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The failure of the Bay of Pigs

When John F. Kennedy incited Cuban refugees to the invasion of Pig Bay just over 40 years ago, the CIA believed the "liberators" would be greeted by cheering Cubans. That's not how it went, says Arnljot Løseth, associate professor of history at Volda University College.


Early morning on the 17. April 1961 launched Cuban refugees, with support from the US intelligence organization CIA, an invasion of Pig Bay in the southwestern part of Cuba. Two days before, Cuban airports had been bombed to put the Cuban air force out of play and to clear the terrain of the invasion forces. But the Cuban Air Force was not eliminated, and the invasion forces never came further than the swamps in the Bay of Pigs.

President John F. Kennedy had ordered the invasion, but it had been prepared under the Eisenhower administration. The CIA chief, Allen Dulles, had assured both Eisenhower and later Kennedy that he would end Fidel Castro in the same way that the CIA had ended Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz's reform government was overthrown in a coup organized by the United States in 1954. The "crime" was that he had initiated a land reform, in which he took uncultivated land from the United Fruit Company, and began distributing it to thousands of landless families.

The CIA's analysis of the political mood in Cuba before the invasion was more wishful thinking than realistic calculation: "The large masses of the Cuban people (…) expect an invasion before mid-April 1961 and set high expectations for it". But hopes of a major uprising against Castro turned out to be false. Most Cubans supported Castro, and the invasion attempt was a total failure. Cuban planes attacked the supply ships of the approximately 1400 Cuban exiles who had gone ashore in the Bay of Pigs. Two were lowered and the rest were forced to retire. Eleven planes were also shot down. The Cuban soldiers had surrounded the "liberators", and within a few days they ended the invasion. About 200 Cuban exiles were killed during the fighting, and the 1200 captured were "exchanged" for $ 53 million in food and medicine.

"It must be one of the unforgivable miscalculations in connection with the events in the Bay of Pigs to believe that the Cubans wanted the landowners back," writes John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard professor of economics and also economic adviser to President Kennedy. And he would probably also have been able to safely add that they did not want Batista's policemen and military back, nor the owners and heirs of the banks, gambling dens and brothels.

Cuba had been useful to the United States as a sugar producer, holiday paradise and with Havana as an amusement center. On New Year's Day 1959, the revolutionary July 26 movement, led by Fidel Castro, originally a lawyer and lawyer for the poor in Havana, had succeeded in seizing power in Cuba. About five years before – July 26, 1953 – Castro had led an attack on a military unit in Santiago de Cuba. The attack was crushed, and several were imprisoned and tortured to death. Castro was sentenced to death, but was released two years later and fled to Mexico. He returned to his homeland in 1956, and together with his brother Raul, the Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara and nine other guerrilla leaders, Castro hid in the mountains. They gained tremendous popularity, gained support, and fought an intense guerrilla war against Batista for two years.

Castro's revolution had a radical but liberal and democratic program. And the relationship with the United States was inflamed. US companies and financiers controlled almost the entire electricity and telephone network, half of the railways, and almost half of sugar production. As sugar was the backbone of the Cuban economy, this led to strong dependence on the United States.

Cuba had become a sugar producer by the end of the 1700 century, and the sugar plantation economy was based on slave labor from Africa. Sugar was the central export commodity both during slavery and after it was abolished in the 1880 years. More and more US investors and companies established themselves in Cuba. But competition in the world market was fierce, and by the end of the 1800 century, Cuba was almost forced to rationalize and modernize. This was expensive. The Cuban sugar cane had wasted fortunes on titles, festivas and foas, and now bankruptcies followed and North Americans were ready to buy more plantations and mills.

Many plantation owners chose, or were forced, to sell. Not a few of those who sold became managers of their former plantations, on behalf of American-controlled companies. At the same time, the flow of Cubans who went to the United States to obtain employment or education increased. The United States was becoming the Spanish colony of Cuba's economic metropolis, and many Americans, and a good many Cubans, took it for granted that one day Cuba would become part of the United States.

Cuba had not achieved independence at the same time as the other Spanish colonies in Latin America around 1820. Resistance to Spain grew at the end of the 1800 century, and there was a revolt and war against the Spaniards. The United States intervened, and thus the Cuban War of Independence was transformed into the Spanish-American War. US won, and 1. January 1899 formally transferred Spain to Cuba (and Puerto Rico and the Philippines) to the United States.

Cuba gained formal sovereignty in 1902, but had to relinquish its Guantánamo base to the United States, which also invoked the right to intervene in Cuba, for "the preservation of Cuban independence." Cuba received a trade treaty that gave the island's products free access to the US market. The extreme dependence was exacerbated by the fact that the Americans bought up many properties and companies that had been demolished or had gone bankrupt during the war. Cuba actually became an American colony.

Due to unrest, the US intervened a number of times on the island at the beginning of the 1900 century, supporting Fulgencio Batista in a coup in 1933. Batista was Cuba's real ruler until 1944, and again took power through a coup in 1952, and dictatorically ruled until he was overthrown by Castro on New Year's Day 1959.

Washington was no longer as interested in maintaining reactionary military dictatorship as Batista's rule in Cuba. His dictatorship had assumed forms that seemed embarrassing to the United States. After some time doubting which way to choose, Castro embarked on a nationalization policy that would be directed directly at American economic interests. Sugar plantations and factories were taken over by the Cuban state, and the negotiations for compensation initiated with the Americans did not go ahead.

Connecting with the other superpower, the Soviet Union, was therefore considered the only way to withstand a strong American pressure. The Soviet Union, which had initially been pending Castro, had higher expectations from the turn of the year 1959-60. In February 1960, the Soviet Union concluded an agreement with Cuba on the purchase of Cuban sugar, gave a very loan and the two countries established diplomatic relations in May 1960.

Eisenhower halted sugar imports from Cuba in June 1960, and Castro's nationalization program led the US to break all relations and impose a total economic boycott of Cuba in January 1961.

It is perhaps simpler to claim that the Bay of Pigs invasion and the conflict with the United States drove Castro towards communism. But the day before the invasion – April 16, 1961 – he gave the funeral speech for the dead during the bombing raid the day before. It was during this speech that he first called the Cuban Revolution socialist. And two weeks later, during the May 1 speech, Castro declared that the Cuban revolution was a socialist revolution and that Cuba was a socialist state. On December 2 of that year, he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Pig Bay meant the final step towards the Soviet Union.

The break with the United States and the approach to the Soviet Union culminated in the Cuba crisis in October 1962. In mid-October 1962, aerial photographs showed that the Soviets were in the process of establishing bases for rockets with nuclear warheads in Cuba. These would be able to reach large parts of the eastern United States. In a speech on October 22, President Kennedy stated that the United States would impose a blockade on Cuba to prevent further Soviet missile deliveries. Dramatic days followed before the Soviet declaration of 28 October that the missile plant would be shut down and the rockets and equipment sent back to the Soviet Union. Ships with rockets on board that were already on their way to Cuba made a U-turn. In return, the United States had to promise to never again invade Cuba. Castro was terrified of a new "Pig Bay".

A little later, the United States withdraws some rockets the country has deployed in Turkey, but still the Cuba crisis was a severe prestige defeat for the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. From a Latin American point of view, the most important results of the Cuba crisis were that the United States had to accept a socialist state in its "backyard", and that Cuba was from now on considered part of the Soviet sphere of influence.

Castro had little to choose from. An agreement was reached with Moscow on financial aid, transfer of technology and subsidized sugar prices. Cuba remained in the sugar economy at least as much as it had been before Castro's takeover of power. And just before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, well over 80 percent of Cuba's foreign trade with the eastern bloc country.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all support and assistance disappeared. After a few hundred years of dependence on Spain and many decades of dependence on the United States and then the Soviet Union, the country had to manage on its own for the first time. This led to an acute economic crisis which reached its height in 1993, but which was over – at least sharply subdued – in 1996.

The communist regime depends on Fidel Castro to keep up. And whatever one might think of socialist Cuba, there are hardly many in the country who deny Castro's greatness. More than any other dictator, he has provided basic needs for everyone: food, clothing, health and school. And he has survived a number of US presidents, all of whom would be more than happy to get rid of him.

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