Gordon: In April, 1961, a group of mostly Cuban-Americans attempted an invasion of Cuba with the goal of regime change. I was always of the impression that this was the ill conceived and poorly executed effort of a ragtag group. However, we have been staying in communities on the Bay of Pigs for the past few days, and it has been startling to learn that this was a larger and better planned attempt than I had thought. As Raul Castro said in an interview a decade after the event, it was only because President Kennedy vacillated that a wave of blood didn’t sweep over the island and replace the government.
The planning and preparation for the invasion went on for a couple of years. It was mostly a CIA effort, but with broader government involvement and the approval of President Eisenhower, and later President Kennedy. The U.S. government sought to be in a position of “plausible deniability”, so the various ships and aircraft involved were disguised as being from other countries. There were about 1400 “mercenaries paid by the Yankee imperialists” (as they are described in Cuba) that landed at three locations on the Bay of Pigs. They had several tanks, and a variety of mortars and anti-tank weapons, and they were supported by bombers, fighter aircraft, and a number of ships. The battle went on for three days and claimed hundreds of lives, mostly on the Cuban side. More than 1100 of the invaders were ultimately taken prisoner. A number of the prisoners were tried and executed, and the remainder were ransomed back to the U.S. for $53 million of food and medicine.
The defeat of the invading force was a proud and defining moment for the young revolutionary government of Cuba. There are billboards throughout the region that quote Fidel Castro’s statement that this was the first time that Yankee imperialism had been defeated in Latin America. Fidel took personal command in the conflict, and one picture of him jumping from a tank has become iconic.
We visited an excellent museum devoted to the conflict in Playa Girón, one of the landing sites. Along with many other personal touches, it includes the uniform of a young Cuban soldier who wrote “Fidel” on a wall with his own blood in the moments before he died. The conflict was a PR coup for Fidel, and a disaster for the U.S., which may be why we know so little about it.