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Exiles' passion still high 40 years after Bay of Pigs

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Four decades after CIA-backed Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, passions still run high among survivors of the abortive invasion.

So high, in fact, that Bay of Pigs survivor Mario Cabello was expelled from the Miami-based Brigade 2506 Veterans Association earlier this month for participating in a Havana conference on the affair.

"I was called a scoundrel, I was called a traitor, I was called a son of a bitch -- you know, all the insults in the dictionary," Cabello said.

Cabello's appearance with a panel of U.S. and Cuban government officials, veterans and historians violated a cardinal rule of the veterans group: No contact with Cuba while Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro remains in power.

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"We are not going to talk to Castro, period," said Esteban Bovo, who flew World War II-vintage B-26 bombers in the invasion attempt. "We are intransigent.

"How would you feel meeting Stalin, or if you were a Jew meeting Hitler?" Bovo added. "This was a civil war. It was father shooting against son, brother against brother."

On April 17, 1961, Cabello, Bovo and about 1,500 other Cuban exiles trained and armed by U.S. intelligence operatives came ashore at the Bay of Pigs, on the island's southern coast. The result was a disaster.

"It was a very intense thing. We were under heavy artillery fire, and it continued for 48 straight hours," Bay of Pigs veteran Alfredo Duran told CNN.

Raids by the Cuban exiles' aging, Nicaraguan-based planes on Cuban air bases tipped off Cuban leaders to the attack. The exiles expected the Cuban people to rise up against Castro and join them, but the uprising never materialized.

"We were self-deluded," Bob Reynolds, the CIA station chief in Miami at the time, told Reuters. "It's pretty clear now that there was not a large body of people just waiting for a chance to turn against Castro."

Instead, Castro personally took command of Cuban troops at Playa Giron, near the landing site, and rallied his troops against the invaders. And though the exiles expected U.S. air support, President John Kennedy refused to allow American airstrikes on Cuba.

"On the first day, we were able to repel all attacks," exile veteran Luis Morse said. "On the second day, we retreated to a secondary position. And then the ammunition started to go, because Castro's air force was able to sink the ships that had our ammunition. So by having no air cover, our planes could not land in and replenish us."

The plan had been drawn up under Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, but Kennedy approved it on condition that U.S. forces stay out.

"Kennedy made it clear again and again in these meetings that in no case would American troops be involved," said former Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "But the CIA and indeed the Cuban exiles, I think, believed that when the time came, he would have no choice but to send in American troops."

That didn't happen, either. Two days later, out of ammunition and with 114 dead, the remnants of the exile brigade surrendered to Cuban troops.

Duran also participated in the Havana conference, which Castro himself attended. Duran said it was important to have the exiles' point of view represented.

Cuba has portrayed them as mercenaries and tools of American interests, but Duran denies that.

"We were there as Cuban patriots, trying to defend our land from what we believed was an evil that was coming to it," Duran said. "We were looking towards the future of Cuba and to the best interests of the Cuban people and the republic."

Any talk of easing the U.S. embargo or other U.S. opposition to Castro's government runs into heavy opposition from the Cuban exile community. But while Duran says he still opposes Castro, particularly his government's approach to human rights, he said the current American stance must change.

"The United States should rethink its policy towards Cuba and come forth with some innovative and new policy towards Cuba," Duran said. "What's in place right now has not worked and will never work."

Castro, now 75, has now outlasted nine U.S. presidents. But the veterans of Brigade 2506 still hold out hope that his rule will eventually give way to a freer Cuba.

"He beat us in the Bay of Pigs," Morse said. "I still believe that the battle of ideas -- the battle for the spirit of man -- that, he has not won. There is still hope that Cuba will someday be free."

CNN Correspondents Susan Candiotti and Garrick Utley contributed to this report.



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