The Fidel Fixation

Exactly 36 years ago the Central Intelligence Agency blew it at the Bay of Pigs. For an encore it created the biggest commando operation in U.S. history -- right here in South Florida. It's time for a sentimental tour.

4. Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay is next on the tour, and the only way to get there is by boat. If you don't own one, you can head for Biscayne National Park headquarters at the end of SW 328th Street, where a snorkel/scuba operator, with advance notice, will drop you off for an overnight adventure. Around the campfire you can reminisce about how, in 1960, Elliott Key and its neighbors were incorporated as the City of Islandia, a big-time real estate fantasy that was supposed to include an overseas highway from Key Biscayne all the way to Key Largo. But the dream fizzled and the largest island in what would later become Biscayne National Park remained a tropical no man's land, its dense vegetation and bloodthirsty mosquitoes discouraging all but the toughest visitors. In short, it was the perfect place for CIA-sponsored exile commandos and frogmen to practice for operations against Castro's Cuba. According to Bradley Earl Ayers, a U.S. Army Special Forces captain on loan to the CIA, operations were based out of an old house on the ocean side of the island's north end. In his book The War That Never Was: An Insider's Account of CIA Covert Operations Against Cuba, Ayers described spending six weeks in the fall of 1963 on Elliott Key, preparing a twelve-man team for an ambitious raid on a Cuban oil refinery. The training went as far as nighttime "attacks" on FPL's Cutler power plant across Biscayne Bay, which resembled the target; according to Ayers, the real thing was planned for December 1963 but was canceled after President Kennedy's assassination. "The Elliott Key safehouse proved to be an adequate, if somewhat austere dwelling," Ayers wrote, "a single-story wood-frame house set well back from the coast in a cluster of majestic pines." For the exiles, the house offered spiritual comfort as well as shelter; in one corner of the living room was a shrine in memory of commandos lost on earlier missions. For Ayers it had an additional amenity: a beautiful Cuban cook named Eleana, whose charms inspired some of the book's more purple prose.

5. Back to the mainland and north to that bastion of hyper-regulated primness, Coral Gables. Viewed from the street, 6312 Riviera Dr. looks innocent enough -- just another beautiful piece of Gables real estate, with a striking 60-year-old Mediterranean Revival mansion as its centerpiece. But according to legendary CIA boat captain (and later Watergate burglar) Rolando Martinez, the view from the street hides 6312 Riviera's most important feature: access to the Coral Gables Waterway, Biscayne Bay, and the open Atlantic. "You have to look from the other side of the channel and see -- they had a garage for the boats, a boathouse," says Martinez, who by the Agency's count ran more than 350 missions into Cuba during the Sixties, piloting 25- to 35-foot speedboats loaded with arms and exile infiltration teams. "It was good, the boathouse there -- you go in and no one could see you. They even had showers for when you came back." Departures from the Gables speedboat base were made at night, with all weapons -- particularly the big 57mm recoilless rifle Martinez brought along as emergency fire support -- secured well out of sight. Outbound for refueling points in the Keys or an offshore mother ship, the raiders would have looked like ordinary fishermen on their way to the Gulf Stream, except for one spooky detail: For security reasons, Cuban infiltrators wore hoods that completely covered their faces -- this to protect their identities from even the boat crew.

6. You can practically walk to the next stop: Poinciana Avenue between Le Jeune and Douglas, just inside Miami's city limits. Somewhere along this secluded stretch of Poinciana is the site of the safe house where veteran CIA agent E. Howard Hunt lived off and on in 1960 and 1961, and where he met with Cuban exile leaders such as Manuel Artime and Antonio "Tony" Varona -- a former prime minister of Cuba -- to develop the political structure that would take control of the island after the (expected) success at the Bay of Pigs. Hunt, who would later spend 32 months in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in scandal, is no longer sure of the house's exact location; the former Agency operative, now retired and living in Biscayne Park, remembers taking a CBS documentary crew looking for the place in the late Seventies and finding that it had been demolished. "It had a lot of big trees shading the entrance, and a high wooden fence," Hunt recalls. "It was a one-story ranch-style house with only one bedroom, but it had a big dining room and dining room table that we all sat around and jawed and cursed at each other." The only disadvantage of the safe house was the woman next door. "I had a neighbor there who thought I was a fag," Hunt relates. "She was kind of a nosy Nellie, and from her balcony she could overlook my place. Of course she saw all these men coming, night after night. She was alarmed, and she got me a date with her recently divorced daughter. Inasmuch as I was married, which of course I couldn't reveal to my neighbor, I guess the daughter -- when I didn't make any advances she confirmed her mother's suspicions. Which was fine. It was an additional layer of cover, you could say."

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