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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 05:13 GMT 06:13 UK
Cuba commemorates Bay of Pigs
President of Cuba Fidel Castro speaks during the celebration in Havana
Tens of thousands of Cubans gathered in Havana
By Daniel Schweimler in Havana

Cubans have begun celebrating the 40th anniversary of what they see as one of the most important events since President Fidel Castro came to power - the victory over US-backed forces at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba.

The Cuban victory consolidated Fidel Castro's government in power but meant reconciliation with the United States was impossible

President Castro likes a crowd, and tens of thousands of Cubans gathered in the same spot in Havana where 40 years ago their president declared Cuba to be a socialist state.

Without socialism, he told them, Cuba would not have the health system, the education system or the sporting success it has today.

It was the only country in the world that did not need to trade with the United States. The crowd, waving Cuban flags and rifles, roared their approval.

Soviet camp

President Castro's speech 40 years ago put Cuba firmly on the road to becoming a socialist state and firmly into the Soviet camp.

The day before the speech, US-backed forces had bombed Cuban airfields; the next day, Cuban exiles trained by the CIA came ashore at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba to try to overthrow President Castro's government.

Fidel Castro carries a Soviet automatic rifle
Castro brandished a rifle as he led thousands in a rally
After three days of heavy fighting, the US-backed force was defeated, causing one of the greatest embarrassments to the then US President, John F Kennedy.

The Cuban victory consolidated President Castro's government in power but meant reconciliation with the US was impossible.

The Cuban media has been assessing and reassessing the importance of the victory at the Bay of Pigs for several weeks.

Posters celebrating the victory have gone up all over the country, and the festivities will culminate in President Castro giving another speech at the site of the battle itself on Thursday.

Relations with Washington have hardly improved since then and the celebrations, while important to Cuba, will hit a sensitive nerve with many Americans.

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See also:

09 Apr 01 | Americas
Bay of Pigs veterans expelled
25 Mar 01 | Americas
Cold War foes revisit battle scene
23 Feb 98 | Americas
CIA blamed over Bay of Pigs
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Castro: The great survivor
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