Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The "Fiasco" that Wasn't a Fiasco

No man can do more than his duty and no man should ever be content to do less." — José Martí

Today marks the 46th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, that proverbial "fiasco" that has co-opted that word, since "fiasco" is never used anymore except in referring to the Bay of Pigs or to any other venture that is compared to it. But what exactly is a "fiasco?" The word which dates from the 1850s is used to refer to a complete failure. It is derived from the Italian fare fiasco, which literally means to "make a bottle," that is, to execute a maneuver that completely cuts off the enemy and prevents his retreat. Something similar to a "bottleneck," which is now used in another context. Of course, Castro did not win at the Bay of Pigs because of his enlightened strategy, transmitted from the safety of his bunker. He won by default because the U.S. did not live up to its commitments to the freedom fighters. If anything, it was Kennedy himself who masterfully executed the fiasco by instructing American ships not to re-supply the freedom fighters (who literally ran out of ammunition) and Americans fighter planes not to facilitate their landing or engage the Castroite planes that reigned terror on them unchallenged. There is, of course, a better word to describe Cuba's greatest national tragedy (greater in its impact even than Marti's death). That word is not "fiasco" but betrayal. The difference between a "fiasco" and a "betrayal" is that betrayal implies a betrayer and fiasco no agent at all. John F. Kennedy said that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. In fact, Kennedy was the father of this particular "orphan." How odd seems his amazement that no else else would claim its parentage! Or perhaps not so odd: the biggest lesson that his Nazi-sympathizer of a father taught all his boys was how to evade personal responsibility for all their actions. It was in Cuba that the Kennedys made their fortune running rum during Prohibition and it was in Cuba that Joe's son proved that if daddy's business had passed into his hands he would have run it into the ground literally, for JFK had absolutely no idea of what it would take to make a successful landing in Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs was certainly the most ill-calculated amphibious invasion in history, the more so because it was executed by a country that had supposedly mastered this kind of warfare 15 years earlier in the Pacific theatre during World War II. In that conflict, it had taken 100,000 American troops and billions of tons of materiel to capture the miscroscopic Japanese-occupied island of Tarawa. Just 15 years later, President Kennedy proposed to capture Cuba, an island 6000 times the size of Tarawa, with just 1453 men and a few tons of equipment! That, of course, would have been possible only as a prelude to a fullscale U.S. invasion.

When recruits were first sought among the Cuban exile community, the U.S. government received enough applications to field ten battalions. Instead, it arbitrarily limited the invasion force to just 1400 men when 14,000 would still have been only one-tenth of Castro's army. Cuba's would-be liberators were chosen by a strict criteria. Adherents of General Batista were excluded. The Administration made sure that the Brigade represented a broad slice of Cuban society -- i.e. so many laborers to so many professionals, so many blacks to so many whites, so many from the east of the island and so many from the west, etc. If one-tenth of the attention paid to the demographics of the invasion force had been paid to the logistics of the invasion, Cubans might be celebrating today the 46th anniversary of their deliverance from Communism. But appearances were always more important to Kennedy than results, as his civil rights record, for example, also bears out.

The rebel army was trained by the CIA in Nicaragua under the auspices of Anastasio Somoza fils, the other president involved in this invasion, the one who didn't betray us (and who 20 years later would be borne to his grave on the shoulders of veterans of the Brigade 2506, a victim of Castro's vengeance and of another gutless American president). Somoza had much in common with Kennedy: both owed their presidencies to their respective fathers and both assumed office through electoral fraud. The difference was that the Latin American dictator was a man of his word and his U.S. counterpart was not.

The Brigade 2506 were conveyed to Cuba on U.S. ships and abandoned to their fate there. The spontaneous uprising that was supposed to be sparked by the invasion never materialized. It was not that the Cuban people did not support their would-be liberators but that Castro was better informed about the invasion plans than the resistance in Cuba, which was repeatedly misled and lied to by the Americans. Reports in The New York Times and other American newspapers gave Castro all the warning he needed to round up every man who might have lent his support to the invasion. Because the prisons were already full Castro confined them in sports stadiums which were wired with dinamite and would have been blown-up if the freedom fighters had gained the advantage.

For three glory filled days — the first time that Cubans had engaged in actual combat since 1898 — the courageous men of the Brigade 2506 struggled against impossible odds to achieve a goal that was clearly beyond even the super-human tenacity they displayed in the pursuit of it. The freedom fighters managed to inflict 30 times the casualties they sustained, but tenacity will only carry you so far: tenacity cannot take the place of guns — of which they had far too few; tenacity cannot compensate for the element of surprise, which was lost when plans for the invasion were leaked to The New York Times; and, finally, tenacity cannot rise from the ground to the skies.

Kennedy had promised the exiles that "the skies would be yours." It turns out that what Kennedy actually meant was that their path to heaven would be unobstructed by American fighter planes. The vital aircover that the freedom fighters had been promised was withdrawn at the last moment to avoid the appearance of American participation in this American enterprise. The freedom fighters were left to the mercy of air strikes flown by Russian and Czech pilots. American ships, which were so close to the action that they could actually witness the massacre, begged their superiors to be allowed to re-supply the Cubans or evacuate the survivors. But Kennedy would not allow it. Unable to hold back his tears, the American fleet commander could do no more than wire his apologies to the freedom fighters.

Kennedy had a clear choice. He could go ahead with the invasion and do everything in his power to assure its success. Or he could scrap all plans for an invasion of Cuba. He chose, instead, to launch the invasion while denying it every opportunity for success. What he hoped to gain thereby is anybody's guess. What he in fact achieved was a victory for Castro.

But victory cannot vindicate the tyrant nor defeat vilify the freedom fighters. The victors shall celebrate this day, for so it is in human affairs: in victory, even cowards boast. Those who survived this defeat shall also commemorate this day, for to forget is to disavow the past and there is nothing in the past of which they should be ashamed, unlike both their enemies and their allies.

Glory to the heroes and martyrs of the Bay of Pigs and peace to their manly and generous souls!


Jose Aguirre said...

Excellent post Manuel! The men of the Brigade 2506 are real heroes.

Albert Quiroga said...

A day late and a dollar short this comment may be, but this was a very good post. It brought back very sad memories; the administrator of the Focsa building, our last home in Havana, Vicente Leon Leon, former colonel in Republican Cuba's army, lost his life fighting with the Brigade. He was very well regarded, indeed loved by many of the tenants and owners in the building.

Over the years, I have been privileged to meet quite a few "Brigadistas," and indeed they are heroes, even if they do not think themselves such.

One thing you can say about castro:
He knows his enemies, and can intuitively recognize a weak link when he sees one. This is one of many reasons he has stayed in power almost 50 years. My best friend's father, who was briefly Minister for Rural Education under castro until his disillusionment with the "robolution," told me this story about 15 years ago.

"My brother (Juan Orta Cordoba, who at the time was castro's personal secretary) attended a meeting sometime in the fall of 1960, before the US presidential election, where fidel was present together with the usual bigwigs - che, raul, and company. The US presidential election was discussed. According to my brother, fidel said this at one point: 'If Nixon wins, the revolution is lost...but if Kennedy wins, the revolution will probably survive.'"

It is too bad Richard Nixon chose to be a gentleman and conceded the election when in fact he should have demanded a recount of an extremely close contest, marred by known vote fraud and other irregularities.

In the end, castro's forces only won the battle because they controlled the air; Kennedy's cowardice and vacillation denied crucial air assets to the Brigade and preordained its defeat. In doing so, Kennedy betrayed the Brigade. Betrayal is the word to describe this tragedy indeed; Kennedy's presidency was the real fiasco. Funny how he later thought nothing of involving us in Vietnam, over 8000 miles away...

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


I think that nothing illustrates better the nobility of these men, which 50 years of disillusionments only serve to bring into greater relief, than their refusal to accept the military pensions and health care benefits offered to them by Congress on several occasions, because to do so would entail an admission on their part that they were soldiers in the service of the U.S., when, in their minds and hearts, they only served their country. All of the survivors are old; many are poor and most are broken in health if not spirit. But they refuse to accept even one cent from this country for what they did for ours. This is a great lesson for those who defame them as "mercenaries" or question their commitment to a free and independent Cuba.

Some May 20th in the future, when our country is free again, all who contributed to making her so shall be honored and acclaimed as the equals of our glorious mambises; and the first to march in that parade, both by virtue of precedence and their own merits, will be the veterans of the Brigade 2506. Their victory will yet come and the future will belong to them.