On April 17-19, 1961, Cuban exiles supported by the United States government invaded Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. This historical event is in sharp contrast with a recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba on March 20-22, 2016, nearly 55 years later. Obama met with Cuban President Raúl Castro and with dissident leaders and even attended a baseball game. The visit marked slowly warming relations between the two countries. Such a scenario would have been unimaginable in 1961!
Preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion began in 1960, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up camps to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala. The exiles planned to land on Cuba’s southern coast, advance into Cuban territory, and establish a non-Communist provisional government. They anticipated support from Cuba’s people and members of its military. The original plan also included two air strikes by disguised B-26 bomber planes to destroy Cuban air bases, and the landing in eastern Cuba of a smaller invading force to confuse the Cubans. The U.S. government tried to conceal the plan, but news of the imminent attack circulated among Cuban exiles in Miami. Fidel Castro learned of the existence of the Guatemalan training camps through Cuban intelligence. In addition, U.S. media reported on the training camps in Guatemala, compromising the secrecy of the operation.
On April 17, 1961, about 1,400 Cuban exiles comprising Brigade 2506 landed at Playa Girón and Playa Larga, two beaches on Cuba’s southern coast near the Bay of Pigs. The area around the landing sites was swampy, which made it difficult for them to establish a foothold. Bad weather and soggy equipment presented further obstacles. In addition, the landing site was over 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Cuba’s Escambray Mountains, a potential refuge should the operation go awry. The invaders soon came under attack by Cuban planes and about 20,000 Cuban troops. The invasion ended on April 19, after more than 1,100 members of Brigade 2506 were captured. More than 100 members died in battle. Some escaped to Cuba’s interior to join anti-Castro guerrilla groups. The Cuban government never has revealed exactly how many Cuban troops died in the invasion. After the exiles’ capture, the United States began negotiations with Cuba to secure their release. In December 1962, the Cuban government freed the exiles in return for baby food and medicine worth $53 million.
The Bay of Pigs invasion is regarded as one of the worst foreign policy blunders of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration. It led to a widespread crackdown on political opponents of Cuba’s government and solidified Castro’s control of the nation. Historians believe that poor planning and the U.S. government’s failure to provide air support for the rebels led to their defeat. For example, on April 15, exile pilots flying B-26 bombers provided by the CIA failed in an attempt to destroy the Cuban air force. Photos of the attacking bombers revealed that they were American, and President Kennedy canceled the second planned air strike on Cuban air bases. An attempt on April 19 by unmarked U.S. fighter planes to help the exile brigade’s B-26 bombers also failed. In addition, Castro’s government had arrested many of its opponents in Cuba so they would not be able to join the attack.