized athletes did not disappear into the streets of Atlanta and seek asylum whispered to Rodriguez, “I want to come here. But Fidel has my family.” Henry says for years stories flowed into the U.S. and to the exiles of desperate people trying to escape Cuba. Promising baseball players paid smugglers to help them escape; some athletes died at sea trying to get across 90 miles of water.
The anti-Castro cabal in south Florida wanted to come to Atlanta and disrupt the 1996 Olympics. But Henry told them, “No, you don’t. This is my hometown now.”
There have been plots to rid Cuba of Fidel, and Henry Rodriguez has been on the fringes of these plots. In 1992, he paid the rent on a warehouse in south Florida that was housing missiles bought in Europe that would be used to blow up Cuban power plants before the launch of an uprising. He still has the silver lock to one of the missile cases.
Henry flew back and forth to south Florida as the plan took shape. Engineers worked on the missiles so they could be shipped to the Bahamas and used to strike three power plants on the island. The plan fizzled after Castro infiltrated a Miami group that had been rescuing fleeing Cubans at sea. Castro had the rescuer’s planes shot down, and the plan fizzled.
A wealthy New Englander tried to enlist Henry and Bay of Pigs survivors in a plot to use aircraft to start a civil war. Henry refused.
Henry Rodriguez is telling his story just as the “thaw” is working its way over the 90 miles between the U.S. and Cuba. Fidel is feeble, so Raul Castro has met with President Barack Obama and relations between the countries are normalizing. The U.S. has taken Cuba off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism and there could be trade between the two countries, meaning grand American hotels that will pay rent to Cuba.
“So, what do we get from the Castros for this?” Henry asks. “Nothing. It’s still a communist state. What has changed? Will the quality of life improve for Cubans? There will be more tips for the Cubans in the tourist industry because Americans will go there, and at least that is good for the people.
“Cuba will sink from the weight of all the Americans who want to go there. Look at Cuba. Mountains. Beaches. It is beautiful. The other islands, like the Bahamas, should worry about their tourism if there is no embargo on Cuba from America. Tourism was ready to pass sugar as the No. 1 industry in 1959 in the old system. Just wait for the embargo to lift.”
Henry remembers that in 1959 Cuba ranked second in automobiles per capita in the Western Hemisphere, and he sighs as he describes what Cuba could have been. Its schools of medicine in the 1950s were second in Latin America only to those in Argentina. Cuba was the second biggest producer of nickel in the world, No. 5 in manganese, No. 7 in copper. Not to mention the fishing industry that could feed Cuba and the southern U.S.
“Once upon a time, Cuba had a considerable sphere of influence,” Henry says.
Several continents of the world have island countries near their front doors, the first step ashore. Europe has England. Asia has Japan. Australia has New Zealand. The U.S., Henry Rodriguez says, has Cuba. Christopher Columbus stepped off his ship into Cuba in 1492. Explorers saw potential in Cuba. Rodriguez sees the potential, but the country was marooned with the Soviets, long gone, and Venezuela, the other benefactor, now suffering its own economic and political calamity. Now the communists have a hand out to the U.S.
“My parents and my grandparents adored Franklin Roosevelt when he was president of the U.S.,” Henry says. “He was a Democrat. We appreciated his commitment to democracy around the world. But because we are Republicans, the left in America considers us troglodytes. We are not. We are interested in freedom.
“My cause is freedom.”
Rodriguez says the U.S. embargo has failed because it has not dislodged the communists, and something should be done for the Cuban people, but he says President Obama needed to make additional demands. While Cuba has been taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Castro’s regime still protects Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, then escaped from prison and a life sentence and fled to Cuba where she was given political asylum. William Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist widely implicated in a 1975 bombing in Manhattan that killed a man, is also believed to be in Cuba.
Henry built a fortune in real estate in Atlanta, lost some of that fortune in the real estate bust, and is rebuilding it again in his mid-70s. He wants to see Cuba rebuilt again and take its place in Latin America as a vibrant society, but he wants it done under a flag of democracy and where Cuban citizens can come and go and have access to the rest of world through an open Internet.
Henry Rodriguez’s plea is for the exiles’ version of history to have a spot on the bookshelf. Less than 1,000 exiles who fought at the Bay of Pigs are still alive. Soon, history’s antiseptic touch may blur the chapter of how Cuba went from the far-right belligerence of Batista, to the far-left Marxism of Castro, and the men like Henry who tried to drag Cuba back to the middle.
Our own U.S. history books may still be incomplete in their treatment of slavery and the viciousness with which the United States treated Native Americans and enslaved Africans, but at least we are revising and adding new chapters and making slow progress toward reconciliation. Henry Rodriguez dares the communists to have a similar reckoning, patterned on South Africa’s Truth and Reconcilation Commission. He does not want a straight edge on this story.
Maybe then he will go back to Cuba, and it won’t be under the billowy cloth of a parachute.