Image: Santiago Alvarez and his crew prepare for action, somewhere in Nicaragua
Jim Nickless  /  AP
In this undated photo 22-year-old anti-Castro activist Santiago Alvarez, center with sun glasses, and his crew prepare for action, somewhere in Nicaragua, against Fidel Castro's government three years after the defeat of Cuban exiles in Bay of Pigs.
By AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
updated 4/16/2011 7:07:48 PM ET 2011-04-16T23:07:48

In the weeks before U.S.-backed exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Felix Rodriguez was spirited into the island to work with underground forces against Fidel Castro's fledgling revolutionary government. A 19-year-old named Santiago Alvarez stood ready in the Florida Keys for orders to attack by sea, while another exile, Alfredo Duran, trained in Guatemala for a beachfront assault at Playa Giron on Cuba's southern coast.

Half a century later, they are still waiting for victory.

Castro decimated the underground before Duran ever reached shore. The U.S. never provided the air and naval support the exiles expected, and Cubans on the island never rose up to join them.

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The failed invasion 50 years ago this weekend forever shaped the lives of Rodriguez, Alvarez and Duran, just as it defined U.S. policy at home and abroad. But the veterans themselves also marked the nation, helping turn Miami into a world famous, Cuban-dominated metropolis and playing key roles in Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. Each of their lives tells part of the story.

Worst-kept secret
Rodriguez was 16 and studying abroad in Pennsylvania when Castro rode into Havana during Christmas 1958 and overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. His family fled to Florida, where he was accepted by the University of Miami, and his parents bought him a baby blue Austin Healy.

As the convertible idled at a traffic light, an old woman scolded Rodriguez for joyriding rather than training to liberate his country.

Though he kept silent, that is precisely what he'd had been doing. Rodriguez was among more than 1,300 exiles training for the CIA-backed invasion in Cuba. The quick trip to Miami was meant for collecting weapons.

Image: A photo at the Brigade 2506 Museum in Miami shows President John F. Kennedy receiving the brigade flag
Alan Diaz  /  AP
A photo displayed at the Brigade 2506 Museum in Miami shows President John F. Kennedy, left, receiving the brigade flag from members on Dec. 29, 1962 at a ceremony at the Orange Bowl. President Kennedy promised the members he would return the flag in a free Havana.

Rodriguez and others entered Cuba before the attack making contact with Batista supporters and former revolutionaries disillusioned with the new government's emerging communist bent. Then days before the invasion Castro made a sweep of the underground, arresting and executing its leaders.

Rodriguez would go on to have a CIA career that mirrored U.S. engagement across Latin America and Asia through the latter half of the 20th century. Now approaching 70, he still uses more than a half-dozen hidden cameras to check out visitors arriving at his modest Miami home.

From the leather recliner in his den, he bounces a laser pointer over pictures of himself with the last five U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama. By the door is the photo that made him famous: Rodriguez with Che Guevara, a day before the Argentinean doctor-turned-Cuban revolutionary icon's 1967 execution.

But that would come later.

As he awaited the invasion in a safe house in Havana, all the young Rodriguez knew was that things were bad.

Captured by Castro forces
Duran too had studied in the U.S. before the revolution, returning with an engineering degree just after Castro declared victory in Havana.

By the time Duran and his family made it to the U.S., the Eisenhower administration was recruiting anti-Castro exiles for the invasion modeled after the U.S.-backed overthrow of Guatemala's president nearly a decade before.

Duran entered the Bay of Pigs on April 17. Two days before, Cuban exile pilots helped destroy portions of Cuba's small air force, but Castro had enough jets remaining to take out the invaders' supply ships.

Castro's forces killed 118 exiles; 176 Cuban soldiers died. Duran and his comrades were captured and after a brief trial — in which his Cuban defense lawyer called for their execution — they were taken to prison.

Duran and more than 1,000 others were still behind bars in 1962 when Castro, fearing another U.S.-backed invasion, accepted a Soviet offer to build nuclear missiles on the island. When the U.S. went public with the news in October, the 10-day standoff brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It was averted when the Soviets promised to remove the missiles in exchange for President John F. Kennedy's vow not to invade Cuba.

Shortly after, Duran and the others were freed through quiet negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, but for many in Brigade 2506, and in the Kennedy administration, neither the Bay of Pigs nor the Cuban missile crisis would deter them from seeking Castro's demise.

Going too far
Santiago Alvarez was stuck training and running supplies from a base on Florida's Big Pine Key during the invasion. He would spend decades making up for the fact that he missed out on the action at the Bay of Pigs.

He and other veterans quickly joined groups that staged raids on Cuba until following public outcry over increasingly high-profile attacks on the island, the U.S. government told Alvarez, Rodriguez and others to halt their efforts or take them off U.S. soil. They chose the latter.

In just one of the CIA's efforts to do away with Castro, more than 400 exiles — most of them Bay of Pigs veterans — trained and launched U.S.-funded attacks from camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua from 1963 to 1965, according to declassified documents from the National Security Archive. Alvarez captained a small boat that made runs into Cuban territory, dropping off infiltrators, supplies and occasionally blowing up bridges and factories.

Then the exiles again went too far, sinking a Spanish freighter they believed was a Cuban ship, killing three and prompting President Lyndon Johnson to quickly halt the program.

Back in Miami, Alvarez turned his attention to his new home. He bought a dump truck with cash he'd been given for his wedding, then another. Eventually, he developed shopping centers and more than 1,000 apartments and built himself a bayfront Miami mansion.

Other successful veterans include a world-famous classical guitarist, a top Miami surgeon and a state senator. They moved up the ranks in multinational companies and founded their own.

Duran, who later turned to real estate law, says he owes his initial career to the Bay of Pigs. Remembering his Cuban lawyer's recommendation he be shot, he became a Miami criminal defense lawyer.

As their efforts to overthrow Castro became sporadic in the late 1970s, the veterans' political involvement in the United States intensified. They used their stature to help elect six Cuban-Americans to the U.S. Congress. And they became a powerful — mostly Republican — voting bloc, credited with helping give President George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000.

While many Bay of Pigs veterans thrived in Miami, others like Rodriguez found returning to civilian life difficult. A number of brigade members went on to serve in the U.S. military with distinction. Others became involved in shadier operations beyond Cuba.

Image: Andres Manso at the Brigade 2506 museum
Alan Diaz  /  AP
Brigade 2506 veteran Andres Manso shows combatants' photos on the wall at the Brigade's museum in Miami.

Several of President Richard Nixon's so-called plumbers were veterans of the invasion, including those involved in the Watergate burglary that led to Nixon's resignation.

Rodriguez remained committed to fighting communism worldwide. One of several CIA consultants, Rodriguez was the last to interview Che Guevara. He also advised the Salvadoran military during that country's civil war in the 1980s — a military that was accused of numerous human rights violations. There, he became involved with clandestine U.S. support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua as they fought against the fledgling leftist Sandinista government — even as Congress barred the government from such intervention. The ensuing scandal nearly brought down the Reagan administration.

No victory yet
The liquor bottles at the bar in Rodriguez's memento room hang upside down, ready to pour as he tells his tales.

"My wife, she's sick of hearing about the capture of Che," he says ruefully.

The veterans' ranks have thinned, but their influence persists: Nearly all the 2008 Republican presidential candidates made campaign stops at the small Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana.

In 2005, Alvarez was arrested after he tried to help fellow Bay of Pigs veteran Luis Posada Carriles, Castro's longtime nemesis. Posada was acquitted last week on charges he lied to officials about his involvement in a string of 1997 Havana hotel bombings.

Alvarez, 69, was accused of sneaking Posada out of Mexico and into the U.S. aboard his yacht in the spring of 2005. He says he left Posada in Mexico with money but didn't bring him to the U.S.

Later that year, Alvarez was arrested after the Coast Guard traced weapons to him including grenades, launchers and 14 pounds of powerful C-4 plastic explosives in the Bahamas. He denies they were his. Investigators found more weapons in a South Florida apartment he owned. Alvarez eventually pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge.

Released last year, he says the weapons in the apartment were never for an attack against Castro, insisting that any trips into Cuban waters made in recent years were done with smaller, defensive arms.

Alvarez no longer blames the U.S. for the Bay of Pigs failure and even questions the effectiveness of the U.S. government's decades-old embargo of the island. Had Cubans like himself not fled the island, many would have died, but he believes their efforts to overthrow Castro would have succeeded.

"That was our mistake — leaving," he says.

Duran stunned many contemporaries in 2001 when he and others returned to Cuba and met with Castro and some of the men they had fought against.

"I felt liberated," he says of having shaken the hands of his former enemies.

He still views Castro as a dictator but believes open exchange with the island is the only way to bring about change there. Many fellow veterans remain skeptical, but Duran's visit gave cover to those in his generation and the next to speak out in favor of policy changes.

It is this new generation, on both sides of the Florida Straits, where he places his hopes.

"Nothing will change, until the Castros are gone," Duran says. "It is this new generation we must hope for."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

  1. Closed captioning of: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

    >>> it's been 50 years since the bay of pigs invasion , one of the most infamous events in american history . but in cuba it's seen far differently. nbc's mark potter joins us now from havana with more. mark, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. this weekend cuba is remembering a critical moment in history still felt today. huge crowds have come out to celebrate in ways not seen here for years. in the plaza of the revolution, a massive display of military might and celebration of cuba 's victory 50 years ago at the bay of pigs , the failed invasion planned by the cia and backed by the u.s. military seen as a historic turning point for fidel castro .

    >> this is a watershed event for cuba that cuba in the track on alliance with the soviet union and in the role to hardcore communism.

    >> reporter: on april 17 , 1961 , 1400 cia-trained cuban exiles made landfall in southern cuba . the u.s. supplied them with planes, ships and armament. but in an attempt to hide its involvement, the kennedied administration withheld air support when the invasion began to fail.

    >> we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not irnts ventervein in any way.

    >> reporter: in just three days, castro's massive defense force crushed the invaders, killing more than 100, capturing more than 1,000. this now-tranquil area is where the main invasion force came ashore and was confronted by cuban fighters. in the mystery of the cuban revoluti revolution, this is a very important place. 70-year-old domingo rodriguez still remembers how invaders opened fire on its militia platoon. cuba radio host helped capture the attackers and is said the cuban victory was a worldwide embarrassment for the u.s.

    >> there were two or three small boats with the pirate sign.

    >> reporter: on the other side, in a bay of pigs museum in miami, cuban exile veterans mourn the anniversary. this man who flew a bomber in support of the invasion said the u.s. refusal to save the exiles still hurts.

    >> we were promised something that wasn't delivered so that's betrayal. would like to say, but i felt betrayal.

    >> reporter: at the war museum here, the solemn remembrance is for cuban lives lost defending the revolution in a battle that forever changed u.s./cuban relations. and on a day of history, there is concern here for the future. earlier today the communist party congress convened here to address new ways to fix cuba 's deeply troubled economy.

    >> mark potter in havana thanks.

Photos: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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  1. Three-year-old Fidel Castro is pictured here in 1929. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The three Castro brothers in 1941 from left to right: Fidel, Raul, and Ramon. Castro named his younger brother Raul his temporary successor on July, 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. It marked the first time that Castro had relinquished power in 47 years of rule. (Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Castro, at 17 years old, plays basketball at Belen Jesuit High School in 1943. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Castro took up arms against the Cuban regime of President Fulgencio Batista for the first time unsuccessfully in 1953. Hoping to spark a popular revolt, Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. He survived the attack, but was imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty he went to Mexico where he was detained by Mexican immigration authorities for training troops for another uprising in Cuba. He is shown here resting on his cot in December 1956 in a Mexico City jail. He was released shortly after this picture was taken and continued his fight against Batista. (Bettmann via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Castro is cheered by a village crowd on his victorious march into Havana in January 1959 after revolutionary forces seized control of Cuba. (Grey Villet / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Castro and his Marxist revolutionary ally, Che Guevara, try their hand at golf in 1959 after seizing power in the Cuban Revolution. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Havana in 1959. Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and his novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, centers on an aging Cuban fisherman. After the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway was forced to flee Cuba and return to Ketchum, Idaho where he lived out the last years of his life. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, January 6, 1959, days after the Cuban revolution ousted the Batista regime. The United States was the first nation to recognize Castro as Cuba's leader, but his radical economic reforms quickly rattled American leaders. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959. Castro visited the U.S. in April of 1959 as part of a charm offensive for his new government, but was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Castro speaking before a huge gathering of people in Cuba in 1960. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Castro and Ricardo Alarcón on national TV on April 9, 1961, a few days before the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba on April 15, 1961 known as the Bay of Pigs. Alarcón, head of the Cuban parliament since 1993, is still a close Castro confidante and his main point person on U.S. relations. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara shown during a meeting Havana in the early '60s. Castro declared his revolution to be a socialist movement on April 16, 1961. The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, happened the next day, on April 17, 1961. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting Castro's government. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces, marking a major defeat in the U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power. (Raul Corrales / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Castro cuts sugar cane in a Cuban field in October, 1962. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Castro learning to ski during a trip to Russia in 1962. The Soviet Union was a major source of military and economic aid for Cuba until its collapse in 1991. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Prime Minister Fidel Castro gives a radio and televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962 during which he talked about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba and the annoucement by President John F. Kennedy of a U.S. blockade of the island. The tense 13-day standoff over Soviet nuclear-armed missile installed on the island, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was resolved after Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles. (Keystone-France via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Castro, his bother Raul, and Che Guevara in 1963. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Castro holds the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to Moscow in May 1963. Taking advantage of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies for decades. The disappearance of Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union created hard times in Cuba known as the "Special Period" because of the tight rationing of food, fuel, and consumer goods. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Castro, a star pitcher at the University of Havana and longtime baseball fan, gets set to fire a ball as he pitches for Camaguey Province against Pinar Del Rio Province at Cuba's Veradero Beach in July 1964. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Cuba Leader Fidel Castro sits with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on March 8, 1977. In 2011, Castro criticized the United States involvement in Libya calling NATO's actions "genocide." (Arna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Castro, once a passionate cigar smoker, is seen here exhaling cigar smoke during an interview in March, 1985 at his presidential palace in Havana. He gave up the habit in 1986 citing health concerns. Cuba has long been known as the world's foremost producer of cigars and the industry generates over $200 million annually for the country's economy. Bans on smoking in public places were introduced in Cuba in 2005. (Charles Tasnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Castro took to the streets of Havana during the Aug. 5, 1994 riots, the largest anti-government riots since he had assumed power, that sparked the rafters crisis. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union the Cuban economy was in disarray and tens of thousands of Cubans cast out in homemade rafts to make the risky journey to the U.S. creating a migration crisis. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Castro visiting the Great Wall of China during a state visit in December, 1995. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba looked towards China more as a Communist ally. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Castro at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998 after the Pope arrived for his landmark visit to the communist nation. (Michel Gangne / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Castro talks with Elian Gonzalez during the inauguration of the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas" in Cardenas, Cuba on July 14, 2001.

    Gonzalez was aboard an overcrowded motorboat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother and others seeking to enter the United States illegally. He was rescued off Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, and then was at the center of a seven-month custody tug-of-war that culminated in US federal agents seizing him by force from Miami-based relatives. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro on Sept. 2, 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa where the two leaders were participating in the World Conference Against Racism. In power since the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Castro was one of the world's longest ruling leaders. Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer. (Jose Goitia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Cuban President Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talk after a friendly game of baseball at the Latinoamericano Stadium on May 14, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first visit by a former or sitting U.S. President since Castro came to power in 1959. (Jorge Rey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Castro speaks with his brother Raul Castro during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament during December 2003.

    Raul Castro, who has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel was sidelined by illness in 2006, became his official successor in February 2008. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Two women hold up the latest edition of Granma newspaper bearing the headline "Message from the Commander in Chief," on Feb. 19, 2008, in Havana. Castro stepped down that morning as the president of Cuba after a long illness, according to Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. (Jose Goitia / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Fidel Castro is seen on June 18, 2008 in Havana during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro, right. Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he fell during an appearance in July 2006, but the state-run media occassionally releases official photos of the ailing former leader. (Estudios Revolucion / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University on Sept. 3, 2010. Castro warned of the dangers of nuclear war in his first speech to the Cuban public since falling ill in 2006. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2011. Raul Castro, right, was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Castro looks at the camera during a rare public appearance to attend the inauguration of an art gallery on Jan. 8, 2014 in Havana. The gallery Castro visited is run by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Castro speaks with China's President Xi Jinping in Havana, on July 22, 2014. Xi Jinping said that his state visit to Cuba is aimed at carrying forward the traditional friendship between the two countries jointly built by Castro and the older generations of Chinese leaders, so as to inject new impetus into bilateral cooperation. (Alex Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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