They landed silently in the pre-dawn darkness: small groups of armed men seeking to overthrow Fidel Castro and his young government. Then everything went wrong. Two days later, the mission was in flames.
This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, when 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles tried to retake the island at gunpoint. The botched plot permanently soured relations between the two countries and contributed to the near apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis shortly thereafter.
Half a century later, the gulf remains. This weekend, as Cuban-Americans mourn the mission's failure, Cuban officials will lead a parade through Havana, hold a major political summit, and take a victory tour of Ireland. Wait... Ireland?
Here in Miami the anniversary is bittersweet. Those members of Brigade 2506 who survived the invasion only to be captured and ransomed back to the U.S. still remember their 103 casualties as martyrs.
In Havana, however, Cuban officials are using the occasion to call an historic Sixth Communist Party Congress. The government will hold a pep rally in the capital's streets tomorrow to commemorate its victory at Playa Girón.
A group of Cuban officials is even taking a celebratory tour of Ireland to honor the event, perhaps just to poke a finger in the wound many Irish-Americans still feel over John F. Kennedy's clumsy handling of the invasion.
But the mood in Cuba can't be completely celebratory. The anniversary comes at a moment in which Fidel's revolution is looking less and less communist by the day.
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In fact, the congress -- the first since 1997 -- is perhaps the most pivotal moment in Cuban politics since the island went Soviet back in 1975. As Fidel finally admitted last month, he's no longer at the party's helm. Instead, younger brother and current president Raúl Castro has been handed the crappy job of convincing 1,000 delegates to approve some last-ditch economic reforms.
In the past year, Raúl has pushed limited free-market reforms, including allowing his countrymen to get licenses to work in 178 approved private enterprises. His government has already begun laying off one million state employees in the hopes of creating a more vibrant, mixed economy.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a failure, pure and simple. But with Cuba at a crossroads, the anniversary may be more of a sore spot than a celebration for the Communist country.