By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
MIAMI - In the weeks before U.S.-backed exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Felix Rodriguez was spirited into the island to work with underground forces against Fidel Castro's fledgling revolutionary government. A 19-year-old named Santiago Alvarez stood ready in the Florida Keys for orders to attack by sea, while another exile, Alfredo Duran, trained in Guatemala for a beachfront assault at Playa Giron on Cuba's southern coast.
Half a century later, they are still waiting for victory.
Castro decimated the underground before Duran ever reached shore. The U.S. never provided the air and naval support the exiles expected, and Cubans on the island never rose up to join them.
The failed invasion 50 years ago this weekend forever shaped the lives of Rodriguez, Alvarez and Duran, just as it defined U.S. policy at home and abroad. But the veterans themselves also marked the nation, helping turn Miami into a world famous, Cuban-dominated metropolis and playing key roles in Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. Each of their lives tells part of the story.
The invasion was perhaps the Americans' worst-kept secret.
Rodriguez was 16 and studying abroad in Pennsylvania when Castro rode into Havana during Christmas 1958 and overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. His family fled to Florida, where he was accepted by the University of Miami, and his parents bought him a baby blue Austin Healy.
As the convertible idled at a traffic light, an old woman scolded Rodriguez for joyriding rather than training to liberate his country.
Though he kept silent, that is precisely what he'd had been doing. Rodriguez was among more than 1,300 exiles training for the CIA-backed invasion in Cuba. The quick trip to Miami was meant for collecting weapons.
Rodriguez and others entered Cuba before the attack making contact with Batista supporters and former revolutionaries disillusioned with the new government's emerging communist bent. Then days before the invasion Castro made a sweep of the underground, arresting and executing its leaders.
Rodriguez would go on to have a CIA career that mirrored U.S. engagement across Latin America and Asia through the latter half of the 20th century. Now approaching 70, he still uses more than a half-dozen hidden cameras to check out visitors arriving at his modest Miami home.
From the leather recliner in his den, he bounces a laser pointer over pictures of himself with the last five U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama. By the door is the photo that made him famous: Rodriguez with Che Guevara, a day before the Argentinean doctor-turned-Cuban revolutionary icon's 1967 execution.
But that would come later.
As he awaited the invasion in a safe house in Havana, all the young Rodriguez knew was that things were bad.
Duran too had studied in the U.S. before the revolution, returning with an engineering degree just after Castro declared victory in Havana.
By the time Duran and his family made it to the U.S., the Eisenhower administration was recruiting anti-Castro exiles for the invasion modeled after the U.S.-backed overthrow of Guatemala's president nearly a decade before.
Duran entered the Bay of Pigs on April 17. Two days before, Cuban exile pilots helped destroy portions of Cuba's small air force, but Castro had enough jets remaining to take out the invaders' supply ships.
Castro's forces killed 118 exiles; 176 Cuban soldiers died. Duran and his comrades were captured and after a brief trial - in which his Cuban defense lawyer called for their execution - they were taken to prison.
Duran and more than 1,000 others were still behind bars in 1962 when Castro, fearing another U.S.-backed invasion, accepted a Soviet offer to build nuclear missiles on the island. When the U.S. went public with the news in October, the 10-day standoff brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It was averted when the Soviets promised to remove the missiles in exchange for President John F. Kennedy's vow not to invade Cuba.
Shortly after, Duran and the others were freed through quiet negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, but for many in Brigade 2506, and in the Kennedy administration, neither the Bay of Pigs nor the Cuban missile crisis would deter them from seeking Castro's demise.
Santiago Alvarez was stuck training and running supplies from a base on Florida's Big Pine Key during the invasion. He would spend decades making up for the fact that he missed out on the action at the Bay of Pigs.
He and other veterans quickly joined groups that staged raids on Cuba until following public outcry over increasingly high-profile attacks on the island, the U.S. government told Alvarez, Rodriguez and others to halt their efforts or take them off U.S. soil. They chose the latter.
In just one of the CIA's efforts to do away with Castro, more than 400 exiles - most of them Bay of Pigs veterans - trained and launched U.S.-funded attacks from camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua from 1963 to 1965, according to declassified documents from the National Security Archive. Alvarez captained a small boat that made runs into Cuban territory, dropping off infiltrators, supplies and occasionally blowing up bridges and factories.
Then the exiles again went too far, sinking a Spanish freighter they believed was a Cuban ship, killing three and prompting President Lyndon Johnson to quickly halt the program.
Back in Miami, Alvarez turned his attention to his new home. He bought a dump truck with cash he'd been given for his wedding, then another. Eventually, he developed shopping centers and more than 1,000 apartments and built himself a bayfront Miami mansion.
Other successful veterans include a world-famous classical guitarist, a top Miami surgeon and a state senator. They moved up the ranks in multinational companies and founded their own.
Duran, who later turned to real estate law, says he owes his initial career to the Bay of Pigs. Remembering his Cuban lawyer's recommendation he be shot, he became a Miami criminal defense lawyer.
As their efforts to overthrow Castro became sporadic in the late 1970s, the veterans' political involvement in the United States intensified. They used their stature to help elect six Cuban-Americans to the U.S. Congress. And they became a powerful - mostly Republican - voting bloc, credited with helping give President George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000.
While many Bay of Pigs veterans thrived in Miami, others like Rodriguez found returning to civilian life difficult. A number of brigade members went on to serve in the U.S. military with distinction. Others became involved in shadier operations beyond Cuba.
Several of President Richard Nixon's so-called plumbers were veterans of the invasion, including those involved in the Watergate burglary that led to Nixon's resignation.
Rodriguez remained committed to fighting communism worldwide. One of several CIA consultants, Rodriguez was the last to interview Che Guevara. He also advised the Salvadoran military during that country's civil war in the 1980s - a military that was accused of numerous human rights violations. There, he became involved with clandestine U.S. support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua as they fought against the fledgling leftist Sandinista government - even as Congress barred the government from such intervention. The ensuing scandal nearly brought down the Reagan administration.
The liquor bottles at the bar in Rodriguez's memento room hang upside down, ready to pour as he tells his tales.
"My wife, she's sick of hearing about the capture of Che," he says ruefully.
The veterans' ranks have thinned, but their influence persists: Nearly all the 2008 Republican presidential candidates made campaign stops at the small Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana.
In 2005, Alvarez was arrested after he tried to help fellow Bay of Pigs veteran Luis Posada Carriles, Castro's longtime nemesis. Posada was acquitted last week on charges he lied to officials about his involvement in a string of 1997 Havana hotel bombings.
Alvarez, 69, was accused of sneaking Posada out of Mexico and into the U.S. aboard his yacht in the spring of 2005. He says he left Posada in Mexico with money but didn't bring him to the U.S.
Later that year, Alvarez was arrested after the Coast Guard traced weapons to him including grenades, launchers and 14 pounds of powerful C-4 plastic explosives in the Bahamas. He denies they were his. Investigators found more weapons in a South Florida apartment he owned. Alvarez eventually pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge.
Released last year, he says the weapons in the apartment were never for an attack against Castro, insisting that any trips into Cuban waters made in recent years were done with smaller, defensive arms.
Alvarez no longer blames the U.S. for the Bay of Pigs failure and even questions the effectiveness of the U.S. government's decades-old embargo of the island. Had Cubans like himself not fled the island, many would have died, but he believes their efforts to overthrow Castro would have succeeded.
"That was our mistake - leaving," he says.
Duran stunned many contemporaries in 2001 when he and others returned to Cuba and met with Castro and some of the men they had fought against.
"I felt liberated," he says of having shaken the hands of his former enemies.
He still views Castro as a dictator but believes open exchange with the island is the only way to bring about change there. Many fellow veterans remain skeptical, but Duran's visit gave cover to those in his generation and the next to speak out in favor of policy changes.
It is this new generation, on both sides of the Florida Straits, where he places his hopes.
"Nothing will change, until the Castros are gone," Duran says. "It is this new generation we must hope for."