The Bay of Pigs: Disaster and Triumph

03/08/2011 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At first I thought it was a version of the granfalloon, the term Kurt Vonnegut invented to describe a striking but meaningless encounter: my brother-in-law, Jim Rasenberger and I both have books coming out within two weeks of each other. My book, The Ragged Edge of the World, is a farewell tour (the places are disappearing, not me) of the most remote reaches of the planet, and it tries to evoke life at that movable frontier where wildlands and native peoples collide with modernity. His book, A Brilliant Disaster, examines the Bay of Pigs fiasco on its 50th anniversary. To judge by their covers, the books are utterly different, BUT we thought it fun to schedule a joint book party midway between the two publication dates, for the sake of family harmony if nothing else. The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the two books investigate two aspects of the same thing: individual brilliance and collective stupidity.

Jim looks at the foreign policy expression of this enduring puzzle as he explores the iconic American example of the fiasco that ensues when some of the smartest and most powerful men in the country -- the best and the brightest as David Halberstam indelibly called them -- become blinded by ideology and arrogant self-assurance (although the Iraq War is a strong contender to replace this example). I look at what this syndrome has wrought as the march of progress continues to consume wildlands and peoples despite decades of evidence that this march -- more like a stampede really -- leaves nothing but wastelands and disenfranchised peoples in its wake. There's an element of black humor in both books. I tell this story through tragicomic vignettes, while, with the arch perspective of time, Jim lets the black humor of self-delusions of the times speak for themselves.

Our two books converge in a more immediate way: in one chapter, I also write about the Bay of Pigs. Where for Jim, the Bay of Pigs provides a symbol of an epic fail of the intelligence and foreign policy apparatus, I look at some of the positive results of that failure. Today, the Bay of Pigs is a triumph of conservation and one of the natural wonders of the Western hemisphere. The Bay marks one boundary of Zapata Swamp, an Eden-like wetland the size of Delaware, with boundless bird-life and shimmering pure rivers. It is one of a string of great parks that make Cuba's natural systems among the best protected in the world.

How this happened is an object lesson in the ironic twists of history. The island stands today as a shining example of how a desperately poor country can preserve its natural systems. This is no endorsement of communism, a system that seems to have been designed to convert resources into pollution with minimum economic benefit. Karl Marx was focused on the control of the means of production, and was blind to environmental consequences (which is uncomfortably similar to unregulated free-market capitalism which is focused on the private control of the means of production and simply ignores environmental consequences).

The reason Cuba has not suffered the ecocide visited on the landscape by other communist governments has to do with three things: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American embargo, and, most importantly the accident of history that an illiterate farmer who saved Castro's life during the Cuban Revolution, turned out to be a nature lover. Elevated to be one of three Commanders of the Revolution, Guillermo Garcia Frias, provided political cover for an entire generation of conservationists and scientists who now have key positions in parks and environment. The collapse of the Soviet Union starved Cuba of funds from its former patron, and the ongoing U.S. economic embargo has forced Cuba to be both innovative and sustainable, since it has lacked access to cheap fossil fuels. For the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp this means that very few pollutants flow into the area from surrounding agricultural lands.

The unexpected connections that link our two books prompt another question: what might have happened had the U.S.-sponsored invasion succeeded in 1961? Without question, many Cubans would have gotten rich as developers exploited Cuba's gorgeous coasts, lagoons and beaches. The mob would have gotten its casinos back, and Cubans of all stripes could experience the joys of fast food and the consumer society. But Zapata Swamp, which in structure is similar to the Everglades, would long since have been channeled, converted, polluted, and otherwise exploited like most other wetlands in the hemisphere, including the Everglades. So maybe The Brilliant Disaster Jim describes was for the best. Despite the many other benighted policies of this police state, Cuba may be one of the best-prepared nations to navigate what looks like a fossil fuel constrained future that the rest of the world may soon have to deal with. Sometimes good can come from having a superpower as an enemy.

The Ragged Edge of the World hits book stores on March 21. Pre-order the book on

A Brilliant Disaster goes on sale April 5. Pre-order the book on