APRIL 17, 1961 – A DAY OF INFAMY FOR CUBAN-AMERICANS (Updated Version)
CARTOON CAPTION READS: “BAY OF PIGS. VICTORY FOR SOCIALISM.” Jorge’s editorial comment: A victory is the interpretation given by uninformed tourists who sympathize with the Castro’s revolution, and who wear Che Guevara T-shirts. It’s another story when it comes to the Cuban militia men. They know better. They realize that the Bay of Pigs was but a pyrrhic victory for Cuba.
Wednesday marks the 52nd anniversary since the U.S. launched the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, on April 17, 1961.
Rather than preparing a long discourse on this incident, I’ve decided to proceed on a different and more personal track. History books are available for those interested in reading the finer details of what really happened. But history books are static. I, on the other hand, am interested in recounting what the invasion meant to me, and the life lessons that it taught me.
On April 17, 1961, I was seven years old, and I was living in Cuba. April 17 was very special to me, as it was my birthday. Birthdays symbolize gifts, money, and a party where one got to be the center of attention. I was the darling of the crowd, and, at least for one day, I could do no wrong. So, when my parents informed me that I would have a scaled down celebration in 1961, I was not a happy camper. While my parents explained the danger that we were in, they promised me to host a much larger fiesta in a post-Castro Cuba Libre. Since the latter never materialized, my memory of April 17, 1961 is one of broken promises – both from my parents and from the U.S. Government.
For the United States, the Bay of Pigs represented a public embarrassment in the eyes of the world community. After it was over, former President Eisenhower told Kennedy that "the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do." Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded that Kennedy was inexperienced and indecisive, and one Soviet adviser wrote that the President was "too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations ... too intelligent and too weak."
Soon after, Kennedy got another chance to handle a 3:00 AM crisis call. In the fall of 1962, the Soviet leadership believed, based on an analysis of Kennedy's lack of confidence during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, that he would avoid confrontation and accept the missiles as a fact of life. In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they’ve ever been to nuclear war over the offensive missiles stationed in Cuba.
Mistakes always trigger consequences. Some historians have treated Kennedy lightly over his handling of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. They claim that it happened just three month after he got elected, and that he was still learning the ropes of governing. While they are right, their arguments are not convincing. The job of President of the U.S. has no room for on-the-job training. It requires a rigorous screening process during the campaign season, and the winner is expected to hit the ground running. Thus, there is simply no excuse for Kennedy’s lack of leadership on that fateful day in 1961. It became a day of infamy for Cubans, for Cuban-Americans, for Americans, and for all freedom-loving people around the globe.
President Kennedy promised those Cubans who participated in the invasion that he would provide them with air support – a promise that he reneged on. If he had changed his mind before launching the invasion, some people may have disliked his decision, but they would have accepted it in the long run. However, for him to have changed his plans after members of the U.S.-backed Brigade 2506 had landed on Cuban soil, and, thus, were in harm’s way, was unconscionable. There were many unnecessary casualties as a result. This was a monumental betrayal that Cubans and Cuban-Americans will never forget, nor forgive. Let it be known that the 2506 troops fought valiantly. They were driven by a desire to restore freedom and democracy to their homeland. They had placed all their hopes in the United States. They fervently believed that with U.S. backing, victory was a sure thing. They failed because of the lack of the promised air support, and because they fell short of ammunition. Rather than a Profile in Courage, President Kennedy’s performance at the Bay of Pigs is better labeled as a Profile in Fear and Indecision.
They, the members of the 2506 Brigade, answered the question posed by the enemies of a Free Cuba that rather than fighting, Cubans voted with their feet by emigrating to the United States. On April 17, 1961, a bunch of over 1,400 Cuban exiles fought bravely an enemy made up of 51,000 Castro troops. And yet, they inflicted losses of 20 to 1 against a Soviet-trained army. They restored the manhood to the Cuban cause, and they silenced those who questioned it.
I’m sure that you’ve heard stories about how President Kennedy tried to diffuse responsibility for its failure by shifting the blame on former President Eisenhower. However, Ike would not tolerate this spin, and, in fact, pointed out that he “will not be held to blame for Cuba having been consulted after the fact.” Prior to making the final decisions, President Eisenhower was but a phone call away from President Kennedy.
When President Kennedy blew a gasket by saying that all the military experts and the CIA had assured him that the plans for the Bay of Pigs would succeed, it was former President Hoover that offered him a reality check. President Hoover told him that “You know I’m a Quaker and I loathe war, but, by heavens, if I were President of the United States I would order the necessary forces into the Bay of Pigs and I would decimate that Cuban army while they’re there… I’d end the thing forthright.” In other words, failure and humiliation would not have been viable options for President Hoover.
President Kennedy said that he changed the plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, after the Joint Chiefs had signed off on it, and scaled down the previously promised air cover because he wanted to hide the U.S.’s role in the operation. Former President Eisenhower countered by indicating that success mattered more than secrecy. Then, he offered a brutal rebuttal of President Kennedy’s secrecy argument. He asked, “Mr. President, how could you expect the world to believe that we had nothing to do with it? Where did these people get the ships to go from Central America to Cuba? Where did they get the weapons? Where did they get all the communications and all the other things they would need? How could you possibly have kept from the world any knowledge that the US had been involved?” These are all logic-101 questions that President Kennedy should have considered.
Despite being let down by a U.S. Administration, some Bay of Pigs veterans never lost faith in the exceptionalism of the United States. Some became officers in the US Army in Vietnam – including 6 colonels, 19 lieutenant colonels, 9 majors, and 29 captains. Second in command of the Bay of Pigs freedom fighters, Erneido Oliva, rose to rank of Major General in the District of Columbia Army National Guard in 1992. When his men felt dazed, abandoned, and outnumbered, Oliva reminded them forcefully: “There is no retreat, carajo! We stand and fight!” These brave Cuban patriots represented the reincarnation of the Mambi (Cuban revolutionary from the XIX century) chant immortalized in the Cuban national anthem that “to die for one’s country is to live forever.” These brave men paid back many times over the debt that they owed this country for taking them out of the Cuban Gulag.
Cuban-Americans learned an important lesson on April 17, 1961. They learned that to succeed in the future, they could only rely on themselves. Fidel took away all their personal belongings when many emigrated to the United States. He declared them enemies of the Cuban Revolution, and punished them by letting them carry only the clothes on their backs. They were not allowed to bring even a cent to the U.S. Nevertheless, Fidel was not able to take away the family cohesiveness, work ethic, and core values that allowed these Cubans to overcome all odds and succeed in the land of freedom and opportunities. One thing that Fidel was never able to take away from these Cubans was the college degrees that they had earned at the University of Havana. The Cubans considered the hard times in the beginning as a temporary nuisance. Through hard work, most looked adversity straight in the eyes and came out winners. Nowadays, Cuban-Americans hold the majority of crucial positions in Miami, Florida. Some have served as secretaries of cabinet-level federal agencies, others as U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators, one was the CEO of Coca-Cola, one received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and another for Drama, and most have sent their kids to top-ranked universities. They have learned to be self-reliant and to be in control of their own destinies.
Many asked whether the United States would support a future insurrection in Cuba. My answer is that it depends on many factors, and no one can be sure of what the final outcome would be. Cuban-Americans were again let down during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 after President Kennedy promised the Soviet Union that the United States would never invade Cuba in the future. They were again disappointed when the U.S. Government returned Elian Gonzalez to the Cuban Gulag – unwilling to understand that the real power-brokers of Elian’s fate would be the Cuban authorities, and not his biological father.
There is an opportunity currently for the United States to support an invasion to topple the Cuban regime. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Fidel Castro refused to repay Russia the approximate $28 billion lent to Cuba by the former Soviet Union. Fidel’s reasoning was that the money was owed to a country that no longer existed. Similarly, the agreement not to invade Cuba was agreed to by President Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. By using Fidel’s logic, this agreement is no longer binding on the United States as it was made with a country that no longer exists.
If some failed to grasp the lesson on April 17, 1961, many did afterwards. For Cuba to be free again, Cubans in Cuba will have to be their own agents of change. If the United States Government opts to help them out, let it come as a surprise, but not an expectation. For Cuban-Americans, the lesson was that they can only control the now, the present. Educational achievements, on-the-job experience, and the well-being of their immediate family are the tools to a rewarding life.
On April 17, 2013, let us give thanks in our own ways to the fallen and the living members of the 2506 Brigade. I will wear a Cuba lapel pin, drink a Cuba Libre with authentic Cuban Bacardi rum, and say a prayer to my God for giving us such titans.