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Obituary

Bay of Pigs brigade leader Gen. Erneido Oliva dies in exile

By MARIO J. PENTÓN | The Miami Herald | Published: February 1, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Retired Gen. Erneido Oliva, who was second in command during the Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro and fought alongside fellow brigade members, died Thursday in Maryland.

Oliva passed away following an illness, said family members, who declined to elaborate. He was 87.

"His life exemplified three fundamental principles, love of family, military service and an unwavering desire to return democracy and freedom to his Cuban homeland," his family said in a statement.

Born in Aguacate, on the outskirts of Havana, Oliva attended the Cuban Military Academy, where he became a commander of the cadets and graduated in 1954.

At the age of 28, he was the second in command of the Assault Brigade 2506 during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

"He led the brigadistas against overwhelming odds, and always remembered with great pride the valor, determination and selfless sacrifice that his men exhibited in the heat of battle," said his daughter Maria Oliva-Hemker. "After spending 20 months in Castro's prisons, he was rescued by the United States with other members of the Brigade."

Johnny López de la Cruz, president of Brigade 2506, said Oliva stood out for his "gift of command."

"He had innate leadership. He had been an officer in the constitutional army of the Republic of Cuba. During the fighting he showed his incredible value," he said. "He was a great leader in prison, preventing us from being slaughtered."

De la Cruz said that Oliva was "an exceptional person" and a patriot "who never got tired of fighting for the freedom of Cuba."

Orlando Gutiérrez Boronat, who chairs the Democratic Directory, an umbrella organization of exile and opposition groups, said Oliva was "an example of military nobility of the Republic of Cuba before, during and after" the invasion.

"His military capacity, together with the integrity of his character and the clarity of his democratic principles will be a permanent model for young Cubans," he said. "His message was one of unity and reconciliation among the Cuban military to overcome tyranny and rebuild the nation in freedom. Someday, the future and free Republic of Cuba will bury him in his homeland with the corresponding military honors."

The Bay of Pigs invasion was filled with obstacles – from the selected landing site, a swampy region of the island, to lack of support promised by then President John F. Kennedy. The Brigade, comprised primarily of Cuban exiles, faced the Castro army alone, which was better equipped and was receiving strategic advice from the former Soviet Union .

A total of 114 members of the Brigade died in battle. All others were captured, imprisoned and ultimately released after Kennedy agreed to pay the Castro regime $53 million in food and medicine in exchange for their freedom.

On Dec. 29, 1962, Oliva addressed thousands of Brigade veterans and their families who had gathered at the Orange Bowl during a Miami visit by President Kennedy. During that ceremony, Oliva gave Kennedy the Brigade's flag as a gift.

Oliva, like many in the Brigade, joined the U.S. Army shortly after arriving in the United States. Several years later, he was elected to be one of the leaders of the Representación Cubana del Exilio (RECE), a group that represented Cuban exiles. He continued his efforts against communism through RECE and other civilian organizations. Oliva rejoined the U.S. Army as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.

In 1970, he joined the District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG). He was promoted to Brigadier General of the line in 1984, and among his many duties, he commanded a brigade that supported the Southern European Task Force (SETAF). In July 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the position of Deputy Commanding General of the D.C. Army National Guard. He was promoted to Major General in December 1992.

After retiring from the military, Oliva founded the Cuban American Military Council (CAMCO) in 1996 with membership from individuals who had served in Cuba's Constitutional Army, Cuba's Revolutionary Army, the Brigade 2506, and the U.S. Armed Forces. He had the unique distinction of being a second lieutenant in all four of those armies. CAMCO's mission was to peacefully bring freedom to the Cuban people through cooperation with the Cuban military.

"When the time comes, I am sure that [the Cuban armed forces] will not point their weapons at the Cuban people," Oliva said, in an interview with el Nuevo Herald, of an eventual change in Cuba. At the time he also believed that after Castro's death, "the only ones who can really control Cuba and have a peaceful transition are the armed forces."

Oliva's military honors included the U.S. Army Legion of Merit, the Army Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the National Guard Distinguished Service Medal and the National Guard Meritorious Service Medal. He graduated from the Army War College, the Army Command and General Staff College and received a Master's Degree from American University in Washington, D.C.

Oliva is survived by his wife Graciela, his spouse of 61 years; daughter Maria Oliva-Hemker, a doctor; son Antonio Oliva, an aerospace engineer; a sister and two grandchildren. Funeral services be a private family affair. A ceremony with military honors will be held soon at Arlington National Cemetery.

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