Edgar Sopo, third from the right, with his Bay of Pigs infiltration team
Two years after his father died at the dawn of the Cuban revolution, Edgar Sopo, a 21 year-old Georgetown-educated student living in Miami, put down his books, picked up a rifle and joined his friends on a mission to liberate their beloved country. He returned to Cuba not as a visitor but as an intelligence reconnaissance officer. Author Peter Wyden wrote in The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story that in the Spring of 1961, my father "moved into a young couple's apartment on the north side of [Havana], where he kept five submachine guns, a case of hand grenades, and the script of the speech he would make after he seized the radio stations."
As fate would have it, my father never made that speech. The invasion failed and like most of the surviving members of Brigade 2506, my father carried on about his life in America marked by the indelible marks war leaves on a man and an unwillingness to accept that Cuba's best days were behind her. He never returned to Georgetown. Instead he spent most of his life fighting for Cuba's freedom as a faithful and dedicated member of the Cuban American National Foundation and giving back to his community. At the age of 59, he died from cirrhosis to the liver after years of depression that led to years of vices. A Cuban flag draped over his coffin at his funeral held at St. Brendan Church.
My father died a poor man, but he left his children with the most beautiful legacy one could hope for from a parent. I could not have asked for a more loving father and his friends remember him as a man of unimpeachable integrity. Being the son of a member of the Brigade is the honor of a lifetime. It means living up to a heritage of courage and sacrifice. It means that I'm overwhelmed with pride every time I meet someone whose life was touched by his. Most importantly, it means I have assumed a set of responsibilities which all Cuban Americans share.
Too many of our parents and grandparents have died in exile. Today, as the torch of freedom is passed to a new generation, we inherit with it an obligation to ensure that their hopes and dreams are realized in a manner that's consistent with the principles that marked their lives.
The means toward achieving those ends may sometimes change but the values guiding us along the way should never waiver. Their generation believed that you can compromise without compromising your values; that the absolute freedom of the Cuban people is non-negotiable and that financial or political gain should never come at the expense of Cuba's liberty. Those values still hold true today.
For our generation will be judged not by the value of our possessions but by the value of our ideals. There is no more noble cause in the 21st century than the pursuit of freedom for all who find themselves trapped by the iron grip of dictators -- be they in Pyongyang, Tripoli, Caracas or Havana. Brutal regimes have no place in a world where the instruments of fear are no match for the instruments of freedom.
We also have an obligation to safeguard the memory of the members of the Brigade and their generation. Far too often, the very same people -- the mechanics, nurses, teachers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and leaders -- who built our community are the subject of caricatures and ridicule. We may not always agree with our parents and grandparents, and these disagreements are desirable in a free society, but we should respect them and recognize that our success is being built upon their shoulders. We should also understand them and their experiences. Their generation had dreams too -- big ones -- that were robbed from them. And they sacrificed everything -- their lives, careers, education -- to start a new life and give us even better lives than the ones they dreamed of for themselves.
As we honor the Brigade and all who have died in exile and continue to live in it, I find it fitting to quote this beautiful poem about another formerly beleaguered island across our shores:
'Tis it is the Shannon's brightly glancing stream,
Brightly gleaming, silent in the morning beam,
Oh, the sight entrancing,
Thus returns from travels long,
Years of exile, years of pain,
To see old Shannon's face again,
O'er the waters dancing.
Those words should remind us that while at times the future may seem bleak, exile is never permanent. No nation can remain oppressed indefinitely and I believe the Cuban people are nearing the end of their long and twilight struggle.
Cuba has a rendezvous with freedom, and as we near the day when Cuba is truly free, I think about the speech my father would have delivered had he and his brothers in arms succeeded in their endeavor. While we can't change the past, we have the power to reach into the future, build it everyday as we see fit and empower Cuba's children to deliver their own remarks in a country that respects their fundamental human rights. As Thomas Paine wrote, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Let us move forward then, charting our own course, guided by our fathers' examples of courage, strength and sacrifice. There is no better way to honor their memory or greater legacy to leave behind for our children.