"I'm here," exclaimed U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Diego Asencio as he came down the stairs of the Soviet-made plane, stepped on Cuban soil and received bear hugs from his fellow Americans.
"Fergy, hey, how are you?" he beamed to Ferguson Reid, a State Department doctor on hand.
It was the end of a 61-day ordeal and all diplomatic protocol was out the door. Ambassadors from a dozen nations waiting on the runway worked their way through the throng, pulling at sleeves, kissing and slapping backs.
It was just past noon today when the Ilyushin-62 of Cubana Airlines landed at Havana Airport, bringing the 16 M19 Colombian guerrillas and 12 of their 16 diplomatic hostages.
Asencio, who looked well and relaxed and had grown a beard, said that he wanted to return to the Colombian capital "because I have a lot of unfinished business to attend to."
Asked how he was treated during captivity, Asencio said, "After the first 72 hours, which were very difficult and dangerous, we were treated correctly and cordially."
Then State Department officials ushered Asencio, 48, to a chartered Lear jet that took him to a reunion with his wife at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida. [A spokesman at the base said Asencio would rest there with his family until Tuesday, when a White House plane would take him to see the president].
On board the U.S. plane bound for Florida were also two Vatican emissaries, one of them the released nuncio in Bogota, Angelo Acerbi. The Swiss and Brazilian ambassadors also had been invited along on the trip, but decided to stay here.
With already tense relations between Washington and Havana now aggravated by Cuba unleashing a wave of refugees on Florida, the White House apparently chose at the last-minute to be "low-key," as one U.S. official put it, and have Asencio picked up by a commercial jet instead of a government aircraft.
Before leaving, Asencio told an NBC television reporter that his captivity had been an experience "I am delighted to be out of." But, he said, "I think it changed me in many ways. It made me more introspective, apt to think about things, better able to handle Latin America."
"Commander Number One," the guerrilla in charge of the Feb. 27 embassy assault, had been one of the first to emerge from the plane. He stood on the stairs, making the V-sign to applauding Cubans and was then followed by the rest of the guerrillas, nine men and six women, all of them wearing brand new red, white and blue satin bandanas over their faces.
Clearly keen to demonstrate its role in getting the hostages freed safely, the usually security-conscious Cuban government not only notified the foreign press of the aircraft's arrival, but gave all reporters here unlimited access to the plane and its passengers at the airport.
The scene in the VIP lounge, normally a solemn area off-limits to reporters, quickly turned into a large, happy reception as Cubans passed around daiquiris. Off in a corner was the U.S. delegation -- sober and staying "the minimum time required for courtesies," as one U.S. official put it.
The group that came from Washington to greet Asencio was headed by deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, Samuel Eaton. He was accompanied by two State Department doctors and a press spokesman, who declined to comment on Cuba's role, but said "the process is functioning and that's good."
In the protocol lounge the guerrillas and ambassadors, who have lived together for two months as captors and captives, now mingled comfortably.
The hostages talked eagerly about the period that began Feb. 27 as a nightmare and for a long time threatened their lives.
"They tried to kill us in the beginning, they came in shooting in all directions. We were locked up in small rooms," said Brazilian Ambassador Geraldo do Nascimento Silva, recalling that "they ruined my trousers as I was hit by a bullet in the left leg."
A number of people were "hurt badly, but only one of them never complained," the Brazilian went on. "That was Ricardo Galan, the ambassador of Mexico. I only realized he was hit when I saw the blood on his underwear. We were keeping company under a table, hiding our heads."
Their wounds were healed, the ambassador said, by one of the guerrillas, a woman doctor.
By all accounts, after the first dangerous days were over, the atmosphere inside the embassy remained tense, but slowly conditions improved. Some of the men regained their spirits, while other ambassadors "fell into a deep depression," as one of their fellow captives recalled.
The ambassadors spent their days reading, talking and "telling jokes, some of them heavy," as one of them said. "The papal nuncio at first used to close his ears with his hands so as not to hear the stories. But very soon he joined in."
Ideological discussion with the guerrillas remained "rather reserved" as another diplomat recalled. The Mexican ambassador described them as "totally Colombian, totally nationalistic. They are not trying to steal or borrow foreign ideas."
Sharing the limelight with the ambassadors in the airport lounge was the guerrilla leader, who described the operation as a "definite success. We were able to tell the world that in Colombia there is torture and repression, that there is injustice and no democracy."
The mood of the hostages varied with their chances for release, and went up and down many times during the long negotiations, they said.
From the start, the American, Brazilian and Mexican ambassadors decided to try to steer their own fates.
Brazilian Ambassador Nascimento, descirbed by his American colleague as "one of our heroes, one of the people that got us out of that place," said his expertise in international law came in good stead.
"We formed a little brain trust and with Diego [Ascencio] and Ricardo [Galan] we worked out all the solutions that could be turned in our favor. We worked on the technicalities." Then, he added, "The Colombian government of course helped."
In the eyes of the diplomats, the most appealing guerrilla was the woman who called herself Maria Four.
"I know I'm a bourgeois reactionary," the Brazilian ambassador said laughing. "That's right," said Maria, but a very nice one."
Maria declined to say whether the guerrillas would now remain in Cuba. The purpose of their movement, she said, was "to take power in Colombia." This, she said, would have to be done "by a mass organization." But almost certainly, she said, they would return to their political tasks back home. The guerrillas said no ransom was collected.