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Cuba Marks Bay Of Pigs Anniversary With Fanfare


But first, Nick Miroff reports from Havana on how Cubans are remembering the Bay of Pigs at a time when Cuba is recasting its brand of socialism and still at odds with its old rival.

NICK MIROFF: Manuel Orgalles was a 17-year-old recruit in Fidel Castro's revolutionary army when American bombers flown by Cuban exiles launched the attack on April 15, 1961. Two days later, his artillery brigade was sent to fight on the beaches of the Bahia de Cochinos along Cuba's south coast.

Under heavy mortar fire, Orgalles and his team shot down a B-26 bomber with a 37-millimeter Soviet anti-aircraft gun at a pivotal moment in the battle.

Mr. MANUEL ORGALLES: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We had something to fight for, said Orgalles. We had seen how things had changed for the better after the revolution.

Today, his walls are decorated with war medals, photos of Castro and an empty shell casing he saved as a souvenir. He chokes up with emotion when he remembers the terror of combat and the teenage comrades he saw killed.

Mr. ORGALLES: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Everyone gets scared, he said, but you don't have to be old to be brave.

The CIA-trained Cuban exiles were hoping to spark an anti-Castro uprising, but instead, they were overwhelmed by thousands of militiamen and forced to surrender after just three days.

The failed attack would lead directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the 50-year standoff with the United States that continues today.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: On Saturday, Cuba marked the Bay of Pigs victory with a massive march and military parade. Buses brought in students and workers from all over the region.

(Soundbite of planes)

MIROFF: As Russian-made MiG fighter jets roared in formation over the Plaza of the Revolution, 72-year-old Candida Abreus said she was working at a government office for agrarian reform during the invasion, sending food from nationalized foreign companies to the soldiers. She remembers the sounds of bullet shells falling on the roof during an air attack on the Havana power plant.

Ms. CANDIDA ABREUS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We're the first country in the Americas to show the United States that you don't need to be a rich country, said Abreus, proudly explaining the origins of Cuban fortitude. You just need ovaries and testicles and principles, she said, and that's what we've got plenty of here, even me, at my age.

Raul Castro and the island's aging leaders are now meeting for the country's first Communist Party Congress since 1997. They're poised to adopt a series of reforms that would ease state control over the economy and scale back Cuba's suffocating bureaucracy.

Saturday's military showing seemed to also send the message that Cuba was wasn't letting down its guard, since relations with the U.S. have improved little since Frank Villanueva fought at the Bay of Pigs.

Mr. FRANK VILLANUEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: No one has ever burned an American flag here, Villanueva said. We don't have any problem with the American people, but the U.S. government has been trying to strangle us for 50 years.

In a two-and-a-half-hour speech Saturday evening to kick off the Party Congress, Raul Castro made a surprise call to limit Cuban officeholders to two five-year terms, including himself. It was a sign that the Castro era in Cuba is winding down, even as old animosities from the Bay of Pigs still remain.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.