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 Sunday forever shaped the lives of those involved, just as it defined U.S. policy at home and abroad and even the way Cubans on the island view themselves today.
But the exile veterans themselves also marked their new home country, helping turn Miami into a world famous, Cuban-dominated metropolis and playing key roles in Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Rodriguez, the CIA operative whose fame grew out of his role in capturing communist revolutionary Che Guevara, now heads the veterans association and its small museum _ a requisite political stop, particularly for Republicans seeking the U.S. presidency.
Alvarez became a successful developer, literally helping build up Miami, while quietly backing renegade anti-Castro operations, a history that eventually cost him four years behind bars.
Duran, a defense lawyer-turned-real estate attorney and rare Democrat among his Cuban contemporaries, turned heads a decade ago when he returned to Cuba to meet the men he fought against.
But for Brigade 2506, as the Bay of Pigs force was known, their first fight _ driven by a vision of a Cuba without Castro _ stays with them, even as their struggle now belongs to younger generations.
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. Rodriguez's 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 passing by scolded Rodriguez.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," she said. "You should be in the training camps, training to liberate your country."
Though he kept his silence, that is precisely what the privileged teen had been doing. With friends lining up in a neighborhood not yet called Little Havana to participate in a CIA-backed plan to "liberate" Cuba, Rodriguez skipped college and headed for southeastern Guatemala. There he joined more than 1,300 exiles in training for months in sabotage, radio communications and combat. The quick trip to Miami was meant for collecting weapons.
Months before the invasion, Rodriguez and others entered Cuba and made contact with a mix of Batista supporters and former revolutionaries disillusioned with the new government's emerging communist bent. When news of the impending invasion reached Castro, he 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.
He warms up quickly once they're inside. In a town known for braggadocio, Rodriguez is renowned even among friends for his willingness to recount his Cold War exploits.
From the leather recliner in his den, he bounces a laser pointer over pictures of himself with journalist Barbara Walters, a former KGB director and the last five U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama. A blood-stained flag captured from the Viet Cong hangs near a Soviet grenade he took in El Salvador. By the door is the photo that made him famous: Rodriguez with a bedraggled Che Guevara, a day before the Argentinean doctor-turned-Cuban revolutionary icon's 1967 execution.
All that would come later, of course.
As he awaited the invasion in a safe house in Havana, all the young Rodriguez knew was that things were going wrong.
The stepson of Cuba's Senate president under the Batista government, Duran too had studied in the U.S. before the revolution, returning home from Louisiana 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 an invasion modeled after the U.S.-backed overthrow of Guatemala's president nearly a decade before.
Following training in Guatemala, Duran entered the Bay of Pigs with the brigade's 3rd Battalion 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.
That was among the first signs the operation was not well-planned. Duran said he realized things were going badly when a resupply plane dropped ammunition that didn't fit the guns the insurgents were carrying.
Other brigade members still recall desperation as they watched U.S. fighter jets take off from carriers stationed along the Cuban coast and fly over them without firing; Washington's ambassador to the United Nations had denied the U.S. had any involvement at all, so any direct link to the attack would have been an embarrassment.
That left the army of exiles at the mercy of the Cuban air force, and it gave away the amphibious assault that followed.
When the invasion finally came, Rafael Soldevilla Quesada had an intimate view of Castro's response: He was on guard duty at Castro's house when news of the attack came.
"Fidel said `what fools they are!'" recalls Soldevilla, now 74.
Castro was certain, Soldevilla says, that the aerial attack "was the prelude to an invasion. We knew they were coming."
Even without the element of surprise, the mere sight of the invaders' flotilla left some of the Cubans awestruck. Soldevilla recalls seeing so many ships once he got to the battle that it looked like an entire city had descended on the bay.
It was not enough.
Castro's forces killed 118 exiles; 176 Cuban soldiers died. Duran and his comrades went days without fresh water, hiking in the brush and trying to survive on crabs before they were captured by Castro's forces.
"I said give me water and then shoot me," Duran recalls. After a brief trial _ in which his Cuban defense lawyer called for his execution _ Duran and more than 1,000 others were taken to prison.
Duran was still there 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 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles in exchange for President John F. Kennedy's vow not to invade Cuba.
Duran and the other prisoners were soon swapped for medicine and cash in an exchange that set the stage for quiet negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba through the decades, even as the U.S. officially maintained its embargo.
In Miami, Kennedy greeted the returning veterans as heroes and offered them military commissions. Duran declined, soured on the possibility for successful military intervention on the island.
For many others in the group, and for 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 at a training and supply 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.
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 schemes 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. Rodriguez handled communications at the base camp. 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. Alvarez's crew sank what they believed to be the Sierra Maestra, a Cuban ship, but was in fact a Spanish freighter. Three sailors were killed and more wounded, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to quickly halt the program.
Most of the exiles returned to the U.S., but some held onto the land in Nicaragua through the late 1970s. Others leveraged their contacts to return to the region in the 1980s as part of U.S. efforts to fight left-leaning guerrilla movements throughout Central America.
By the mid-1960s, Alvarez realized it could be many years before he returned to Cuba, so he turned his attention to his new home. He bought a dump truck with cash he'd been given for his wedding, then another.
Soon he was hauling concrete blocks and then learning to make the blocks. He eventually got his contractor's license and developed shopping centers and more than 1,000 apartments, built himself a bayfront Miami mansion and bought property in the Bahamas.
"I learned about how important it is to have good friends in a country like this," Alvarez says.
Other remarkable success stories emerged from the small group that trained together to overthrow Castro. One became a world-famous classical guitarist, another, a top Miami surgeon. One became a state senator. Others moved up the ranks in multinational companies like Dow Chemical or founded their own. Their names began to grace street signs and buildings.
Duran, who later turned to real estate law, says he owes his initial career to the Bay of Pigs: "Remembering our Cuban lawyer's recommendation we be shot, I became a Miami criminal defense attorney."
Andy Gomez of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American Studies, says veterans like Alvarez and Duran represent the broader influence Cuban exiles exerted in putting Miami on the world map.
"We played a significant role in turning Miami into the capital of Latin America, a global melting pot," said Gomez, himself Cuban-American. "We stayed here, and we became part of the entrepreneurial, successful community that Miami is today."
As their efforts to overthrow Castro became sporadic in the late 1970s and 1980s, the veterans' political involvement in the United States intensified. Their support and stature among older exiles helped elect four Cuban-Americans to the U.S. House and two to the Senate, a sizeable number for such a small community.
Duran cut his teeth in politics working for Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. One of the few longtime Democrats among the veterans, he disputes the notion that Cubans turned against the Democratic Party following the Bay of Pigs. After all, the CIA kept funding their activities even after Kennedy's assassination, with strong support from his brother Bobby.
Many Cuban exiles, former business leaders in their native country, identified with the Republican Party's business friendly platform and conservative agenda but, at least until President Jimmy Carter's diplomatic overtures toward the island in the late 1970s, they remained up for grabs.
Even some of the community's most prominent Republican politicians, like recently retired U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, remained Democrats until the 1980s.
"The Republicans viewed us as an emerging minority," Duran says, noting that Democrats focused in the civil rights era on courting black votes in the South. "At first it was as much about local politics."
Soon it also became about Castro and the legacy of the Bay of Pigs, and that emerging minority became one of the nation's most crucial voting blocs _ credited for helping give President George W. Bush his 537-vote victory in Florida over 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.
Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Archives' Cuba project and author of "Bay of Pigs Declassified," describes a nucleus of hard-core Cuban-Americans who were central figures in scandals such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. Several of President Richard Nixon's so-called plumbers were veterans of the invasion, including some involved in the Watergate burglary that led to Nixon's resignation.
Rodriguez remained committed to fighting communism worldwide. During the Vietnam War, he worked on the CIA's program to "neutralize" civilian support for the Viet Cong.
He is best known for helping the Bolivian military track Che Guevara. One of several CIA consultants, Rodriguez was the last to interview the militant whose beret-topped image graces T-shirts in the U.S. and beyond, even today.
Rodriguez also advised the Salvadoran military during that country's civil war in the 1980s _ a military that was accused of numerous human rights violations. He takes credit for capturing one of the Salvadoran guerrillas' top female leaders, who maintains she was tortured by her captors.
It was in El Salvador that he began serving as the liaison for the 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.
Rodriguez met then Vice President George H.W. Bush in the White House during this period through his boss in the Contra operations, according to declassified documents. But his testimony denying Bush knew of the Contra plan helped keep the vice president from being enmeshed in the scandal that 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 _ maybe a third of them survive _ but their influence persists. Rodriguez speaks at schools and conferences. He and others remain active in politics _ a photo with Rodriguez can help cement a small but reliable voting bloc.
Nearly all the Republican presidential candidates made campaign stops and downed the requisite sweet Cuban coffee at the small Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana during the 2008 election. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a group that supports the U.S. embargo of the island and whose members include a number of veterans and their relatives, has given more than $2 million to Democratic and Republican candidates since 2004.
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 but refused to testify against Posada.
Rodriguez was among those who wrote letters for Alvarez, urging the judge to reduce his sentence and describing him as "a man of utmost integrity with a strong sense of patriotism."
Released last year, Alvarez says the weapons in the apartment weren't for an attack against Castro, insisting that any trips into Cuban waters made in recent years were done with smaller, defensive arms.
Today, Alvarez's yacht is parked most days at a small dock on the Miami River, next to an Italian speedboat he says he uses "to get to the diving reefs quickly."
He no longer blames the U.S. for the Bay of Pigs failure and even questions the utility 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.
In today's Cuba, Playa Giron holds a revered place in the lore of the revolution, particularly for those who were there. The overthrow of Batista was important, but it was just the first step, says Francisco Manuel Torreiro, who as a 15-year-old trained with his father in a militia and was shot in the hip during the battle.
"We are here today because in Giron, thousands of Cubans didn't let them make a beachhead," Torreiro says. "If they had made that beachhead, another rooster would be singing.".
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 simply of having met and 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."
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.