How Cubans Remember the Missile Crisis / Iván García

Headline in a newspaper of the time: End of the Crisis

Ivan Garcia, 30 October 2017 — The leaden sky presaging rain did not stop Hector, 79, from roasting chicken breasts and a snapper over charcoal. In his house in Víbora Park in the Arroyo Naranjo neighborhood in the south of Havana, the atmosphere was festive. His brother Humberto, who has lived in Canada for 20 years, was visiting Cuba with his children and grandchildren.

On the patio, the adults shared beers and nostalgia, while they listened to the Spanish group Nino Bravo on the stereo. In the living room the youngest members of the family were dancing and singing Despacito, by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

It was just after one o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, October 22nd. At that hour, Humberto turned on a small battery radio and started listening to the news. The announcer recalled that 55 years ago, John F. Kennedy addressed a 17-minute televised message to the American people and publicly announced that a naval blockade would be established against Cuba.

Humberto experienced those two weeks of uncertainty on the Island. After a brief silence, he recounts his personal experience. “I was 24 years old and I had just graduated in civil engineering. Like most Cubans, I supported Fidel Castro. I enrolled voluntarily in the militias. I passed a quick course on antiaircraft artillery and they sent a group of us to an area of Pinar del Río that today belongs to the municipality of San Luis. Later I would find out that very close to our unit they had deployed Soviet nuclear missiles,” recalls Humberto and adds:

“In Cuba we did not have the slightest idea what a nuclear conflict was. We were uninformed, there were no shelters or the necessary supplies. There was no awareness of what an atomic war represented. In a night watch, on October 22, 1962, the battalion chief told us about Kennedy’s speech and Khrushchev’s decision not to stop the ships traveling to Cuba. ‘War is a matter of days away,’ the boss told us. Among the troops it was thought that it would be a kind of safari to hunt Yankees. Morale was sky high after the Bay of Pigs. Someone said: ‘Comrades, this conflict is different. There will be no winners or losers, we are all going to die.’ That was when I realized the seriousness of the situation.”

The former political prisoner and journalist Pedro Corzo, now living in Miami, in 1962 was already an opponent of Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“I lived in San Diego del Valle, a town in the old province of Las Villas. I had not been imprisoned yet, but there is ample evidence that the dictatorship planted dynamite around the entire perimeter of the Model Prison and other prisons where the political prisoners were, and as events unfolded, they were ready to blow them up. In the village there was a strong movement of Russian troops and weapons. At that time, opponents never thought that it was nuclear missiles. When the armaments passed through San Diego del Valle, the army told us to go inside, close the windows and not look out.”

In October of 1962, Tania Quintero was about to turn 20 years old. “What I remember most about those days is that ordinary Cubans did not know what was happening and mocked the Soviets, ‘Russians’ became a disparaging term. I think that was when they started calling them ‘bolos’ — bowling pins — because they were so crude,” says the current independent journalist, who since November 2003 has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee.

According to Tania, “The feelings of the Cuban leaders were adopted by the population. The people didn’t want the Americans to get a foot in the door and wanted them to let the Soviets install the rockets on the island. You’d hear people say, ’Why did you bring [the weapons] then? They are assholes if they allow them to send them back.’ It seemed like they were talking about conventional weapons and not missiles. They called Khrushchev ‘Nikita Nipone’ (someone who neither removes the rockets or leaves them in place.) That’s how simple and superficial things were to ordinary people. The chill came later, when we knew what was at stake, in Cuba and in the world. Fidel Castro never spoke clearly to the people and told us that we were on the verge of a holocaust.

“We didn’t know and didn’t see and so we weren’t terrified, despite the huge military mobilization that was visible all over the Havana and especially along the Malecon, with the soldiers behind sandbags and the ‘four-mouths’ (anti-aircraft batteries) ready to shoot if ‘a little enemy plane’ tried to get close.”

Alberto, a retired former military officer, never thought that Cuba would be wiped off the map in the event of a nuclear conflict with the United States. “The perception that I had and that was shared by the vast majority of the population, was of the Cuban military dominance. We believed that the USSR’s armament was superior and that the Soviets would have a secret weapon that would prevent a Yankee attack. We did not know that the correlation of forces in nuclear missiles was one to eight in favor of the Americans. Neither television, radio nor the ICAIC news reported on the dangerous situation we were in. Despite the fact that only 17 years had passed since the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with thousands of deaths and irreversible damages to the survivors. In Cuba, I believe that by Fidel’s direction, people were not told about the harmful effects of a nuclear mushroom cloud. The only thing that Fidel cared about was going down in history. We were manipulated, we were naive. In the same situation the North Koreans are in today. ”

Magdalena, a housewife, was born in December 1962 and says that her parents had told her about the October Crisis. “But I came to know that we were on the verge of a third world war, when in 2001 I saw the film Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner. It was hard for me to believe that what was narrated on the screen really happened and I realized that in 1962 my parents lacked information and did not know the magnitude of the situation created between Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union. Luckily, the ‘bolos’ took their rockets out of the country. ”

After the fall of the Soviet empire, some secret archives were opened to the public, among them the letters exchanged by Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. In one of the missives the Caribbean autocrat urges the president of the Soviet Union to launch the first strike. But the official media hide and barely analyze that epistolary exchange that reveals the irresponsibility of Fidel Castro and puts into question his gift as a statesman.

Fifty-five years after the Missile Crisis, many young Cubans are unaware of the real context of the events and the reckless spirit of their rulers, who summoned the people to immolate themselves.

Dayán, a third year high school student, in a mechanical tone, explains what he knows about that stage, according to what he learned in class: “After the Bay of Pigs, there were plans by the United States and the CIA to invade Cuba. That is why the USSR decided to place nuclear weapons in our territory, as a deterrent force. The Revolutionary Government did not agree. What they wanted was a commitment from the Soviets, that in case of aggression against Cuba it would be considered an aggression against the USSR. When Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, what bothered Fidel most was that the Russians did not use him to negotiate a better solution. In other words, in return, withdraw the rockets, close the Guantanamo Naval Base and confirm the commitment of the United States not to invade Cuba.”

The official story about the Missile Crisis only relates the part that reflects well on the regime. It is silent about the rest.  Or tries to forget it.