PLAYA GIRÓN, Cuba
I am in a village on the south coast of Cuba, a rustic area where wild pigs once ran in such abundance as to prompt passing merchant vessels and pirate ships to drop anchor and send hunting parties ashore. They called the place the Bay of Pigs. Historically key but geographically remote, Playa Girón is noteworthy now mostly for the modest museum memorializing what happened here 53 years ago. (“In just 65 hours,” one photo caption reads, “our soldiers gave defeat to the invaders.”)
My wife and I came to Cuba as part of a State Department-sanctioned people-to-people tour, a wide-ranging encounter with students, artists, doctors, and community organizers. Overwhelmingly, though, this is a journey into another time. That the island nation itself carries the marks of the past — Cold War iconography and decrepit public spaces, but also lovingly restored Chevy Bel Airs and jovial salsa music — makes the island’s long-ago events, like this one, seem closer. (“The enemy fled in disarray,” the museum caption goes on, “leaving behind many combat means.”) The Bay of Pigs subtly defines modern Cuba, but also brands the United States more than people know. Looking out now on the pristine bay, it is easy to picture the small flotilla and handful of warplanes that landed about 1,300 invaders — and changed history.
Even more than the 1959 revolution, the Bay of Pigs provided Fidel Castro’s fledgling government with its founding myth. (“The mercenaries were well armed. The people had what . . . was needed: reason and moral strength.”) In the invasion, the Soviet Union found a justification for its foray into the Western Hemisphere, and Castro struck his devil’s bargain with Moscow. But the defeat of what might have seemed a small-scale CIA adventure proved momentous for America, too. It punctured the post-World War II illusion of US invincibility and shook Washington’s moral standing in the eyes of the world. (“Before the UN, the [forces of] imperialism presented a blatant tall story to conceal their guilt.”)
The Bay of Pigs let loose a cascade of wildly unforeseen consequences: Needing to prove his toughness after the emasculation, and unaware that Cuba’s own missile crisis would prove it in spades a year and a half later, Kennedy drove a first US stake into the morass of Vietnam. Then, vibrations from the Bay of Pigs could be felt in the gunshots fired in Dallas.
But aftershocks of the stymied invasion cracked the pillars of America’s political structure, too. The blow to the CIA was nothing compared with that taken by Cuban exiles for whom the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista (“. . . the revolution of the humble ones, by the humble ones, and for the humble ones”) had been a disaster. The exiles’ permanent rage against Castro remains a lock on presidential politics in swing-state Florida, where Marco Rubio is their current tribune. He denounces even the restricted travel policy that made our trip possible.
Florida’s quadrennial electoral chokehold alone explains the preserved-in-amber Cold War embargo that freezes Cuba out of today’s two historic transformations: economic globalization and the digital reinvention of information. Even authorized travel like my wife’s and mine involves ad hoc arrangements with a charter flight, and controlled scheduling that cuts average Cubans off from random encounters with Americans. Yet the resolve of those Cubans is apparent anyway, showing in an education system that makes literacy a leading export, and a health care system that sends legions of medical workers throughout the developing world. But the country’s physical structures are crumbling, horse-drawn carts are still essential to transportation, a proud population bows to poverty, and the most recalcitrant impulses of the socialist government are reinforced. Even anti-Castro dissidents want the restrictions lifted. The US embargo is crushing Cuba. Vast and needless suffering is the result.
At Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December, Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban president Raul Castro — a passing courtesy more than any promise of a thaw in the anachronistic freeze. But with America using fiercely communist China as an ATM, and this week sending its best athletes to an ever more repressive Russia, the harsh absurdity of Washington’s Cuba policy is on full display.
For presidential candidates competing for Florida, better to not even take up the question: Why is the anti-Cuba embargo still in force? After post-Cold War Western investment in Eastern Europe hastened the coming of free enterprise, civil society, and democratic politics, that question has more bite than ever. Even a brief visit makes it clear: the Bay of Pigs was yesterday’s catastrophe; the vengeful embargo is today’s.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.