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Americans Again Invade Bay of Pigs

January 24, 1998

PLAYA GIRON, CUBA (AP) _ Americans have invaded the Bay of Pigs again, and this time the Cubans are delighted _ if a little slow with service while the pope is in town.

``Our mojitos _ or whatever they call that lovely rum drink _ never came. The waiters had all pulled up chairs around the TV to watch the pope,″ griped Marilyn Ludlow of Ann Arbor, Mich.

With her husband Ron, she was sunbathing on the pristine white beach where the CIA’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs expedition against Fidel Castro’s government came ashore on April 17, 1961.

In a nearby thatched-roof cabana, Chicago snowbirds Frank and Laura Kidder wondered if local television would depart long enough from its coverage of John Paul II’s five-day visit to Cuba to show some of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Under the Trading With The Enemy Act, U.S. citizens are forbidden to spend money in Cuba, except for reasons acceptable to the U.S. government. But an estimated 60,000 a year manage to vacation on the island with or without approval.

``We like Americans very much, now that they come with dollars not guns,″ said local baker Manuel Fuentes, who was 11 ``when the planes dropped their bombs and we did not go to school for four days. I was not afraid. I thought it was a military practice.″

Cubans named the 72-hour battle for the beach where it was won, Playa Giron, which sits on the Bahia de Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs.

Canadians and Italians far outnumber U.S. tourists in the booming little resort, a two-hour drive from Havana. Amid the hotels and restaurants is a victory museum displaying pieces of the 11 planes shot down during the invasion and uniforms and weapons of the 200 invaders killed and the 1,197 captured.

The dusty beach road past the sugar-cane fields is lined with the tombstones of dozens of villagers like Raul Rojas Mendoza and Illuminado Ruez Rodriguez, who, as their epitaphs proclaim, ``died fighting the mercenary invaders of Yanqui imperialism.″

The only shooting heard hereabouts these days is by members of Los Cocos _ the Coconuts _ a posh sporting club for Italian hunters.

``All morning they hunt pigeons and geese in the swamps, then in the afternoon they hunt women on the beach,″ laughed chef Mauel Seri, whose specialty is ``cocodrillos Italianos″ _ baby alligator with spaghetti.

Despite Fidel’s proudly puritanical regime, a growing number of prostitutes in micro-miniskirts, pimps and hustlers are called, roam the town, monumented here and there with rusting slabs of armament like Richard Serra sculptures.

In small organized groups, younger U.S. tourists come to scuba dive in the turquoise waters off the sea wall, while their white-haired elders venture into the crocodile-infested swamps to bird watch for splendidly arrayed parrots.

Only the French and Italian sunbathers go topless, reported waiter Danielo Ortega, ``and I like it very much.″ But most of all he likes the more reserved Canadian visitors ``because they are more generous with the tips.″

Around the pool at Villa Playa Giron, the newest and largest of the resorts, Richard Welfare, a retired plumber from Ottawa, and his wife, Leslie, congratulated themselves on escaping Canada’s severest winter in decades.

``If it clouds over here in the afternoon, we console ourselves with thoughts of those tall power lines collapsed by the weight of the ice,″ said the plumber, relaxing with a Cuban beer in a chaise lounge. ``At least we missed two weeks of it.″

Their cabana neighbor Peter Topping, also from Ottawa, was amazed at the ``mania of the staff here to see the pope on TV.″

Many of the local sugar mill workers were given a day off to attend a papal Mass in Santa Clara. They made the three-hour drive in a bus provided free by the local Communist Party headquarters.

There are only two tiny churches 20 miles in either direction along the beach, one evangelical and the other of a Baptist persuasion intermingled with African animal worship rites left over from the days of slavery.

``I am not a Catholic,″ said Romondo Cayo, who works at an Australian sugar mill that Castro confiscated and later, from its hand-cranked switchboard, directed the forces that repelled the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuban exiles. ``But I love the Mass on TV. All that music and beautiful costumes. The pope is a very good man who comes from Rome for peace.″

For five days anyway, the Bay of Pigs has become the Bay of the Pope.

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