HAVANA — Last week I spent three days in Havana, where old foes, Cuban and American, came together to mark the 40th anniversary of the disastrous CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. It was a fascinating meeting of old soldiers and young scholars, and a triumphant Fidel Castro held center stage throughout.
First, the back story: Mr. Castro came to power in a revolution in 1959. The US considered Castro an instrument of Soviet penetration in Latin America. Under the Eisenhower administration, plans were formulated for an invasion by Cuban exiles supported by the CIA, which tried to conceal its role. The invasion was based on the idea that if the exiles landed in Cuba, there would be an uprising of Cubans presumably unhappy with Castro. The operation failed miserably.
Forty years later, the encounter in Havana seemed for the most part more notable as theater than as history.
There was CIA veteran Sam Halpern, listening across a table as Castro detailed the assassination plots against him, one of which Halpern had helped plan.
There was Alfredo Duran, one of the captured fighters of Brigade 2506, telling Castro that, at one point he had a clear shot at the Cuban leader.
"Good thing you didn't shoot," the president said, "my guys would have shot you and neither of us would be here."
There was Castro in uniform, standing at a large map with pointer to give a detailed account of the battle, sometimes interrupted with corrections from subordinate commanders.
There was Castro's No. 2, Gen. Jose Ramon Fernandez, now vice president, disclosing - apparently to Castro's surprise - that he had given orders not to fire on two American destroyers offshore for fear of bringing the United States into an all-out war.
Aside from the arresting moments of drama, I did gain one new perception from the many hours of talk and the heaps of declassified secret documents. It was that the CIA overlords of the invasion, director Allen Dulles and deputy Richard Bissell, had their own plan of how to bring the US into the conflict.
It appears that they never really expected an uprising against Castro, as forecast in their memos to the White House. What they did expect was that the invaders would establish and secure a beachhead, announce the creation of a counter-revolutionary government, and appeal for aid from the US and the Organization of American States.
The assumption was that President Kennedy, who had emphatically banned direct American involvement, would be forced by public opinion to come to the aid of the returning patriots. American forces, probably Marines, would come in to expand the beachhead.
In effect, Kennedy was the target of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed. But Kennedy, with his obsession about the bearded revolutionary who mocked him from so close, may have demanded the impossible. He wanted Castro brought down, but without his own fingerprints on the deed.
During a coffee break, I reminded Fidel Castro of the last time I interviewed him. In February 1960, CBS sent me to Havana to cover the visit of Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, the first high-level Soviet contact after the Cuban revolution.
At a reception, I managed to get an on-camera interview with the two of them. They told me of plans to establish diplomatic and trade relations. When I asked Castro about rumors that they had also discussed the delivery of Soviet arms, including MiG fighters, he spread his hands wide and said, "But that is a secret."
So now, 41 years later, Castro said he remembered that interview and that he had used that tactic to cover a delicate matter - that he was reluctant to receive Soviet arms, which the Eisenhower administration could use to justify an attack on Cuba.
That attack came anyway at the Bay of Pigs in the third month of the Kennedy administration. After that disaster, Kennedy - more determined than ever to bring down Castro - launched Operation Mongoose, a government-wide campaign of sabotage and harassment coordinated by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. It included everything from disabling communications to sabotaging sugar crops.
In the secret Mongoose files - recently declassified - there were ideas such as an explosion on a US Navy ship in Guantanamo Bay and then blaming the Cubans.
The cost of the Mongoose operation and the accompanying assassination plots may have been greater than we have yet known. Castro said he had been reluctant to accept Nikita Khrushchev's proposal to station nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, which he felt had less to do with protecting Cuba than with pursuing the Soviet strategy intended to counter US missiles in Turkey and Italy. But in the end, amid the incessant American harassment, Castro said, he finally agreed to accept the Soviet missiles under Soviet control on Cuban soil.
"It was an act of solidarity with our Soviet friends," he said, "but it was a direct consequence of Operation Mongoose and all the assassination plots."
Thus, the Castro obsession may have contributed to bringing the world as close as it has ever come to nuclear holocaust.
This narrative of the Kennedy-Castro hostility has a poignant postscript. Castro said that Kennedy, sobered by the missile crisis, sent a French journalist, Jean Daniel, with a message to Castro of wanting better relations.
Mr. Daniel was in Castro's office on Nov. 22, 1963, delivering Kennedy's peace message when the meeting was interrupted by word of the assassination of the president.
Castro has survived nine American presidents and deals now with the trade embargo being enforced by the 10th. One looks back today less with anger than amazement at the great Castro obsession and what it cost.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor