Thirty Americans pardoned by Fidel Castro after spending as long as 10 years in Cuban jails came home today, emerging from a chartered 737 jet into the Florida breeze and the arms of weeping families, many sporting yellow ribbons and "welcome home" signs.
They were drug smugglers and "Bible bombers," hijackers and pilots, and sailors who said they had merely lost their way at sea.
Five prisoners -- four accused hijackers and a parole violater -- were slapped into handcuffs and hustled off by U.S. marshals. Some said they looked forward to the "luxury" of American jails.
A former Black Panther said he was "deliriously happy" to be home even though he will be arraigned Tuesday on charges of hijacking a plane to Cuba in 1969. "It's the greatest country in the world," Anthony Bryant said.
The other 25 Americans were processed quickly at an airport fire station and released to tearful reunions with their families.
Their ages ranged from early 20s to the 50s. All looked pale. Some were thin and haggard; others appeared remarkably healthy after months or years in Combinado del Este medium security prison outside Havana. The Americans were all kept there -- at first, in a cell so small they had to take turns sleeping. Many spoke of death threats to get them to sign confessions of being CIA agents or drug smugglers, of Cuban judges who snored through Kafkaeque "trials," of harsh prison conditions, little mail and a steady diet of macaroni, bread, rancid Russian beef stew, boredom and little hope.
With no newspapers or magazines, they lived in a political time warp. But many entered Florida sunshine politicized, ironically bitter toward the U.S. policy of detente toward Cuba that, along with pressure from family members and Congress, had played a role in their release.
"Communism is a cancer that needs to be destroyed," sobbed Walter Clark, a Miami ironworker who spent 20 months in jail for "immigration violations" after his small plane lost an engine in a storm and Cuban Migs forced him down. He limped to his car. "I hope our next president takes a hard stance against communism -- and that means Cuba." He said the "mental torture" was never-ending. "They accused me of being with the CIA and said, 'If you don't sign this confession, you'll get 25 years.' I refused to sign.
"It was hell in every way. They gave us no breaks. They took every possible step to harass us. I say give 'em no breaks."
Bill Dawson, a 50-year-old retired Navy chief petty officer whose shrimp boat strayed into Cuban waters, was jailed because the Cubans claimed they found marijuana seeds aboard. Dawson said American prisoners conducted a hunger strike in May during the height of the controversy over the "Freedom Flotilla." They were protesting attacks on President Carter in the Cuban news media and the sending of convicted criminals to the United States.
"We dumped our food into the barrels and lunch and went on a hunger strike," he said, climbing into a yellow Mercedes with hs fiance, his teen-aged daughter, his 73-year-old mother, three sisters and two brothers. "They put us in the hole [solitary confinement] for 17 days."
Some State Department officials interpreted the prisoner release as Castro's attempt to "clean the slate" before, the election -- to put on a fresh face for whoever is elected president after flooding the United States with 125,000 refugees. Cuba wants the United States to end its trade embargo, to close Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and end its U2 spy overflights.
"Praise the Lord," chanted Melvin Lee Bailey, a Newport News, Va., computer programmer and former Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for bombing Cuba with religious pamphlets. "It was all worth it, but I wouldn't do it again."
On May 26, 1979, Bailey and Walter Thomas White, 32, of Glendale, Calif., took off into the Nassau, Bahamas, darkness, aiming their Piper Cherokee for the Cuban coast. They were two evangelical commandos, agents of a California-based organization called "Jesus to the Communist World" which tries to spread the faith to godless societies around the World. The Bible bombers believed they were on a "mission for God," and planned to spend the Memorial Day weekend spreading the word.
But bad weather forced them to land on a Cuban country road, and police discovered a religious tract in the plane and accused them of "counterrevolutionary activities." They were slapped into solitary confinement so they would confess to being CIA agents.
"All I would confess to was being a Christian," said White, who added he survived three months in solitary by praying, singing hymns and talking to "Jesus and the Holy Spirit the whole time . . . He really came through for me."
A pale, gaunt man, White said he spent the first three months alone, his only company a swaying light bulb that burned 24 hours a day and roaches that scampered across the concrete floor. Guards often awakened him by banging on the steel door, he said. They threatened him with a baseball bat and took away his food. He was fresh from stomach surgery for cancer and interrogators told him he was dying, that his face was turning yellow. He had no mirror to see for himself.
His family thought he was dead, interrogators told him. A black hood was placed over his head and he was shuffled from freezing cells to hot cells and back, he said. Confess, they told him. "You have seen three feet of the cat and you don't want to see the fourth."
He said he was unshaven, thin, getting ever filthier and exhausted. "I asked God to let me die, but he had other plans."
At one point he was so cold, he agreed to confess to being a CIA agent so he could get into the warmth of the interrogation room. Then he warmed up, and said he had changed his mind and was thrown back into a freezing cell.
Bailey, the pilot, was chastised for serving as a chopper pilot in Vietnam.
He said he considered himself a "prisoner of war."
Finally, they convinced the Cubans they were missionaries, rather than CIA agents, and were taken on a tour of churches. "But they really blew that," said White. "They took us to a Baptist church that had been turned into an apartment building and a Catholic church with bars and chains on the door."
Heading for the car, an arm around the shoulders of his beaming wife, Ophelia, a small son and daughter tugging at his pants, White -- unlike Bailey -- said he would do it again. He was prepared to spend 24 years behind bars for Jesus.
Michael Seitler, 25, of Glen Cove, N.Y., said he was Florida-bound on a shakedown cruise, a passenger aboard a 60-foot Colombia-based fishing boat he planned to buy that spring of 1979, when he had mechanical problems and drifted into Cuban waters. A Cuban patrol boat fired tracer bullets across the bow and towed him in.
At Seitler's trial, according to one consular official, Cuban officials said the boat, Bravo One, was carrying Marijuana. None was found on board, but several bales washed up on a beach 135 kilometers west of where the boat was seized. A U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat that had Bravo One under surveillance had radioed the Cubans that the crew had been observed throwing large objects into the sea, according to Seitler's mother.
Sunny Seitler, Michael's mother and a New York cosmetic executive, carries copies of U.S. Coast Guard records and attempts to show that the Coast Guard gave the Cubans informatin on the wrong boat.
Even though Bravo One had a history of smuggling marijuana under previous owners, it was clean this time, she said.
"We're trying to build a case that the U.S. government played a role putting Michael in jail for false reasons," said her Washington attorney, Joseph Blatchford, a former Peace Corps director.
Three other men chose not to return because they face charges in the United States. They were identified only as Charles Hill, Jeffrey John Hoban and Lester Perry. But the others were elated to be home.
Lance Fyfe, 39, of Hialeah, was arrested in June 1978 on drug and illegal entry charges. He said he could not wait to get back to work as a charter plane pilot. Fyfe said the Cubans gave him a "choice of confessions: being a CIA agent or drug smuggler. I figured CIA would mean firing squad, so I took drug smuggler."
"I signed a confession to drug smuggling after 54 days in solitary," said Mark David Contino of Miami. "They threatened to shoot me. I would have signed a murder statement."