At the Lighthouse
John Perry · The Bay of Pigs
Beyond the Frame, an exhibition of Cuban paintings and photographs in aid of the campaign to release the Miami Five, is at the Lighthouse in Glasgow until Sunday (at the end of April it was at Gallery 27 in London). Many of the works are apolitical but some are inspired by the various attempts by US governments to destabilise Castro’s Cuba.
The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 is represented in several works, including this photograph by Ernesto Fernández Nogueras. He describes the shot as the favourite of his career, because it shows both the terrible but limited impact of the US invasion (a bus blasted by aircraft fire, from which 19 bodies had been pulled earlier in the day), and the defiance of a group of Cuban militia fighters, mobilised by the government to defend the beaches, calmly moving from one combat site to another.
Planning for the Bay of Pigs foresaw an air raid to wipe out Castro’s planes, and tanks to accompany the landing force. But President Kennedy ruled both out as making US involvement too obvious: the invasion was supposed to be a venture by disaffected Cubans. On 15 April, US aircraft painted to look like Cuban planes made limited raids ahead of the invasion. One of them landed in Miami, where reporters were told that a Cuban pilot had defected after attacking his own airfields. The press quickly saw through the ruse, which also alerted Castro that a sea-borne attack was imminent.
When boats carrying 1400 counter-revolutionaries approached the Bay of Pigs two days later, militias spotted the lights of one that had run aground on the coral. Air attacks sank two of the boats; two more turned back. Those that landed desperately needed US air and sea support, which Kennedy first denied and then granted, providing the planes were unmarked. But when a new wave of the attack began, air support failed to arrive, having not taken account of the one-hour time difference between the invaders’ starting point (Nicaragua) and Cuba.
By the afternoon of 19 April almost the entire landing force had been captured. Most of the prisoners were released two years later. Kennedy admitted that the invasion had been a US plot soon after its failure, though he’d denied it in an earlier exchange with Khrushchev. Castro called it ‘one of the most ridiculous things that has occurred in the history of the United States’.
Neither Kennedy nor later presidents learned much from the failure at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA’s infamous attempts to assassinate Castro (begun immediately before the raid) continued, and ill-planned schemes to destabilise Cuba are still going on under Obama. Of the five men jailed in Florida in 1998 for attempting to thwart plots by US-based Cuban dissidents, one has been released. The others continue to serve long sentences.