At a ceremony on the coastline where his forces claimed victory over a CIA-trained exile army 40 years ago, Castro spoke of "remembering the fallen, remembering the humble sons of the nation who pushed forward into the crushing blow of the pride and arrogance of the empire."
"Today is a day of glory that nothing and no one can erase from history," the 74-year-old Castro said, looking out at thousands of Bay of Pigs veterans from a stage surrounded by palm trees and decorated with heavy artillery.
He used the occasion to recast a U.N. vote to condemn his country's human rights record as a "moral defeat" for the United States. He said the U.N. censure narrowly approved in a 22-20 vote Wednesday by the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission was not a blow to communist Cuba.
Before Castro rose to address the crowd of men, many with rows of military medals pinned to the commemorative T-shirts distributed at the event, veteran Ernesto Robaina Figueroa told his former comrades-in-arms that "there is no powerful enemy for a people who know what they are fighting for."
The men, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, cheered and waved small paper Cuban flags in response. Elderly men made up the vast majority of more than 10,000 participants who organizers said gathered on Cuba's south-central coast for the ceremony.
Robaina also dismissed the U.N. condemnation, saying: "Liars! What human rights are they talking about our country has been blockaded for more than 40 years."
The United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for nearly four decades in an attempt to force a change in its one-party government.
Trained by the CIA in Guatemala at the height of the Cold War, an invasion force known as the 2506 Brigade was comprised of about 1,500 exiles determined to overthrow Castro's government, which had brought the Soviet bloc closer than ever to the continental United States by seizing power in Cuba 28 months before.
The three-day invasion failed. Without U.S. air support and running short of ammunition, more than 1,000 invaders were captured. Another 100 invaders and 151 defenders died.
Victory for Cuba came on Playa Giron, a strip of gorgeous, palm-dotted coastline on the Bahia de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs.
While exiles still blame their loss on President Kennedy's refusal to provide additional air support, Cuban leaders have always maintained that they won the battle simply because they fought better.
Exiles in Miami remembered the battle on Tuesday, the anniversary of the beach landing at Playa Larga at the innermost part of the Bay of Pigs, about 12 miles north of here. The fighting later moved south, to Playa Giron.
"The Mercenaries Got This Far," reads a billboard just outside Playa Larga, showing a huge lowup of an old black and white photograph of exile soldiers taken prisoner after the battle.
"Here Was Unleashed a Decisive Combat for Victory," another nearby billboard read.
Among the guests at Thursday's ceremony were relatives of former castaway Elian Gonzalez, including the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who waged a seven-month battle to return his son to Cuba from the United States.
But the 7-year-old boy, who was seen Wednesday afternoon at the entrance of this beach's only hotel, was not at the event. Also absent were his stepmother and younger half brother.
Cuba's communist leadership considers Elian's return to Cuba last June one of its major recent victories over its "imperialist" enemies.
By ANITA SNOW
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