Two senior citizens of the cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro’s side at all the major events of the revolution and became chief of state security after the 1959 victory.
Their encounter, counterspy and spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506 Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.
“We talked as professional to professional,” Reynolds said of his first-ever meeting with Valdes. “I congratulated him on the effectiveness of their system.” Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. “I told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the revolution,” said Valdes.
Valdes disclosed that his security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was the CIA’s point man on Operation Mongoose–the Kennedy Administration special project against Castro that included intelligence collection, sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.
Castro sat across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow, even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial, respectful. Castro–who missed not one minute of the presentations and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches–remarked at one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a final banquet, Castro used the word “family” to describe the conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once, José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel pointedly corrected him. “They’re brigadistas,” he said.
During a break, Castro rushed over for a private conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds’s denial that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds’s shoulders, saying, “I don’t want you to think we are trying to settle old scores.”
The five members of the 2506 Brigade delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of keeping them at arm’s length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo, who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.
The strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of Kennedy as trapped–inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious defeat.
There was no disagreement on the US side that the invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting offshore.
CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted Schlesinger’s scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. “Get rid of Castro, the Castro regime,” Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, “I said what does ‘get rid of’ mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, ‘Use your imagination.'” The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different measures, including assassination, to get rid of the regime.
The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion force.
Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro didn’t cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after long negotiations.
For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator’s undemocratic survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the meeting, Castro and his men couldn’t proclaim more clearly their desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States. But it won’t happen–not as long as the US Presidents who control the writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.