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50 years after Bay of Pigs, Cuba eyes new course

12 april 2011, 11:44
Cuba prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of its victory over the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion as it convenes a Communist Party congress that sets new political and economic goals for the struggling island, AFP reports.

A military parade in the Plaza de la Revolucion, the political heart of the country, will open the ceremonies on Saturday, exactly half a century after Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the regime on the eve of the landing by 1,400 exiles armed by the CIA.

As a symbol of the revolution's future, thousands of youths will bring up the rear of the parade, after which the Cuban Communist Party will begin its first party congress in 14 years.

A thousand delegates are to vote on economic reforms proposed by President Raul Castro, update the country's one party political system, and either re-elect or relieve an ailing 84-year-old Fidel as party leader.

Warning "either we change course or we sink," the 79-year-old Raul convened the congress to recast Cuba's Soviet-style centralized system "without restoring capitalism," or deviating from the socialist path his brother blazed 50 years ago.

It will be the last meeting of the "historic generation" of guerrillas who swept to power on January 1, 1959 and fought the United States in a long chain of Cold War battles that began with the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961.

In what Cuba celebrates as "the first great defeat of imperialism in Latin America," Fidel Castro led Cuban forces in a counter-attack that defeated the invaders in 72 hours of bloody combat on Playa Larga and Playa Giron 200 kilometers (124 miles) southeast of Havana.

The debacle left 161 dead in Cuba along with 107 invaders, and Cuba took 1,189 prisoners who were exchanged in 1962 for $53 million worth of food and medicine.

"Let them return as many times as they'd like. Here we'll wait with rifle in hand. Let's hope the youth see it through," said Domingo Rodriguez, a 70-year-old veteran of the battle.

He spoke on the white sand of Playa Larga where he said Fidel himself fired a tank round that sank the lead vessel of the invasion.

Approved by US President Dwight Eisenhower and adopted by his successor John F. Kennedy, the operation began on April 13, 1961 when freighters set sail from Nicaragua with the 2506 Brigade, an exile force trained at secret bases in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

As a prelude to the invasion, B-26 bombers with false Cuban insignias bombed two air bases, in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, on the morning of April 15 in an attempt by the CIA to eliminate the Cuban air force.

On April 16, at the funeral of seven victims of the air attack, Fidel Castro, then 35, declared for the first time the revolution's socialist ideology, after denying for years that he was a communist.

"What the imperialists cannot forgive is that we have made a socialist revolution under the very noses of the United States," he said.

The fight dealt a stinging blow to the young President Kennedy, bolstered Castro's hold on power, and permanently imbued relations between the countries in hostility.

President Barack Obama sought to ease some aspects of the embargo on the communist state, but relations have seen a chill since the December 2009 arrest of an American for distributing laptops and communications equipment.

The State Department contractor, Alan Gross, was recently convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of Cuba, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Havana has been demanding the release of five Cubans jailed in the United States for espionage.

Former US president Jimmy Carter traveled to Havana at the end of last month and met Fidel and Raul Castro in a visit aimed at improving US-Cuban relations, but this has failed to yield any concrete results so far.

The reforms sought by Castro seek to have former state workers absorbed by the private sector, for state subsidies to be cut, for urban cooperatives to spring up, the welcoming of foreign capital, and for companies to operate autonomously.

But the Cuban leader said recently it would take "at least five years" to see through economic reforms after running into problems with its plan to lay off half a million state workers.

"Carrying out our model is not the task of just one day, not even of one year, and because of its complexity it will require at least five years to complete its implementation," he said.

"The biggest threat to the revolution resides precisely in the mistakes we could make."

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