Before 1959, the Cold War was not a widely held concern in Cuba. Folks assumed that our country was too insignificant to be targeted by the Russians and, because the United States had been our ally since the Second World War, the notion that American nuclear-tipped missiles could rain down on us was inconceivable.
This began to change on Jan. 1, 1959. By late 1961, it was clear the U.S. 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 Oct. 22, 1962, the Cuban people were told that the Soviet Union had secretly deployed long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba. On discovering this, the U.S. demanded their immediate withdrawal and declared a naval blockade around our island. We learned this straight from the horse’s mouth during one of Fidel Castro’s frequent TV and radio broadcasts – in those years, he was admiringly dubbed El Caballo (The Horse).
My battalion of desk-bound, chain-smoking bureaucrats remained headquartered at the Ministry of Finance. All of us were glad the Russians had our backs, as it minimized the possibility of war with the Americans. Everyone knew the Soviets had powerful missiles. Would John Kennedy risk a volley of A-bombs falling on major U.S. cities? Of course not. We were safe.
Perhaps I wasn’t the only one saying to myself: “What if they vaporize us before the Russians launch a counterattack?” Millions of Cubans would perish. Such sobering thoughts failed to keep me awake at night. It took me years to realize that, at 22, I was more stupid than courageous.
We stood guard around the clock at the ministry. One of my first assignments was to pace Old Havana to identify buildings that could serve as bomb shelters. You didn’t have to be a civil engineer to see there were only about 10 buildings capable of sheltering people if the bombs were conventional. A big if, under the circumstances.
I was given an old Winchester rifle and six cartridges. One night, I was standing guard at the corner of Obispo and Oficios when a supposedly U.S. military plane flew over Havana. The headquarters of the Cuban navy, a block away, opened up with anti-aircraft guns. Some trigger-happy militiamen a hundred metres away fired 7.62 FAL rifles in my direction. I hit the ground behind a column as bullets whizzed by, 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 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 about 15 minutes, then wiped them down. All had the German eagle and swastika stamped on them; they were probably Karabiner 98s that the Russians had seized during the war. (Last week, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency revealed that Mr. Castro had approved a plan to hire former Waffen-SS officers to train his revolutionary army.)
On Oct. 29, Mr. Castro went to a TV studio and told his people that the Soviet Union had sold out Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev would take back his missiles and his soldiers. 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. That may have been the sole enjoyable side of the crisis.
José Latour is a Cuban-Canadian novelist.
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