On the morning of March 21, I boarded a charter plane in Miami with several of the men who tried to overthrow Cuba's revolutionary government back in April 1961. Our unlikely destination: José Martí International Airport in Havana. By strange twist of historical fate, and following years of earnest efforts by an international team of historians, we were going to back to the Bay of Pigs--and this time, Fidel Castro was rolling out the red carpet instead of fending off an invasion.
The University of Havana was hosting a conference, "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years After," that would bring together all sides of the battle, and hopefully reconcile the divergent accounts of what occurred during this much-studied but still misunderstood episode. Together, Cuban and U.S. scholars, as well as current and former officials--once bitter enemies--would circle up, trade declassified documents, don translation earphones and plumb the depths of the conflict.
Non-Cuban journalists were barred from the conference, but I can tell what I witnessed as a fly on the wall of this historic gathering. I attended as an observer under the auspices of the National Security Archive, a private research center in Washington, D.C., that organized the U.S. contingent. In the early 1990s, I worked there as a researcher on the Cuba Documentation Project, an effort to win the release of secret government records concerning decades of U.S.-Cuban relations.
The most elusive papers we sought were those about the Bay of Pigs, a failed amphibious attack by 1,400 Cuban exile troops sponsored and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. After three days of intense combat, Cuban government forces routed the invaders, killing 114 and taking 1,189 prisoner.
The invasion was either triumph or tragedy, depending on who you ask. In Cuba, the Bay of Pigs is described as "the inevitable battle" and "the first defeat of imperialism in Latin America." In the United States, the operation is remembered as "the perfect failure," as historian Theodore Draper dubbed it.
Both interpretations are correct. It was certainly the CIA's darkest moment, and the agency has long resisted parting with its internal records on the affair, which include frank discussion of assassination plots, sabotage operations, disinformation campaigns and, of course, the badly botched invasion. But years of prying with Freedom of Information Act requests and persistent archival research paid off, and we toted hulking briefing books full of those documents to the conference. The Cuban side responded in kind, releasing hundreds of pages of their secrets.
Many questions about both the triumph and the failure were answered at the conference, which may have been the last, best chance to document the inside story of the Bay of Pigs. The number of survivors has dwindled, but several key players showed up to share their memories. Cuban participants included President Castro, who personally directed the defense against the invasion brigade, and the 1961 militia commander who today is Vice President of the Council of State. The U.S. delegation included former CIA and State Department officers, five members of the invasion force, and two of President John F. Kennedy's aides, Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
We spent two days in conference, then traveled to Playa Girón, the main battle site. These strange bedfellows, aided by researchers from both countries, touched on nearly every aspect of the invasion, from the planning to the logistics, from the political context to the ways the operation shifted the balance of power between Cuba and the United States.
An imbalance remained, of course, even after Castro's decisive defense against a U.S.-backed invasion. A conference organizer noted that while history is usually written by the winners, that has not been the case with the Bay of Pigs. Much of the previously published history on the invasion is drawn from U.S. and Cuban exile sources, with the voices of Cubans on the island relegated to side references and footnotes.
"We feel unsatisfied with books on Playa Girón from outside Cuba," said one Cuban general. "Why don't they recognize what we did to attain victory?"
Accounts of the invasion will henceforth include something they have too often lacked: the Cuban perspective. At least in the historical sense, the conference provided belated fair play for Cuba. Cuban leaders explained why and how they fought, and what their "David and Goliath" struggle taught them about standing up to Washington.
Castro in particular added much to the record. He spoke, as he is wont to do, at great length, pushing both days of the conference hours past the scheduled ending times. One evening, he postponed a performance by the Cuban national ballet for an hour, just so we could hear him out on some of the finer points and still make it to the dance.
But if there was ever a blowhard worth listening to, it's Fidel Castro. At age 74, and after four decades of defending a communist regime against the most powerful country in the world, he retains his legendary charisma and stage presence. Rumors that his health is faltering have been circulating for years, but the Castro we saw was fit, alert and articulate. His trademark beard has grayed and thinned, and his hands sometimes tremble, ever so slightly. But he remains an adept orator, continually gesticulating, pausing for emphasis, and driving his points home by jabbing an index finger in the air and casting intense looks around the room.
Aside from the theatrics, Castro still has a grip on the historical details, especially when it comes to talking about his triumph over the CIA. He reminisces about the Bay of Pigs with the relish of a former high-school quarterback recalling the minute-by-minute turns of a state championship game. He seems to remember every play: where he was, what he thought, what he did.
During the three days of fighting, Castro recalled, he barely slept. He set up a makeshift headquarters at a sugar mill 50 miles north of the invasion site, and darted in and out of the battle. Meanwhile, he barked out orders and rallying cries to military and political authorities across the island. A transcript released at the conference recorded Castro's words to his brother, Raul, who was commanding troops on the other side of the country, where there was no fighting. "You're missing the party," Fidel chided.
At times, the conference got mired in the minutiae of the military aspects of the invasion. Castro led dizzying discussions of the Cubans' weapons: the origin, caliber and performance of the howitzers, rocket launchers and rifles. Tangents likes these ate up time, but usually the dialogue returned to broader themes, such as the geopolitical lessons of the conflict.
"It was an expensive education that the Bay of Pigs gave Kennedy," Arthur Schlesinger noted. The United States was not invincible, the young president learned, and the golden boys of the CIA lost much of their luster. Though bruised and wiser from the experience, Kennedy did not back off from trying similar stunts. The records indicate that JFK and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were so embittered by the Bay of Pigs that just months later they ordered a massive new program of covert actions against Castro.
Richard Goodwin, once the White House point man for Cuba policy, lamented the continued lack of insight about the nations where the United States subsequently intervened. "I think the one great lesson of the Bay of Pigs that we didn't learn, was that before you fight anybody, you ought to know something about them, what they're likely to do, and their abilities, will and courage," he said. "It's a lesson that, if we had learned it and remembered it from the Bay of Pigs, might have saved us an awful lot of strife in Southeast Asia later."
A new lesson surfaced at the conference, a result of the spirit of reconciliation that arose during our talks. We found some common ground and room for discussion--both of which are usually missing from U.S-Cuban exchanges. Small gestures highlighted the shift in perspective. For the first time, the Cubans dropped their derisive label for the invaders--"mercenaries"--and took to calling them "brigadistas," as the invasion veterans call themselves. And at Playa Girón, five members of the brigade laid a flower wreath, "in tribute to all the Cubans who fell here," invaders and defenders.
Peter Kornbluh, the main organizer on the U.S. side, remarked between sessions that "this dialogue stands in sharp contrast to what's being discussed, and the civility of the conversations between old adversaries should be an example for U.S.-Cuban relations."
From this history of confrontation, there emerged a bit of hope for mending fences in the future. If former archenemies can sit down, talk respectfully, and forge an understanding of what divided them, I wondered: After so long, what other breaches between the United States and Cuba can now be bridged?