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.