Closing the Circle
by Robert H. Miller | Posted June 30, 2016
We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.
Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their subsequent adventures, we asked him if we could publish parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the third. The first was published in Liberty on February 5, the second on April 9.
The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.
Part III begins one of the most exciting and politically interesting stories in the Memoir: the failed 1961 attempt by the United States government and Cuban exiles to remove the Castro regime, now known as the Bay of Pigs. If you’re like me, this account of the true inwardness of the affair will show you things about history, and human nature, that you never understood before. — Stephen Cox
Into the Maelstrom
My mother’s cousin — and best friend — Tita, is still a contender for outliving Fidel. Both shared the dream of witnessing Castro’s demise — a tiny but immensely satisfying symbolic victory for two old women over the 20th-century’s deadliest ideology. A flirtatious ball of energy and Bette Midler lookalike, she can reduce you to stomach-cramping laughter within minutes of meeting her. Everyone is her instant friend. Though three years older than Castro, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair. For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal.
Tita’s paternal side of the family hailed from Camagüey, where her father had managed a sugar cane refinery for an American company. A deeply patriotic Cuban, he lied about his daughter’s birthday: Tita was born on January 24, but her birth certificate is dated January 28, the birthday of Jose Marti, Cuba’s greatest independence hero. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Catalunya in Spain — exactly when and why are memories that remain unreachable.
She and her brother Alfredo attended the University of Havana with Fidel in the late 1940s. Alfredo studied law with Fidel. While Alfredo joined the basketball team and later represented Cuba — twice — in the Olympics, Fidel chose a more dangerous sport. Both remember him as a pistol-wielding political gangster-type (a common phenomenon of the times) with an emphasis on action rather than ideology. What little there was of the latter came from Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spanish Falangism with a dollop of Benito Mussolini thrown in for broader appeal. While Tita got her doctorate in Filosofia y Letras (roughly, philosophy and liberal arts), Alfredo and Castro became lawyers.
For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal. Though three years older than Fidel, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair.
In Cuba everyone is connected by only four degrees of separation. While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration. Mirta Diaz Balart, Castro’s first wife, was the daughter of Rafael Diaz Balart, a prominent Batista cabinet minister, and the sister of Rafael Diaz Balart (junior), another cabinet minister in the Batista administration. It was Castro’s in-laws who saved his butt after the abortive Moncada Army Barracks attack, pleading for his young life. The latter Rafael Diaz Balart was the father of Lincoln and Mario Diaz Balart, at one time long-serving Florida Republican Representatives for the 21st and 25th congressional districts, respectively. But that was way in the future.
Tita’s uncle, Mariano, also worked in the Batista administration. A law enforcement professional — and a martinet of the first degree — he was in charge of the important-sounding Foreign Counter-Espionage Activities Department. Not that Cuba had any foreign enemies. Having been a loyal albeit minor member of the Allied contingent in WWII, Cuba became a dutiful cold warrior in the 1950s, refusing diplomatic relations with the USSR and establishing the Departamento de Actividades Enemigas to exercise solidarity with the free world. Mariano was a conscientious bureaucrat but, like the Maytag repairman, had little to do.
When Castro triumphed, Mariano, reading the writing on the wall, hitchhiked out of Cuba on the plane that flew Batista into exile. His secretary, a man by the name of Castaño and a strictly career civil servant, wasn’t so lucky. Castaño landed in La Caba>ña, the jail adjacent to Morro Castle. Pulling every long distance string available, Mariano got the US ambassador to intervene. The ambassador personally extracted a promise from Ernesto “Che” Guevara to release the hapless secretary for immediate flight out of the country. When, the following morning, the ambassador showed up to take charge of his charge — in a scene straight out of Andy Garcia’s Lost City — Guevara declared that an enemy of the people had been liquidated. According to Tita, Guevara bragged that he himself had pulled the trigger.
* * *
Tita married Armando, a larger-than-life character, in 1943, and had two kids, Armandito and Alina. After only a decade of marriage, Armando died of a heart attack, leaving everyone disconsolate — especially 10-year-old Armandito. Tita’s family lived next to the Aisa family compound near the center of Havana in Santos Suarez. Little “Chuchu” Aisa, was two years younger than Armandito, but seven years older than Alina. Chuchu was their best friend and confidante. Alina was later to marry Chuchu. Armandito made Chuchu his co-conspirator, concocting daring escapades no adult countenanced.
Armandito was impetuous, curious, and singleminded to a fault; he was impervious to adult admonitions. He was a boy with no boundaries. It wasn’t that he couldn’t “color within the lines”; he contemptuously ignored the lines as arbitrary nuisances. He wasn’t disobedient or rebellious for the sake of being so; rather, he needed to find things out for himself. When, as a little child, Tita told him that Habanero chilies were dangerous, he looked her straight in the eyes and proceeded to investigate them for himself, suffering a burning tongue and a torrent of tears in payment. A troublesome student who incurred a stint in military school, he nonetheless became a voracious reader, absorbing as much as possible on his own.
While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration.
Tita, an auburn redhead, had a dark-haired, near-twin younger sister, Cuca, with whom she was very close. Cuca was small and, on first impression, not one to make waves. But behind Cuca’s impassive smile hid a steely determination and a gyroscopic character that kept her family on a steady course through the storms of revolution, prison, and death that lay waiting in ambush.
Cuca married Pillo, a serious and quiet man of boundless tolerance, with a silly and whimsical sense of humor. He was not a typical Cuban. Pillo thought religion was a scam. He didn’t dance, drink, gamble, or womanize; he hated motorboats and loved salads — a dish as rare as peanut butter in 1950s Cuba. His in-laws thought he was a Martian. Pillo’s command of English was excellent, but his precise pronunciation, as if it were Spanish, was laughably incomprehensible to the untrained ear. When I heard him say “beaRd,” with an exaggerated rolling R for the English word “bird,” I had to ask him what it meant. Like my own dad, Pillo became an accountant with a creative streak: he managed the Central Toledo, Cuba’s largest sugar refinery, and later the Topper factory, where Tappan ranges and ovens were manufactured.
Pillo and Cuca sired two kids, MariCris and Pedrito, both of whom recognized few constraints and were little rascals no one would ever describe as team players. They lived in the Reparto Nautico (Nautico Neighborhood) of Marianao, a swank Havana area right on the waterfront, where Batista owned property. Close by lived the prominent Leon family, whose patriarch had been mayor of Marianao. It was a close-knit community. The Leons’ son, Cachorro (“cub,” hence “lion cub,” but with overtones of “spiteful pistol”) became close to Armandito, who was his same age, albeit considerably smaller. They went to the same parties and hung out with the same group of girls.
Cachorro wasn’t the loose cannon that Armandito was becoming; and, unlike MariCris and Pedrito, who saw a world without rules or fences, Cachorro approached life more cautiously, with the thoughtfulness of a novice chess player. His comparative reticence was the ideal complement for Armandito’s and MariCris’ lack of inhibitions, and they soon formed bonds that only death would sever. A young Tony Curtis lookalike, Cachorro took a shine to little MariCris, an irresistible copper-toned princess (and closer cousin to me than was appropriate), initiating a very long and tempestuous relationship. Cachorro and MariCris were later to marry, an ill-conceived venture that would last only ten months — plus another couple of years in limbo because of his obstinacy about signing the divorce papers.
Once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.
After their travails following the Revolution, Cuca, Pillo, MariCris, and Pedrito emigrated to Guatemala, where Pillo revived Tappan’s dilapidated, shuttered, and leaking facility in Amatitlan. He turned a place full of rusted and dismantled machines into a working, productive enterprise with nothing but his resourcefulness and a laughable budget. After Pillo’s death, Tita and Cuca became inseparable. While Tita was all hustle and bustle — a redheaded tornado, cooking, entertaining, and raconteuring — Cuca made sure that food got stirred, the table got set, and Tita didn’t exaggerate too much. Many years later, when they were living together in Miami’s Little Havana, Tita liked to recount their doctor’s nickname for them: “Teta y Caca” — tit and shit — and when she did, she beamed with glee at his over-the-line naughtiness and her own lack of inhibition. Cuca quietly went along, wanly smiling — it was an anecdote she’d never recount, a nickname she’d never accept, but a situation she gladly accepted because Tita infused such delight in the retelling.
* * *
By the end of 1960 my immediate family had left, and our extended family had become a bit more caught up in events inside Cuba. Cousin Eddy, an old-line Commie, stayed, as did Tita’s and Cuca’s families, hoping for better times — a prospect that 15-year-old Armandito didn’t see. With his great-uncle Mariano’s exit, the execution of Casta>ño (Mariano’s secretary) and of hundreds of others who had also been peremptorily liquidated, the violation of his friends’ and family’s property rights, the increasing radicalization of the regime, and his strong Catholic faith, Armandito was nearing critical mass.
Cuba was falling apart, morally and politically, and he had to do something about it. Armandito had become a gasoline-drenched tinder pile awaiting a spark. He was a hotheaded, idealistic naïf, and it didn’t help that he lacked a father to temper his macho teenage excesses or turn thoughtful reflection into effective action. Not that his father Armando was a paragon of restraint. Armando père had once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.
Sometime in late 1959, while Armandito was attending Catholic services at the Jesus de Miramar church, a group of newly installed Castro policemen approached the church. Feeling their oats, testing their newfound anti-clerical indoctrination-turned-idealism — and perhaps following orders — they entered the church and disrupted the service with ridicule. The congregants resisted, with Armandito, a very strong and large 15-year-old, in the vanguard. A fight involving over 200 participants broke out. Armandito’s tinder was lit and, Armandito being Armandito, his bonfire was soon out of control.
He developed pretensions of joining the counter-revolutionary movements already inchoate in the Escambray Mountains, but in fact he used his wits and guile right at home in Havana. Counter-revolutionaries had been landing armaments on isolated beaches outside the city. Armandito volunteered to locate the caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous. But he wasn’t alone. Cachorro, although a month older, followed his lead. Both were inspired by Bebo, Cachorro’s uncle, who had been a professional revolutionary since both boys could remember; first against Batista and then, since January 4, 1959, only four days after Castro’s triumph, against him.
To save him from himself, Tita shipped him off to the US, while she remained to care for her mother who was too sick to travel; as did her sister Cuca whose husband Pillo still held hope that things might not turn out to be as bad as they seemed.
Unbeknownst to Tita, Armandito was already deeper in the resistance than she realized. The boy didn’t want to leave Cuba. Once in Miami, he tried to join the resistance-in-exile but was rebuffed because of his age. In New York he worked odd jobs, learned English, acquired a Social Security number, and networked with whatever counter-revolutionaries he met.
* * *
And there were plenty. One old saw states that wherever there are two Cubans, there are four political factions. In The Brilliant Disaster, Jim Rasenberger reports that there were 184 different anti-Castro groups in the US in 1960. By 1961, Jay Gleichauf, the CIA’s intelligence man in Miami, reported almost 700 counter-revolutionary groups in Miami alone. They filled a spectrum from old-line Batista supporters to Constitution of 1940 advocates to disillusioned Castro revolutionaries to Escambray revolutionaries sidelined by Castro to free-market liberals to Christian Democrats to democratic socialists, with every finely parsed philosophical and political distinction one could imagine slicing and dicing into ever finer subsets of conviction.
Armandito volunteered to locate the weapons caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous.
One of them, the Movimiento de Recuperacion Revolucionaria (Movement to Recover the Revolution), or MRR, grew to become the principal counter-revolutionary movement, with supporting members in Miami, Mexico, Venezuela, and other places. It organized infiltration by guerrilla groups into Cuba, arms drops, communications, sabotage missions, dissident extrications, etc., with assistance from the CIA after 1959.
The irony is that the MRR was created in Cuba, in late 1959, by Dr. Manuel Artime, a professor at the Havana Military Academy and a psychologist and medical doctor. He had volunteered to implement the Castro regime’s Agrarian Reform law for the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) in Manzanillo, Oriente province. But Artime’s idealism took a dive following the Huber Matos affair on October 19 and the wave of arrests that followed.
What finally turned him 180 degrees against the regime was a secret meeting of the INRA a few days later in which he heard Fidel Castro personally outline a plan to Communize Cuba within three years. Artime’s tentative suspicions were confirmed, and he decided to take action. He resigned his position at the Academy and at the INRA to organize his coworkers into a resistance movement that would ultimately become the MRR. With the help of students and peasants, he marshaled the core of an underground movement in every province, in a scant three weeks.
By late November his life was in danger, so he sought asylum. In December, with the aid of the CIA, he escaped Cuba on a Honduran freighter. Artime would become the political leader of Brigade 2506, the name adopted by the Bay of Pigs resistance fighters.
The idea for the Bay of Pigs was conceived on January 18, 1960 by Jacob Esterline (also called Jake Engler), CIA Caracas Station Chief, and J.C. King, chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, as a “relaxed guerrilla venture” in case the situation in Cuba worsened and the US government decided to take action. Initial training of 30 Cubans would begin in the Panama Canal Zone.
Four months later, in March of 1960, President Eisenhower made the project official. He ordered the CIA to produce a covert action plan that included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to be used against Castro. The Escambray Mountains already nurtured counter-revolutionary guerrillas, many of whom had been part of Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo’s Directorio Revolucionario, the revolutionary movement — independent of Castro’s M26 group — that Castro had sidelined when he took power. Eisenhower’s paramilitary unit would join forces with the existing guerrillas.
By April the “covert action” was in full swing. The CIA approached a group of prominent Cuban exile leaders — including a former Prime Minister, a former Minister of Foreign Relations, and Manuel Artime, leader of the MRR, the largest resistance group — to offer assistance in organizing military action, letting them know that the US was fully committed to the success of the operation, providing money, training, planning, ships, airplanes, logistics, and arms, but that the operation would be manned strictly by Cubans.
The Cubans thought they’d won the anti-Castro lottery. Still, they were skeptical. And they needed a professional Cuban military leader. Artime suggested “Pepe” San Roman, a 29-year-old graduate of Cuba’s military academy who had also trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Benning, Georgia. San Roman was already planning a campaign against Fidel from Mexico with a group of ten ex-army officers, among them Hugo Sueiro who would become Armandito’s 2nd Battalion commander.
Tall, slender, dark-haired, quiet, and reserved, San Roman had served under Batista, then revolted, was imprisoned, was released, served Castro, was again imprisoned and again released, and finally escaped to the United States. Artime’s men and San Roman’s officers had been enemies in Cuba. They still distrusted one another. After many lengthy meetings and a reconnaissance of the CIA training camp on Useppa Island, a CIA golf course in the Gulf of Mexico off central Florida, San Roman and his officers agreed to join the effort. They could sense the depth of commitment from the personnel they met, and the money that was being spent.
Second off the starting line was David Atlee Phillips, my family’s old Alturas del Vedado tenant, who was put in charge of organizing, equipping, and programming Radio Swan, an anti-Castro radio station transmitting from Swan Island, a tiny islet 90 miles off the coast of Honduras. The CIA station went on-air on May 17.
In the makeshift Guatemalan training camp, rain was constant. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule.
Next up was the recruitment of a nucleus of resistance fighters. There was no shortage of volunteers. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, with a few ex-Batista and ex-Castro soldiers thrown in for diversity. These few dozen early recruits began training in late May on the Useppa Island golf course. But that wouldn’t last.
Useppa was US territory, and the training of foreign nationals on US soil for a military action against a foreign power was illegal. So the CIA moved the training to the Panama Canal Zone — in spite of its being legally under US jurisdiction. The recruits trained there for two months. The CIA then approached Guatemala, seeking a training base on foreign soil. The Guatemalans agreed. Construction of a training facility, the 5,000-acre Camp Trax, and an airport at Retalhuleu, both in the western sierra, was well underway by late May. The first 50 trainees, who soon grew to 150, built seat-of-the-pants facilities: a 4-hole privy, 12-man tents, leaky barracks without foundations, and separate quarters for the American trainers. Showers weren’t built until October. It wasn’t until November that the force grew to 300. One single, tattered issue of Playboy constituted the library. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule. Rain was constant.
With the US government now joining and coordinating the struggle against Castro, ensuring that success might be possible, the five major anti-Castro groups in Miami — including the MRR — joined forces in June. The coalition became known as the Frente Nacional Democratico, or simply the Frente.
Restless, frustrated, feeling isolated from the place where the action was happening, and privy to the exile rumor mills, 16-year-old Armandito was soon back in Miami pulling every possible scam to get into the Frente, whose offices now located in a big house at Twenty-seventh Avenue and Tenth Street Southwest.
Cachorro was right there with him. His dad had left Cuba first, in 1960, to test US waters. Mom and sister soon followed. Unlike Armandito, whose revolutionary spark was lit by a rumble in a church, Cachorro’s revolutionary trajectory was evolutionary, a slow and deliberate process inspired by the idealism and example of his uncle Bebo, who was already in Miami, deep in the Frente.
Neither boy, at 16, with their birthdays only one month apart, could join up. The Frente accepted18-year-olds and older — 17 with parental permission. In September 1960 Cachorro turned 17, followed by Armandito in October. Immediately, Cachorro asked his dad for permission. “No way,” his father answered. “If you died or came back maimed, your mother and I would never be able to live with ourselves and would regret the decision for the rest of our lives.”
Unable to get parental permission, they turned to Uncle Bebo, who immediately forged “parental” permission for both. Subjected to a thorough interview followed by a lie-detector test, the boys — the third and fourth youngest combatants in the entire Bay of Pigs effort — were in.
Chuchu, Armandito’s other childhood co-conspirator and future brother-in-law, didn’t stand a chance of joining: at 14, he was just too young. His contribution to the anti-Castro cause would come later, after the Bay of Pigs prisoners had been repatriated.
* * *
In December 1960, my cousins Cachorro and Armandito landed at the CIA airstrip at Retalhuleu, deep in the western sierras of Guatemala, after a six-hour flight with a secret destination. At least they could smoke.
The boys were part of a 430-man cohort of Cuban exiles headed for boot camp to train for an invasion of Cuba. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria (Catholic University Group), or ex-Cuban military.
At the Retalhuleu airstrip, little was disclosed. A select few were given the opportunity to volunteer for paratrooper training. Cachorro signed up. The remaining cadets were convoyed to distant Base Trax for infantry and artillery training. For some reason that Cachorro can’t recall, Armandito didn’t join the paratroops; he and Armandito — against their instincts — found themselves separated.
The Guatemala training bases were scattered along the length of the Pacific coast Sierra Madre Mountains, with the Retalhuleu Air Base more or less centrally located among the other bases at an altitude of 650 feet. Guatemala was well disposed to help the operation, even volunteering its military personnel for security. It helped that the 1954 US-aided coup against authoritarian President Jacobo Arbenz had been spectacularly successful. Retalhuleu was the central access point for the other bases and the main Guatemalan entry and exit point for the CIA operation. It is where the Brigade’s Cuban pilots underwent flight training from Alabama Air National Guard volunteers.
The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets.
Only a few miles away, under the shadow of Santiaguito volcano, but 7,000 feet — and 3 to 4 hours — up in the mountains, camp Base Trax became the main infantry and artillery training center. Close by, the paratroopers trained at Halcon Base. Farther south, almost at sea level, camp Garrapatenango (literally, tick-town), was also used for paratrooper training. Flights left from nearby San Jose airport on the coast, a location that would also be used for amphibious landing and joint operations training.
Apprehensive and lonely, Armandito and Cachorro soon found older classmates and acquaintances from Cuba who made the rigors of training by US military personnel on loan to the CIA more bearable. Armandito hooked up with El Chino, a slightly older boy he’d known since he was 14. They were fortunate. Having endured nearly four months of hardships, and being young and athletic, they were better prepared for the upcoming operation than most of the other volunteers.
Armandito ended up in the 2nd Infantry Battalion (numbering 183 men under the command of Hugo Sueiro Rios), Company E (led by Oscar Luis Acevedo), 6th squad. Each recruit was assigned a number beginning with 2500 to make the force seem larger than it really was. The Cubans honored soldier number 2506, who fell to his death in a mountain training accident, by using his number to name the brigade: Brigade 2506. Armandito’s number was 3386.
Cachorro was assigned to what Eli Cesar, author of San Blas: Ultima Batalla en Bahia de Cochinos, called “the most elite unit of Brigade 2506”: the 1st Battalion of paratroopers under the command of Alejandro del Valle, a seasoned jump instructor in the Cuban army. Cachorro was part of Company A, Squad: Escuadra de Armas, a unit composed of nine paratroopers. Three were riflemen, with at least one operating a .30 caliber machine gun and another either a bazooka or a recoilless rifle. As Cachorro recounts, “I was the cargador of the .30 caliber on my squad. I would carry the bullets for the shooters of the machine guns and pinpoint with my M1 tracers where they should aim. There was absolutely no one lower than me.”
Full-on, intense physical fitness and military discipline training began at 5 AM the day after their arrival at the camp. Forced marches interspersed with two-mile, double-time runs lugging full packs were only the beginning. To this was added basic small arms handling, along with training on the 4.2 mortar, the 57mm recoilless rifle, the 3.5 bazooka rocket launcher, and the .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Because of >his size and strength, Armandito was trained to operate a .30 caliber machine gun. Close quarters combat exercises with and without bayonets added a personal touch. The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets. Their consciousness was seared by the approaching challenge to their life and honor.
After some sense of esprit de corps had welded the men together and their physical fitness permitted more efforts, the training regimen became mobile. It took place at night and at times in torrential weather. Finally, at Garrapatenango, where the entire Brigade assembled for comprehensive exercises, water training was added: amphibious landings in heavy surf, swimming in shark-infested waters, underwater distance swimming — all under fire. One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.
With so few toilets, and all in full view, personal habits were disrupted, and even became group theatre — more comedic than dramatic (except when pit vipers, scorpions and poisonous spiders were involved). Plagued by piles, Armandito underwent a hemorrhoidectomy at boot camp.
Cachorro’s training included parachute jumps, er . . . jump. He successfully completed preliminary parachute training, but for some reason he can’t explain why he performed only one practice jump, without carrying the hundred pounds of .30 caliber bullet cans it was his job as a cargador to carry. “If I didn't release it properly, it would have crushed me at landing. Never trained for it,” he told me.
One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.
Perhaps the reason was that the one jump was a near disaster. Cachorro landed in a ceiba tree and ripped his uniform. Tony Zardon, another paratrooper, wasn’t so lucky. The hapless jumper was swept by a violent gust of wind and smashed against a giant tree trunk that broke his back.
The paratroopers had some of the typical flyboy’s disregard for rules and protocol. Two of them, J.J. and Maqueira, had secretly purchased a piglet from a local farmer. They set out to fatten the animal for a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast in case they were still in Guatemala for Christmas. Maqueira warned J.J. that the piglet needed to be watched closely. He’d heard from a credible source that a group of chuters were conspiring to steal the shoat.
One afternoon the Garrapatenango camp was disrupted by a big commotion. El Negrito William was found hanging from a tree, apparently a suicide. His body was lowered and taken to a tent where medics attempted resuscitation. Right away, one medic emerged to announce that he was dead.
It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!” Maqueira, with a lightning-quick response, ran and caught the thieves red-handed with the piglet. But with their secpret out, Maqueira and J.J., reconsidered. A few days later, they put on a big feast, roasting the pig for all the paratroopers — and nominating El Negrito William for an Oscar.
* * *
Not all disruptions ended in a party. Over the course of the Brigade’s training period, 66 recruits were sentenced to the stockade. They included a wide assortment of miscreants; AWOLs, deserters, Castro agents who had infiltrated the camps, the leaders of a leadership mutiny led by 26-year-old attorney Rodolfo Nodal. Nodal, a member of a distinguished family (his father had once been Cuba’s defense minister), had become the 2nd Battalion’s communications officer. For him, as well as the other men of the Brigade, the nuances of a covert operation left the question of who was in charge — the US or the Cuban exiles — a bit fuzzy. Nodal and his friends set out to clarify the issue, not by challenging orders from the US officers, but by questioning who should have the right to issue orders in the first place.
To the Cubans of Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, Brigade commanders should be appointed only by the Miami-based Frente and its general staff, not by the US camp commander, “Colonel Frank,” and his 38 advisers. Urged on by Nodal, the 2nd Battalion drew a red line in the Guatemalan highlands.
Pepe San Roman, the American-appointed Brigade commander, was in Nodal’s crosshairs. San Roman was a professional soldier, a graduate of Cuba’s military academy and a US Army-trained officer who knew how to follow orders. But, as Peter Wyden explains in his book on the Bay of Pigs, “To Nodal and the other dissidents, Pepe symbolized total submission to the Americans, not only for the present but for the future in Cuba when Castro would be deposed.”
It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!”
At Camp Trax, debates heated up. Cliques formed, strategy meetings assembled, conspired, broke up, and reformed, and fistfights erupted. Training all but stopped. When two officers from the Miami general staff were sent home by “Colonel Frank” for “playing politics,” tensions reached a crisis point. The Americans ordered all trainees to turn in their weapons. “Nodal and his friends,” Wyden says, “hid eight .45-caliber pistols” to “shoot it out, if necessary. Instead, there was a mutiny.”
Some 230 men “resigned,” including all of Armandito’s 2nd battalion, the entire 3rd battalion — and Pepe San Roman. However, Pepe, wise beyond his 30 years, and having been imprisoned by both the Batista and Castro regimes, was fixed on success. He immediately signed up as an ordinary soldier, saying that the Brigade belonged to no one but “to Cuba, our beloved country.”
The American training officer would have none of these shenanigans. He retorted, “I am boss here, and the commander of the Brigade is still Pepe San Roman.” He ordered San Roman to resume command.
But the astute San Roman took the high road. Wyden reports that he “asked that those men willing to fight with him and to ‘forget about political things’ step to the right.” After a bit more dickering, all but 20 of the men joined San Roman. The Cuban grunts had chosen their leader.
When asked about being an extension of the US military, Dr. Mario Abril, a Brigade 2506 veteran and professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga responded, “No, we thought of ourselves as independent.”
* * *
After New Year’s 1961, nearly 900 more men swelled the Brigade. But these weren’t students, who would, in the end, constitute the largest proportion of Brigade members (about 20%). Most of the new recruits were older people (the oldest was 61) who had careers and families; or farmers, peasants, and unskilled laborers who’d had their modest landholdings or businesses confiscated, or whose Catholic faith was strong. Ex-soldiers rounded out the final tally at nearly 17% of Brigade members. By the time of the invasion in April, 2,681 men had joined.
Whatever their history, few were crucially motivated by a desire to recover their stolen property, a concern Cachorro dismisses contemptuously. Instead, strong and deep philosophical, moral, religious, and ideological ideals drove them. Abril, a student volunteer in Armandito’s cohort who felt alienated by socialist rhetoric, explained his motivation:
In those days, 1950s, and at that age, 23–24, young men . . . vented their hormonal excesses, social excesses not in the way folks do up here [the United States]. We didn’t get drunk, we didn’t do drugs, what we did was . . . attempted to become activists in politics. There is a long tradition of Latin American youth who took charge and participated in momentous events in the political lives of their countries. Cuba was no exception . . .
In terms of race — a noncontentious category in Cuba but one that Castro tried to join with class warfare to recruit support — the Brigade was pretty mixed, but predominantly lighter than darker. Only about 4% would be called “black” in the Cuban sense, with the rest mulatto, café au lait, swarthy, or white.
Erneido Oliva, the Brigade’s second in command and Armandito’s commanding officer in the Battle of the Rotunda, was a strikingly handsome black Cuban with a huge forehead who had served first under Batista and then later under Castro. An honors graduate of the Cuban Military Academy and an instructor for the US Army’s Caribbean School, Oliva was a professional through and through. When Oliva was captured, Fidel Castro interrogated him separately. He berated him for betraying the Revolution, which, Castro said, “had been fought for black people.” Castro reminded Oliva of the Varadero beach resorts that excluded blacks (an exclusion that was instituted by hotels that catered to American tourists of the 1940s and ’50s but that was otherwise unknown in Cuba). Oliva retorted that he “hadn’t come to Cuba to swim.”
But perhaps this story isn’t true (in that version). Though Haynes Johnson in The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, attributes it to Oliva, both El Chino and Cachorro, who was sitting two seats away from Cruz, attribute it to Tomas Cruz, Cachorro’s company commander and also black. But in this other version, the interrogation took place on Cuban national TV while Fidel was trying to milk the capture of the invaders for all the propaganda it was worth.
* * *
January 1961 upped the ante and sealed the deal. On the 2nd of the month, Cuba charged at the UN Security Council that the US was preparing an invasion of the island. In a show of defiance, Castro paraded down the streets of Havana his newly acquired Soviet arsenal, consisting of 50 heavy artillery pieces, 125 heavy tanks, 920 anti-aircraft guns, 170 anti-tank batteries, and many rocket launchers (along with the promise of MIG fighters yet to come). The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. The post-invasion Soviet military analysis of the conflict concluded that without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.
The following day, January 3, the US cut diplomatic relations with Cuba. By the end of the month, just a few days after his inauguration, President Kennedy authorized the CIA to proceed with President Eisenhower’s Cuba plan, now officially upgraded to consist of 1,200 men with a planned landing at Trinidad on Cuba’s south coast.
By March, Kennedy was still grappling with transition issues, concentrating on getting his domestic programs and agenda rolling, and dealing with the Laotian crisis and the soon-to-be Berlin crisis. The Cuba project just wasn’t a priority. In fact, not only wasn’t he familiar with its details — such as they were — but he hadn’t given much thought to its implementation and its potential consequences, either domestically or on foreign policy. It was a sideshow without a date, something simmering on a backburner for possible use in a vague future, something the Republican administration had dreamed up, which he figured had a life of its own that its planners and tenders would manage.
The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. Without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.
One crucial piece of intelligence forced minds to focus. The MIG fighters the Soviets had promised Castro were due to arrive in Cuba sometime in April. Cuban pilots were already training in Czechoslovakia to fly them. This addition to the Cuban air force, whose combat readiness at the time consisted of only six jet and six prop fighters, easily destroyed on the tarmac by a surprise attack, would doom the Cuba project to failure. If the Cuban exile invasion was to succeed, it had to be scheduled before the arrival of the MIGs.
Kennedy was irritated by the sudden haste, but gave the order to proceed with final preparations and the setting of a date. Still, he retained the option of cancelling the whole project at the last minute, a detail he adamantly insisted on but which, for a president, usually goes without saying. His vocal insistence on retaining a standard prerogative revealed his inexperience and insecurity.
Though military training in the Guatemala camps was proceeding apace, the political umbrella under which the military campaign would be fought was still lost in negotiations among the many Cuban exile factions. Without a Cuban government-in-exile that would lend credence to the operation and take charge once a successful beachhead occupation was established, the project might fail and its secrecy be blown.
It’s not that the exile leaders hadn’t given their imprimatur to the military operation; it’s that their tendency to cavil over minutiae and stand on finely parsed principle prevented any sort of consensus. So the CIA invited the exile leaders to the Skyways Motel near the Miami International Airport for a meeting designed to impress on them the urgency of unity that the new situation required. On Saturday, March 18, 22 Cubans representing the main anti-Castro organizations met with James Noel, former Havana CIA station chief, in the Skyways’ banquet room. As Jim Rasenberger, author of The Brilliant Disaster, recounts, “The meeting began with a scolding from Noel. There would be no more sweet talk, he told them; while they were squabbling over petty differences in Miami, they were losing Cuba. ‘If you don’t come out of this meeting with a committee, you just forget the whole fuckin’ business, because we’re through.’ The threat worked.”
By Monday morning, left, right, center, and fringes united under one umbrella organization with a blueprint for economic and social policies and a timetable for elections in a free Cuba. Thus was the successor to the Frente formed. The new name was the Consejo Revolucionario Cubano, with Jose Miro Cardona as president of the “Revolutionary Council.”
Miro Cardona’s legitimacy rested on the fact that he had been the last prime minister of Cuba after Fidel Castro’s victory but before Castro personally took over the post. Prior then, he’d been a law professor at the University of Havana. He was chosen to be prime minister immediately after the success of the Revolution, by Manuel Urrutia, Castro’s first, handpicked president (who also later resigned). After only five weeks in office, Miro Cardona quit the position in disgust over Communist influence in the new government.
* * *
How President Eisenhower’s “covert action plan against Castro” became the Bay of Pigs is a diagram resembling options on a wildly branching logic tree planted in an overlooked policy corner almost as an afterthought, then fed growth hormones by several separate ambitious committees, pruned by a myopic Edward Scissorhands, and given more hormones by more self-important committees, none of which was aware of what the other committees were up to; a tree finally trimmed beyond saving by a neurotic gardener with a chainsaw who couldn’t see the tree for the branches. At different times, the plan ranged from a Fidel Castro-style, just-a-few-men guerrilla infiltration near the Escambray Mountains to a WWII Normandy-type invasion. In the end it was neither. The operation became an unwieldy mix of the two approaches, lacking the strength of either.
Originally, the plan was a guerrilla infiltration of a few hundred men near the city of Trinidad at the base of the Escambray Mountains. Those mountains already harbored anti-Castro guerrillas, and the city wasn’t known for its love of Fidel.
Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy. The decision doomed the operation to failure.
In November 1960, as the recruits multiplied and the Pentagon, the CIA, and other expert advisors offered their opinions, the infiltration was upgraded to an invasion. But the invasion next to a big city scared Secretary of State Dean Rusk and newly-elected President Kennedy. It seemed too high-profile for a covert action. So the landing location was shifted 100 miles west to the Bay of Pigs, a lightly inhabited swamp completely unsuited to guerrilla activity. The infiltration-turned-invasion then became a much bigger invasion supported by US air and sea power whose rules of engagement precluded any combat — unless first fired upon.
Along with the main invasion, two smaller ones were planned. One hundred sixty-eight men were scheduled to land near Baracoa, in Oriente province at the far eastern end of Cuba, not far from where Castro had first landed in 1956. As in the original plans for the main force, these men were to hie to the mountains and ensconce themselves as guerrillas. They would also constitute a diversionary tactic that would give Castro the impression that the invasion was island-wide.
Ditto for an “invasion” in Pinar Del Rio province, at the far western end of Cuba. Dreamed up by the CIA, and executed so flawlessly that Fidel interrupted his command at the Bay of Pigs to rush to Pinar del Rio, this invasion was a complete ruse carried out with smoke and mirrors, loudspeakers, pyrotechnics, projectors, offshore hubbub, and not one single invader. While this invasion achieved its goal, the one in Oriente failed when the invaders discovered that a substantial force of Castro militia was awaiting them. They played it safe, tried landing again, but called it quits after a second attempt.
Back to the planning stage. Once the “action plan” had been upgraded to an invasion, the exile force required a “navy” for transport. Enter Eduardo Garcia and his five sons, owners of the Garcia Line, a Havana-based Cuban bulk shipping company with offices in New York. Garcia, a Jabba the Hutt lookalike, wasn’t interested in profit, just in getting rid of Castro. He donated six old and slow but serviceable ships, at cost. But he didn’t want to lose them. After being reassured that the exile “air force” (see below) would annihilate Castro’s air force, and that a US Navy escort (to be used only as a deterrent, but authorized to return fire if fired upon) would accompany his ships to the three-mile territorial limit, Garcia agreed. As an added defense, the ships were retrofitted with .50 caliber, deck-mounted machine guns. For the actual landing, 36 18 and 1/2 foot aluminum boats were purchased to supplement the three LCUs (landing craft, utility) and four LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) already available.
Castro’s air force consisted of only 20 planes — six Lockheed T-33 jet fighters, six ex-RAF prop-driven Hawker Sea Fury fighters, six Douglas B-26 Invaders, a C-47 transport, and a PBY Catalina flying boat.
The Cuban exile air force consisted of 16 Douglas B-26 Invaders kitted up for offensive operations with rockets and bombs (out of 32 B-26s available), and a half-dozen C-46 and C-54 transports, but no fighters. The B-26s were to destroy Castro’s air force on the tarmac in a surprise attack in conjunction with the seaborne landings.
Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy, worried that the attack was too high-profile. The decision doomed the operation to failure — not all of Castro’s air force was destroyed, and those that remained sank exile supply ships and killed many men in the attacking force. After the fiasco was over, JFK averred that he hadn’t realized how important the original air strike plan was, and that he hadn’t been adequately briefed.
Intelligence reports estimated that discontent in the Cuban population was widespread and that internal resistance groups were present and well organized in every province, often with the help of exile infiltrators assisted by the CIA. By February 1961, CIA-trained infiltration teams doubled their efforts in preparation for the coming “covert action plan,” so as to be able to coordinate with the invaders, carrying out widespread sabotage and recruitment. The Brigade battalions, companies, and squads were purposely undersized, in the expectation that locals would join the effort and bring them to full force. Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, for example, only had 183 men.
The invasion force was labeled a brigade because, in military parlance, a force of 1,400 to 4,000 men is a brigade. For the invasion, the Brigade numbered 1,447 men.
The popular uprisings never materialized. Some sources attribute this to popular support for the Revolution. The truth is more revealing. As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come. In early January 1961 the New York Times disclosed the location of the training camps in Guatemala.
Castro took preemptive action. The Escambray Mountains, a perennial refuge of anti-government guerrillas, needed to be cleared out — once and for all. On January 1, 1961, he dispatched 70,000 troops in 80 battalions to clear the mountains of the no more than 600 men and a few women who constituted the guerrillas.
As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come.
His first move was to relocate the 10,000–20,000 peasants who lived in the area — by force. On January 11, he visited the area to take stock of the situation. He sent Osvaldo Ramirez, captain of the rebellion, an ultimatum: “I know that you’re an idealist. I propose that you come down and talk with me so I can convince you that this isn’t Communism; and I guarantee that if I don’t convince you, I’ll give you plenty of guarantees that you can return up to your mountains.”
Ramirez instantly replied, “Tell Fidel that I accept the discussion with him, but with one variant: THAT HE COME UP TO THE ESCAMBRAY AND THAT I GUARANTEE THAT IF HE DOESN’T CONVINCE US, WE’LL GUARANTEE HIS RETURN."
Castro launched the attack.
The fighting was fierce. By February 10, only 100 guerrillas remained alive. Still, it took until mid-March for Castro to declare that the Escambray was rid of vermin. Only a handful remained to carry on the resistance.
After he’d gotten rid of the vanguard, Castro went after anyone and everyone whom his Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (neighborhood busybodies) fingered as malcontents. According to Grayston Lynch, author of Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs — as quoted in the Cuban Information Archives — before the invasion there were 50,000 political prisoners in Cuba. Another 250,000 people (or about 4% of Cuba’s population) were arrested by the day of the landing, some summarily executed (200,000 in Havana alone). Of that quarter million, 100,000 were arrested because of an American SNAFU.
Originally, the Bay of Pigs plan had called for Brigade air strikes against Castro’s air force at dawn on the day of the invasion. At the last minute, someone moved the air strikes up two days, giving Castro advance notice. The element of surprise was lost. Those 100,000 people were arrested during those two days.
The quarter-million detainees were herded into sports stadia, movie theatres, and any large place that could accommodate them. None of these places had adequate sanitation, shelter, or food. In a speech on April 24, five days after the defeat of the invasion, Castro explained his reasoning in terms reminiscent of the omelet remark attributed to many revolutionaries:
In conjunction with the actions of our military forces, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution acted. It became necessary to arrest all suspicious people, it became necessary to arrest all those persons that for some reason might become active in or help the counterrevolution. In this type of operation, naturally, some injustices will always be committed, but it is inevitable.
I repeat that there might have been cases of injustice . . . [but] no one can be so egotistical as to waste any time on such unimportant questions that it detracts from today’s and future generations’ jubilation.
Fatherland or death!
Cuba’s population in 1961 was about seven million. Nearly one million Cubans had exiled themselves to the US, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and other countries. Counting prisoners and exiles, that’s nearly 17% of Cubans actively opposed to Fidel Castro.
In spite of all the regime’s precautions, a few quite notable uprisings still occurred. On April 14, three days prior to the invasion, a spectacular act of sabotage totally destroyed El Encanto, Cuba’s largest and most popular department store, which had been nationalized the previous year. The destruction was caused by introducing white phosphorous into the air conditioning vents — and then lighting it. The damage totaled $6 million. On the same day in Santiago de Cuba, at the other end of the island, El Ancla and La Comercial, two big nationalized department stores were firebombed with the loss of their entire inventory. Additionally, on April 16, 14 armed counter-revolutionaries led an uprising in Las Villas Province.
During the invasion itself, 50 to 60 civilians would join it, helping to carry supplies, caring for the wounded, providing food and water and even taking up arms to fight Castro, with an equal number of Castro’s militia switching sides and volunteering to fight with the Brigade.
But the propaganda preparation for the invasion did not go well. Radio Swan, located on a tiny, rocky islet claimed by Nicaragua, had a threefold purpose. Modeled on a propaganda radio station run by David Atlee Phillips during the CIA-aided Jacobo Arbenz overthrow in 1954 in Guatemala, it was meant to provide unbiased news reports to a country with state-controlled, heavily censored media. It also spun news toward its own ends and even disseminated plenty of disinformation — whatever aided the “covert action plan.” Finally, it was meant to incite the Cuban population to open revolt, both with an artillery barrage of disaffection before the invasion and an outright call to arms during the attack, augmented by the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Havana at the moment of truth.
The CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea to kill Castro originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator.
Unfortunately, its cryptic broadcasts — with nonsense non-sequitur phrases such as “The fish is red; Chico is in the house; Visit him” — caused it to lose relevance and reliability, especially during the unexpected failures of the original plan when scripts were lacking.
Probably the best-publicized part of the “covert action plan against Cuba” was the CIA’s Rube Goldberg machinations to assassinate Fidel Castro. Again, it wasn’t quite that simple.
For one, the CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator who had a long-running feud with Castro. Attempting to overthrow the Cuban dictator (in retribution for Castro’s attempt to overthrow Trujillo in June 1959), he teamed up with the Mafia. Castro had rescinded the Santo Traficante, Meyer Lansky, and Momo Giancana casino franchises in Cuba. But it’s not safe to fool with mother Mafia. She wanted revenge. In August 1959, Trujillo attempted an invasion of Cuba coupled with a Mafia-planned execution of Castro. It failed; but as far as the Mafia was concerned, it was unfinished business
Enter the CIA with Eisenhower’s plan. Many ideas were launched — eight according to the Congressional (Church) Committee, 638 according to Castro’s chief of counterintelligence — including the famous exploding cigar scenario. Only a few floated. None succeeded. The entire scheme was subbed out to the Mafia, with no CIA oversight or professional advice (other than the poison-laced cold cream type of ideas). Just money. At that time, anyway you looked at it, no amount of money could persuade anyone to commit suicide to kill a foreign head of state: the assassins surely would be caught (with no virgins awaiting in the afterlife). The rationale for the attempt was that cutting off the head of the serpent, even if you yourself couldn’t wield the sword, would atrophy the body. It all came to naught.
Robert H. Miller is a builder, outdoor adventure guide, and author of Kayaking the Inside Passage: A Paddler's Guide from Olympia, Washington to Muir Glacier, Alaska.
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