Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed Batista dictatorship in January 1959 to take control of Cuba, and in 1960 he took over US oil refineries in the country. In response, the United States stopped buying Cuban sugar and Castro retaliated by seizing all US-owned businesses in Cuba.
When John F Kennedy replaced Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States he was told about the CIA plan to invade Cuba. Kennedy had doubts about the venture but he was afraid he would be seen as soft on communism if he refused permission for it to go ahead.
Kennedy’s advisers convinced him that Castro was an unpopular leader and that once the invasion started the Cuban people would support the CIA-trained forces.
On 14 April 1961, B-26 planes began bombing Cuba’s airfields. After the raids, Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots.
On 17 April an armed force of approximately 1,500 Cuban exiles calling themselves the 2506 Brigade landed in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba to stage an invasion – codenamed “Operation Pluto” – with the support of the US government.
The fighting force had been trained in Guatemala by the CIA since May 1960. Supplied with arms by the US government, the rebels intended to foment an insurrection in Cuba and overthrow Castro’s regime.
They hoped to gain support from the local population, cross the island to Havana, and overthrow Castro. Poorly planned and executed, the invasion was a spectacular failure and the Cuban army easily defeated the rebels by 20 April.
The 2506 Brigade was outnumbered and outgunned, and the freighter ships containing their reserve ammunition and communication equipment for the invasion were sunk less than an hour into the battle.
Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down.
The Cuban exiles fought bravely, but 114 died and more than 1100 were taken to Cuban prisons. Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered.
The chances of a successful invasion were slim from the start – Security for the operation was poor, and a planned decoy “attack” on the US base at Guantanamo never happened, nor did the agency’s other ace in the hole – the assassination of Castro.
The CIA had hired the Mafia to kill Castro (something which both organisations dearly desired), with the hit to occur at the same time as the invasion.
If the invasion had succeeded, all eight would have been killed, so that Nixon-backed Cubans could take over.
The invasion provoked anti-US demonstrations in Latin America and Europe, further soured US/Cuban relations and subjected President Kennedy to severe criticism at home – although he had actually inherited the invasion plan when he was elected to office and the operation had been authorised in March 1960 by President Eisenhower.
In December 1962, Castro released 1,113 captured rebels in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine raised by private donations in the United States.
The consequences of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the CIA war against Castro continued for many years.
The agency tried to kill Castro more than two dozen times, up until at least 1987. There have also been numerous cases of CIA sabotage in Cuba, including the use of germ warfare.
As for the Cuban exiles involved in the Bay of Pigs, many turned to organised crime and freelance terrorism. Others continued to work for the CIA on covert operations. Many did both.
The CIA internal investigation report in the 1960s into the Bay of Pigs disaster was released for the first time after 36 years in February 1998, and it blamed the agency, not JFK, for the failure.
It said it had been the CIA’s ignorance and incompetence that caused the disaster.
The report was released under the Freedom of Information Act after a request by the National Security Archive, a non-profit organisation in Washington, DC.