Bay of Pigs-The Inside View

BBC April 17, 1961

“The Cuban Military have been on high alert for an imminent invasion for some days.”

Most of my friends had left the country and I was no longer going to school by April of 1961.  Our new next -door neighbors were Miguel and Rosa Estades and their children Roberto and Rosa María.

One morning in early April of 1961 my grandmother said that I needed to go next door.   I could sense she and my aunts were tense, but I could also sense this was no time to ask questions.  Being a kid in an unpredictable environment sharpens your emotional compass.

Rosa and Miguel’s maid opened the door for me and I sensed in her the same tension I had felt in my own house.  She led me to Rosa’s room where Rosa lay on a bed in traction.   After saying hello and listening to her explanation of her chronic back injury, I walked to the kitchen where Roberto and Rosa María sat at the kitchen table.  Suddenly there was a forceful knock at the front door.  Then another.  And another.  The maid walked slowly to answer the door at the same time that Miguel, running as if the devil were after him, jumped the fence in his backyard and disappeared into the neighbor’s yard.  The maid opened the door and several armed militiamen walked in asking, “Where is Miguel Estades?

The maid said he wasn’t there but they were welcome to wait for him if they liked. She asked the men if they would like some coffee. Two of the men said no and went outside.  We could see them walking in the yard where moments before Miguel had climbed the fence.  Then they disappeared from our view.

The other men said yes, they would stay and wait, and would have some coffee after they searched the house.  And search they did.  Every room except the room where Rosa lay in excruciating pain moaning incessantly-something she hadn’t been doing when I first arrived.

The maid put the small cups full of coffee on a tray and brought them to the militiamen who had joined us at the table.  Miraculously they reached their destination without spilling from the violent shaking of her hands.  The men joked with each other and tried to engage us in conversation.  They asked us where Miguel was and all of us said we didn’t know.  Children had learned to lie long before the Revolution.  During the time of Batista the wrong answer to whether our family was for Fu (Fulgencio Batista) or Fi (Fidel Castro) could have dangerous consequences.

Another knock at the door and a long walk down the hall later revealed Miguel, bloody and handcuffed at the doorway, flanked by the militiamen that had gone outside to search for him.  We didn’t move.  Rosa continued to moan unaware of the spectacle.  All the militiamen left taking Miguel with them.  Roberto, Rosa María and I stood holding hands in the hallway and watched the maid disappear into Rosa’s room.  The moaning stopped.  Whispers began.  Roberto led us to the room.

Rosa was out of bed on all fours on the floor handing the maid the rifles that had been under her bed all along.  She told me to run back home right away and tell my dad “they have Miguel and they know”.  I ran out the door, up the steps to the sidewalk, and without bothering to look around ran back to my house so fast that to this day I don’t think I ever took the time to draw a breath.  Everyone but my father was gathered in the living room.  I told them what Rosa said.  My aunt Mimi said they already knew.  They knew they were coming for my father and had asked me to go next door thinking I would be safe there. The counter revolution had been ready to join the invasion and they were legion.

One by one, for the three weeks preceding the Bay of Pigs invasion, almost every able-bodied man was taken from his home. My father was held at El Principe fortress in Havana.  When all the fortresses were full, the men were interned in schools, movie theaters, night clubs- anywhere they fit.  By the time the expedition landed at the Bay of Pigs only women, children, and the very old walked the streets of Havana.  It was an eerie sight that lasted for days.  That is part of the reason the invasion failed.  There was no one left to fight.  The men that came in the brigades expected their support.   I can’t imagine what they thought when they landed and found themselves alone.

The day after  it was over, church bells woke the citizenry.  Church bells.  From the churches where we no longer worshiped.  A strange way to announce the Revolution’s victory.  Malevolent.

14 comments

  1. Our house was assaulted, I really thought they would kill us all…but they had come for my father’s arrest, he shot himself after a shooting spree that seemed like an eternity.

    We remained under our grandmother’s bed in the first floor….and did not see anything.

    A lot of men and women were arrested and shot that day….anyone they felt could aid the invaders inside the island was seen as a threat.

    Emy Botet

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  2. The days around the Bay of Pigs invasion provided me with the eeriest experience of my youth. I remember stepping out from our apartment building to start my usual 12-block walk to school and, instead of the usual busy streets, there were few civilians and many police or militiamen in a highly agitated state. Patrol cars, vans and trucks whizzed by full of civilians just arrested. I kept walking to school pretending to be unconcerned. I was part of a group who was organizing a protest and student strike for later that day. When I arrived in school I learned that many older students had been arrested. I did what I had been repeatedly told by my parents to do: stay quiet and make myself invisible. I was only 15, and I was dumbfounded to see our vibrant city of Havana looking like a city under Nazi occupation that I had seen in a World War II movie. My father was spared arrest because he had just been transferred to another agency and was not well known there. He had learned to keep quiet also. After that my parents did not let me return to school and their search for a way out of Cuba took on an even more urgent tone. Yes, the Castro regime was ruthless in their swift handling of dissent right from the start. The Castro people meant to have sole and permanent power in Cuba and would do whatever they wanted to attain that aim. It still feels strange to realize how lucky we were to escape!

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  3. Thanks for sharing, Yoli. There is nothing more powerful than eyewitness testimony. Yes. They were putting people in the back of trucks, holding them at gunpoint and herding them like cattle into whatever “container” they could find. I couldn’t believe what was happening to our country. My dad left our home with jet black hair. When he came back just a few days later his hair was white. I didn’t know him from a distance, then thought he was in disguise. He never talked about his experience but it didn’t slow down his counter revolutionary activity. On the contrary.
    If water could feel itself going down the drain-that’t the helplessness of those days watching the country we had known disappear.

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  4. On April 22 the “milicianos” searched our Miramar apartment at 2:30 in the morning. They searched through everything including my letters and my brother’s letters. I was 13 and my brother Alejandro was 15. On April 25th they detained Alejandro and he was imprisoned in one of those makeshift jails for about ten days. Alejandro left Cuba the 22 of July of that year, as a Pedro Pan (though he, as most Pedro Pans, had no idea of the existence of Operation Pedro Pan). Two days after he left, the “milicianos” came back to get him and were absolutely irate when they found out that he had left the country.
    My brother Javier, 21, had been detained for a few days before the Invasion. My brother Carlos, 25, who was already married, was taken prisoner at the Port of Havana when he was going to board the Palm Beach ferry, and was kept in jail for two weeks. My dad was also detained some time after and then released.
    My cousin Juan Antonio Muller, 25, was already serving a 9 year sentence in Castro’s prison, without a trial. His brother, Alberto Muller, who had just turned 22, was caught in the underground shortly after the invasion. He was given a 20 year sentence. Both had been politically involved against Batista, and when they realized what Castro was really about, they became active in the counter-revolutionary movement.

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  5. Oh Elena. I remember your cousin Alberto! What a story! The milicianos went through your letters and they took my diary- grist for another blog. Days of madness. Did Juan Antonio and Alberto serve out their sentences? So glad Alejandro got out! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I really appreciate it!

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