Castro, Former Adversaries Meet at Bay of Pigs Forum
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
HAVANA, March 22 -- President Fidel Castro spent the day at a conference
marking the 40th anniversary of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion with
administration officials and former CIA officials once determined to overthrow or kill him.
Castro, dressed in his trademark military fatigues, made no public comments
today after spending nine hours hashing over history and historical documents
Havana hotel. Protagonists from Cuba and the United States gathered here for a three-day examination of an event that has set the tone for relations between the two
nations for the past four decades.
Conference participants said that Castro smiled broadly as he read aloud
a 1959 U.S. State Department memo saying that despite his "appearance of
unsophistication and ignorance on many matters," it would be "a serious mistake to underestimate this man."
Castro, now dealing with the 10th U.S. president since his revolutionary
takeover of Cuba in 1959, has filled Havana with billboards reminding Cubans
of the battle with depictions of a sunken invaders' ship bearing a skull and crossbones.
Nearly 50 people, including former CIA officials, five members of the
defeated CIA-trained invasion force, top government officials and academics
countries, are at the conference to review an event that continues to color attitudes in both nations.
The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, which humiliated President John
F. Kennedy and the CIA, and the Cuban missile crisis the following year
led directly to U.S.
economic sanctions against Cuba that continue to define and aggravate relations between the United States and its Communist neighbor to the south.
Although President Bill Clinton favored easing the sanctions, President
Bush has indicated he will, at the least, leave them as they are. Politically
Cuban exiles in Florida are hoping that Bush will tighten the noose around Havana, particularly because his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is running for reelection
But today the focus was on the tensions of 1961, and participants reviewed
the first significant batch of documents to be declassified and made public
"We are creating a new history here studying the old history," said
Thomas S. Blanton, head of the National Security Archive, a private organization
that is co-sponsoring the conference with Cuban officials.
Robert S. McNamara, who was Kennedy's defense secretary, sent a letter
today saying that the invasion was "wrong and never should have occurred,"
Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive.
Conference documents include a lengthy chronology of Castro's orders
for the Bay of Pigs battle. The papers, filled with Castro's salty language,
show in new relief
what historians have long known: that Castro commanded his military personally, minute by minute, as his troops stopped the invasion force cold.
Also released today was an exchange of letters between Kennedy and Soviet
leader Nikita Khrushchev on April 18, 1961, as the battle raged. Khrushchev
Kennedy that "any so-called 'little war' can touch off a chain reaction in all parts of the globe."
Kennedy responded with a letter saying that the United States would
support those who sought to overthrow Castro, but denying any U.S. role
in the invasion. "I
have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the U.S. intends no military intervention in Cuban," he wrote.
U.S. historians have long concluded that the invading force failed for two key reasons: the CIA's bungled planning and Kennedy's refusal to provide air support.
Today, Cuban officials insisted there was another reason: The Cuban
military was well-trained, effective and loyal. The invaders didn't lose,
they said, the Cubans
Participants in the conference include Kennedy aides Arthur Schlesinger
Jr. and Richard Goodwin, as well as Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith,
and her son,
William Kennedy Smith. Also present are former CIA officials Robert Reynolds, who helped plan the invasion, and Sam Halpern, who was involved with CIA efforts
to assassinate Castro.
Five members of the so-called 2506 Brigade Invasion Force are also participating,
as is Jose Ramon Fernandez, Castro's top field commander during the invasion
and now one of Cuba's vice presidents.
The centerpiece of the conference comes Saturday, when the group will
drive south of the capital to several key battle sites, including the beach
known as Playa
Giron, where the invaders were stopped.