Exiled Cuban Pilots Remember the Congo War

Cuban exile pilots supplied by the CIA battled against Communist forces in a war in the Congo, a former Belgian colony. (Published Friday, July 29, 2011)

In the early 1960s, Cuban exile pilots supplied by the CIA battled against Communist forces in a war in the Congo, a former Belgian colony.

"Many Cuban exiles said ‘I had absolutely no idea that this took place and I was living in Miami at the time,” said Frank Villafana, who is author of a book about the mission called "Cold War in the Congo." More than one hundred pilots did tours with the secret air force. Most were recruited in Miami, and despite being bitter about the defeat at the Bay of Pigs, the CIA was able to find plenty of exile pilots willing to take another shot at Fidel Castro. This time they won. "It was going to be Cuban against Cuban and we were happy about it," says Freddy Flaquer, 73. Flaquer, a Bay of Pigs veteran, stands under the wing of a B26 bomber that serves as a memorial to the pilots who flew during the ill-fated CIA sponsored invasion. The two-engine bomber sits near the main runway at Tamiami Airport was recently dedicated during a reunion of the pilots who flew missions against the Castro army and air force. Denied air cover by the Kennedy Administration, the Bay of Pigs was a tragic disappointment for Cuban exiles. “A lot of guys that flew these airplanes in the Bay of Pigs wound up in the Congo. Exactly at the beginning they took the guys with experience and they were the pioneers in the Congo Wars,” said Flaquer. Juan Peron, another exiled pilot, said he was happy that he was fighting against Communist Cubans who had been sent by FidelCastro to the Congo. "We knew there were Cubans there from Fidel over there and we went to fight them and I was happy about it,” he said. Villafana said the CIA was able to recruit Cuban exile pilots after what many considered a betrayal because they trusted the CIA but not the White House. Castro sent troops to help the Simba warriors who were being helped by the Chinese and the Soviets. Eventually, Che Guevara was there too. The goal was to topple the government of Congo, but America was against that. "We knew the Cubans were trying to get a stronghold in Africa and we knew not only were going to fight the Communists but it was going to be Cuban against Cuban,” Flaquer. By the mid-1960s the Congo government had stabilized and the CIA secret air mission had worked. Villafana said that without the support of the Cuban exile Air Force they would have failed. The price was the deaths of Cuban exile pilots. Some were even captured alive and killed.