On the 17th of April in 2021, it was exactly 60 years since the failed US and CIA-run invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Anniversary or not, here is why you should visit the Bay of Pigs on the island’s southern coast!
The attempt to invade Castros Cuba in 1958 became one of the biggest foreign policy embarrassments in American history. Of course, it also strengthened Fidel Castro’s position inside Cuba after the 1958 New Year’s Eve coup, or revolution.
Today the Bay of Pigs, or Bahia de Cochinos which is the Spanish name, is a sleepy village. It sits on the southern coast of Cuba, about two-and-a-half-hour drive south and east of Havana.
If you set out to learn about how Cuba became Cuba, the history will teach you a lot about the why and how of today´s Cuban society.
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Visit Bay Of Pigs – Bahia De Cochinos
While walking through the village at Bahia de Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs, you might spot the rather modest-looking museum over the dramatic incident. If you decide to drop by the Bay of Pigs, even for the beach, you will see it by the side of the road across from the small local mall, on your casual way to the Caribbean sand and waves behind the beach hotel.
Outside the museum stands a Cuban bomber jet, an old Sea Fury, a remnant of the invasion which is the only thing that gives the museum away from the street. Beside it, is a large memorial plate with all the names of the Cuban heroes participating in the battle.
Inside the Bay of Pigs museum over the invasion, you will find the Cuban perspective of the incident and lots of photos. Although you already may know the history, here you will be presented with the Cuban perspective of the invasion of Cuba, which is an interesting experience.
After the Cuban revolution in the last days of 1958, the CIA started a cunning plan to invade Cuba under Eisenhower’s administration. Richard Bissell was still the head of the CIA, and the plan was to conduct a small “covert action” operation against Fidel’s socialist Cuba. The plan was officially sanctioned in March 1960.
By the time the operation took place, it had turned into something much bigger than a small covert operation, and a lot of things did not go according to plan.
The first thing was that Kennedy won the last election in the US, mid-planning, and he had a different take on things than Eisenhower. By the time the CIA briefed president Kennedy on the plan, the small plan had turned into a large campaign, that escalated to a full-scale invasion backed by a 1400-man strong force of exiled Cubans trained by the CIA. The US provided a budget of US $1,3 million for the mission and fully equipped all the soldiers.
The American plan was to remove Fidel once and for all. To do so, they relied on Cubans in exile and internal opposition to Fidel, American war machinery, and the people’s ability to resist.
It did not quite turn out that way.
Fidel Castro apparently had known about the attack for a couple of weeks beforehand and had had time to prepare. He was clever and moved his air force bases, and he also removed a lot of people before the attack, as it were. The kind of people that may still be supporting Batista or the United States were taken into custody before the attack.
The US invasion attempt in 1958 failed from the start.
The Immediate Consequences Of Fidel Castros Coup
The coup that was conducted on the last day of 1958 was only the latest attempt by Fidel, Che Guevara, and the 26th of July movement to oust Batista from his position as president. For a decade they had tried repeatedly to do exactly this. Unsuccessfully conducting several attempts, they were waging a guerrilla war in Cuba against the Batista regime for years.
Then in December of 1958, to cut the complicated story short, their efforts succeeded and the revolutionaries took the power in Cuba. Batista (who came to power himself through a coup) and his administration had to flee the country in the middle of their champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve of 1958.
After the takeover, for the next two years, officials at the U.S. State Department and the CIA attempted to remove Castro. One important reason for this was that Batista, even though also a despot domestically, was supporting American businesses having very lucrative conditions in Cuba.
Fidel had no intention of continuing to allow private foreign dominance of the Cuban economy, and almost immediately started to nationalize the sugar and tobacco production in Cuba, without compensating the American companies that had been controlling this since the start of the century.
How Money, Business, And Politics Played A Role
The reason for this was that Batista’s reign for eight years (also after a coup) was dictatorial. People were imprisoned and tortured without a trial, poverty was bad, and the level of illiteracy in the population was high.
Batista transformed the economy into an American-dominated one-pillar situation, and although the economy for many Cubans improved, the living conditions and security for the population were not good. The Cuban economy was also almost solely based on trade with the US, which was risky, and most of the revenue from Cuban resources left the country leaving large parts of the population still poor.
Many Cuban opposition leaders and groups existed during this period, who wanted to remove Batista and change the Cuban society, not just Fidel Castro.
After the revolution, American officials across the sea got nervous about the consequences of the changes this last coup would bring. At that time, American corporations and wealthy individuals owned almost half of Cuba’s sugar plantations. Furthermore, the majority of its cattle ranches, mines, and utilities.
Although Batista had been a corrupt and repressive dictator, he was considered to be a pro-American head of state. Batista did little to restrict US trade, and the general perception in the US was that he was a reliable anti-communist. He did not interfere with American financial interests and favorable trade terms in the country. Hence, he was an ally to U.S. commercial interests.
Castro, by contrast, disapproved of the approach that Americans took to their business and interests in Cuba. He believed it was time Cubans assumed more control of their nation. “Cuba Sí, Yanquis No” became one of his most popular slogans.
Castros Rapid Governmentalization Of National Resources
Castro took steps to reduce American influence on the island almost immediately after he had taken the power.
He nationalized American-dominated industries in Cuba like sugar and mining, without compensating the private companies in the US. He introduced land reform schemes and called on other Latin American governments to act with more autonomy toward stronger nations.
In response, early in 1960, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to secretly recruit 1,400 Cuban exiles living in Miami and begin training them to overthrow Castro.
Meanwhile, by May 1960, Castro had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union after the long-time trade with the US faltered. Sugar exports to the United States around 1958 comprised 80 percent of the country’s total export of sugar. To prevent the Cuban economy from collapsing, the USSR agreed to buy the Cuban sugar reserves. The United States responded by prohibiting the importation of Cuban sugar.
The U.S. government then severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961 and stepped up its preparations for an invasion.
Some State Departments and other advisors to the new President Kennedy maintained that Castro posed no real threat to America. Kennedy however, believed that masterminding Fidel’s removal would show Russia, China, and skeptical Americans that he was serious about winning the Cold War.
Kennedy Took Office Mid-Planning Of The Invasion Of Cuba
Kennedy had inherited the CIA campaign from Eisenhower to train and equip a guerilla army of Cuban exiles. Still, he reportedly had some doubts about the wisdom of the plan.
The last thing he wanted, he said, was “direct, overt” intervention by the American military in Cuba. Amidst the Cold War, he assessed that the Soviets would likely see this as an act of war and might retaliate.
However, CIA officers told him they could keep U.S. involvement in the invasion a secret. If all went according to plan, the campaign would spark an anti-Castro uprising on the island.
The plan was to initially destroy Castro’s tiny air force prior to the invasion making it impossible for his military to resist.
On April 15, 1961, a group of Cuban exiles took off from Nicaragua in a squadron of American B-26 bombers. They were painted to look like stolen Cuban planes to divert attention and conducted a strike against Cuban airfields.
It turned out, however, that Kennedy (or some of his people) underestimated both Fidel Castro’s access to intelligence and his will and ability to implement measures based on it.
Castro already knew about the invasion and had moved his planes out of harm’s way weeks before. Also, it is reported that Fidel conducted a mini-surge Soviet-style in the weeks before the invasion. He removed people in Cuba who might still be in support of the old Batista regime. These might possibly support or fight on the side of the invading force, Fidel thought.
At one point before the invasion, Kennedy reportedly began to suspect that the plan the CIA had described to be “clandestine and successful” might in fact be a failure. It might instead be, he thought, “too large to be clandestine and too small to be successful.”
The assessment was, however, that it was too late to cancel the operation. On April 17, the Cuban exile brigade began its invasion of an isolated spot on Cuba’s southern shore known as the Bay of Pigs.
Immediately The Operation Was A Failure
Almost immediately, the invasion was a disaster.
Unexpected coral reefs sank some of the exiles’ ships as they pulled into shore. Backup paratroopers landed in the wrong place. US bomber planes hit empty airbases without fighter jets – and now the Cuban Sea Furies took to the wings from their new location, bombing the supply ships outside the Bay of Pigs.
The CIA had wanted to keep the landing a secret for as long as possible. The problem was, that there was a radio station on the beach (which the agency’s reconnaissance team also had failed to spot).
The station started broadcasting every detail of the operation to listeners across Cuba. In no time at all, Castro’s troops had pinned down the invaders on the beach. All the exiles surrendered after less than a day of fighting; 114 were killed, and over 1,100 were taken as prisoners.
Also, the internal popular uprising that was part of the invasion plan did not occur. This may be a result of a bad assessment of the Cuban popular will or of Fidel Castro’s ability to remove dissenters from his midst.
Ultimately, the not-so-clandestine invasion attempt now had become a foreign policy failure and utter embarrassment for Kennedy and his administration.
The result was more than 1000 prisoners of war. Subsequently, one year of negotiations post-invasion and a settlement for food and medicine from the US to Cuba cost the US $53 million.
The incident reportedly also was the inspiration for Fidel’s slogan “Patria o Muerte” – Fatherland or Death. This is still scribbled on walls and signs all over Cuba along with the faces of Fidel and Che. Focusing on your Cuban history adventure travel you will see this everywhere!
The History, The Aftermath, And The Hindsight Of Cuba
According to many historians, the CIA and the Cuban exile brigade believed that President Kennedy would eventually allow the American military to intervene in Cuba on their behalf.
However, the president was resolute. As much as he did not want to “abandon Cuba to the communists,” he reportedly said, he would not start a fight that might end in World War III. As a result, the invading force did not receive any rescue operations as they were struggling on and outside the beaches of the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy later approved Operation Mongoose in November 1961. This was different, an espionage and sabotage campaign that never went so far as to provoke an outright war. And then in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis inflamed American-Cuban-Soviet tensions even further.
The serene calm of the beach and the waters outside the Bay of Pigs today do not show signs of the drama that took place here. Instead, you can enjoy the sunset from the sandy beach in absolute peace.
For more Cuban history adventure travel, very close to the actual Bay of Pigs there is a place called Punta Perdiz. In today’s world, this is a beautiful place to go diving in clear blue waters if you like that kind of activity.
Do you have any questions about Cuba? Leave a comment, or send me an e-mail! Happy to help!
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