How Not to Change a Latin American Government: The Bay of Pigs, Redux

Posted on May 26, 2019


How Not to Change a Latin American Government: The Bay of Pigs, Redux

We have written about Cuba and the United States a few times in the past. There are remarkable similarities between the early 1960s and Venezuela and the United States today, giving some credence to the old adage that history does occasionally repeat itself, not with the exact same people and circumstances obviously but with enough similitude to almost take your breath away.

I get a form of déja vu when looking at Venezuela and the U. S. through the prism of what I remember about Cuba and the U. S. in the spring of 1961. I was a freshman at Duke in Durham, North Carolina and had other things on my mind, like beer and coeds which I found more attractive than international politics. Although, as a member of the local NROTC detachment, there was some buzz about Fidel Castro and his crazy experiments with socialism that seemed to be getting us involved. Later, in the fall of 1962, the Cuban missile crisis would almost explode into nuclear war and at that point I was REALLY interested in where fate and the Navy were taking me. But that for another day.

In April, 1961 the azaleas were about to bloom, Joe College Weekend was on the horizon, and there were even classes that occupied at least a small percentage of my time.

I had no idea until studying the whole episode later as an historian of Latin America that the U. S. under the guidance of President John F. Kennedy, inaugurated in January 1961, almost toppled Castro and ended his experiment with socialism and communism. That he inherited the anti-Castro, anti-communist agenda from outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower only makes the whole story even more interesting since Ike and Jack came out of different backgrounds.

Today socialism or some iteration of it—democratic socialism, progressivism, or outright communism—is the fad among Democrats of the Left who seem to have left whichever side of the brain that remembers and interprets the past out in an abandoned pasture of their learning or memories.

But not so 1960 or 1961. The Cold War was getting hotter. On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down deep over Soviet Russia while on an aerial reconnaissance mission. Caught it the act of espionage it embarrassed the Eisenhower administration as the Cold War was getting hotter. Next summer, in August 1961, the East Germans built a wall—the infamous Berlin Wall—to keep East Germans from escaping to the West.

And, in the meantime, a lawyer turned political activist in Cuba, Fidel Castro, led a revolution against a deeply corrupt and pro-American government led by a dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fidel’s little band of revolutionaries came ashore in Cuba in 1957 after a ragtag voyage on an old boat and barely survived a Batista army counterattack before escaping into the mountains and setting up a guerilla unit. Led by Fidel and his Argentine sidekick, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, they fought a hard campaign against Batista’s regime, concluding with a fantastic victory ride into Havana early in Jan. 1959 when the revolutionaries captured Havana and Batista and his cronies fled into exile.

Fidel quickly ousted his rivals and began to nationalize the economy, including large sugar plantations while promoting, very thinly disguised, a new patriotic socialist world for Cuba where there would be no more poor, free education for all, free medical care, and the government would take care of you. Does this sound familiar? Hundreds and then thousands of well off and middle-class Cubans began to flee in 1959-1960, claiming—mostly correctly—that Castro was betraying the true revolution, devoted to destroying the cronyism and corruption of the Batista regime and restoring true democracy and liberty as promised in the Constitution of 1940.

Fidel made a trip to the U. S. in the spring of 1959 and was greeted with great enthusiasm. Herbert Matthews, a journalist for the New York Times, had interviewed Castro while in the mountains and written some powerful articles supporting the patriotic revolutionary. But Fidel was already beginning to show his true colors, perhaps influenced deeply by Che Guevara’s communist agenda that he kept in front of Fidel. That Che didn’t like Americans made his presence ever more ominous for those in Washington who began to see Castro’s move toward communism with deep reservations.

If Cuba went communist, what about the rest of Latin America? By late 1960, the determination had been made, largely by the CIA, to recommend removing Castro. Eisenhower agreed and a plan was set into motion. In the meantime, Kennedy was elected and prepared to assume office in Jan. 1961. Kennedy in affect inherited the Eisenhower-approved plan concocted by the CIA, with a few other government agencies involved, but it was largely an Agency operation.

Kennedy’s approach to Latin America rejected old style U. S. interventionism, such as the removal of a President of Guatemala in 1954 by the CIA, and his emerging style would lead to a shared vision of the future given form by the Alliance for Progress that emerged later in 1961. Instead of interventionism, a new relationship based on shared political principles, mutual respect, and economic cooperation emerged.

But by February, March 1961 the proposed CIA-led invasion of Cuba, manned largely by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, was well underway and Kennedy was enough of a Cold Warrior to give it tentative approval.

What took place fifty-eight years ago, beginning April 15, 1961, constitutes a fascinating episode in how not to remove a dictator like Castro. The story is well known but probably forgotten by today’s crafters of American foreign policy.

Cuban exiles flying B-26s supplied by the CIA were trained in Guatemala by Air National Guardsmen from Birmingham, Alabama recruited by the CIA. Flying from an airstrip on the north coast of Nicaragua, they started their first bombing and strafing runs over Cuban airports on the morning of April 15 with the intention of virtually destroying, or the least crippling  what little resources—planes and pilots– Castro still had loyal to the Revolution left over from the Batista regime. The exile pilots were doing a good job of it when the order was passed down to the flight line in Nicaragua to stop the raids on April 16, just when they were beginning to take their toll and so prepare for the actual landing of the exile battalion of about 1600 men on April 17. Without air support, and open to counterattacks by Castro’s air force, the landing was doomed. And it failed. The full story for another day.

What happened? President Kennedy decided that the entire operation would appear to the world as another example of crass U. S. interventionism in Latin America. The CIA had attempted to keep the entire operation secret, until at least after the landing of the exile battalion succeeded. The exiles would then declare a government in opposition to Castro, the U. S. would immediately recognize the new government and send in U. S. forces to support them.  End story and end Castro.

But, as we know, and need to recall, that didn’t happen. Kennedy canceled follow up bombing raids by the exile pilots over Cuban targets April 16, not wishing to be accused of gross and illegal intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation, and probably looking down the road to his new Alliance for Progress. Castro’s revolutionary army counterattacked the exiles after they landed at the Bay of Pigs and lost most of their ships and supplies to Cuban pilots flying for Castro’s air force. By April 18 the story was over, the exile brigade shattered and most captured and marched back to Havana.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco, or great victory depending upon your point of view, had another affect. Castro persuaded Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, that Kennedy was pusillanimous and a weak leader and so let’s put Soviet missiles in Cuba aimed squarely at the U. S. and bring this Cold War one step closer to a communist victory. Castro proved wrong on this one. Kennedy was no coward or weak leader. In October 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis ensured, bringing the world to hairbreadth of a massive nuclear exchange.

Today the U. S. is dealing with another socialist dictator, Maduro of Venezuela. The resemblance to Maduro and Castro, socialism/communism of both Cuba and Venezuela, the rupture of democracy and liberty, are striking, and perhaps worth studying with some care by foreign policy planners today.

Published as “Venezuela, U.S. today much like the early 1960s,” April 14, 2019, in The Tuscaloosa News