Bay of Pigs opponents analyze history in Havana

Secret archives opened as participants discuss failed invasion of 1961

March 23, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HAVANA, Cuba - Fidel Castro walked into a hotel conference room yesterday morning and sat down across the table from men who had spent years plotting to subvert his government or to kill him for the United States.

They were veterans of the Bay of Pigs, the doomed invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces backed by the White House, and of Operation Mongoose, the CIA's project to assassinate Castro.

Almost exactly four decades after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, the two sides pored over a trove of secret documents about the invasion - including the first secret records that Castro has ever declassified - and discussed that rare thing in history: "a perfect failure," as the historian Theodore Draper once wrote.

"This is the first serious attempt by this country to expose things the way they were," said Roberto de Armas, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official. "We're open to reality - open to history."

The meeting yesterday opened a three-day conference organized by U.S. historians, scholars and open-government advocates who have helped to force access to secret archives of U.S., Cuban, British and other governments. They brought together five veterans of Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs guerrilla force, along with two ex-CIA officers (including Sam Halpern, who helped run Operation Mongoose) and two former Kennedy White House officials. The participants analyzed the records with senior Cuban officials.

It is the first time that Cuban exiles who fought Castro's forces at the Bay of Pigs have returned to Cuba to meet the commanders they tried to kill - and who tried to kill them.

In 1961, "we disembarked as Cubans, as men who loved our country," said Alfredo Duran, a former president of the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association who was expelled by the group for his decision to return to Cuba. He came back, he said, to learn, to share his thoughts, to make sure that "never again will Cubans take arms against Cubans."

In the Cuban documents, which cover thousands of pages and whose public release began yesterday, are transcriptions of Castro's walkie-talkie and telephone conversations as he directed the counterattack at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's brigade of 1,400 Cuban exiles was crushed by Castro's forces; 114 attackers died and 1,189 were captured.

The Castro transcripts reveal a young, almost giddy commander, peppering his orders with curses and jokes: "You're missing the party," he tells his brother, Raul, now commander of the Cuban army, who was far from the battle.

In a post-battle report, Jose Ramon Fernandez, then a field commander, now vice president of Cuba, does something rarely, if ever, seen before in official Cuba: He confesses a mistake.

At one point in the battle, he wrote, "we had to withdraw," but "this retreat was an error." Fernandez said "critical reflection on mistakes" was part of the "civilized discussion" that the declassified documents will help generate in Cuba.

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