AHA Roundtable

Cuban Memory Wars

Michael J. Bustamante, August 2014

Two days after the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion ended in Cuban exile defeat, a group of well-known Cuban journalists began interviewing captives of the CIA-backed Brigade 2506 live on television. Over five days, revolutionaries and their opponents squared off in a one-of-a-kind encounter, broadcast island-wide, that was part interrogation, part debate. The battle to define public knowledge of the invasion--to determine exactly what happened, why, who was responsible, and what lessons should be drawn--had begun.

The recent ruling by the US Court of Appeals defending the CIA's decision to withhold the fifth and final volume of its official Bay of Pigs history represents only the latest round in a decades-long struggle over the episode's meaning and memory. In Miami and on the island, dozens of books have been and continue to be published; competing monuments and museums vie for nationalist bona fides. Historians and transparency advocates, meanwhile, have tussled with bureaucrats and the courts to secure documents that might improve our understanding of US invasion planning. And yet, no single declassification will put all disputes to rest.

Havana, for one, has its own ax to grind, independent of the blame game inside the beltway. For the island's anti-imperialists, the presumptuous debate over "who lost Cuba"--the White House or the CIA--has always seemed less important than emphasizing the fact of US involvement itself. For revolutionary leaders, Brigade 2506 exiles represented parasitic "mercenaries," scions of discredited elites whose CIA-paid salaries and alleged financial stakes in a revolutionary reversal discredited their claims to patriotism. At one point during his own "dialogue with the prisoners" on April 26, 1961, Fidel Castro asked assembled "señoritos" (dandies) to raise their hands if they had ever cut sugarcane. Prior to 1959, of course, neither could Castro himself lay claim to this most important signifier of revolutionary virtue, hailing as he did from an upper-middle-class background. Such complexities, however, were beside the point: privileged exile class origins combined with evident US collusion reinforced entrenched portrayals of the United States and Miami as united enemies at the proletarian revolutionary gates.

For exile participants in the invasion, the issue of US responsibility proved more contentious from the start. In contrast to the long-held assumption that Brigade veterans immediately and publicly blamed Kennedy for the invasion's failure--specifically, his last-minute decision to reduce promised air support--Brigade leaders opted for calculated silence after being released from Cuban prisons in December 1962. Denunciations of the United States, after all, would have risked further cementing the perception that exile militants still on the US payroll had been dupes or mercenaries all along, without legitimate grievances, nationalist feelings, or strategic sensibilities of their own. As US attention shifted toward Vietnam, however, and as exile operatives found themselves left in the lurch, tactical inhibitions gave way to public allegations of betrayal. In Haynes Johnson's The Bay of Pigs: The Leader's Story of Brigade 2506 (1964), veterans placed most blame on the CIA, not the White House. Mario Lazo's Dagger in the Heart: American Policy Failures in Cuba (1968), on the other hand, impugned the White House's insistence on taking all overt US military options off the table, effectively abandoning the Brigade to its fate.

Fifteen years ago, historians Peter Kornbluh and James Blight debunked the idea that the president ever explicitly "promised US military support to anyone, under any circumstance, at the Bay of Pigs." Yet Kennedy detractors are sure to find grist for the mill in the fifth volume of the secret CIA study. In Volume V, former agency historian Jack Pfeiffer reportedly rails against the original CIA inspector general's report--declassified in 1998--for absolving the Kennedy administration of what he elsewhere calls "the albatross" of deniability hanging around invasion planners' necks. One has to wonder, however, why the CIA--which, as revealed in the already declassified third volume of its official history, believed as late as November 1960 that the operation could not succeed short of full US military involvement--never raised this concern with the executive. In this respect, the CIA's refusal to make Volume V public confounds on two fronts: not only has most of the set to which it belongs already been declassified (Volumes I-IV), but the document stands to cast agency conduct in a more positive light. Other motives, then, must explain officials' reticence. Perhaps agency historians simply aim to shield internal dissension at Langley from greater public scrutiny. Indeed, from the perspective of memory politics, such infighting over historical events within the CIA itself is perhaps most interesting of all.

Still, neither intelligence insiders nor exile veterans seem prepared to confront the uncomfortable, even heretical, possibility that failed planning and faulty assumptions did everyone a favor. Had the US military been given freer reign, as Pfeiffer seems to have wished, the fighting may have lasted weeks, not days, and without guaranteeing a stable long-term outcome for US or Cuban exile interests. With the Cuban Revolution at its peak of international and domestic legitimacy, with the Soviet Union committed to defending its new allies from foreign aggression, and with the United States having officially foresworn direct military intervention in Latin American affairs (covert 1954 actions in Guatemala notwithstanding), combined exile and US military action may have just as easily led to protracted civil war, island-based insurgency, an untenable occupation, or international retaliation.

Ultimately, past and future revelations are unlikely to shift the emotional and at times ahistorical terms by which political actors call up memories of the Bay of Pigs in the present. Take the invasion's 50th anniversary three years ago. In Cuba, Raul Castro used the occasion to open the overdue Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, a gathering at which island leaders adopted market concessions at odds with the brand of socialism embraced by Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs' wake. In Miami, meanwhile, the 2011 Cuba Nostalgia fair--a celebration of the island's reputed pre-1959 "glamorous times"--provided the backdrop for a tribute to surviving Brigade 2506 veterans. Organizers seemed to have forgotten, however, that the Brigade originally set out to rescue a necessary revolution betrayed to communism, not restore an idyllic paradise lost. Declassification or no declassification, the Cuban memory wheels--as much a function of contemporary politics as historical inquiry--will continue to turn, often in opposite directions.  

Michael Bustamante is a PhD candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at Yale University. He has served as a research associate for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and has published in Foreign AffairsAnnals of the American Academy of Political and Social ScienceCurrent HistoryWilson QuarterlyMilken Institute ReviewEspacio Laical (Cuba), VIA: Valors, Indees, Actituds (Spain), and Política Externa (Brazil).