July 24, 2000

Split over 'Tractors for Freedom'

Howard Kleinberg. Published Monday, July 24, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Naturally, it was Fidel Castro whose guile initiated the crisis.

When I asked several Cuban exile friends, separately, what memory they had of the ``Tractors for Freedom Committee,'' they responded identically. It was in 1962, they said, when negotiations with Fidel Castro resulted in the freeing of 1,113 prisoners taken during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Wrong. The Tractors for Freedom Committee was a fiasco that took place in 1961, just one month after the failed invasion of April 17. Not until December 1962 did the ransoming of the men of Brigade 2506 take place.

The short-lived tractor chapter may have been the first that resulted in a sharp difference of opinion between Miami exiles and others in the community. Cuban exiles supported negotiations with Castro, and non-Cuban Americans opposed it.

And, naturally, it was Fidel Castro whose guile initiated the crisis.

In a May 18, 1961 speech, Castro said he would trade the prisoners for 500 American-made bulldozers. Failing that, he said the prisoners ``will work hard, building trenches and fortifications, so that they will have to earn the bread they eat.''

Immediately groups formed, both in Miami and in Washington, in support of the plan. President John Kennedy, finding little support in Congress for the deal, launched a privately-funded organization to look into the swap. Appointed were Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's widow and a former ambassador to the United Nations; Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the former president's brother, and Walter Reuther, the auto union leader.

Miami News editor Bill Baggs wrote a Page One editorial on May 20, urging Miamians to send money to the paper as part of a ``Buy A Life'' campaign. The money would be sent to the Kennedy-backed ``Tractors for Freedom Committee.''

The Herald was strongly opposed to the U.S. making a deal, calling it ``blackmail from Havana'' in an editorial. But it acquiesced to a private venture by saying, ``We wish our Cuban visitors well in their compassionate effort to ransom members of the April 15 invasion force . . . By no means, however, should the United States involve itself in this worthy venture. Castro surely will seek to trap us into participation as a propaganda device.''

(The use of the word ``visitors'' for the Cubans then in Miami turned out to be as imprecise as any word The Herald ever has uttered.)

Castro sent 10 prisoners to the United States to participate in negotiations. They were greeted warmly in Miami, but not in Washington. Senators such as Barry Goldwater called any deal ``blackmail,'' and Kennedy quickly realized that only through the privately-financed nongovernmental committee could anything take place.

The committee sent four equipment experts to Havana. Castro met them in a hall filled with tractors. He told the visitors he really didn't need tractors, that what he wanted was for the United States to provide them as an ``indemnification'' for its role in the Bay of Pigs, not as a ransom.

The negotiating team returned to Miami International Airport where a vociferous conservative activist attempted to arrest them for violating the Logan Act, which stated there cannot be negotiations between private citizens and foreign governments.

The scores of Cuban exiles who came to the airport to greet the negotiators turned on Douglas Voorhees as he tried to make a citizen's arrest. As Voorhees held onto two negotiators awaiting assistance from U.S. marshals, Cuban women in the crowd began swinging their pocketbooks at him. Instead of arresting the negotiators, the marshals had to escort Voorhees to an office for his own safety.

With Castro posturing over terminology and changing his demands, the committee quickly tired of continuing. First to withdraw was Dr. Eisenhower. The committee shortly fell apart. It had lasted perhaps a month.

It was to be another year and a half in prison for the men of Brigade 2506 before the exchange was made for a U.S.-sponsored ransom of $62 million in medical supplies.

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Copyright 2000 Miami Herald



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