Vets Return to Bay of Pigs To Remember, Reconcile
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
PLAYA GIRON, Cuba, March 24 -- Under perfect blue skies next to a tranquil
sea, veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion gathered today to lay flowers
reconciliation at the beach where 40 years ago a momentous battle took place that helped shape the places of the United States and Cuba in the Cold War and the
The veterans, exiles who made up a CIA-trained invasion force that was
crushed here by President Fidel Castro's defenders, shared moving moments
crystalline body of water and along the beach called Playa Giron, whose entrance is still marked with a sign saying: "Giron, site of the first defeat of Yankee
imperialism in Latin America."
"This is just very emotional and very powerful for me," said Alfredo
Duran, 64, who fled Cuba when Castro took power in 1959 and then returned
as a member of
the 1,500-man 2506 Brigade that came ashore here just after midnight on April 17, 1961.
"I am here at Playa Giron to pay homage and tribute to all the Cubans
on both sides who died on these beaches," he said as he laid a floral wreath
on a monument to
the battle. "I am of the hope that such a tragedy as this will never repeat itself in the history of our country."
Duran, who was taken prisoner and released after 18 months, has come
with four other brigade veterans to join about 50 people -- including senior
administration officials, former CIA leaders and Cuban soldiers and officials, including Castro -- for a three-day examination of the invasion that turned into a disaster
for the United States and a triumph for Cuba.
The conference, cosponsored by Cuban officials and the National Security
Archive, a private organization based at George Washington University,
was organized as
an academic analysis of previously classified documents and interviews with those who participated in the invasion. But for Duran and the other veterans, the
gathering, culminating with today's seaside ceremony on the southern coast of Cuba, turned into a deeply emotional event.
"As I walk these beaches, I realize how many people I knew died here," Duran said. "They were people I grew up with. They were my friends."
Duran said a highlight for him was shaking the hand of the Cuban officer
who led an artillery bombardment that kept Duran and dozens of other invaders
down for more than 48 hours in the nearby town of San Blas. "We both knew instinctively that we needed to shake hands," said Duran, now a Miami lawyer. "Forty
years have passed since we had Cubans fighting Cubans in the battle of the Bay of Pigs. I hope that never happens again."
Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President John F. Kennedy, who ordered
the invasion and was humiliated by its stunning failure, said she felt
moved while visiting the
site of one of her brother's most crushing defeats.
"I know that my brother felt very badly about the Bay of Pigs," she
said. "Not just because it was a failure, but because of the people who
were taken prisoner and
the people who were killed. He was very sad about that."
The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis of the following
year set a tone in Cuban-American relations that has remained virtually
unchanged for 40 years.
Kennedy ordered an economic embargo of Cuba that remains in place today. Despite worldwide condemnation of its Cuba policy, the United States continues to
ban almost all travel to and trade with Cuba in an attempt to strangle Castro's Communist government.
Over the past few days, however, conference participants from both nations
generally set aside current political disputes and focused on the battle
that took place
here in 1961. But they could not get together on a joint wreath-laying ceremony, leaving only Duran and his four companions to make the gesture.
Both sides agreed that the participation of Castro, who attended about
20 hours of meetings over two days but did not come to today's ceremony
on the beach, was
critical to understanding relations. Privately, many said that the voluble Castro was almost too helpful, talking to the assembled group perhaps more than everyone
"Fascinating, but numbing," said one participant.
Castro gave an animated narration of his role commanding the Cuban troops,
standing before the group using a microphone, a pointer and a large map.
Castro was charming; some said his intensely detailed accounts were overwhelming.
"I didn't know anyone could talk so long and so intelligently about
everything from world affairs to the most trivial details," said Robert
Reynolds, who was the CIA
station chief in Miami at the time of the invasion. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a top Kennedy aide during the invasion, said Castro displayed "an endearing sense of
humor" and "an extraordinary memory."
"This conference is as much about the future as it is about the past,"
said Peter Kornbluh, the chief organizer of the conference for the National
Security Archive. "The
coming together of all sides is a beginning in healing really deep wounds, not only personal wounds suffered by the combatants but political and national wounds as
Jose Ramon Fernandez, a Cuban vice president who was Castro's top military
commander here, was something of a tour guide today. He walked participants
through a tour of the Australia sugar plantation, some 30 miles from the beach, where Castro directed the counteroffensive. He highlighted the black crank telephone
Castro used and a memorial of a young Cuban fighter who scrawled "Fidel" on the wall in his own blood as he lay dying.
From there, he took the group in buses to Playa Larga, one of the key
battle sites, then a few miles more here to Playa Giron, now dominated
by a hotel and
restaurant next to a palm-lined beach.
Near the beach, Fernandez addressed the gathering and vowed that Cuba
will continue to defend "the same thing we will always defend: the right
self-determination and the right to our sovereignty. Our people without any concession are willing to maintain that at any price."
"I don't mean to offend anyone," Fernandez told the group, "but this
is my truth. It is the truth of those of us who fought here. It is the
truth of people fighting for their