Bay of Pigs: 50 Years Later

The ripples of the Bay of Pigs invasion are still felt today. Earlier this year, upon marking the 50th anniversary of the invasion, the New York Sun ran an editorial (“Beyond the Bay of Pigs”) that captures what is perhaps its most enduring message.


By Maria C. Werlau l July 20, 2011


Graphic/The Miami Herald 

Many Americans alive today know nothing at all about the Bay of Pigs invasion, yet its reverberations have had lasting effects on the United States, Cuba, and the world.

Let’s recall the history very briefly. On April 17, 1961, a U.S. government funded military force of around 1,400 Cuban exiles, the Brigade 2506, landed at the Bay of Pigs in southwestern Cuba. The Cuban regime refers to the event with the name Playa Girón (Girón Beach), the area right by the mouth of the Bay of Pigs. Seven battalions of CIA-trained exiled Cuban patriots were carrying out a covert plan developed during the Eisenhower Administration to oust the government led by Fidel Castro. The bearded leader had come to power when Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day 1959, ending nearly seven years of authoritarian military rule. Castro had led an armed uprising with widespread popular support, promising to reinstate constitutional rule, hold free elections, and reinstitute multi-party democracy. Instead he, his brother Raúl, Ché Guevara, and a small band of cohorts had quickly established their own covert plan to impose Communist rule by sheer terror and align Cuba with the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, the menace of a Communist state just 90 miles from America’s shores seemed intolerable to U.S. leaders. John Kennedy had staunchly and loudly advocated a tough line on Cuba during his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. But, upon assuming the presidency in January 1961 and inheriting the invasion plan, he became excessively concerned with keeping U.S. involvement secret, though it was already widely known. Instead of calling off the invasion, he ordered last minute changes that crippled the operation and doomed it to failure. These alterations included calling off vital pre-invasion air strikes that would have guaranteed the destruction of Cuba’s small air force, a critical element to the success of the mission. When the invasion force landed, Castro’s planes sank the supply ships and the invasion force was left to die or face capture. The death toll amounted to 108, including four U.S. airmen from the Alabama National Guard hired by the CIA to train the Cuban exile pilots. Two excellent accounts of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Jim Rasenberger’s The Brilliant Disaster (2011) and Grayston Lynch’s Decision for Disaster (2000), provide compelling evidence of these historic events.

The invasion fiasco was a huge embarrassment for the Kennedy Administration that ultimately weakened this country’s international standing and negatively impacted U.S. policy for decades to come. Used as a case study of “a perfect failure” in U.S. military academies, its repercussions were felt worldwide and almost immediately. In the recently released and extensively researched book, Berlin 1961, Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, makes a convincing case that Kennedy helped to “write the script” for the construction of the Berlin Wall. The Bay of Pigs fiasco and Kennedy’s ensuing disastrous performance in the infamous June 1961 Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev convinced the Soviet leader that the American President was a novice he could easily bully. Less than four months after the failed invasion, construction of the Berlin Wall began at Khrushchev´s urging, if not his direct orders. (The historical record shows that he called GDR State Council Chairman Walter Ulbricht to tell him to initiate construction.) The Wall cut off West Berlin from East Berlin and surrounding East Germany until its fall in 1989. It became a powerful symbol of the might and threat of Soviet Communism, which had profound and lasting practical as well as symbolic implications. Hundreds of victims killed trying to flee Communism for the West are just one of many costs of this calamity.

Khrushchev’s success with Berlin then emboldened him to send nuclear missiles to Cuba. This led the world to the verge of nuclear Armageddon during the October 1962 Missile Crisis and to the resulting quid pro quo between Kennedy and Khrushchev that likely prolonged the Cold War. Kennedy then needed to prove he had a backbone and took an aggressive stance on Vietnam by escalating U.S. involvement. The end result was, among other things, millions of lives lost in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, including almost 60,000 U.S. service members.

The Bay of Pigs invasion provided the last chance for the Cuban anti-Castro resistance movement to force the Communist regime out of power. With the plan greatly curtailed in Kennedy’s stubborn quest for secrecy over viability, as soon as pre-invasion operations started, the Castro regime moved quickly to decimate the resistance. Thousands of citizens were arrested and scores executed by firing squad. Meanwhile, the botched U.S.-backed operation afforded the Castro regime a claim of legitimacy on nationalistic grounds – the perfect justification to evoke an external enemy in a David and Goliath struggle. Latin America provided particularly fertile ground for eliciting anti-U.S. sympathies with lasting consequences. But, more importantly, “the victory over imperialism” emboldened Cuba’s revolutionary leaders to unleash their full potential for terror and repression and consolidate their dictatorship.

Fidel Castro had already been actively sponsoring guerrilla incursions in Latin America since coming to power in 1959. But, in 1966, he hosted in Havana the Soviet-sponsored Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian and Latin American Peoples to “coordinate subversion and guerrilla activity on a worldwide basis.” Conference participants designated United States ‘imperialism’ as enemy number one on every continent. As a result, the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee warned of the “immediate and massive intensification of terrorism and guerrilla activity throughout the Americas, as well as in Asia and Africa.” For over two and a half decades, thanks to massive Soviet assistance to Cuba, the Castro regime initiated and/or supported – with funds, agents, troops, training, or all of the above – scores of subversive movements and terrorist activities around the world, including in most democratic nations in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba also trained thousands of guerillas and terrorists from many countries. The cost in lives worldwide has been massive (around 20,000 just in El Salvador, many times more in Colombia); the cost to wide-ranging American interests is probably incalculable.

After the demise of Soviet Communism, Cuba was forced to reassess its role. Fidel Castro then led a realignment of the Latin American left in the organization “Foro de Sao Paolo” to unite efforts against U.S. and capitalist influence around the world. The Foro first met in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1990 and continues to host a large annual gathering. These meetings, which go largely unreported in the Western press, are well attended by representatives of rogue regimes and radical and terrorist groups from all over the world. One of the Foro’s key goals is to spread Marxism and reach power through elections – making all needed populist promises and lies – to then undermine democratic institutions from within. Given the end of Soviet support for armed struggle, for pragmatic reasons the Foro has sidetracked violence, but the threat is just as real. The Castro-Chavez project, known as ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), is an outgrowth of the Foro. An “alternative model to neoliberalism,” it essentially means anti-U.S. Marxism-Leninism and seeks the political, economic, and social integration of the Caribbean and Latin American countries. Its strategy is implemented with Venezuela´s petrodollars, which help buy the way to electoral victory and pay for Cuba’s army of modern slaves (doctors, nurses, teachers, and other “international collaborators”) to provide “free” and badly needed services, while evangelizing the masses. The initiative has made great headway –Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, and most recently Peru, all have presidents committed to ALBA. Some are more established than others, but individual freedom and the rule of law typically erode as the respective regime solidifies.

In 2011, fifty years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba remains one of four of the U.S. State Department’s designated state sponsors of terror. Intimately allied with Hugo Chavez´s Venezuela, Cuba cooperates closely with North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other rogue regimes at all sorts of levels. The Cuban Communist nation has long harbored ETA (Basque Fatherland and Liberty) terrorists sought by Spain as well as dozens of fugitives from American justice. The latter include escaped convict Joanne Chesimard, who in 1973 executed New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, and reportedly the No. 1 Most Wanted by the FBI, Puerto Rican nationalist Victor Manuel Gerena, who in 1984 —in league with the terrorist group Los Macheteros staged a $7 million armored truck heist in Hartford, Connecticut. In addition, the Castro regime constantly raises the threat of unleashing a mass wave of refugees upon U.S. shores at any given moment. Therefore, that Cuba continues to pose a threat to the security of the United States after five decades and the end of the Cold War is an understatement.

Because the Bay of Pigs invasion did not remove the Castro regime from power, for five decades it has enjoyed free reign to steadily and persistently destroy an entire country. Despite a 6-year dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista, when Castro came to power, Cuba was a relatively prosperous nation economically with some of the highest socio-economic indicators in Latin America and even in the world. Today, the country’s economy is a wreck – its agriculture, infrastructure, productive sector, and financial sector are all in shambles. Once the leading sugar producer in the world, today, Cuba’s sugar industry has vanished due to mismanagement and corruption. After receiving massive Soviet support for three decades through oil-for-sugar swaps and other direct assistance, the island has shifted its dependence and today sustains its failed economy thanks to the largesse of Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez to the tune of over US$8 billion per year. The statistics on Cuba are dire; highlights include the highest per capita external debt in the world, an astounding monthly wage of around US$18, and one of the lowest Internet connectivity rates on the planet resulting from extremely tight control of Internet access. The opportunity cost in lost business and trade over five decades for the U.S. and other international partners is incalculable.

The sad reality is that Communist totalitarianism has been a way of life for over fifty years that has caused enormous suffering to the Cuban people. Around 10% of the population has left and thousands have died fleeing one of the few countries its citizens cannot leave without government permission. Exile and family separation are but two of the long list of travails Cubans have faced. Executions, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, political imprisonment, repression of all fundamental liberties (social, political, economic), extreme material deprivation, abolishment of private property, absence of civil society,… the list seems endless and the associated pain and loss, immeasurable.

Finally, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had enormous repercussions for those directly involved. The loss of 108 patriots in the cause of liberty on the side of the Brigade include 67 Cubans and 4 Americans killed in combat, 9 asphyxiated in a trailer truck after being taken prisoner, 11 who died at sea after escaping by boat, and 9 executed by the Castro regime. All these lives were cut short in the most bitter of ways, knowing they had been betrayed. Their loved ones — hundreds of orphans, widows, parents, siblings — faced not just the grief of a loss of such magnitude, but also the knowledge that their death had been in vain; they had not had a fighting chance for their sacrifice to make a difference. My father, Armando Cañizares and the fathers of some of my best friends were among those who did not return. The grief and hardships of each of our families can fill volumes. (See “A daugher’s testimony: my father lived and died for his beliefs” at www.CubaArchive.org – Case Profiles.)

Brigade members who survived were marked by the trauma for a lifetime. Most came to the U.S. after over a year in Cuban prisons, ransomed by the Castro regime. Many still gather under the auspices of the Brigade 2506 Association in Miami, where each April they commemorate their quest and reflect on its meaning. On the side of the Castro regime, families also grieved and the nation was ripped apart by an ideology of exclusion and hatred. Many who fought for Castro, or their descendants, must share the same sense of futility when they contemplate the empty promises and what Cuba has become. Many have already fled on makeshift rafts, some only to be lost at sea.

The ripples of the Bay of Pigs invasion are still felt today. Earlier this year, upon marking the 50th anniversary of the invasion, the New York Sun ran an editorial (“Beyond the Bay of Pigs”) that captures what is perhaps its most enduring message:

“…the thing to remember is the spirit, the idealism, and the courage with which the invasion was undertaken and to reflect on how much better things might have been for the Cuban people had it succeeded. Particularly when so many throughout the world today are appearing in arms against new tyrannies. The lesson of the Bay of Pigs is to stick with the fight and to comprehend that the loss of one engagement need not mean a defeat forever.”


Maria Werlau, founder and Executive Director of the non-profit project Cuba Archive (http://CubaArchive.org), is a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.