Cubans remember the Bay of Pigs

The CIA-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was defeated in less than 72 hours but its legacy looms large

1961 invasion considered a 'perfect failure' and a historic turning point

Events a half-century ago continue to reverberate in Cuba, as the ruling Communist Party held its first congress since 1997, timed for the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Fifty years ago, Cuba faced the U.S.-backed invasion and Fidel Castro first declared the Cuban revolution socialist. What has happened in the last 50 years of Cuba-U.S. relations can be traced back to those events.

The hidden hand of invasion

The Bay of Pigs invasion had its origins in a secret program approved by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in October 1959, 10 months after Castro came to power.  Eisenhower directed that, "our hand should not show in anything that is done." In 1960, the Central Intelligence Agency began training Cuban exiles, especially at a CIA base in Guatemala.

A group of Cuban soldiers show their artillery after routing the US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. (Graf/Getty Images)

In November of that year, a U.S. weekly magazine, The Nation, reported the existence of the training camp. An accompanying editorial called on the U.S. administration "to abandon this dangerous and harebrained project."

Also that month, John F. Kennedy won the presidential elections. Once in the White House, Kennedy approved the plan, but requested a change in location for the planned invasion.

The first shots were fired, from the air, on April 15, 1961. The CIA had bombers repainted with Cuban markings and flown by exiled Cubans in order to make it look like an internal act of defection. The goal — not achieved — was to eliminate the Cuban air force because the U.S. invasion plans did not include air support for the invading troops.

JFK, NYT, Bay of Pigs

Numerous sources say that on April 6, 1961 President Kennedy spoke with someone at the New York Times about their reporting there was going to be an invasion of Cuba.

David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be that Kennedy spoke to James Reston, then Washington bureau chief.  Peter Wyden in Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story writes that publisher-to-be Orvil "Dryfoos was in touch with the President."

Times veteran Alex Jones co-authored an acclaimed history of the newspaper, The Trust. That account has Reston talking to CIA director Allen Dulles. Then, on Reston's advice, the Times "removed the word imminent and all references to the CIA from the invasion story." 

American University professor W. Joseph Campbell blogged about this CBC story, in a lengthy entry titled, "Canada's CBC invokes Bay of Pigs suppression myth." 

His argument is that Halberstam, Wyden, Jones and others got it wrong, and that the CBC did, too. 

However, in a just-published book on the invasion, The Brilliant Disaster, Jim Rasenberger writes, "Somebody — it's not clear who — apparently read a draft over the phone to Kennedy."

A phone conversation between Kennedy and Dryfoos followed, Rasenberger writes.

Castro's forces had not infiltrated the American operation but they knew an invasion was coming. In January 1961, The New York Times had confirmed The Nation story, as had other media, and on April 7, the Times ran a now-famous story that reported the invasion was near.

Wayne Smith, then a diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Havana, reported hearing about the planned invasion from sources in Florida.

The Times had actually played down their story at the direct request of the Kennedy administration, something both he and the Times' editors later regretted.

Shortly after the invasion, Kennedy reportedly told a Times editor, "if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake."

Castro declares revolution 'socialist'

Meanwhile in Cuba, Castro spoke at the funeral for some of the victims of the airstrikes. Although the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, had denied any U.S. involvement (he had been misled by his own government), that's who Castro blamed.

"What they cannot forgive is that we have made a socialist revolution," Castro declared. It was the first time he had characterized the revolution as "socialist" and some historians believe the timing was no accident. 

Until then, Castro had been playing off American and Soviet interests and felt that to get any significant backing from Moscow he had to make such a statement. With the expectation that an invasion was imminent, he made his declaration. (The Russians would wait another year before they recognized the Cuban revolution as "socialist.")

Cuban leader Fidel Castro writing at the front during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Associated Press

The invasion began in the early hours of April 17 at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's southern coast, and at another nearby location. The 1,400 invaders, called Brigade 2506, soon faced the full might of the Cuban armed forces. The fighting was over in less than 72 hours.

'A perfect failure'

"The Bay of Pigs invasion was described at the time as the rarest of all things - a perfect failure," Wayne Smith wrote in his 1985 book, The Closest of Enemies.

Kennedy immediately accepted responsibility for the failure. However, explanations for that failure vary. Kennedy supporters presented him as trapped after he inherited an ill-conceived plan.

Some believe the CIA plan had a premise that Kennedy would abandon efforts to hide U.S. involvement and send in the Marines rather than allow defeat, even though Kennedy had told the CIA he would not approve their use.

President John F. Kennedy, left, and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower walk along a path at Camp David in Thurmond, Md., as the two met April 22, 1961 to discuss the Bay of Pigs invasion. Photographer Paul Vathis won a Pulitizer Prize for this photo. Paul Vathis/Associated Press

Washington officials also expected the invasion would spark a popular uprising in Cuba, something Smith called "a wildly implausible hope," given Castro's widespread support at the time.

The CIA itself would soon conclude, secretly, that the project should have been abandoned once it lost its "covert nature."

For Jorge Soberon, the consul general for Cuba in Toronto, the event's significance goes far beyond Cuba. "This was the first defeat of U.S. imperialism in the western hemisphere," he told CBC News.

Not only had the U.S. government been seen to be in violation of national and international law, and involved in deception, the invasion helped Castro to consolidate his regime. It also led to a mutual defence pact with the Soviet Union, and then Russian ballistic missile sites in Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis followed in 1962 — the closest the world has ever come to all-out nuclear war.

Shortly after the invasion fiasco, Kennedy told the CIA to "get rid of" Castro. That led to Operation Mongoose, which proposed 32 different measures to get rid of the Castro regime.

Remembering the Bay of Pigs

For many Cuban families, the Bay of Pigs is remembered for the loss of loved ones. About 125 members of the invading forces died and the Cuban government says 157 died on their side.

Members of Brigade 2506 are in custody after their invasion and then surrender following their Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in April 1961. Miguel Vinas/AFP/Getty Images

About 1,200 invaders were taken prisoner. They were released the following year in exchange for food and medicine.

The invasion is remembered differently in Cuba and in the anti-Castro Cuban community in the U.S.

The Miami school board held an April 13 event to honour members of Brigade 2506, presenting it as a Cuban and not American inspired event. Local officials also pushed successfully for the cancellation of a music festival that was to have taken place four days earlier because it was supposed to include musicians from Cuba.

For Cuba, a country that likes anniversaries, Soberon said this is one of the biggest, "because our revolution survived and was secured after the invasion."

The Cuban Communist Party scheduled their sixth party congress to coincide with the anniversary. The congress, which met April 16-19 in Havana, approved a series of market reforms, but in keeping with "the socialist character of our country," according to Soberon, remembering Castro's speech 50 years ago.

The party also elected a new leadership, one without Fidel Castro.