Before 1959 the Cold War had not been a widely held concern in Cuba. Folks assumed that our nation was too insignificant to be targeted by the Russians, and because the United States was our ally since World War II, the notion that American nuclear-tipped missiles could rain down on us was inconceivable.
This started changing on January 1, 1959; imperceptibly at the start. By late 1961 it was clear that the US was doing all it could — other than declaring war — to depose a revolution that had expropriated all American businesses and publicly defined itself as socialist.
On October 22, 1962, the Cuban people were told that the Soviet Union had secretly deployed long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads to Cuba. Upon finding out, the United States had demanded their immediate withdrawal and declared a naval blockade around the island. We learned this straight from the horse’s mouth during one of his frequent TV and radio broadcasts — in those years Castro was admiringly dubbed “El Caballo” (The Horse) by most Cubans.
My battalion of deskbound, chain-smoking bureaucrats remained headquartered at our workplace, the Ministry of Finance. All of us were glad that the Russians had our backs as it nullified or minimized the possibility of war with the US. Everybody knew that the USSR, at the cutting edge of space exploration since 1957, had powerful and precise missiles. Would Kennedy risk a volley of A-bombs falling on major US cities? Of course not. We were safe.
Perhaps I was not the only one saying to myself “What if they vaporize us before the Russians launch a counterattack?” Millions of Cubans would perish, including my loved ones. Such sobering and sad thought failed to keep me awake at night. It took me years to realize that at 22 I was much more stupid than courageous.
We stood guard round-the-clock at the Ministry. One of my first assignments consisted in pacing Old Havana to identify buildings that could serve as bomb shelters. You didn’t have to be a civil engineer to see that there were just nine or ten buildings capable of sheltering people if the bombs were conventional. Quite a big if, under the circumstances.
To shoot Marines and/or paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne I was given an old Winchester rifle and six cartridges. One night I was standing guard around 11 p.m. at the corner of Obispo and Oficios when a supposedly American military plane flew over Havana. The headquarters of the Cuban Navy, a block away, opened up with AA guns. Some trigger-happy militiamen a hundred metres away crazily fired 7.62 FAL rifles to where I stood. I hit the floor behind a column as bullets whizzed by for what it seemed like an hour (just a couple of minutes). The closest I’ve ever been to getting shot.
Next day my platoon marched to a building on Paseo del Prado to carry out a “secret” mission. Regular soldiers had lit firewood under three 55-gallon barrels nearly full of water. We started opening wooden crates that contained bolt-action rifles covered in thick grease, put them into the barrels, and kept them in the boiling water for around fifteen minutes, then wiped clean the hot, dripping firearms. All had the German eagle and swastika stamped on steel. Probably Karabiner 98s that the Russians seized from German prisoners or dead soldiers during World War II.
But last week, fifty years later, BND (German Intelligence) revealed that Castro “personally approved a plan to hire former Waffen SS officers to train his revolutionary army.” So, I guess I’ll never know where those rifles came from.
That week I skipped some meals and went home to shower and shave just once. Finally, on the evening of October 29 Castro went to a TV studio and told his people that the Soviet Union had sold Cuba out. Khrushchev would ship back to Russia the missiles, the warheads and the 42,000 soldiers stationed in Cuba. El Caballo was livid. I thought: “Maybe he’ll mend fences with Kennedy now that the comrades backed down.” No such luck, though.
The only indication I have that many Cubans feared getting blown to smithereens was that nine months later there was a spike in births all over the island. “Make love not war” was a fait accompli in Cuba well before it became an anti-war slogan with the American counterculture. That may have been the sole enjoyable side of the crisis.
An abridged version of this article was published by The Globe and Mail on October 22, 2012.