For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial. It is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people’s hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.
It was fifty-three years ago today, on April 17, 1961, that exiled Cuban patriots landed on the shores of their homeland in an attempt to liberate Cuba from the tyranny of Fidel Castro. Their betrayal on the shores of the Bay of Pigs and the resulting fifty-five year dictatorship that was allowed to continue will forever remain a stain on Cuba’s history. Although the story of the Bay of Pigs ultimately ended in tragedy for the exiles who aimed to liberate their homeland, it is important to remember the selfless act of courage that moved the men of Brigade 2506 to return to liberate Cuba.
Operation Zapata (the code-name for the invasion) called for the landing of 1,400 Cuban exiles on the shores of southern Cuba. The plan was simple – land 1,400 highly trained Cuban exiles, supported by air cover, tanks and heavy weaponry to join what was then a growing rebellion against Castro’s rule in the mountains of Central Cuba. The end goal was the overthrow of Castro’s increasingly oppressive and authoritarian dictatorship. Before the invasion was to take place, the U.S. Airforce would carry out a series of airstrikes that would knock out the small Cuban airforce and allow the small detachment of exiles to use their superior training and weaponry to land and establish a beachhead.
The plan however, would be undermined, not by military catastrophe, but by an executive decision in Washington. As the men of Brigade 2506 approached the beaches of Cuba at midnight on April 16-17, they were unaware that John F. Kennedy had scuttled plans to provide the small exile force with the promised air support that they would need to hold off the numerically larger Cuban army. The rest was history.
In the ensuing days, the better trained and heavily armed small exile force was slowly overwhelmed by the numerically larger Cuban army. As a result of the cancellation of the majority of the airstrikes, the small Cuban airforce remained intact – and its remaining jets sunk the ships that carried much of the Brigade’s heavy weaponry. With the loss of their heavy weaponry and much of their extra ammunition, the invading force was left to fight with the equipment it had managed to land ashore the night before. For three full days, the smaller but better trained exile fiercely held off the much larger Cuban army and resisted wave after wave of attacks. Outnumbered ten-to-one, the exiles inflicted casualties at a rate of thirty-to-one against Castro’s larger but undisciplined army. Ultimately however, they were doomed by removal of the promised air cover and the loss of their equipment offshore. After resisting the fierce and relentless attack of Castro’s larger army, the exiles eventually succumbed when the full weight of Castro’s artillery and Soviet-equipped tank battalions arrived.
Over fifty years later, Cuban society remains under the dictatorship of the Castro family. Millions of Cubans have abandoned the island and thousands have lost their lives resisting the island’s dictatorial regime. Cuba’s economy is shattered by decades of failed economic policy and central planning and Cuban society is fractured.
The Cuban-American community never forgot how Kennedy betrayed them and the cause of Cuban liberty on the beaches of Playa Girón. To the Castro regime in Cuba – the invasion proved to be a Godsend, a victory that further entrenched his nascent totalitarian regime. To the people of Cuba and to the cause of Cuban liberty – it was a defeat that doomed Cuba and its people to the yoke of a half-century of dictatorship.
Although April 17th marks a dark date in Cuba’s history – the heroic and lonely struggle of the men who fought at Playa Girón will ensure that the memory of the men of Brigade 2506 will remain enshrined in the pantheon of Cuba’s greatest patriots and in the heart of freedom-loving Cubans forever.