After 40 Years, Bay of Pigs Reunion

Wednesday, March 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAY OF PIGS, Cuba (AP) _ Breathtakingly gorgeous with its blue seas and white sands, the Bay of Pigs looks more like a billboard for a Caribbean vacation than an old Cold War battleground.

The beach where tourists now sip daiquiris was the stage 40 years ago for one of the most memorable chapters in the struggle between Washington and Havana: the invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained band of armed exiles.

As the April 17-19 anniversary approaches, top Kennedy administration officials and even members of the Bay of Pigs invasion force are to return to the same beach this week for a very different kind of encounter with Jose Ramon Fernandez, then the leader of the defending force, now one of Fidel Castro's vice presidents.

At a conference beginning Thursday, they hope to shed new light on the invasion and view hitherto classified U.S. and Cuban documents.

The invasion remains a delicate subject, bound up in the 40 years of U.S.-Cuban hostility. Even on the eve of the conference, neither side would name the participants, apparently fearing that premature publicity would make them drop out.

Then there's the perennial question of why the invasion failed - a subject that still nettles Fernandez.

It irks him that most Americans blame their own side's poor planning, rather than credit the Cubans' fighting prowess. Usually, ``history is written by the victors,'' he says, while in this case, it has been written by the losers.

Standing tall and erect, with a shock of white hair and startlingly blue eyes, Fernandez at 77 still has the bearing of a career general who trained in artillery at Fort Sill in Oklahoma while serving in the pre-communist army under President Fulgencio Batista.

Jailed for three years for criticizing corruption in Batista's military, Fernandez joined Castro's government after the 1959 revolution.

Now, even though the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains unrelenting, Fernandez is playing a part in a reconciliation of sorts by helping to organize the conference that begins in a Havana hotel and moves to the Bay of Pigs, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, on the weekend.

Trained by the CIA in Guatemala, the 2506 Brigade was comprised of about 1,500 exiles determined to overthrow the government that had seized power 16 months before.

Washington worried that the Soviet Union would use Cuba to establish a beachhead 90 miles from American shores. It foreshadowed the crisis that blew up the following year over Soviet nuclear missiles being deployed in Cuba.

The three-day invasion ended in debacle. Short of ammunition and lacking U.S. air support, more than 1,000 invaders were captured. One hundred invaders and 151 defenders died, said Fernandez.

Surviving exiles have always blamed bungled planning and the Kennedy Administration's refusal to provide sufficient air cover.

But Fernandez said the operation failed because the invaders were unprepared for his troops' bravery and firepower. He denied reports that the Soviet Union had tipped Cuba off about the invasion or that Cuban agents infiltrated the exiles' training camps.

But he did acknowledge that Cuba rounded up government opponents hours before the beach landing.

Mirto Collazo, a 2506 Brigade veteran living in Miami, said insufficient ammunition was also a factor. But although he is still a foe of Castro, he praised Fernandez's battle skills.

``He was the best artillery man that Cuba had,'' said Collazo, a former Cuban soldier who studied under Fernandez during the Batista regime. ``Militarily, I have a lot of respect for him.''

But in a telephone interview, he said that he still opposes Castro's government and would not attend the conference.

Jaime Suchlicki, who directs a Cuban studies program at the University of Miami, says many Cuban-Americans see the conference as ``a propaganda maneuver by the Castro government, an attempt to divide the exile community.''

In an e-mail to The Associated Press from Miami, the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association Brigade 2506 wrote: ``For us, this 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs is one more reason to reaffirm our uncompromising position not to have dialogue'' with Castro's government.

These days, visiting Americans tour the Playa Giron Museum on the Bay of Pigs, where a small gallery displays black and white photos of captured anti-Castro commandos, yellowed newspaper clippings, the bright blue uniforms of defending militia members.

Also on exhibit are a 81mm mortar and a Browning machine gun seized from invaders. A British-made Sea Fury plane that shot down two American B-26 planes stands outside.