PLAYA GIRON, CUBA — Two Americans disembark at Playa Giron, one of the principal white-sand beaches of Cuba's Bay of Pigs. A group of Cubans waiting on the beach jump up and run toward them.
Despite the heavy history of the sands they tread, the Cubans do not confront the Americans as enemies, but as an opportunity. "My wife prepares a great lobster dinner, very cheap. What time will you come to eat?" asks one. "You want Cuban cigars, or some rum?" proposes another. "You have plenty of dollars, go buy us all some beer," demands a third, a little drunk.
The Bay of Pigs is the quintessential symbol of the Cuban revolution's triumph over the colossal northern neighbor's hostility and one of President Kennedy's biggest embarrassments. It was here that a small army of American-trained Cuban exiles disembarked April 17, 1961, intent on toppling the infant Communist regime of Fidel Castro. But the disastrous invasion was squelched within two days, leaving the young government fortified by its defeat of the American giant and by widespread international outrage and sympathy.
Given the importance of the site, one might expect the kind of shrine-like atmosphere that suffuses the Normandy beaches in France or Civil War battlegrounds in the US. Instead Playa Giron, one of the landing sites of the 1961 invaders, is dominated by a sprawling tourist resort. Even at the Bay of Pigs, the reverence one anticipates is supplanted by the Cuban hustle.
Situated more than two hours by car from Havana on Cuba's southern shore, Playa Giron does offer a museum that draws busloads of schoolchildren and tourists every year. "Giron: Victoria del Socialismo" (Giron: Victory of Socialism) is the giant legend greeting visitors to the museum, which is housed inside a low-slung building reminiscent of 1960s school buildings in the US.
The exhibit gives a feeling for how the ill-fated invasion galvanized the Cuban people's nationalist spirit and solidified support for the revolution - both inside Cuba and throughout Latin America. "The mercenaries brought planes, boats, tanks," one exhibit panel explains, "but nothing was equal to the determination of the people to defend the revolution." It also puts a human face on the invasion's cost to Cuba. One wall carries the legend "Heroes of Giron," under which hang the pictures of more than 150 Cubans who died repelling the invasion.
Predictably, exhibit texts describing the invasion are full of references to "Yankee imperialists" and quotes from President Castro like the following: "This is what they cannot pardon us for - that we have made here a socialist revolution in the nostrils of the United States." An American can come away feeling a bit like an Englishman must feel after visiting the Concord Bridge in Massachusetts where "the shot heard round the world" began the American Revolution.
But according to a gardener at the Playa Giron museum, there are no hard feelings toward the few Americans who visit the museum. "Governments are one thing, the people are something else," he says. "The American people aren't guilty for what their government did."