The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 27, 2001; Page A16

A Crabby Conflict at the Bay of Pigs

Cuba's Lusty Crustaceans Get Squashed, but Flatten Their Adversaries

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service


When the crabs get frisky, Santiago Acosta gets busy.

For about a month every spring, millions and millions of Cuban land crabs leave the steamy swamps where they live, skitter across the coast road here and mate in the
sublime turquoise shallows of the Bay of Pigs.

At dawn and dusk, nearly 20 miles of coast road here in southern Cuba become completely impassable as a wave of crabs crosses from swamp to beach and back
again. They tippy-toe on their pointy little legs with their two big claws held up and open in defiance of oncoming traffic.

The trouble is, they weigh a few ounces and cars and trucks can weigh a few tons. And the narrow road hugging the bay is the only major route into Playa Giron, where
a lovely hotel and luxurious white sand beaches draw thousands of European tourists.

Millions of the little hard-shelled lovers make it across the road from swamp to paradise, but millions more do not. So the road is coated with an orange-pink layer of
smashed crab, so thick in places that it is like driving through three inches of pastel toothpaste. The tropical heat bakes the mess, releasing a powerful perfume.

But the crabs, in death, take their revenge. And that makes for busy days for Acosta, the local ponchero, the guy who fixes flat tires. Every March and April, he fixes
40, 80 or 100 tires a day -- he has lost count -- all shredded when cars run over razor-sharp crabs.

"I wish every month could be April," said Acosta, sweaty and smeared with grease in the afternoon swelter. His business, at 13 cents a tire, soars when the crabs are

The crabs crossing the road also crossed paths with history this week, when veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion returned here to mark the 40th anniversary of that
historic event. The veterans -- along with CIA officials, Kennedy administration officials Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin, and Jean Kennedy Smith, the
sister of John F. Kennedy -- met with President Fidel Castro, top Cuban officials and veterans of the Cuban military force that repelled the invaders.

They came Saturday to this beach called Playa Giron, where the main invasion force came ashore. The historical resonance was rich, but no one had foreseen that
swarms of mating crabs would steal at least part of the show.

"It was an unexpected hazard of Castro's Cuba, not that you could blame it on him," said Schlesinger. "I'd never seen anything like it; the road was dyed pink with the
fodder of the crabs."

Schlesinger and the other VIPs came in buses whose big tires withstood the shells. But many journalists and others came in private cars that did not do so well. Acosta
had to fix more than 20 tires from conference-goers alone. Along one short stretch of road near the beach, at least five cars were pulled over with flats -- some of them
with more than one tire punctured, making a single spare useless.

Journalists had to abandon crippled cars and hitch a ride in the back of a passing flatbed truck. While waiting for a lift, they noticed that the swampy brush along the
roadside was filled with scurrying crabs, making the swaying grass seem alive.

"It was like something out of a B-rated sci-fi movie," said Peter Kornbluh, who organized the Bay of Pigs conference for the National Security Archive, a private
research group at George Washington University that co-sponsored the conference with Cuban officials.

The conference trip to the beach was timed to factor in the crabs: Cuban officials warned that everyone would have to leave before 4 p.m. to return to Havana to avoid
the dusk migration. "It's a daily and deadly confrontation between man and nature," Kornbluh said.

As far as anyone knows, the crabs were not a military factor in the April 17-19, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion by 1,500 CIA-trained invaders trying to overthrow Castro. "If
they had managed to make the beachhead in crab season, they wouldn't have gotten far without extra tires," Kornbluh said.

Jose Fernandez Milera, a biologist with Cuba's Academy of Sciences, said that the crabs, a species of the family Gecarcinidae that is common from Bermuda to Brazil,
are simply following the call of nature. "It's not an aggression to visitors," Fernandez said. "They have been doing this for hundreds of years."

Sadly, in a nation that loves seafood, the crabs are inedible. Fernandez said they contain a toxin that is harmful for people or other animals.

Playa Giron residents such as Eberto Anca, 40, and Luis Acosta, 60, know all about the crabs. Sitting in an old truck near the beach, they carried a spare tire in the back
seat. Both men, who were born here and have never lived elsewhere, say they could not possibly count the number of flat tires they have had during crab season.

"There's nothing you can do about it," said Anca, laughing. Anca said locals know, from hard experience, that driving slowly is the best defense. Indeed, conference
participants speeding down the road passed many local cars poking along. Later, those same cars crawled past as foreigners changed their shredded tires -- wily
tortoises in rusted-out Soviet-era antiques passing hard-luck hares carrying laptops and satellite phones.

                                                © 2001