The Bay of Pigs and Chronic Hubris


April 17-19 marks the 52nd anniversary of the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, our proxies to try to overthrow the Cuban Revolution.  My guess is that few Americans today remember what the invasion was, much less surmise why I can argue that the hubris underlying that debacle still guides our policies to this day.

My Bay of Pigs actually began on April 15th, 1961, when I was 13 years old in Havana and awoke near dawn to the sound of explosions from Cuba’s largest air base.  As I would later learn, B-26 bombers from a clandestine CIA base in Guatemala, painted falsely with Cuban Air Force insignia, had almost destroyed all of Cuba’s warplanes on the ground.  The landing came two days later, and it was unprecedented in scope for its time: frogmen, supply ships, landing craft, tanks, planes, artillery and some 1200 Cuban exiles with the latest weapons.  And US warships could be seen in the distance. This was no banana republic uprising.  My family was buoyed for a few days by CIA-orchestrated radio transmissions reporting “victories” by the “liberators,” uprisings around the island, even the installation of the “government in exile” on the ground.  It was all lies.  The delusion that “the Americans would soon clean this up” quite literally went up in smoke when Cuba’s young militia defeated the invaders in three days.  Both sides fought courageously, but it was no contest:  Cuba was solidly behind the Revolution, not the invaders.  Instead of uprisings, there were huge mass demonstrations in support of the government.  Many years later, the memoirs of the CIA director of the operation even told us that the “government in exile” was actually locked up in a Florida airbase throughout, without access to the media or to the invasion force, “their” press releases written by CIA handlers. Talk about hubris.

Those few days of the Bay of Pigs shaped the rest of my life.  First, the defeat irrevocably confirmed my parents’ decision to emigrate to the US, which we did in August.  Most importantly, the defeat triggered my life-long passion to understand why the invasion had failed so miserably, and what made our policies towards the island so wrong and ineffective.

For me, the inescapable conclusion is that the main reason was and remains US hubris.  Sure, investments were lost following nationalization, the Cold War had a sizable impact, Cuba intervened in Angola to stop the apartheid South African army (that was when Mandela was still rotting in jail and we had not yet decided to canonize him a hero), the Cuban-American right largely took political control of our policy, and there were many other factors over the years.  But these have today largely disappeared, and we have overcome similar and far bigger obstacles with China and Vietnam.  Yet the essence of our Cuba policy has remained the same, because the one constant has been our hubris.  At the Bay of Pigs, the attitude that “we own this island” ran headlong against a deeply nationalistic process that matched its commitment for sovereignty to a dedicated effort for social justice. And we have been banging our head against the same wall ever since.  Eleven presidents have been blinded by a hubris that hasn’t allowed them to deal with the kind of revolution that occurred in Cuba.  While hardly a paradise—please find me one anywhere in Latin America–the revolution was and remains a process, profoundly in search of true sovereignty and a more just social system.  Our hubris that has blinded us to that reality.

And a hubris that hardly started in 1959, which is no trivial observation, although I can barely even sketch it here.  We can go way back to Jefferson, Adams, and many other key US political figures who over the years ardently favored the annexation of Cuba.  Fast  forward to the early 1900’s when the US occupying force in Cuba imposed the Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution, giving the US the right to intervene in Cuba at will.  That is also how we got Guantanamo Bay.  Just imagine Lafayette demanding a similar clause for the French government in the US constitution, and the French owning  San Francisco Bay.  The amendment led to several armed US interventions, and it was not eliminated until 1934, by which time US control of affairs in Cuba no longer demanded such a transparently colonial arrangement.

Then fast-forward again to 1952-58, when we backed and armed Batista, who led one of the most vicious military dictatorships in the history of the continent until that time, not to menition Machado, in the 30’s, a dictator who was popularly known as the “donkey with claws” for his cruelty; we supported him for about a decade.  Then forward again to 1962, when we told revolutionary Cuba that they could not buy and refine Soviet oil, as if they were children who had to “behave” according to our rules.  Yes, “behave,” a paternalistic word that appears routinely in our policy pronouncements and even our laws towards the island, and which is quite revealing of our hubris.  Countries have policies and take actions; children behave.  In any case, the reaction was that Cuba nationalized the US-owned refineries on the island, and went Cuba directly into the Soviet orbit, so that our hubris had only made matters worse.

More relevant still, fast forward to 1996, when Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, actually prohibiting negotiations with any Cuban government led by Fidel or Raul Castro, along with much other tightening of the embargo. All so that Cuba would learn to “behave.”  It is hard to imagine a more far-fetched law, and one so full of hubris.  ?Wait, doesn’t the President have the authority to conduct foreign policy?  And don’t the Cubans have the right to decide who their leaders should be, through whatever mechanisms they choose?  Are they children or a sovereign nation?

This hubris of decades is now getting in the way more than ever.  Practically every historical reason for our hostile policies, whatever their past merits, has disappeared, yet we are still stuck in “regime change” tactics, albeit not through invasions. Dramatic changes are taking placing on and in relation to the island, yet we are missing every chance to respond to them intelligently.  A private sector is growing by leaps and bounds, which is precisely what we have claimed to want for decades.  Cuba is recognized by virtually every country in the world, and Raul Castro now co-leads the newly-formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, with the conservative Chilean President.  Tens of millions of Cuban import dollars go in trade to countries other than the US. Close to 3 million tourists, many from our closest allies, visit every year, and Cuba is even helping the conservative Colombian government try to negotiate a peace agreement in its half-century old armed conflict, yet we ludicrously continue to call the island a “terrorist nation.”  The US is isolated, not Cuba.  And in a twist of supreme irony, a Cuban citizen is today freer to visit the US as a tourist (assuming we give them a visa), than is a US citizen to visit Cuba, because the embargo rules won’t let us go there and be tourists.  We can tourist in China, Vietnam and even North Korea more easily than in Cuba.

I don’t know what the cure for such a case of chronic hubris is, but we need to find it, and soon.

Manuel R. Gómez is a public health professional from Washington, DC, also a member of the Board of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and a member of Cuban-Americans for Engagement (CAFE).  

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