The Cuban Missile Crisis, a foot soldier’s story

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.


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