MIAMI — The last of the 1,200 men imprisoned in Cuba for the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion a quarter-century ago arrived Saturday in Miami, saying he would "continue to be a soldier of freedom."
Ramon Conte Hernandez, 56, hugged his wife, Hilda, and other family members who greeted him at Miami International Airport on a flight from Havana. He was accompanied on the flight by his 82-year-old mother, Maria Hernandez Ojeda.
"I'm very grateful to be in the land of freedom," Conte said through an interpreter. "I thank the Americans for all they've done, and I'll continue to be a soldier of freedom here and everywhere."
Conte, who fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, was one of 1,200 Cuban exiles captured in the CIA-backed invasion on April 17, 1961.
All but nine of the exiles were freed and returned to the United States in exchange for $53 million in food and medical supplies 20 months later. Seven of the nine eventually were released and one died in prison. Castro never explained why he kept Conte in prison for so long or why he was being released now.
Conte, who had escaped custody in 1969 but was recaptured two years later, said he was released Friday afternoon and spent the night in a Havana hotel.
At a news conference, Conte said he received "exceedingly better treatment" in the last few weeks before his release. "In this final period, my treatment changed totally," he said, without elaborating.
Despite his lengthy imprisonment, Conte said he was prepared to continue fighting communism.
"The cause is not dead," he said. "Just because I was taken out of prison doesn't mean the cause is over. Cuba is still not free. . . . I've been fighting communism since I was 16 years old. None of that has changed.
"I thank the Americans for all they've done, and I'll continue to be a soldier of freedom here and everywhere."
Another member of Brigade 2506, Raul Masvidal, called Conte's release "the last page of a chapter. It's a sad chapter. But we brigade members hope the book has a happy ending . . . the eventual return of democracy in Cuba."
Also on hand to greet Conte was fellow brigade member Ricardo Montero Duque, who arrived from Havana on June 8. Montero spent the last 10 years before his release with Conte at a prison just outside of Havana.
"Imagine how happy I feel," Montero said. "For me it was a big weight to know I was here and he (Conte) was left behind."
Sen. Kennedy Intervenes
His release was arranged with the help of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose brother, John F. Kennedy, was President at the time of the invasion.
"The decision to release this great soldier marks the end of a long and tragic chapter in the history of relations between Cuba and the U.S.," Kennedy said in announcing Conte's release last week.
In the last 25 years, Conte's wife contacted many human rights groups and American legislators trying to arrange for her husband's return.
She said Conte worked as a union delegate for the Confederation of Cuban Workers before Castro's takeover in 1959. They came to Miami during the upheaval and were working in factories when Conte joined other exiles in training for the invasion, she said.
Kennedy's office said Conte was apparently held longer than others for several reasons, including his service in the army of dictator Fulgencio Batista.