In April 1961, exactly six decades ago, 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived in Playa Girón, In the south of the island, with the aim of creating a beach head from which they seek to restore the power occupied by Fidel Castro since 1959 and then gain recognition from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the international community. The operation that attempted to overthrow the communist dictator would go down in history as the “Bay of Pigs Failure”, as it was disrupted almost immediately by the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
John F. Kennedy had assumed the presidency only three months earlier. During the transition period, the young president-elect had participated in “briefings” in which he was informed of the CIA’s plans to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala for an invasion. The designs expected a large portion of the island’s population to rise to support the invasion to topple Castro.
The operation was originally designed by economist Richard M. Bissell, deputy chief of operations at the CIA, led by legendary Allen Dulles since the inception of the Eisenhower administration. The purpose of maintaining the covert operation was quickly aborted. These plans became popular among Cuban exiles in Miami and naturally reached Castro’s ears.
JFK approved plans for the invasion in February but tried to hide American support. Subsequent events showed that Kennedy’s position throughout was vacillating and unconvincing. Kennedy’s “half-done” performance was lethal to the success of the operation. For years, JFK’s critics had insisted that had Eisenhower been in the White House, Operation Bay of Pigs would not have begun or, had it begun, receive massive American military support.
Analysts insisted that such an initial error in choosing a landing site could not be explained. The area was very swampy. On the 15th of the month, eight bombers took off from Nicaragua – which was ruled by the pro-American dictatorship of the Somoza family – to attack Cuban airports. But the CIA used aging B-26s from WWII for this purpose, camouflaged with Cuban Air Force badges to conceal them. On that day, fate intervenes for the sake of evil. The performance of the pilots was unfortunate: they missed their targets and left Castro’s forces practically intact. But the biggest mistake will happen right after that. The news was well known and photos of North American planes repainted in Cuban colors were highlighted, overtaking US support for the operation. It was then that Kennedy made a decision that would have been fatal to cancel a second airstrike.
On the seventeenth, the exiles, gathered in the so-called Brigade 2506, landed in the Bay of Pigs. A stiff welcome awaits them. Castro ordered a strong counterattack and deployed approximately twenty thousand men to halt the attackers’ advance.. What followed was a disaster. Some of the exiles fled to the sea, but many others were arrested, and their return to the United States was later negotiated against the delivery of food and money. About 1,200 members of the 2506th Brigade surrendered and over a hundred were executed. In Havana, police arrested thousands of people suspected of having links with the rebels in theaters and halls. From Moscow, the Soviet Politburo (then called the “Presidency”) issued a statement condemning the actions of the United States while Nikita Khrushchev personally promised to provide Castro with all the help he needed.
It took Kennedy four days to realize what the rest of the world already knew: an American operation. He did so in an unforgettable speech of the 21st, in which he assumed “full political responsibility” for the disaster. But the failure caused massive damage to Washington’s image and plunged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev into a series of challenges that would include building the Berlin Wall, testing new nuclear weapons, and finally installing missiles in Cuba next year.
In his work “Remember Kennedy(1996), Roberto Alemán – who shortly became Minister of the Economy and ambassador to Presidents Arturo Frondisi and José María Guido in the United States – argues that “Kennedy’s policy in Latin America and his global foreign policy suffered the greatest setback of his presidency ever.” “The president was aware of the operation but denied its air support, without which it cannot flourish,” he added.
On the twenty-eighth day, a time entitled: “The Cuban Failure has seriously damaged the international standing of the United States.” Internally, the CIA was seen to be responsible for the failure. For eight years, it was headed by Dallas, who shaped it and defined its action. The CIA was his “agency.” Dallas and Bessel became a scapegoat for the operation. Kennedy accepted their resignations soon after. Kennedy himself made it clear when he declared that just as victory had a thousand fathers, defeat was an orphan.
Some explanations later sought to justify Kennedy. In his work A Thousand Days (1965), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. explains that the “loophole” in Washington in the interim period paved the way for CIA leaders to have “discretion” on this issue. This interpretation asserts that “uncertainties in the period of the succession of the throne” could precipitate events. The CIA leadership, for its part, insisted that delaying the invasion could “demoralize” the exiles who claimed to be mobilized. On the other hand, they provided meteorological reasons given the approaching start of the rainy season, which could turn the terrain into “volcanic mud.” Schlesinger explained that by mid-March, the president faced a decision to act “now or never” (now or never).
Some facts allow other conclusions to be drawn. During the election campaign, on October 20, 1960, The New York Times reported that Kennedy called for help to the Cuban rebels to overthrow Castro and urged the Eisenhower administration to aid the freedom fighters. His opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, could not believe that the Democratic candidate would announce the operation, jeopardizing his success. In a televised debate the following night, Nixon predicted what would happen in the end. And he expected that the United States’ support for the Cuban exiles in a military adventure would lead to “condemnation in the United Nations” and would fail to achieve their goals. It will be an invitation for Mr. Kruschev to enter Latin America. In his work “Spies Ike. Eisenhower and the Spy Foundation.”(1981), Stephen E. Ambrose noted that “the paradox, of course, has occurred since Nixon predicted exactly what happened in the end.”
The Bay of Pigs failure forever damaged the Kennedy administration, years later fueling more diverse interpretations of the tragic outcome that ended the president’s very life. But beyond the speculation, The truth is that it opened the doors for the Soviet Union to transfer military forces to Cuba, in a development that would put the world on the brink of a nuclear confrontation after only a year and a half.
A failed operation will have another unforeseen consequence. It has fueled the distrust of Washington’s allies in the region, at a very special moment. On March 13, Kennedy launched the ambitious “Alliance for Progress” program, an economic and political aid program for the hemisphere. Schlesinger remembers former Costa Rican President Jose Figueres telling him that he and his Venezuelan counterpart, Romulo Betancourt, were “disappointed”: “How can we have an alliance if our friends weren’t even believing us if we weren’t able to entrust us with a secret?”