It was perhaps a perfect failure. Historians will long debate just exactly why the United States-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles went down to crushing defeat 20 years ago this week.
But there is no debate over the monumental consequences of that defeat -- perhaps the greatest military blunder since the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea 107 years before.
For the US, it was a major political embarrassment. It also showed that in the modern world there are limits to the power the US can wield among Western Hemisphere nations. Perhaps even more significantly, the Bay of Pigs defeat greatly strengthened the very Cuban leadership that Washington sought to weaken or destroy.
For Cuba's Fidel Castro, the consequences were obvious immediately. In the eyes not only of his supporters but also of his opponents he had survived a US-sponsored invasion and actually defeated the invaders. He emerged the stronger. He had proven his strength on the battlefield.
Most important, however, the Bay of Pigs debacle was probably the catalyst that nudged Dr. Castro finally and permanently into the Soviet orbit. In quick succession, he declared Cuba a "socialist nation" and delivered his famous "I am a Marxist" speech. He and his closest advisers began making pilgrimages to moscow, and negotiations proceeded for Cuba-Soviet trade on a massive scale. Less than eight months later, the two nations announced a $700 million trade pact for 1962 -- and Soviet aid to the island lying just 90 miles off the shore of US began in earnest. That aid now amounts to at least $3 billion yearly, the largest Soviet aid package on a continuing basis anywhere in the world.
Moreover, the whole Bay of Pigs fiasco, together with its aftermath, emboldened Dr. Castro to challenge the US directly and indirectly. "A thorn in our side," commented President Lyndon B. Johnson. Cuban-supported subversive movements cropped up all over Latin America. Eventually the Argentine-born Castro ally Ernesto "Che" Guevara went off to Bolivia; he perished in one of these subversive efforts aimed at bringing Castro-style rule to the South American heartland.
Dr. Castro may have mellowed in recent years -- and now appears interested in resuming some sort of relationship with the US. But the 1960s and early 1970s were years of heady contention between Washington and Havana. Cubanologists hold that the Bay of Pigs debacle was the key event in setting that confrontation in motion. Most analysts, however, argue that the confrontation between Washington and Havana was inevitable and would have come whether the ill-starred Bay of Pigs landing had taken place or not.
For Dr. Castro, there can be no doubt the US-sponsored landing of the Cuban exiles was a fortunate event. It provided him with a ready-made excuse whenever he faced economic troubles -- and he has had them aplenty during these intervening years.
He could, and did, blame these difficulties on the US, its opposition to his rule, and its blockade of his island. All he had to do to prove the point was to bring up the Bay of Pigs -- the Bahia de Cochinos, as it is called in Spanish. He brought it up repeatedly in his speeches of that era.
The Bay of Pigs also provided a psychological boost to Dr. Castro throughout the Western Hemisphere. It watered down US efforts to challenge Castro-backed subversion. To many in Latin America, the long era of US intervention in the Caribbean is still very real. The Bay of Pigs invasion was seen as yet another example of this era.
It has to be remembered that in April 1961 Dr. Castro was an unsullied hero to many Latin Americans who saw events in Cuba from a quite different perspective than they were seen in Washington. Ironically, it has been his link with the Soviets, orchestrated in earnest following the Bay of Pigs rout, which in the intervening years has turned many Latin Americans away from enthusiasm for Dr. Castro. Yet in 1961 this was not the case. At that time, the Bay of Pigs invasion was seen as good reason for Dr. Castro's embrace of the Soviets. He needed friends and allies, and, with the US challenging him not only with economic blockade but also military invasion, where else could he turn?
Dr. Castro made this point in a speech noting the 20th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs landing. With a new administration in the White House, which to many Cubanologists and to Dr. Castro himself seems bent on bringing down his government, he said: "Our true friends are not far away and we are glad for their unflagging support these past 20 years. We owe them a debt of gratitude."