López Cuba was referring to the invasion of Cuba's southern coast at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, by some 1,500 Cuban mercenaries. The counterrevolutionaries-- trained, financed, and deployed by Washington--aimed to hold a tiny slice of Cuban territory long enough to declare a provisional government that could appeal for direct military intervention by Washington and several of its client regimes in Latin America.
The invaders were defeated within 72 hours by Cuba's militia and Revolutionary Armed Forces. On April 19 the last units of the U.S.-organized Brigade 2506 surrendered at Playa Girón (Girón beach), which is the name the Cubans use to designate the battle. Over the following days many others who had fled into the woods and swampland were captured.
López Cuba is one of four Cuban generals interviewed in the book, which is one of Pathfinder's featured titles in the months leading up to the 40th anniversary of the battle. A Spanish-language edition, Haciendo historia, was published by Pathfinder in January.
López Cuba, Enrique Carreras, and José Ramón Fernández were among the leaders of the Cuban militia and armed forces during the invasion.
The fourth general interviewed, Harry Villegas, was helping to manage a newly nationalized ceramics enterprise at the time, and he explains the response to the invasion by the workers at that factory.
Together, the four interviews make invaluable reading for workers and others around the world who want to understand the importance of this first military defeat of U.S. imperialism in the Americas. They are a useful companion to Pathfinder's forthcoming book--in English and Spanish--entitled The Bay of Pigs: Washington's First Military Defeat in the Americas. The book contains a firsthand account of the battle by Fernández along with excerpts from three speeches given by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the period immediately before and after the battle.
Support for the revolution
The causes of the U.S. defeat were not mistakes of military tactics and planning often pointed to in later rationalizations by figures in the bourgeois government, media, and universities. The biggest error Washington made in planning the invasion, López Cuba explains, was its inability to take into account the deep support for the revolution among Cuba's workers and peasants.
"The propaganda campaign in the United States," he notes, "created an impression that an invasion of Cuba would have the support of the entire people.... Instead, from the moment the mercenaries landed, they were met by machine-gun fire that lasted right up until the invasion was crushed 72 hours later."
"It was the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people that made the difference," López Cuba says. He notes that the tank crews, artillery men, and antiaircraft units were still in training, since the revolutionary government in Cuba--just a little more than two years old at the time--had only recently obtained such equipment for its defense. The only planes the air force had available were a handful left behind by the Batista dictatorship.
"Our brigades were made up not only of troops, but also of volunteers who just showed up," he said, commenting that often those who had learned to use a weapon in the morning would be teaching others that same afternoon.
It was Carreras who, following the victory of the revolution in January 1959, had been responsible for training a corps of pilots. He himself had learned to fly in the United States during and after World War II.
The U.S.-organized counterrevolutionaries had staged a surprise air assault on three Cuban air bases just two days prior to the invasion, he explains. Alerted by their attack, the young Cuban air force pilots began sleeping under the wings of their planes, always at the ready.
When the invasion began, Carreras was among the first called. He and the other Cuban pilots--with just 10 planes among them--succeeded in bringing down eight of the B-26 bombers flown by the counterrevolutionaries and U.S. pilots and sinking two supply ships, as well as hounding the mercenaries on the ground. Carreras himself sank the two freighters and shot down two aircraft; the fighter plane he was flying was hit twice by enemy fire.
Two Cuban pilots and several crew members were killed in the battle, Carreras explains in the book.
The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis a year and a half later was "a continuation of the U.S fiasco" at the Bay of Pigs, Carreras notes. In October 1962 Washington ordered a naval blockade and placed U.S. armed forces on alert to demand removal from the island of a Soviet-supplied nuclear missile defense. The missiles had been installed following a mutual defense agreement between Cuba and the Soviet Union in face of Washington's preparations to launch another invasion of Cuba.
"The defeat they suffered [at the Bay of Pigs] led them to risk an atomic war," Carreras says. "Girón was like a bone sticking in their throats, something they don't accept to this day."
In response to the U.S. aggression during the missile crisis, millions of Cuban workers and farmers mobilized to defend the revolution, in effect saving the world from nuclear war. Assessing this mass-based military readiness, the Pentagon informed the White House that an invasion of Cuba would cost the U.S. military 18,000 casualties in the first 10 days alone. Faced with this fact, and its political consequences, the Kennedy administration decided not to invade.
Victory in Escambray
Fernández was the commander of the main column of Cuban militia and army forces at the Bay of Pigs, working directly under Fidel Castro.
In Making History, he points to the massive mobilizations in Cuba in December 1960 and January 1961.
The Cuban revolutionary leadership saw the transition period between the outgoing Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the new Democratic administration of John F. Kennedy as one where there was a heightened danger of a U.S.-organized invasion.
And with good reason. An official White House memo, cited in Pathfinder's forthcoming Bay of Pigs, reports Eisenhower saying, in a meeting with his advisors in early January 1961, that he would like to move against Castro before relinquishing the presidency if he were provided a really good excuse by the Cubans. If that didn't happen, he said, perhaps the United States "could think of manufacturing something that would be generally acceptable."
In response to these threats, the Cuban government ordered a general mobilization of the militias.
Tens of thousands of workers and peasants were put on active duty and mass meetings and demonstrations of workers were held throughout the country. The striking photo on the cover of Making History and Haciendo historia shows a militia mobilization during this period along Havana's seafront drive, the Malecón.
"If they attack us, they will not find our people sleeping, but awake and in the trenches," Castro told a mass rally in Havana on January 20, the day Kennedy was inaugurated president.
The prospect of not carrying out the planned invasion was a political problem for both Kennedy and Eisenhower, Fernández explains. "It was a political problem because of what those invading forces of Cubans armed, trained, and organized by the CIA represented and what they signified in Congress and in different spheres of U.S. political life. It was evident that one sector of the government and the CIA supported the invasion, but it was also clear that an invasion would have had a high political cost because of the number of casualties that the U.S. armed forces could suffer."
Fernández himself was part of the mobilizations during this period in the Escambray mountains, near the Bay of Pigs. Washington, he explains, made a special effort to promote counterrevolutionary groups in this area in the months leading up to the invasion. The area "was to serve as a base of support, creating a zone that could be dominated by the invading brigade and by enemy forces in general," he says.
But some 40,000 volunteers mobilized to eliminate the bands in early 1961. "As a result," Fernández says, "during the battle at Girón, in our rearguard, there was not a single enemy action.... And that allowed us to conduct actions...with great confidence."
Workers fight on two fronts
Many workers in the ceramics factory went to fight during the Bay of Pigs, Harry Villegas explains in the interview with him in Making History.
"All those who were members of militia battalions and sub-battalions were sent to Girón," Villegas said. However, "every Cuban, every worker, wanted to go." Villegas, who had only recently left Che Guevara's personal staff, explains how he himself reported to Guevara, ready to participate in the battle.
"Stay in the factory," Guevara told him, "You must remain at the helm, organizing the defense, the security of the factory, and maintaining production." Villegas, in turn, had to convince the workers in the factory that some of them had to remain there and produce.
"It was a challenge," he remembers, "because every time the tanks went by, or the transport vehicles filled with men went by, everyone wanted to come out."
Forty years after the defeat of U.S. imperialism at the Bay of Pigs, support for the revolution by workers and farmers in Cuba is still the base of its defense, Fernández explains in Making History.
"I don't mean by this that there are no discontented people in Cuba, or people who disagree with socialism," he added. "There have to be. We have shortages, privations, difficulties.... There are people who perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, place a shirt, a pair of pants, or a car above the country's sovereignty or above social justice, and these people are clearly not enthusiastic about the revolution. That's one thing. But it's something completely different for there to be a sector of the population that has taken organizational form, or that can be given organizational form, that is represented by grouplets such as I described" in the Escambray.
"For almost 40 years we have been navigating along the edge of a possible attack, firmly defending our sovereignty, the revolution, and socialism," Fernández said. "And we have maintained a course that has proved capable of defending our principles while avoiding a war."
To order copies of Making History and Haciendo historia, or to place advance orders for Bay of Pigs: Washington's First Military Defeat in the Americas, write to Pathfinder, 410 West Street, New York, NY, 10014.
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