‘1961 victory of Cuban people surprised
the world and preserved revolution’
Preface by Cuban commander for book
on Bay of Pigs invasion explains why U.S. mercenaries
were no match for revolutionary forces
Printed below is the preface by José Ramón Fernández to the book The Inevitable Battle: From the Bay of Pigs to Playa Girón. The book by Juan Carlos Rodríguez presents a valuable account of the events of the April 1961 U.S.-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
The author tells the story of how ordinary men and women took up arms in defense of the Cuban Revolution, which had conquered state power in the name of the workers and farmers of the island just two years prior. With arms in hand, working people from across the island rallied to the defense of the conquests they had made and were continuing to build upon.
The book tells how, mobilized by a proletarian leadership of the highest caliber, Cuba’s revolutionary militias and armed forces soundly defeated the invasion in less than 72 hours of combat. Despite the well-organized, well-resourced U.S. operation, the book explains, the Cuban people issued Washington its first military defeat in the Americas, testimony to the popular support among Cuba’s working people for the deep-going social revolution that decisively broke the economic power of the wealthy landholders in Cuba and the United States.
José Ramón Fernández was commander of the main column of Cuban forces that defeated the invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the mercenaries at Playa Girón. An account by Fernández of these events is also contained in Playa Girón/Bay of Pigs: Washington’s First Military Defeat in the Americas from Pathfinder Press.
BY JOSÉ RAMÓN FERNÁNDEZ
Bay of Pigs: The Inevitable Battle is testimony exploring the origins, development, and climax of one stage of the U.S. effort to destroy the Cuban Revolution—a stage that ended in the defeat of Assault Brigade 2506 on the sands of Playa Girón.
Based on thorough research, the book highlights previously unpublished and little-known aspects. Most striking, perhaps, is the magnitude of the CIA’s plan, told in all its military, economic, and political detail: the preparation for and launching of an insurgent war in the mountains; the subversive destabilization of the country, including, in its worst form, terrorism; the creation of a psychological climate. The plan included the setting up of recruitment and training centers, and giving top-quality training to the counterrevolutionary forces for conventional clashes of a limited scope. It included details as sophisticated as providing mosquito hats for protection against irritating insect bites, and placing technical resources at the disposal of these forces. It included assembling and structuring these forces, and the ideological work done toward them. In all of this, U.S. military leaders and politicians played a manipulative and dominant role.
The Playa Girón disaster is one of the events that generated the greatest number of analyses, reports, articles, and books in the United States. It produced profound bitterness in political circles and in the agencies of the administration, which were forced to explain what had failed in the almost-always perfect U.S. military apparatus. With very few exceptions, it is hard to find an explanation today in U.S. literature for what happened on those beaches that is not loaded with preconceived notions and assumptions. Not enough air raids; difficulties with supplies; perhaps the invasion should have been at Trinidad or somewhere else; and so on. Most U.S. analyses do not mention the obvious factor—which turned out to be decisive and is completely valid forty-five years later. That is, the unquestionable fact that the Cuban population was living through a revolutionary apex, and was in full agreement with Fidel’s political ideas. And at the same time we were expecting an invasion, including a direct U.S. invasion. For the Cuban people it was a question of confronting, repelling, and defeating a foreign invasion. And there is one force more powerful than steam, electricity, or atomic energy: the determination of man.
The author extensively describes the work carried out by the Revolution to confront and defeat the enemy’s plans. He highlights the actions against banditry, the penetration of the CIA’s center in Havana, and of its counterrevolutionary organizations in Cuba and the United States. He details the fight against sabotage, which reduced to ashes some of the country’s most important commercial centers and various factories. He tells how plots were foiled to assassinate the Commander in Chief, plots that reached a record number in the period leading up to Girón. He highlights Fidel’s work of education and clarification in face of the plans to intimidate the people through psychological operations. He lays bare the entire arsenal of resources, methods, and techniques used in the subversive war of propaganda, including its main weapons: Radio Swan, disinformation and rumor campaigns lacking a shred of ethics and displaying unprecedented cynicism, exemplified by the “parental custody” operation aimed at violating the purest values of the Cuban family.
From the standpoint of strategy and tactics, the operation as it was conceived cannot be faulted. They chose an area to land that had an airstrip and infrastructure but was separated from solid ground by a swamp crossed by only three access roads—and it was over these three roads that the paratroopers were dropped. They came well-organized, well-armed, and with good support. But the cause they were defending was neither right nor just. That’s why they did not fight with the ardor, courage, firmness, valor, and spirit of victory shown by the revolutionary forces.
This explains the extraordinary scope of the Cuban people’s victory, which must have come as a great surprise to the United States government, which expected a different outcome. The outcome can only be explained by the courage of a people that saw in the triumph of January 1, 1959, the real possibility of controlling their own destiny. That is why they proudly wore the blue denim shirt and olive-green beret, and were willing to fight with the certainty that “No pasarán”—the enemy shall not pass.
The men who cheered Fidel Castro as he traveled through almost the entire island in victory in those early days of January 1959 were the same ones, now convinced of their cause, rifle in hand, who on April 17, 1961, were determined to resist and defeat the U.S. aggression. In that short period of time, the work of the Revolution, and especially Fidel’s words, took deep root in the feelings of the Cuban people. They took as their own the concepts of national sovereignty, social justice, equality, and dignity. The Revolution had solved the problem of the land. It was taking sure and tangible steps to eliminate racial discrimination and discrimination against women. It was ensuring the great masses access to jobs, education, public health, sports, and culture. Its effort to eradicate every type of corruption was becoming rooted in popular consciousness.
In addition to the esthetic and political merits of the author’s narration, his account of the changes that began to take place in 1959 in the Zapata Swamp—the future theater of operations—is a concrete demonstration of the economic and social achievements the Revolution attained in that short period.
“The Cuban people were experiencing intense moments of patriotism and revolutionary fervor. Support for the Revolution and for its leader Fidel Castro had risen to a level never seen before for any other leader in the hemisphere,” the author said, and that would be the main cause of the mercenaries’ defeat.
“Get up, the invasion is here and the Americans are attacking! The Americans are in the swamp!” Those were the voices that ran from house to house in the town of Jagüey Grande, the closest to the landing site. They thought they were Yankee Marines, and began gathering at militia headquarters, the municipal government, and Rebel Army headquarters, asking for weapons and instructions.
The millions of Cubans who were preparing to resist, like the inhabitants of Jagüey, those who directly faced the invasion and gave their lives or were victorious, and those who neutralized the genuinely pro-annexation internal counterrevolution knew why they were doing what they did. In contrast to the situation of other nations, ours was not unarmed or disorganized when the attack occurred.
Moreover, not even the necessity of defending the Revolution against such an enormous danger led Fidel to make concessions. Being a militia member was not easy. You had to win that right.
I was at the camp of the School of Cadets in Managua, at the mouth of the La Magdalena River on the southern side of the Sierra Maestra. From there we climbed Turquino Peak. The order was to climb to the top twenty times, and when we had completed half the mission, I received the order to appear before the Commander in Chief here in Havana. He told me to find a place to set up a school where we would give classes to a large group of selected workers, union leaders, and students who would, in turn, lead the militia battalions. I should mention that by the time I had contact with the first class, its members—following Fidel’s instructions—had climbed the Turquino five times.
A few weeks after this class was held at the Militia Leadership School in Matanzas, the militia battalions began to be organized. Fidel sent for me to lead the training of battalions in the capital. That was when he asked us what test we would give to the volunteers in order to measure their determination, firmness, and drive to become militia members.
I remember that Fidel proposed that they go and return in a single day from Managua to Santa Cruz del Norte. We looked for the map and measured the distance. It was more than one hundred kilometers there and back. A man would have to be in exceptional physical condition and well-trained to do it in one day. It was almost impossible. Finally, the route chosen was through Managua, taking the highway that leads to Batabanó, continuing to San Antonio de las Vegas, and from there to Ruda, then taking the Central Highway to San José and Cuatro Caminos and returning to Managua. That was the start of the famous sixty-two-kilometer test.
The first battalion to pass the test and the school was the 111th. Each militia member was given a small card that was marked at different points to prove the course had been followed. That night, there was a tremendous rainstorm. Fidel joined in the march at one point as it was raining. The next morning, nobody had returned at the estimated hour. We assumed that they were going to start arriving a little after sunrise, but the sun rose and nobody came. At about 10 a.m., the first ones arrived, and then at 11 and 12 and 1, little by little, they began to show up, exhausted. Later, the ones who didn’t pass the test began arriving in any vehicle they had managed to find. At about 4 p.m., we assembled the leadership cadres and I was there analyzing and reviewing our performance in a classroom when the door opened and Fidel came in. I explained to him what was going on. He ordered me to have the battalion form ranks. We organized those who were there, some more cheerful than others. Fidel spoke to the militia members. To those who didn’t pass the sixty-two-kilometer test, he said they had to do so in order to be part of the battalion; but he noted that it was voluntary. He grouped together the ones who had arrived first and told them they were a “light combat company,” which was a unit with a different purpose and weapons, a shock force. In his final comments, he said to those who hadn’t passed but who wanted to leave that they could do so if they liked; those who decided to stay would have to do the march again. Nobody left. “When do we do it?” they asked. There are always those who get carried away and that day there were some. “Let’s do it today!” many of them said passionately. It was decided to do it two days later. And everybody passed.
It’s important to say that throughout the course, the militia members did not live or sleep indoors; it was the hammock, under the trees. They cooked outdoors with firewood; used rudimentary latrines dug in the ground, and lived without running water or showers. The only light they had was the moon and stars. When it rained, they lived in water and mud. They did military exercises all day and guard duty at night. It wasn’t easy. And each battalion had 995 troops.
When the two-week course was over, each militia member was given the green beret that became an emblem. The presentation of the beret was cause for celebration. The militias became a giant school of revolutionaries. From the anonymity of their ranks came the leadership cadres; they did not come from castes. They were industrial and agricultural workers, intellectual workers, and students.
The soldiers and officers of the Rebel Army and the National Revolutionary Police were also subjected to very hard tests. They were knowledgeable about guerrilla warfare and were just beginning to learn about the new weaponry and the art of conventional warfare when the landing happened. The tank crewmen were learning how to load the guns on the road as they headed for the battlefield. The few pilots we had took off in planes that they themselves described as “Homeland or Death”; the planes were not in or out of commission, they simply flew because of the inventiveness of their mechanics and the courage of their aviators. The soldiers in the main columns were constantly mobilized.
All of those tests and Fidel’s concepts—which were not new, they were from the Sierra—contributed much to the high morale of the militias and the Revolutionary Armed Forces, above all among men from the city who had never led such a rough life, day and night; so difficult, out in the open, under the rain, the night dew. These factors were decisive to the defeat of the armed bands and the mercenaries at Girón and were important during the October [Missile] Crisis. It is a requirement that has been repeated many times, and is now a popular tradition.
I should not fail to mention that the same spirit, the same revolutionary passion that Fidel implanted in the Sierra in the early days of the struggle are the same spirit and passion in which our Revolutionary Armed Forces continue today to be educated, under the leadership of Raúl. They are examples of austerity, honor, selflessness, and patriotism.
It is a passion like the one demonstrated in recent times, above all, in face of a real, imminent danger like Girón, a passion that produced a victory that surprised the world and preserved the Revolution, because Fidel had unleashed the strength of the people. That is the only way we can explain the defeat of an undertaking as enormous and aggressive as the one described in this book.