- Atahualpa Amerisa @atareportira
- BBC News World
Millions of Cubans lived for more than a week on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
Sixty years later, those who are still alive to talk about it, remember what they went through in those days as if it were yesterday.
Between June and October 1962, the Soviet Union secretly stationed an entire military contingent on the island, which included 42 missiles reach medium with atomic warheads capable of reaching and destroying entire cities in the United States in minutes.
After discovering the threat, US President John F. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island on television on October 22. If the Soviet ships tried to evade, war between the two nuclear powers was deserved at that moment.
“We will resist the blockade. We will reject direct aggression (…) In order to take away our sovereignty, we must be wiped from the earth,” replied Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who gave the order for combat alert into the country.
This on the left Cuba like potential epicenter the first battle in the atomic war, either as a launch pad for the first Soviet missile or as a target for Washington’s pre-emptive strike.
In either case, the island (and possibly most of the planet) would most likely end up wiped off the map.
“I assumed I was going to die”
Sixty years later, those who lived through it and can still talk about it, keep intact the memory of that episode of the greatest tension.
“When Fidel gave the order and it became known that there were supposed to be medium-range nuclear missiles, I assumed we were going to die. I had no doubt about that,” Cuban political scientist and former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray explains to BBC Mundo.
When the crisis broke out in October 1962, he was only 19 years old – today he is 79 – Alzugaray combined his university studies with work as a military affairs analyst at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, making him a privileged witness to what life was like in Cuba. island during the most intense and terrible days of the Cold War.
In them, the Cuban government employed a defensive strategy for conventional warfare, with soldiers and artillery ready to repel an attack by the US military from the coast.
“In the morning, we officers from the Minrex battalion went to the outskirts of Havana to dig trenches, prepare our defensive positions, and in the afternoon we returned to the Ministry to work,” he recalls.
“I followed the military situation with the information that was available. We slept on sofas and digging trenches again in the morning“.
Cuban historian Jesús Arboleya – who is 75 today and 15 during the crisis – emphasizes that it was “a moment in which a lot of will was shown”, since “the level of commitment, political will and everyday heroism were very high”.
“I don’t remember the expression of cowardice, fear or hysteria. It was a difficult moment, but that’s how it was supposed to be,” he told BBC Mundo.
Kennedy, Kruschev and Fidel
To resolve the crisis and avoid mutually assured destruction, Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, entered into direct negotiations.
But Fidel Castro feared an imminent attack by the United Statesas expressed in the first letter to Khrushchev on October 26, later published along with the rest of the correspondence between the two leaders during those days.
He assured him that between 24 and 72 hours the US military would bomb his bases or start a total invasion of the island, according to the letter, the contents of which were published.
The Caribbean leader asked his Soviet partner that, in the event of an invasion, launch the first atomic attack against the North American country “to eliminate such danger once and for all”.
Arboleya believes that Castro’s position is justified, claiming that “at that time it was not excluded that the USA would carry out the first atomic attack“, since Washington “had an entire approach to nuclear development to encircle the USSR and the socialist camp”.
For another Cuban historian, Abel Sierra Madero, who lives in Miami, “his attitude was very irresponsiblevery irrational, very emotional and not very political and diplomatic, based on uncompromising revolutionary nationalism”.
on the brink of disaster
Therefore, the island headed towards the inevitable nuclear war knowing that any preparations would be useless in the face of a disaster of such proportions.
“Contingency plans consisted of take the youngsters to the mountains to see if they survive“, says Arboleya.
Those on the island who knew the power of the atomic bomb resigned themselves to the inevitable.
“I read a book about nuclear attacks and I knew what would happen. A colleague said to me: ‘Carlos, if they attack tonight, what will happen?’ And I told him, ‘well, we’re going to see a big flash, a lot of heat, and then we’re going to be dead,'” Alzugaray recalls.
In any case, the American attack did not occur, Khrushchev asked Castro for restraint and informed him by letter of his freshly sealed deal with Kennedy to end the crisis.
The USSR would remove nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US agreeing not to invade Cuba and withdrawing theirs from Turkey (although the latter would be announced later).
The most dangerous days of the missile crisis were over and Cuba’s survival was no longer in danger.
However, the withdrawal of Soviet missiles it caused great anger of Fidel Castrowhich was excluded from negotiations between the two powers to resolve the conflict.
“Many eyes of men, Cubans and Soviets, who were ready to die with supreme dignity, shed tears when they learned of the surprising, unexpected and practically unconditional decision to withdraw arms,” he wrote to Nikita Khrushchev in his last letter.
“We knew (…) that we would have to be exterminated (…) in the event of a thermonuclear war. However, that’s not why we asked you to withdraw the missiles, that’s not why we asked him to give in,” he reproached him.
Castro claimed that the missile withdrawal left Cuba in a vulnerable position in case the United States breaks its promise not to invade the island.
For historian Sierra Madero, the value of the missiles lies in their enormous deterrent potential, which has strengthened the Cuban government’s position in future negotiations with the US and the West.
“Fidel Castro also saw it as a chance to be untouchable“, he assures.
On the streets of Havana, the outcry over the missile withdrawal, combined with Cubans’ irresistible penchant for joking, gave birth to an expression that will go down in history.
“We used to gather groups of young people in a corner and start singing ‘Nikita, sister, what is given is not taken’. It wasn’t something organized, but spontaneous,” Alzugaray recalls. [Otra versión de esa frase era: “Nikita, jorobita, lo que se da no se quita”].
The former diplomat assures that he and most of his contemporaries felt “frustration” upon learning of Russia’s decision to withdraw missiles from Cuba.
“We agreed that Khrushchev should not have given in without getting something more, especially a real guarantee of non-invasion instead of a promise,” he explains.
In his adolescence, when the crisis developed, the historian Jesús Arboleya experienced something similar.
“I participated in organizations that shouted ‘Nikita sister, what is given is not taken’. I never forget that,” he says.
“All Cuban revolutionaries we feel very betrayed by the USSRbecause we were ready to fight that battle, even if it was terrible”.
BBC Mundo asks him if he felt at least a little relieved to see that the crisis was resolved, and with it the possibility of the island being destroyed by a nuclear attack.
“What I experienced was not a relief. I remember that they betrayed us and more than ever, at least a good part of the Cuban revolutionary population idealized the USSR after the October crisis”.
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