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article imageTo kill or defend Fidel: the Bay of Pigs from both sides

By Leila MACOR, with Rigoberto DÍAZ in Havana (AFP)     Dec 1, 2016 in World

In Miami, Julio Gonzalez Rebull ruminates over the failed attempt to invade Cuba in 1961. In Havana, Alberto Casanova boasts of the victory won by the Revolution. One wanted to kill Fidel Castro, the other wanted to protect him.

The invasion of Playa Giron, in the Bay of Pigs, sank one man into the gloom of exile; to the other, it symbolized the triumph of the Cuban revolution.

In Cuba, singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez dedicated a song to the episode, "Playa Giron," which for decades has been an anthem of the Latin American left.

In Miami, a museum devoted to the "2506 Brigade" pays tribute to veterans of the invasion, today respected septuagenarians.

Julio González Rebull  79 years old   was 23 when he took part in the failed CIA-backed atempt to o...
Julio González Rebull, 79 years old, was 23 when he took part in the failed CIA-backed atempt to overthrow Fidel Castro

"Most of them were taken prisoner and many were executed by firing squad," recounts Gonzalez, 74, at the museum, recalling the exile forces' hapless retreat on April 19. "It was something really sad."

For Gonzalez, Castro's death on Friday at the age of 90 marks the end of an era.

"The first thing I did when I saw he had died was go to the cemetery where many members of the brigade are buried, because I'm sure they are now more profoundly at peace," he told AFP.

He points out, with a smile, a picture in the museum in which he appears with some of the boys from the brigade. He looks very young.

Casanova, who is the same age as Gonzalez, also remembers the battle, but differently.

In his humble Havana apartment, he proudly displays one of his greatest treasures: the medal he received for having fought at Playa Giron.

"At my age, I am still ready to give my life for the revolution," he said. And he chokes up when he talks about his departed leader, who left his imprint on the history of the 20th century.

"He was more than a leader -- he was the father of a new Cuban nation."

- The fearsome B-26 -

After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the CIA recruited nearly 1,500 Cuban exiles in Miami and trained them in Central America for an invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs.

In Cuba, the CIA recruits were called "mercenaries." Many were inexperienced young men from well-off families who trusted in their powerful ally. But the US involvement had to be kept secret.

Cuban musician Alberto Casanova fought on the side of the Castro regime against the exiles during th...
Cuban musician Alberto Casanova fought on the side of the Castro regime against the exiles during the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961

In December 1960, Gonzalez began training at the Trax base, in Guatemala's Sierra Madre mountain range overlooking the Pacific.

"None of us were military men and we didn't know anything that we were taught there, from parachuting to firing all kinds of weapons," he recalled.

"It was a very inhospitable place. The barracks were made of wood. When it rained, the water would come in."

Before the bombing began, the 2506 Brigade carried out air missions over Cuba, dropping arms in the mountains of Escambray, in the province of Cienfuegos, to be picked up by infiltrators on the ground.

"We came and went. They were seven hour flights. Expert pilots say it is impossible that we could have flown so many hours in these old planes," Gonzalez said. The exiles' fleet of aircraft consisted of World War II-era C-46 transport planes and a B-26 bomber.

On the other side of the story, Casanova was capturing these "mercenaries" and gathering up the weapons and munitions that Gonzalez and his buddies were dropping by parachute.

The revolutionary recalls the first time he heard the roar of the B-26. He said he was so scared he ran to hide behind a palm tree.

"But when I got to the palm tree, there were already two other combatants behind it, and I crawled on top of them," he said.

During the days of the invasion, he lost seven kilos (15 pounds) and his teeth chattered for the first time in his life, he said. "I had a Czech submachine gun that sometimes went off by itself."

But even poorly equipped, Castro's revolutionary troops advanced and US involvement in the invasion soon became evident to the international community.

- Betrayal -

April 19, the day the invaders made their final push, "was an unforgettable day," said Gonzalez.

His mission was to take Playa Giron with 30 other paratroopers and transmit its capture by radio.

"But the captain of our plane shouted to us, 'Aircraft!' I prayed and prayed but luckily they were two unmarked American jets."

He and his comrades were relieved, thinking the jets would provide cover during the attack. Then, suddenly, they disappeared.

The new government of John F. Kennedy decided to withdraw its support in mid-battle, fearing that its involvement would be exposed.

To this day, the old Cuban fighters remember the betrayal with bitterness.

Fidel Castro (R) looking out from a tank during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961
Fidel Castro (R) looking out from a tank during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961
Handout, Oficina de Asuntos Historicos del Consejo de Estado/AFP/File

"Just like that, the gringos tipped their wings and were gone. And the two planes that were flying us were shot down by Castro's people and their captains were killed. My friend was in prison for 22 months. I was able to evacuate and they sent me to Nicaragua," Gonzalez said.

"The betrayal of us young people was so great..." he added angrily. "We had confidence that our allies would not abandon us."

On that point, Casanova is in agreement, saying: "From the moment they arrived they felt defeated, because they had been deceived."

Today, Gonzalez is a broadcaster on a Miami radio station, much like the one he hoped to broadcast from on Playa Giron in 1961.

Casanova, at home in Havana, decorates the walls of his house with pictures of his children and grandchildren who live in Florida.

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