The Associated Press
March 21, 2001

After 40 Years, Bay of Pigs Reunion


              BAY OF PIGS, Cuba (AP) -- Breathtakingly gorgeous with its blue seas and white
              sands, the Bay of Pigs looks more like a billboard for a Caribbean vacation than an
              old Cold War battleground.

              The beach where tourists now sip daiquiris was the stage 40 years ago for one of
              the most memorable chapters in the struggle between Washington and Havana: the
              invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained band of armed exiles.

              As the April 17-19 anniversary approaches, top Kennedy administration officials
              and even members of the Bay of Pigs invasion force were returning to the same
              beach this week for a very different kind of encounter with Jose Ramon Fernandez,
              then the leader of the defending force, now one of Fidel Castro's vice presidents.

              Historian Arthur Schlesinger, a special adviser to President Kennedy during the
              disastrous invasion, was among about 60 Americans who arrived in Havana on

              Several Kennedy relatives also came along, including William Kennedy Smith,
              nephew of the late president. So did Alfredo Duran, a member of the 2506 Brigade
              invasion force.

              ``The Bay of Pigs occurred in the context of the Cold War,'' said Duran. ``The Cold
              War is over... but there are conditions we would still like to see changed in Cuba.''

              At a conference beginning Thursday, they hope to shed new light on the invasion
              and view hitherto classified U.S. and Cuban documents.

              The invasion remains a delicate subject, bound up in the 40 years of U.S.-Cuban
              hostility. Even on the eve of the conference, neither side would name the
              participants, apparently fearing that premature publicity would make them drop out.

              Then there's the perennial question of why the invasion failed -- a subject that still
              nettles Fernandez.

              It irks him that most Americans blame their own side's poor planning, rather than
              credit the Cubans' fighting prowess. Usually, ``history is written by the victors,'' he
              says, while in this case, it has been written by the losers.

              Standing tall and erect, with a shock of white hair and startlingly blue eyes,
              Fernandez at 77 still has the bearing of a career general who trained in artillery at
              Fort Sill in Oklahoma while serving in the pre-communist army under President
              Fulgencio Batista.

              Jailed for three years for criticizing corruption in Batista's military, Fernandez joined
              Castro's government after the 1959 revolution.

              Now, even though the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains unrelenting, Fernandez is
              playing a part in a reconciliation of sorts by helping to organize the conference that
              begins in a Havana hotel and moves to the Bay of Pigs, about 100 miles southeast of
              the capital, on the weekend.

              Trained by the CIA in Guatemala, the 2506 Brigade was comprised of about 1,500
              exiles determined to overthrow the government that had seized power 16 months

              Washington worried that the Soviet Union would use Cuba to establish a beachhead
              90 miles from American shores. It foreshadowed the crisis that blew up the
              following year over Soviet nuclear missiles being deployed in Cuba.

              The three-day invasion ended in debacle. Short of ammunition and lacking U.S. air
              support, more than 1,000 invaders were captured. One hundred invaders and 151
              defenders died, said Fernandez.

              Surviving exiles have always blamed bungled planning and the Kennedy
              Administration's refusal to provide sufficient air cover.

              But Fernandez said the operation failed because the invaders were unprepared for
              his troops' bravery and firepower. He denied reports that the Soviet Union had
              tipped Cuba off about the invasion or that Cuban agents infiltrated the exiles' training

              But he did acknowledge that Cuba rounded up government opponents hours before
              the beach landing.

              Mirto Collazo, a 2506 Brigade veteran living in Miami, said insufficient ammunition
              was also a factor. But although he is still a foe of Castro, he praised Fernandez's
              battle skills.

              ``He was the best artillery man that Cuba had,'' said Collazo, a former Cuban
              soldier who studied under Fernandez during the Batista regime. ``Militarily, I have a
              lot of respect for him.''

              But in a telephone interview, he said that he still opposes Castro's government and
              would not attend the conference.

              Jaime Suchlicki, who directs a Cuban studies program at the University of Miami,
              says many Cuban-Americans see the conference as ``a propaganda maneuver by
              the Castro government, an attempt to divide the exile community.''

              In an e-mail to The Associated Press from Miami, the Bay of Pigs Veterans
              Association Brigade 2506 wrote: ``For us, this 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs
              is one more reason to reaffirm our uncompromising position not to have dialogue''
              with Castro's government.

              These days, visiting Americans tour the Playa Giron Museum on the Bay of Pigs,
              where a small gallery displays black and white photos of captured anti-Castro
              commandos, yellowed newspaper clippings, the bright blue uniforms of defending
              militia members.

              Also on exhibit are a 81mm mortar and a Browning machine gun seized from
              invaders. A British-made Sea Fury plane that shot down two American B-26 planes
              stands outside.