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Remembering the Bay of Pigs invasion

Four decades later, exiles' anti-Castro passion still high

Castro Bay of Pigs
Castro, lower right, watches from a tank near Playa Giron during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961  

April 17, 2001
Web posted at: 6:38 PM EDT (2238 GMT)


MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- On April 17, 1961, about 1,500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles landed at Cuba's Bay of Pigs in hopes of triggering an uprising against their homeland's communist leader, Fidel Castro.

Remarkably little has changed in the last 40 years. Castro remains in power, and the survivors of the abortive invasion remain as opposed to him, and his ideals, as ever.

"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."

A look back at the invasion, with perspective from the participants, from CNN's Garrick Utley

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    Passions run 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 -- 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.

    A disaster for exiles, CIA

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

    In the months prior to the invasion, U.S. intelligence operatives trained Bovo, Cabello and more than a thousand other Cuban exiles. They were following up a plan drawn up President Dwight D. Eisenhower and carried out by his successor, President John F. Kennedy, on the condition U.S. forces themselves would stay out -- both on the ground and in the air.

    For two days, the exiles fought off a steady rain of artillery fire, hoping for U.S. air strikes and support that never came.

    "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."

    The result was a disaster for the exiles, CIA and Kennedy administration.

    'We were self-deluded'

    "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.

    Castro flag
    Cuba's Fidel Castro has outlasted nine U.S. presidents since taking power in 1959  

    "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."

    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."

    Castro, meanwhile, personally took command of Cuban troops at Playa Giron, near the landing site, and rallied his troops against the invaders.

    The ground and air support the exiles hoped for - and needed - never came. A mere two days after landing at the Bay of Pigs, out of ammunition and with 114 dead, the remnants of the exile brigade surrendered to Cuban troops.

    Old adversaries come together

    The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought a fresh look at Cold War relationships and events, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Historians and, increasingly, survivors reunited to discuss their experiences and feelings in peaceful, thoughtful forums.

    Castro himself attended the Havana conference that led to Cabello's expulsion from his Bay of Pigs veterans group. So did invasion survivor Alfredo Duran, who 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."

    The next step

    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 outlasted nine U.S. presidents. But many 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."



    someone who is prevented from returning -- or, in this case, will not return for political reasons -- to his or her home country



    cut short; premature; stopped before completion



    refusing to compromise or yield



    large firearms and weapons; branch of military that uses such weapons



    a large body of military troops



    a person -- most often referring to a soldier -- serving in a force solely for economic, and not idealistic, political or nationalistic reasons

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

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