The patriotic displays this weekend in Havana (military marching through the streets, fighter jets flying over, Cubans participating in parades and celebrations) marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban victory at the Bay of Pigs—or as Cubans call it, Playa Girón—in 1961. The Bay of Pigs invasion is, of course, the infamous failed attempt by CIA-trained Cuban émigrés to attack the island and overthrow Fidel Castro. Their attack was easily quashed, and the defeat became a thorn in the side of Washington and Miami as the victory for Havana evolved into something of a national myth. It was the tangible success to which the Cuban government could point and laud the strength of the revolution and its ability to stand up to the island’s imperialist neighbor.
The story remains so, and on Saturday the country retold the story. Playa Girón was the fulfillment of a national dream, Cubans know, as the socialist revolution stood up to imperialism and won.
On the U.S. side, the recollection is a completely different stripe. While Havana celebrates the defeat of an imperialist’s mercenaries, in Miami the survivors of the 2506 Brigade reconvene to commemorate the day Cuban patriots fought against a tyrant in the name of democracy and freedom.
The divide is wide.
But beyond all this, the bigger story is going on in Havana’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, where President Raúl Castro opened the gathering with a speech heralding a new era in Cuba. Politicians, he proposed, should be limited to two 5-year terms (himself included). Castro admitted that his generation had failed to prepare a new generation of leaders, and this would assist in achieving that end. He called to eliminate Cubans’ monthly ration books, as this was a drain on the state budget, though he promised to maintain free health care and education. But freer private enterprise and entrepreneurship, within the greater socialist system, will help to boost Cuba’s troubled economy, he argued. The parameters of changes are yet to be defined; the goal of the Congress is to outline these plans to make the economy more efficient.
And so Cubans are trying to reconcile a celebration of the success of the revolution at Playa Girón with a simultaneous Congress designed to enact the most significant overhaul of the Cuban system in over fifty years, because the system as it stands—the system they are celebrating—actually is not working. Amid the parades and speeches there is recognition of that great paradox, and worry and wonder of what comes next.