Playa Girón, Cuba – Evelio Franco Llety recalls the day when CIA-trained fighters raided his beach village 54 years ago, forcing his family to run for cover as B-26 aircraft disguised with Cuban flags strafed and bombed.
Cuban-exile paramilitaries had attempted to secure a beachhead at Playa Girón and the main routes to the capital Havana, about 210km northwest, on April 17, 1961. The CIA’s Operation Zapata turned out to be one the United States’ greatest debacles.
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The night before the assault, Llety, then 12, walked home along the beach with his friends and they saw strange lights glowing in the water. The next day they were awakened by the sound of gunfire. The Bay of Pigs invasion had begun.
“We were caught in the middle of the fighting between the mercenaries and Cuban forces. Planes were bombarding the town so people were trying to escape,” Llety told Al Jazeera on a recent hot-and-sunny day near the pristine beach where the CIA’s soldiers landed.
“Some villagers jumped into the back of a big truck and it drove away. A plane approached but it had the Cuban flag on it so they thought it was ours and remained on the road. But it wasn’t the Cuban military and the plane attacked, killing six people.”
About 300 people died in more than two days of fighting that ensued, including 176 mostly farmers and villagers who took up arms once the invasion began – buying crucial time for Castro’s Revolutionary Army to arrive and put down the assault.
Some 1,300 Cuban exiles were part of the invasion. More than 1,000 were captured and later ransomed for tens of millions of dollars in medicine, tractors, and baby food from the US government.
Those with links to overthrown dictator Fulgencio Batista were jailed or executed.
Those captured were interrogated by Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. “Fidel talked with each of the mercenaries one by one,” said Llety.
Fidel in action
Julio Simoneau, 80, was a young cameraman working for state-run media when he got the call to cover the invasion at Bahia de Cochinos. He told Al Jazeera from his small Havana apartment that he followed Fidel Castro around for hours after he arrived on April 18, 1961, at Playa Girón.
Simoneau recalled that Castro was running towards the front line and his military advisers were urging him to hold up for his own safety.
“Who the hell is the boss here?” barked Castro. “If I want to go to the fight I’ll damn well go.”
Two days before the invasion, disguised CIA planes attacked three air bases in Cuba attempting to wipe out Castro’s small air force. But expecting the raids, military officials hid most of their aircraft, which were later used to attack the CIA’s vessels off Girón.
One of the CIA’s main ships, the Houston, was in flames off the coast. Castro was on top of a tank as it repeatedly blasted shells into the crippled vessel.
“Keep filming,” he shouted to Simoneau, “maybe you’ll be able to capture when the boat explodes.”
News reached Castro that one of his aides had been ambushed and killed by CIA fighters, infuriating the new Cuban leader.
“Fidel was so mad. Later we couldn’t use much of the audio for our documentary because he was cursing all the time,” Simoneau said, noting at that point “most of the mercenaries had given up”.
Llety also recalled Castro riding the tank through Girón.
“Fidel drove up and people were walking along the side of the road, and he warned them, ‘Be careful, they might have planted mines, walk in the middle of the road.'”
What went wrong?
Carlos Alzugaray, a political scientist at the University of Havana, told Al Jazeera over a cold beer on a recent hot Havana day the plan ordered by President Dwight D Eisenhower and signed off on by President John F Kennedy was doomed to fail.
“Americans emphasise that the Bay of Pigs was a failure, but it was a failure because it was totally illegal,” Alzugaray said. “Imagine if the Americans took a group of Canadians, trained them, and invaded Canada. It was very stupid obviously.”
The CIA’s plan was to inspire a people’s revolt against Castro’s young government.
The CIA thought its troops would arrive on the beach and say to the villagers “we are here to free you” and they’d be welcomed, Alzugaray said. Instead, they were met with gunfire.
“And that was the end of it. It’s very interesting how they [CIA] got so many things wrong,” he said.
For many Cubans living in the US, those who took part in the invasion were only attempting to regain their country from the communist rule of Castro – an effort some continue to this day.
“When I worked with the CIA, I was not working against my home country,” Felix Rodriguez, a member of the attack force, recently told a Florida university crowd. “On the contrary, we were working in favour of the country and the opposition inside who want free elections and a free, democratic Cuba.
“When I went to the Bay of Pigs, I was 19 years old. A lot of my friends were killed. Some of them were executed. I feel we have a responsibility to those who died to continue this fight until Cuba is free,” Rodriguez said.
While the CIA’s botched takeover has gone down in history as one of its most embarrassing covert operations, 54 years later the agency still refuses to declassify an important internal review known as Volume V of the CIA’s Internal Investigation of the Bay of Pigs Operation.
Peter Kornbluh works for the Washington, DC-based non-profit group National Security Archive, which unsuccessfully sued the CIA for the volume’s release, and is now trying to obtain it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
He said the CIA is trying to hide a scathing 1961 internal report on the agency’s poor handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
“The CIA is the keeper of the secrets, and the securocrats there don’t want the public to know what is its own official history, 54 long years after that history took place,” Kornbluh told Al Jazeera in an email.
An emailed request for comment from the CIA was not answered by publication time.
For the cameraman Simoneau, the carnage from the operation still remains in his memory to this day. “The worst part was filming all the dead bodies,” he said.