On the Road: Bay of Pigs
Havana – Playa Largo
Birds chirp, wheels turn and the city comes to life. Gatito awakens and looks over her Havana Balcony at a black and white 1953 Chevrolet. It’s a beautiful sight, swollen haunches, chrome detailing, leather interior, circular indicators protruding from the trunk and hood, imposing and stately like a bulldog perched atop an island atoll protecting an English manor. She carries her bags down the stairs and jumps high as she can. Nope, smash, face to running board. Again, nope. She tries to shimmy up the tire but again she fails. Covered in dust and hot tire residue she begins to tear up, perhaps she will never reach Playa Largo in the Bay of Pigs. But then, just as despair sets in, a nice little Cuban dog, Charlie, one of hundreds of cute well-mannered pups on the island, walks up, barks spritely, picks her up and slings her into the car.
Off she goes, across roughly 200km of Cuban expanse. The background is pretty if somber. Wide fields and palm trees scatter the repetitive landscape. The monotony is broken up occasionally by large cleared pastures where hundreds of lazy white cows meander. The roads are good, smooth and strait, two lanes in each direction. There are very few cars, a significant police presence, mostly motorcycle cops with radar guns looking for speeders, and clear if only adequate signage. The 150km between Havana and the turn off from the main highway seem almost entirely desolate if lush, as if all the beetles have convincingly lobbied the locals to abstain. Two gas stations and two little huts, one a home and one selling tourist trinkets and snacks, are the culmination of all built structures along the route.
The car finally stops in front of an impressive Casa Particular. Mayito the owner, a gregarious and infectious man, always adorned in a great big smile and ready for a hug and a cocktail, inhabits the ground floor with his beautiful family of three generations. The second floor has four guest rooms, a small sundeck and a covered outdoor area for dining. The rooftop is home to several lounge chairs, a few hammocks and a smattering of café tables. Gatito finds it lovely. She stares out over the water through the wood perimeter fencing then rotates to peer inland. The town is small and basic. A two street affair comprised of new and colorful guesthouses, old family abodes unkempt and likely uncleansed for decades, and projects- buildings in various states of construction that may or may not ever be completed - but which clearly have been underway for many years. Little rickety wood fishing boats bump and jostle along the shore.
People are friendly and children play soccer and basketball or box after school. Life here is slow, largely unchanged. Even today it feels a time warp, though a pleasurable and comforting one. This place, Playa Largo, is the far western end of a 1961 US military invasion of the island. The cove of which Gatito looks out over is the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of one of the most influential and shocking blunders of American foreign policy in the 20th century which set these two countries on an inexorable path towards hostility, militarization and estrangement.
After a failed attempt at revolution in 1953 Fidel Castro fled Cuba to Mexico. In his place the once democratically inclined President Batista morphed into a repressive dictator of the first order. Back in Mexico Castro linked up with the now infamous Che Guevara and a rag-tag group of socialist revolutionaries who aimed to take the island back for the people of Cuba. To be sure, they were looking to build a utopian society based on principals we now recognize as flawed, ineffective and often leading to human disaster, the inherent lack of checks on power leading to police state dictatorships. Yet, for these revolutionaries, the current state of being was unsuitable, their intentions were good, and the risks they took monumental.
They carefully planned their assault and in 1956 they landed on the island for the invasion with just 82 people in hand to overthrow a government. It was a disaster. The group was split and mowed down by Batista’s forces. Just 12-14 souls remained and the great Castro was for a time “Commander and Chief of just myself and two other people”. An order went out to search and kill. Finally, Castro was found, but as luck would have it the soldier who unearthed him was a socialist sympathizer who risked his life and rank placing Castro in prison rather than killing him. It was this quirk in history, the fact that of all people, on this one-day, the right man, in the right mood, with the right background, caught Castro and was willing to take the risk to let him live, that changed the course of events forever. Several years later Castro would rise to prominence as the country’s new socialist leader.
This statistically anomalous choice by one man forever changed world events, one unknown man’s choice landed communism and a Soviet ally on the doorstep of the world’s greatest super power. This was the flap in the butterfly’s wings that catalyzed a hurricane.
Feeling cornered both internationally and domestically, and presented with an opportunity by the CIA, a fresh Kennedy administration in 1961 set out to foment counter-revolution and foil communism on the long island right here on the beach which Gatito now looks out over. They trained Cuban defectors, supported local sleeper cells and eventually sent US warships to land on this unsuspecting beachfront on the Bay of Pigs between Playa Largo and the Punta, 100km away. Support never came, the counterrevolutionaries never fought, the regime was not overturned and Castro was not killed. Many US soldiers lost their lives. It was a massive blunder for the US and a permanent stain on Kennedy administration.
The indelible mark left on the locals was just as strong. The people here today have barley seen cars, their bread is delivered on mule drawn carts and their meals are drawn up by swimmers in wooden boats, not commercial fishing vessels. Imagine the shock and terror of people who had never seen a ship, a motorized vehicle or an airplane looking up over this very same shore as US warships arrived and US jets flew by dropping large bombs and spraying heavy machine-gun fire.
Yet, for all this tumult relations now are good. Here Mayito and his family welcome her warmly. They treat her with respect and even love. Just as she recognizes that they can be good people despite their inclusion in a former Soviet satellite that once aimed weapons of mass destruction at her homeland, they too can see that she, from the country that for 50+ years effectively blockaded her nation, starving its children and families of resources, she too, can be good. Collectively they can look past the politics, past the history, separate government from people and humanity from policy, and find common ground. It’s a beautiful thing.
Together they windsurf and kite board, Alejandro the son of Mayito, planted on the beach, Gatito flailing wildly over the hot sand and coral laden waters. They walk the street and attend discothèques where they buy bottles of rum and coke-alternative, true table service, for under four dollars. Gatito boogies all night long, nervously traversing the club floor for fear of being stepped on. They scuba dive together, little Gatito blocking Alejandro’s view as she hides in this large face mask, a curious choice for an un-breathing doll. When they want to leave the beach they walk inland looking for cenotes to jump into, round water filled depressions in the jungle landscape, vertical columns of liquid in the jungle often hundreds of feet deep. It’s a magical little slice of Cuba and a great friendship has formed.
On the last night she sits with the Mayito, Alejandro and their family, some Cuban friends and two other American travelers. They laugh and eat. The meal is typical Cuban. Shredded beef in a rich sweet and spicy tomato sauce, sweet fried plantains, perfectly cooked yucca, rice and beans, fresh veggies and ice cream for dessert, smoke rises up from a charcoal grill in the background where chicken is getting its finishing touches. Everything on the table, the animals, the veggies, the butter, the fruit, comes from the family’s yard. Even the mint and sugar in their mojitos are grown on the property. Everything is local other than the salt on the table.
It’s a beautiful scene and a reminder that we as humans share so much more than we differ on. We all enjoy a good meal, a conversation. We all need friends and family, we all laugh. We all want to raise our kids to have a better life than we had, and we want our environment to be safe and unrepressive. Not everyone wants freedom in the exact way we think about it as Americans. We all, even at home, are willing to sacrifice some freedom for safety or a common good. That why we have traffic laws and taxes. Each society on their own must work out what that bargain looks like, but regardless of the permutations in our code we are all so much alike. Too often we are quick to judge, to hear something small or unsubstantiated about another group and create an “other”, to wall our self's off from that group creating an enemy.
This is not to say that the choices of 1961 were not based on real threats, they were. Or that some action did not need to be taken, it did. Yet those actions were always justified in human terms: we must act or peril will be set your lives. Yet as she sits with Alejandro’s family she feels the equation is more complex, and perhaps could have found better results if dealt with more holistically. She sees so starkly the human cost that was incurred regardless of our actions. This village was traumatized, an enemy was created, two peoples were separated, one plunged into poverty, the other not to rejoice in the benefits of friendship and exchange for over 50 years.
Like so many military incursions the Bay of Pigs failed not because it was waged on false pretense or without reason. Communism was and is a dangerous and devastating form of government, if not always ill-intentioned: furthermore it posed an existential threat to America. Yet, America for its part never understood the Cuban people, their desires, or their needs. It instantly painted them as Soviets in intention and being. Having been down on the Island for ten days now Gatito knows how far from the truth that was and remains to be. Perhaps if America had actually gotten to know the people they could have provided for them what the Soviets could not, creating another ally. Of course hindsight is an unfair vantage. However, at the very least, with knowledge of the people they could have motivated Cubans to fight for their freedom, rather than staying home, and as a result, many more American soldiers would be alive today.
Too often leaders with the weight of the world on their shoulders, a potential disaster looming, use abstract logical outcomes to determine policy from on high. Rarely are those decisions informed by human realities on the ground, those are deemed to fluid, to unknowable, to unreliable to be considered. Yet if all wars are justified on human outcomes, then perhaps they should be based on those inputs as well.
Though anything from a certainty, sitting here tonight on the rooftop with her new friends, warm embraces and amazing food, Gatito thinks that if a more holistic approach had been charted back on that fateful day in 1961, maybe, just maybe, there would have been a lot more dinners like these over the past 50 years. And that, she thinks, would have been well worth the attempt.