The 50th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs: Veterans Still Harbor Pain and Bitterness

The surviving veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which occurred 50 years ago, are grandparents now, whiter-haired and slower-moving. But every year, as April 17 draws close, the always-present memories of that ill-fated invasion of Cuba -- bodies that dropped around them-- grow sharper, more haunting.

So do the emotions that coursed through them then: the eagerness to answer the U.S. government’s call for recruits for an operation to oust Fidel Castro, the surreal realization during the mission that everything was going horribly wrong, the dread realization that promised military support wasn’t coming, the slaughter of the Brigade 2506 fighters – and, for those who did not die then and there – the capture and jailing by Castro’s forces.

“To see yourself on the shores of your native land surrounded by enemies, to be a sitting duck, I’ll never forget it,” said Eliecer Grave de Peralta, 76. “I’ll never forget the betrayal by Kennedy.”

On Sunday, Bay of Pigs veterans in Florida and New Jersey will hold ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the failed invasion.

By the “Martyrs of Assault Brigade 2506” monument in Miami, veterans and other Cuban-Americans will engage in their annual ritual of calling out the names of the roughly 100 men killed in the invasion, as the crowd chants “Presente” after each one. In New Jersey, veterans will mark the day with a similar ceremony.

“That day carries many memories for me,” said Bay of Pigs veteran Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, 70, who co-founded and now heads the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful Cuban exile lobby in the world. “More than anything, they’re bitter memories because of so many young men who died needlessly because of the extraordinary errors of the Kennedy Administration.”

As more and more evidence arose that the revolution propelled by Fidel Castro was turning the island nation’s government Communist, the CIA helped hatch a plan that called for mainly Cuban exiles to train for an invasion of Cuba. Hundreds of young exiles – including both those who had supported the previous Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista, and those who initially had supported Castro but grew disillusioned – stood in long lines to sign up.

The plan for the invasion was hardly a well-kept secret, despite the U.S. government’s determination to deny its involvement in it. Even the Cuban government, it was later learned, knew it was coming.

The United States never sent the air and naval support it had promised the Cuban exiles. It also failed to gather intelligence about, and prepare for, the numerous obstacles that the fighters encountered.

“It was a total fiasco,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, author of books about Cuba and a professor of Latin American studies at Kean University. “It was a terrible, botched job by Eisenhauer and Kennedy, one of the worst military operations conceived. Kennedy sent hundreds of Cuban exiles into a hopeless struggle.”

Some 1,000 of the men were captured, and sentenced to decades in prison. A few were executed. Most ended up serving roughly two years and were released in a deal in which the U.S. government gave Cuba medicine and food in exchange for the prisoners.

“The result of the botched invasion was that Cuban people have lost 50 years, three generations of Cubans have been denied freedom, the ones outside Cuba have been denied their native and ancestral homeland, because Kennedy decided not to support the brigade,” said Hernandez, who was captured by Cuban authorities during the invasion and sentenced to 30 years, but was released after 20 months.

“If we’d had the support and been victorious, we would have saved the people of Cuba so much agony, and also saved the United States a lot of angst,” he said. “The United States has experienced huge costs because of the regime of Castro all these decades, including the leftist governments in Latin America Castro guided to power.”

Argote-Freyre, the professor, says the Bay of Pigs invasion actually benefitted Castro, helping the us-vs.-the-world message he’d been pushing among the people in Cuba.

“He had enormous problems in Cuba at that time,” Argote-Freyre said. “There was the possibility of an uprising against Castro. But the invasion really solidified his power. He used the invasion to then make carte-blanche arrests in Cuba of all his political enemies.”

The fiasco left many Cuban exiles with an enduring lack of trust in Democrats, and a preference for Republicans. A 2004 survey of Cuban-American voters in Florida found that nearly 70 percent identified themselves as Republicans.

“Since that, I do not ever consider giving a vote to a Democratic presidential candidate, and I am only one of many Cubans who feel that way,” said de Peralta, who was jailed by Cuban authorities for 22 months in jail. “Neither party, actually, has done much to help bring democracy to Cuba. But at least Republicans have made efforts to form alliances with us.”

De Peralta had initially been in favor of the revolution. He served in the military under the Castro regime.

“At one point I started to have doubts,” he said. “I saw the revenge against people who’d been for Batista, and against the revolution. I thought there’d be trials, prosecution of people who’d been guilty of crimes in the Batista government. But there were just outright executions. It opened my eyes.”

The veterans have been determined not to let the invasion, and the many who gave their lives for freedom in Cuba, be erased from the public memory.

Veterans set up a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami.

“We wanted to save memorabilia from our time in the Cuban jails,” said veteran Jorge Marquet, who works at the museum. “We want to preserve the story of what happened.”

On a personal level, many veterans still do what they can to push the cause of a democratic Cuba.

“We continue the struggle,” Marquet said. “We still go to rallies and demonstrate for liberty and democracy in Cuba. We will never forget about Cuba. We still think and long for the same thing that took us to those shores in 1961, risking our lives – we want to free Cuba from the dictatorship.”

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino

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