Bay of Pigs, Cuba: CIA’s Unlearned Lesson in Regime Change
The looming end of the Castro era in Cuba coincides this week with the 57th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion – a failed attack by the CIA that greatly catalyzed the Castro approach to resisting American encroachment.
On Thursday, Raul Castro, the 86-year-old brother of the late Fidel, will step down as the president of Cuba. For the first time in almost 60 years, the island will not be led by a Castro, although the man who is widely assumed to take the post next, First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, has vowed to stay on the path of Fidel's revolution.
Two days prior to this, however, the island marks the day when, in 1961, Fidel and his forces beat back an assault which, it was then hoped in Washington, could unseat the leader and nip Cuba’s communist dream in the bud.
The Bay of Pigs invasion (or the invasion of Playa Giron, as it is known in Cuba) was a staple of American regime-change tactics. Orchestrated, prepared, planned, bankrolled, and combat-supported by the CIA, it was fronted by defectors from Castro's Cuban revolution who had earlier fled to the US. Warplanes were painted in Cuban Air Force colors, ships were procured from a Cuban-owned company, and political asylum was granted to combatants – all for the sake of "plausible deniability." It was hoped that a small force of returning exiles would sound a wake-up call for Cubans to rise up and topple Castro.
Before thundering down in a three-day fiasco, the invasion spent a year in the making. It was approved by one US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and set in motion by another, John F. Kennedy. It cost the US $13 million, killed almost 300 people, ended in a major foreign policy embarrassment for Washington and achieved the exact opposite of its goal: a Cuba more opposed to the US, and closer to the Soviet Union, than ever.
The Bay of Pigs was to be a multi-pronged assault, with air raids, seaborne infantry, paratroopers, underwater demolition teams and tanks. The CIA gathered and trained some 1,400 recruits – Brigade 2506 – on an island off the coast of Florida. Pilots were trained at a specially-constructed airfield in Guatemala, where, a few years prior, the US had succeeded in a similar operation, codenamed PBSUCCESS, which began a line of American-backed dictators there.
It started off on April 15, 1961, with a series of air raids aimed at crippling Fidel Castro's air power – an opening strike used numerous times since then, including in the most recent wars in Libya and Syria. This time, though, the B-26 light bombers received special treatment: they were painted the colors of the Cuban Air Force (FAR, for Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria) and given other external refurbishment to appear as if defecting pilots were attacking the Cuban airfields. In one case the redecorations went a few steps farther: various items "typically found in Cuban military aircraft," including a fake flight log, were placed in the cockpit. And, finally, parts of the warplane's hull cover were removed, riddled with bullet holes and then put back on – so that it would seem the "defecting" pilot encountered return fire from the communist forces.
When presented to the international community as proof of no US involvement in the Bay, that disguise soon cracked. Cuba called a UN Security Council meeting on the same day as the raids took place, to which US ambassador Adlai Stevenson, unaware of the CIA plot, brought pictures of the "defector's" redecorated plane. On the pictures, the plane's metal nose was visible. FAR planes had plastic noses.