As they steamed toward the coast of Cuba in April, 1961, they were young, confident and idealistic, driven by dreams of ousting Fidel Castro and emboldened by the backing of the U.S. government. Forty years later, Castro still holds sway in Havana, and the surviving members of Brigade 2506 still live in exile, their anger and sense of betrayal as palpable as ever.
“We felt confident because we had the word of the United States,” recalled Eliecer Grave de Peralta, who stormed Giron Beach near the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, along with about 1,500 other Cuban exiles.
But the United States balked at the last minute: Castro’s air force was only partially destroyed, U.S. air cover wasn’t provided to the invasion force and the CIA didn’t notify the Cuban underground of the impending attack.
After three days of heavy fighting, Castro’s superior forces vanquished the exiles, the United States was faced with a diplomatic nightmare and the invasion attempt set the harsh tone for relations between Havana and Washington that endure to this day.
The Bay of Pigs has become a catchphrase for bungling and rich fodder for books, movies and academic research.
But to the men who took part, the debacle is a matter of deep resentment. Most were imprisoned for nearly two years in Cuba, watched the torture and execution of comrades, and hold an abiding hatred of Castro.
Gathered together during a recent stormy night in New Jersey, the memory of April 17-19, 1961, still stings for five of the original members of the Brigade 2506. They dream of Cuba, they pray for Cuba and they now realize they may never go home again.
Dreams of Cuba
Grave de Peralta still remembers the day he left Cuba: Dec. 3, 1960. The revolution was less than 2 years old and after fighting alongside Castro to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Grave de Peralta turned his back on his comrades.
“I took Santa Clara for Castro,” he said, but he could no longer stand the tyranny of the new regime. “The executions without trial, the persecution of people with different ideologies, the shutdown of the press,” Grave de Peralta said.
He was 27 when he returned on April 17, 1961, still consumed with the ideal that drove him to join Castro’s band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains. “We wanted agriculture reform, to give land back to the farmers and to reinstate the Constitution of 1940,” he said.
Now he wanted to overthrow Castro. After training under CIA supervision in camps scattered through Central America, Grave de Peralta joined a buoyant band of exiles on its way to the Bay of Pigs. “We had no doubts. We thought we had a closed deal.”
Three days later, as they ran out of ammunition, Grave de Peralta knew it was over. He managed to be among the handful plucked to safety after the botched invasion. “I had to escape; I faced a death sentence in Cuba,” he said.
Castro was prepared for the invasion. Another exile, Raul Sanchez, recalled hearing Cuban radio broadcasts warning of an attack as he headed in one of the five old cargo ships to his homeland.
Even then he wasn’t worried. “We were young, we were counterrevolutionaries, we were going to free our homeland,” Sanchez said. And the CIA told them that the United States would not let them down.
Time has only hardened their bitterness — and the target for much of the anger is President Kennedy, who took office a few months before the Bay of Pigs, and his brother, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. “They betrayed us,” said Segundo Miranda, a commander with the invading force.
Although an investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency placed a great deal of the responsibility for the fiasco on the CIA, which planned the operation, the exiles blame Kennedy for calling off on April 15 air strikes aimed at crippling Castro’s air power. Without the air strikes, the invasion itself should have been called off, they say.
The men, soldiers of a forgotten war in many people’s minds, are still strangers in a strange land. They came to the United States to spend a few months preparing for an invasion. They have stayed for nearly four decades.
They raised families and continue to lobby, to protest, to argue their cause. Last heard from during the Elian Gonzalez imbroglio, the exiles try to muster public support for dissidents inside Cuba who are still imprisoned for venting opposition to the government.
They bemoan what they see as indifference by the U.S. government to the plight of Cubans. And they won’t tolerate those who dare sit down with Castro.
Last month, a handful of exiles broke ranks by traveling to Havana to pore over unclassified documents about the battle alongside top Cuban officials and academics.
“Jesus had 12 apostles, one betrayed him. We have 5,000 people and five betrayed us,” said Sanchez.
The U.S. economic blockade — widely criticized internationally — is also lambasted by the former fighters. But for another reason: They say it’s not tough enough.
“What kind of blockade is it? You can use Visa, Mastercard there; you can ship with Airborne Express,” Sanchez said.
THE NEXT GENERATION
The exiles’ children carry the torch. Alex Grave de Peralta is 23 and has never been to Cuba. But like his dad, he cares passionately for the country — and detests the Castro regime.
Esther Gatria, 26, is the daughter of Sergio Gatria. Her father was a dissident inside Cuba who worked with the fledgling Castro regime but waited for word of the invasion. He left in 1967 after a long struggle to get out of Cuba.
Esther Gatria visited Cuba in 1999, but she says nothing she saw changed her mind about the Castro government.
Both Alex and Ester share their parents’ anger — and hopes for a democratic Cuba.
And while Esther is active in the November 30 organization of her father — a dissident group with members, many imprisoned, inside Cuba — she and Alex realize that they will have to wait for Castro’s death.
“History shows that after every tyranny there is a period of chaos. But hopefully when the dust clears, it will come up as a democratic society,” Alex said.