MIAMI — Seventy Cuban political prisoners, some free for the first time since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, shouted "Long live the United States!" as they arrived Monday for joyous reunions with relatives and friends.
"I'm happy, but I'll be happier when all the prisoners are liberated," said Domingo Suarez Espinosa, 72, as he carried a granddaughter in one arm. He was in prison four months short of 28 years.
Some of the 111 prisoners and relatives who arrived from Havana aboard a charter flight flew on to other U.S. destinations, but 54 of them were bused to Miami's Tropical Park for a Roman Catholic Church-sponsored reunion with friends and families.
An estimated 3,000 cheering, crying, flag-waving Cuban-Americans crowded into a pavilion in the park to greet the former prisoners. They shouted, "Welcome to free soil!"
A carefully planned reunion became a scene of happy chaos as loved ones separated for decades tearfully embraced across the police barriers and the crowd pushed forward to welcome the exiles.
Cousteau Was Go-Between
The church, with help from undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, had negotiated with the Cuban government for two years to win the prisoners' release.
Some anti-Castro veterans in the crowd saw their old commanders and called them by their military code names.
The best-known of the newcomers was Ramon Pedro Grau Alsinas, 62, nephew of Ramon Grau San Martin, who was president of Cuba for two terms during the 1930s and '40s.
Grau was stooped but still energetic after 26 years in prison. He said he survived one last confrontation with the Castro government in Havana early Monday, when an army captain ordered him to surrender the wooden crucifix he wore at his neck.
"'What is this popery you have on your neck?"' he quoted the captain as saying. Grau said he grasped the crucifix tightly and swore that the soldiers would have to kill him for it. When other angry prisoners crowded around, the captain gave up.
"I told them they had my body for 26 years, but they couldn't have my soul," Grau said.
'He Looks So Bad'
Grau's sister Polita, who served as Cuba's unofficial first lady during the presidency of her unmarried uncle, was stunned when she saw Grau.
"He looks so bad," she said. "He looks so much older. He was always taller than I, but now he's smaller." She said she had spent 14 years in prison before she was allowed to come to the United States in 1978.
The Graus headed an organization that helped to bring 14,000 children out of Cuba in the first years under Castro. Xavier Suarez, now mayor of Miami, was one of those children, and he was at the airport to meet Grau.
One family's reunion plans turned to tragedy when relatives of Juan Gomez Blanco heard that he had died of a heart attack Sunday night in Havana. Gomez had survived 24 years in prison.