The Venezuelan military’s ambush last week of a small marine invasion force, consisting of several dozen Venezuelans and two American “freedom fighters” attempting to overthrow the government of President Nicolás Maduro, immediately had journalists and political observers drawing comparisons to the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous C.I.A.-backed maritime invasion of Cuba, in April, 1961. The invasion force on that occasion was fourteen hundred Cuban exiles and a handful of American operatives aiming to topple the regime of Fidel Castro. They were outgunned and defeated by Castro’s fledgling army after three days of fighting, which resulted in at least three hundred deaths and the surrender of the invasion force.
The fallout from the Bay of Pigs, which occurred just two years after the Cuban Revolution, was huge, and soon became a synonym for a bungled covert operation. Not only did Castro remain in power but the attack significantly strengthened his hold on it. He seized the moment to defiantly declare “the socialist nature” of his regime and to ally it more openly with the Soviet Union. He also managed to heap humiliation on the recently inaugurated American President, John F. Kennedy, first by crushing his proxy soldiers on the battlefield, then by taking them prisoner and parading them through a series of televised show trials, and, finally, by forcing the U.S. government to pay a ransom of fifty-three million dollars (equivalent to nearly half a billion dollars today) in food and medicine to secure their freedom. A few months after the debacle, at a regional conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Castro’s confidante Ernesto (Che) Guevara thanked J.F.K.’s envoy, Richard Goodwin, for the Bay of Pigs, telling him, “Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
Just as crucially, the affair telegraphed weakness and indecision in the Kennedy White House. Although the President had inherited the operation from the Eisenhower Administration, he authorized it, even allowing reflagged U.S. bombers to strike Cuban airfields in a run-up to the attack. But, when the fighting bogged down on the ground, Kennedy called off planned-for U.S. air support, denying the C.I.A.’s men the backup they needed. Ill feeling persisted long afterward, both in the U.S.’s Cuban-exile community and among conservative Americans, including some in the intelligence community, for what they saw as Kennedy’s betrayal. Conspiracy theories claiming that his assassination may have been payback persist.
Those theories have been widely discredited, but the Bay of Pigs did have other momentous consequences, in both the short and the long term. It convinced the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, that he was dealing with neophytes in the White House, and he began shipping nuclear warheads to Cuba, where they were secretly installed and aimed at American cities. That act of temerity led, in October, 1962, to the Cuban missile crisis, in which Kennedy effectively stared down Khrushchev, and nuclear war was averted. But it was not entirely an American “win.” In exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, the United States agreed to give up its Jupiter-missile bases in Turkey, and also promised to cease and desist from further plans to invade Cuba. To a very large degree, that agreement gave Castro the breathing room he needed to recast Cuba as a Communist state, and to thumb his nose at Washington for the next half century.
Last weekend’s fiasco on a Venezuelan beach, called Operation Gideon, may have been a minor version of that event—what a former U.S. diplomat called a “Bay of Piglets”—but it shared many characteristics, not least its failure and the tragic consequences for six or possibly eight men who were killed and some forty who have been captured so far, including the two Americans. And, just as the Bay of Pigs was preceded by a two-year breakdown of relations between Cuba and the United States, the Trump Administration has been escalating tensions with the Maduro regime since 2017, with bellicose rhetoric and a series of sanctions packages. In January, 2019, President Trump recognized the opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who is the president of the National Assembly, as Venezuela’s true “interim” President and, three months later, supported his attempt to spark a military uprising, which failed. This February, Trump received Guaidó as a head of state at the White House, and gave him a shout-out during the State of the Union address, in the House chamber, where he was the President’s guest.
Trump has denied any prior knowledge of the Venezuela invasion, which was organized by Jordan Goudreau, who is a U.S. citizen, a former Green Beret and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq awarded three Bronze Stars, and the owner of a “risk management” company, Silvercorp USA, in Florida. (Other ideas that Goudreau has promoted include a proposal, following the school-shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, to station armed military veterans in schools.) In interviews over the past few days, Goudreau has said that Guaidó knew of his efforts, and has produced an agreement that Guaidó allegedly signed last October in which he promised Goudreau close to two hundred and thirteen million dollars in exchange for overthrowing Maduro. Guaidó has denied signing the document, but his representative in the United States, J. J. Rendón, an exiled Venezuelan political strategist, acknowledged that his signature, which also appears on the document, is genuine and that, some months ago, he paid Goudreau fifty thousand dollars for expenses. The signature of another aide to Guaidó, Sergio Vergara, also appears on the document. On Monday, both men resigned. A well-placed Western source in Caracas told me that, whether Guaidó signed the document or not, “What is clear is that he started the ball rolling, demonstrating a severe lack of judgment.” The source added, “That said, there is no one to replace him, and the government would roll right over the rest of the opposition. What is desperately needed is a genuine collective leadership in which the voices of moderation and common sense prevail.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, Guaidó is unlikely to resign, and Maduro is unlikely to arrest him, for the simple reason that Guaidó has Trump’s protection. In January, 2019, after the Trump Administration recognized Guaidó, John Bolton, then the national-security adviser, announced that any action that Maduro’s regime took against U.S. diplomats in Venezuela or against Guaidó would represent “a grave assault” and would be “met with a significant response.” In May, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. had not ruled out military action against the regime, and in many statements since then he and other officials have kept up the pressure by stating that “all options are on the table.” Cognizant of the risks, Maduro said that he had ordered an investigation into Guaidó’s possible involvement in the mission but that “the courts” would decide his fate.
Meanwhile, the two captured Americans, both of whom are former Special Forces soldiers who apparently served with Goudreau in Iraq, have appeared on Venezuelan television owning up to their roles in Operation Gideon, which included providing several months of military training to a group of Venezuelan exiles in a remote part of Colombia. One of them, Luke Denman, has said that the objective was to capture Maduro, and that he had been told that Trump was aware of the operation. The other American, Airan Berry, said he had understood that the mission was to get Maduro out of Venezuela “however necessary.” On Wednesday, Pompeo dismissed any suggestion of “direct” U.S. complicity, assuring reporters that, “if we’d been involved, it would have gone differently.” Trump noted, “If we ever did anything with Venezuela, it wouldn’t be that way,” adding, “it would be called an invasion.”
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