March 10, 1974, Vol.8 No. 10
The Call to Arms That Never Came
Even while troops were fighting in the Bay of Pigs, the vast Cuban underground was still awaiting orders to join the fight. So says a longtime observer of Cuba, who here reveals for the first time why the CIA deliberately kept the underground out of the battle.
By Jay Mallin
In the days of the Cold War the United States was committed to preventing the establishment of a Communist-run government anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. This was a commitment rooted in historical tradition (the Monroe Doctrine), strategic necessities and treaty agreements with other nation of the hemisphere. This commitment led the U.S. to help organize and support an exile invasion of Guatemala in 1954. And it was this same commitment that caused the U.S. to attempt to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1961.
The disastrous results of that attempt are well known. The real reason the effort failed, however, is not known. In fact, it has never been revealed that the landing at the Bay of Pigs was doomed before the first expeditionary splashed ashore.
Public, press and political attention to the events that occurred in Cuba the third week of April, 1961, have long centered on the landing itself. Largely overlooked in the wake of that military debacle was the vital role that the internal resistance movement was preparing to play – but was prevented from playing. And therein lies the real reason the bay of Pigs failed.
The Bay of Pigs was the Pearl Harbor of Cuban resistance. But whereas the U.S. recovered from Pearl Harbor and went on to eventual victory, the Bay of Pigs was so devastating that it enabled the Castro regime, in danger of being overthrown at the time, to pull itself together and tighten its control over the population. Never since then has Fidel Castro faced a serious challenge from rebellious citizenry.
Castro came to power in 1959 amid an atmosphere of national euphoria following the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. By the end of the year, however, disillusionment was setting in among many Cubans. A year later a new revolution was under way, this time directed against Castro.
In the U.S., the Eisenhower administration decided to overthrow Castro, who was moving toward establishment of a Communist regime in Cuba. The CIA was selected as the instrument to be used in this effort, just as it had been the organization utilized to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The CIA’s subsequent planning, in fact, was heavily influenced by the successful Guatemalan affair. Arbenz was brought down by means of an invasion launched from neighboring Honduras; Castro would be attacked similarly: by trained fighters dispatched from bases in Central America.
The CIA began recruiting Cuban exiles and sending them for training to base in—appropriately—Guatemala. To head this military force the CIA picked Manuel Artime, onetime officer in Castro’s army who broke with Castro over the Communist issue. Artime now headed a clandestine organization called the Movement for Revolutionary Recuperation (MRR).
Inside Cuba the opposition to Castro had developed into open resistance. Cubans had overthrown two dictators previously through resistance and revolution (Gerardo Machado in 1933, and Batista), and now the people were using the same tactics in an effort to rid themselves of Castro.
Guerrillas operated in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba and the Sierra Maestra of eastern Oriente province. Underground organizations proliferated; no one knows precisely how many there were but they numbered over 50. Because of the large number of groups, their actions were generally uncoordinated. Nevertheless this worked to their benefit: Castro’s G-2 (secret police) was hard put trying to keep track of all of them. Bombs exploded in theaters, stores and other public places. Clandestine literature was circulated. Two major Havana department stores, La Epoca and El Encanto, went up in flames, demolished by incendiary materials expertly placed by saboteurs. Castro was seen on one occasion livid with rage at the mounting acts of resistance.
Just two years earlier Batista had toppled as the result of a combined urban resistance and rural guerrilla campaign, and as the new campaign against Castro grew, increasing number of Cubans were becoming confident that this campaign would also succeed.
The resistance in Cuba was rooted in the populace as a whole. Its leaders were men on the scene, hiding from Castro’s police, moving from house to house every few days, but very much in control of their respective organizations. The CIA had only tenuous connections with these groups, and no control. Only the MRR could be considered linked with the CIA, because its chief was Artime. But ever here the MRR’s clandestine organization was autonomous to some extent and had its own "military chief," Rogelio Gonzalez Corso, who used the nom de guerre "Francisco."
Sometime in October or November, 1960, an engineer named Rafael Diaz Hanscom slipped out of Cuba and arrived in the States. He had been the intelligence officer of the MRR, which meant that his duties were to gather information as well as to uncover government infiltrators. In the U.S., Hanscom received training from the CIA and was entrusted with a highly important mission. After about two months Hanscom returned to Cuba.
He contracted other rebel leaders and told them he was setting up a new group, to be called Unidad Revolucionaria. Its function was to draw together the many clandestine organizations in Cuba and to coordinate their activities. Although he did not reveal this, Hanscom was no acting entirely for the CIA. The CIA had two basic reasons for setting up UR: (1) If the various groups could be coordinated, they would make a more effective weapon against Castro; (2) The CIA, though Hanscom, would be taking control of the Cuban underground. The CIA would then be in command not only of the men in the Guatemalan camp but also of the freedom fighters inside Cuba. Once Castro was overthrown and victory achieved, the CIA could pick Cuba’s new leaders and determine the political path they were to take.
To include the clandestine groups to come in under the UR umbrella, the CIA offered to provide the weapons and other supplies they needed.
By December, 1960, 27 organizations had agreed to join Unidad Revolucionaria. They formally signed an "act of consolidation" in which they declared: "That as of this historic moment all the revolutionary groups which we represent, as well as the men and women participating in them, agree to and do hereby consolidate the revolutionary unity that with the slogan ‘Fatherland and Liberty’ shall fight until we gain triumph or death."
The united groups issued a "Declaration of Principles," as well as a general program to be followed once Castro was overthrown. Stated the UR: "We declare that we shall raise as our flag respect for Man himself, as a human being, without discrimination due to race or social condition; to acknowledge men’s rights to social advantages...to exercise his right to work, to education and to security for himself and for his family...to have the right of free thinking and free opinion; to exercise the right to elect his rulers through free elections..."
An organization was set up under Hanscom to coordinate clandestine activities of the various groups and to arrange for them to receive weapons from the States. UR even printed its own "currency": small paper bills ranging in value from $1 to $100. These bills would be given to sympathizers contributing funds to the UR, and they were to be redeemed once the revolution was won.
The CIA carried through on its promise to ship arms to Cuba. The yacht Tejana made two or more trips to secluded spots on the coast of Matanzas province, and there the shipments were brought ashore. According to an officer of the UR: "Each shipment was large enough to fill two trucks. The ship brought in .30 and .50 caliber submachine guns, M-1 Garand rifles, C-3 and C-4 plastic explosives and incendiary materials. Some of the weapons were distributed to the groups. The remainder was hidden for future used."
Early in 1961, the United States and Cuba broke diplomatic relations. The two countries were increasingly hostile toward each other, and this added fuel to the flames of resistance inside Cuba. Not many Cubans believed Castro could last long in the face of open American opposition.
The UR was engaged in a widening plan of activity. There would be continual step-up of terrorism and sabotage in the cities. In the hinterlands the guerrillas would also increase their operations as they received more weapons and recruits. It was expected that the men in the guerrilla movements. The UR leadership—with the possible exception of Hanscom himself—did not expect a full-fledged invasion.
The general plan was to intensify armed resistance against Castro to the point a general uprising could take place. In line with this, the underground was already secretly in touch with officials of the Castro government itself and with military officers. At the proper moment, these conspirators would join the uprising, the military bringing their units with them. Virtually nothing has ever been said about this aspect of the anti-Castro revolution; even today details must be kept hazy because a number of individuals involved are still in Cuba. But this much can now be revealed:
"Francisco" bowed to the decision and requested to be placed in commanded of operations in Pinar del Rio province. A meeting to decide this and other questions of coordination was called. On the afternoon of March 18 nine persons gathered at the home of Pedro Echegaray in the Alturas de Biltmore suburb of Havana. Echegaray, who owned a machine shop, was a minor figure in the rebel movement and was not at the meeting. Among those who were present were Hanscom, "Fancisco" and Humberto Sori Marin, former agriculture minister under Castro and now military chief of the UR.
One other person arrived at the meeting, saw that nine persons had gathered and refused to stay: it was too dangerous, he felt, for so many clandestine figures to be together in one spot.
The person was right, and it was now in Echegaray’s house that the fate of Cuba was sealed. Police arrived and surrounded the house. Either they had been tipped off by an informant or someone had spotted an unusual number of people arriving at the house and had become suspicious. Sori Marin attempted to flee and was wounded by a gunshot.
With the capture of Hanscom the CIA lost its top man in Cuba, and control of the underground movement. Another rebel, Andres Zayas ("Justo"), took over the leadership, but there is no indication he was as close to the CIA as Hanscom was.
Having lost Hanscom, the CIA apparently decided to stake everything on a landing of the trainees who were in Guatemala. The CIA might have waited and tried to reassert control over the underground, but it was under the pressure of time. MIG fighter planes were reportedly to be brought to Cuba from Russia, thus bolstering Castro’s military strength. Furthermore, the men in the Guatemalan camp were restless, even near rebellion, and to forestall trouble it was necessary that they be thrown into action as soon as possible.
The original invasion plan called for a landing near the town of Trinidad in Las Villas province. Trinidad was near the guerrilla-filled Escambray mountains, and the invading for would have been able to seek the shelter of the mountains and reinforce the guerrillas if it was unable to hold its beachhead.
When the U.S. Joint Cheifs of Staff reviewed the plan they concluded that the landing itself had about a 50 percent chance of success, and that the long-range success of the plan depended on support from the people of Cuba in the organized clandestine movements. Otherwise, additional troops would be required; that is, the U.S. would have to intervene with its own forces.
President Kennedy, however, did not care for the Trinidad plan and asked for alternatives. In mid-March the CIA presented the Joint Chiefs with three alternative plans, and the Joint Chiefs, after studying these, reported that none was as good as the Trinidad plan. In the words of Admiral Arleigh Burke (Ret.), who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, "the best of the poor lot was the Bay of Pigs plan." The CIA briefed Kennedy on the new plan, and after some modifications were made at his suggestion, the plan was prepared for action.
Kennedy approved of the modified plan March 16. Hanscom and the other underground leaders were captured March 18.
The Trinidad plan had envisioned support from the underground. The Bay of Pigs plan needed this support even more acutely because the new landing spot was considerably removed from the mountainous area.
Many people inside Cuba believed the men being trained in Guatemala were to be gradually infiltrated into Cuba to reinforce the guerrillas already operating inside the country. Hanscom, however probably knew that a direct invasion was planned. Nevertheless, for security reasons he kept this to himself, giving no indications to men close to him in the UR. He did not even inform Arturo Villar, his intelligence chief, in whose home he hid for three weeks. The men who took over after Hanscom was captured did not know and were never informed that an invasion was coming and therefore they did not make appropriate preparations.
Despite the plans which supposedly called for a general uprising, if is apparent that the CIA, after Hanscom was captured, did not want an uprising to take place. The CIA did not want the underground, and the mass of the Cuban people, to participate in the liberation of the country. Instead, the CIA wanted the invaders to disembark and hold out for 72 hours, after which time a CIA sponsored exile "government" would call for outside help and the U.S. would land Marines to support the exile force at the Bay of Pigs. Castro would be overthrown by direct military intervention on the part of the United States, and the U.S. Government—specifically the CIA—would control the new Cuban government.
Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, their air support shot down, and receiving no assistance from inside Cuba, the invaders were unable to hold out even for 72 hours.
Dramatic evidence that the CIA was bypassing the underground came at the time of the invasion. On Saturday, April 15, 1961, planes from Nicaraguan bases bombed several military airfields in Cuba. The underground was as much caught by surprise as were the Castro forces. Villar, the UR intelligence chief, met "Guillot," intelligence chief for the MRR, and , according to Villar: "I asked him what was happening. He didn’t know. He didn’t know what we should do. In those days the groups were in touch with the CIA through telegraphy. The telegraph operator for Alberto Muller’s group contacted the CIA and asked what was going on. The only reply he got was a stream of names of Cuban vegetables—bananas, yucca, malanga."
When the invaders disembarked in the early hours Monday morning the underground received no forewarning. That afternoon, puzzled and concerned, several leaders met at the Hong Kong restaurant in the Vedado section of Havana and discussed possible action. Not even certain that a landing had really taken place, fearing this might be a ruse by Castro to draw them out into the open, the leaders decided to do nothing except try to get information or guidance from the CIA. The telegraph operators made contact but the only instructions they received were: "Don’t do anything. Wait for news. Maintain your positions."
Three days later the CIA went off the air. The invasion failed.
By now the underground had been smashed. Castro’s police and militia had rounded up a quarter of a million people suspected of being disloyal to the regime. Many underground figures were caught in the net. Others fled to Latin America embassies seeking asylum.
Hanscom, "Francisco" and Sori Marin were put in front of a firing squad and executed.
Never again was there to be a significant resistance movement inside
Cuba. The Bay of Pigs had saved Fidel Castro.
JAY MALLIN covered Cuba for Time Magazine from 1952 until his expulsion in 1962. He is the author of Fortress Cuba and Caribbean Crisis, and has edited a number of books on Communists and leftist guerrillas.