By Antoni Kapcia
As academics and the media recall and reassess the Cuban missile crisis sixty years on, their focus will primarily be on the two superpowers — the United States and the USSR — that seemingly came close to nuclear war. However, it is also timely to reconsider those who found themselves in the middle of the would-be conflict: the Cuban leaders, whose willingness to accept Soviet missiles triggered the crisis in the first place, and the ordinary Cuban people, as the reality of the threat dawned on them.
While the rest of us held our breath and then breathed a sigh of relief when the moment of crisis had passed, Cubans were increasingly aware that in any nuclear clash, they would simply be obliterated. The final scenes of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 film, Memoriasdel Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) showed eloquently, in grim black and white, the somber but determined mobilization of Cubans to defend their uncertain future. After three years of economic, political, and even military combat, this might really be the final battle.
It wasn’t, of course: Cuba survived, along with the rest of humanity. But the missile crisis had a profound impact on the country’s history. In particular, it fostered a distrustful attitude toward Cuba’s erstwhile Soviet ally, which left its mark on Cuban policy throughout the Cold War, and ultimately helped the system that arose from the revolution of 1959 to survive long after the demise of the USSR.
There are several questions about Cuban attitudes to the crisis and its outcome, then and now, and about what it actually meant for Cubans and their revolution. The first and perhaps most obvious question is: How much was Cuba really involved in the crisis itself?
The answer in this case is simple. Once the frenzied negotiations commenced between the superpowers, what Cubans wanted played less and less part in the discussions. Moscow and Washington achieved the final agreement over Cubans’ heads. This leads us to the next question: What did the Cuban leadership actually want from hosting the missiles and then from the denouement of the crisis? The answer to that is more complex.
Fidel Castro and his allies had easily agreed to the stationing of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. They believed that the weapons would supply the protection and deterrence Cuba needed against the realistic prospect of a direct US invasion, after the CIA’s attempt to overthrow Castro with a proxy force of Cuban exiles ended in embarrassment at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
Cuban leadership’s demands then began to change over the thirteen days of the crisis, especially as it became increasingly clear to Castro that his Soviet allies were ignoring him in the negotiations, although they occasionally kept him minimally informed as talks progressed.
Historians have frequently quoted the Cuban leader’s private words to the Soviet ambassador Alexander Alexeyev on October 26, 1962, in which he spoke about the readiness of Cubans to sacrifice themselves for the cause of global socialism and the destruction of US imperialism.
However, it now appears that these remarks were not so much the reckless declaration that commentators have generally assumed them to be, as much as a tactic to force the Soviet leadership to take Cuba seriously in the final stretch. Indeed, the subsequent Soviet shooting down of a U2 spy plane in Cuban airspace seems to have been intended as proof to Castro of Moscow’s commitment to Cuba.
By then, the Cuban stance had shifted to focus on their key demands for any ultimate agreement, which Castro deliberately made public on October 28. He wanted an end to US subversion, including the support for the armed actions of right-wing Cuban exiles, as well as a halt to naval and air incursions by US planes and ships. Castro also pressed for the return to Cuba of the Guantánamo base and the lifting of economic sanctions that had been in place since 1960.
The last item on this list was probably the most important and urgent. Revealingly, we can see its significance reflected in Castro’s use of the term bloqueo to describe the US trade embargo, which equated it in scale and importance with the new US naval blockade of Cuba — officially defined by Washington as a “quarantine” to avoid problems in international law.
That was immediately reflected in the changing tone and language of Cuba’s main daily newspapers of the time: Revolución (organ of the 26 July Movement, which had led the revolution of 1959) and Noticias de Hoy (which represented the viewpoint of the communist, pro-Soviet People’s Socialist Party, or PSP).
Revolución had already reported events with a discourse of struggle, putting the emphasis on militant determination and independence. It immediately picked up on the term bloqueo as the manifestation of US imperialism. Noticias, on the other hand, initially remained loyal to Moscow, faithfully reporting Soviet support for, and defense of, Cuba.
But the paper then realized the anger of the Cuban leadership and the significance of its changing attitude. It began to shift its tone closer to that of Revolución, extolling the valiant preparedness of Cubans for battle to defend their revolution. By October 28, its articles were talking of resistance and independence, and also focused on the bloqueo.
Castro’s fury was all the more visceral as it became clear that the embargo might not figure much in Soviet thinking. Cuba’s exclusion from the ongoing negotiations brought back painful historic memories of what happened at the end of the nineteenth century, when the United States usurped the Cuban independence struggle and transformed it into the Spanish-American War. Cuban rebels had been marginalized in the Spanish surrender ceremonies, and their leaders were totally excluded from the negotiations leading to the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which formalized US control of Cuba.
If Castro was indignant, it was not really because he was willing to risk nuclear war. Rather, he was angered by what he saw as a Soviet climbdown, since Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev appeared to have simply exchanged a Soviet agreement to withdraw the missiles from Cuba for a pledge by US president John F. Kennedy to remove his own country’s missiles from Turkey. This was a step that US strategists had already planned before the 1962 crisis.
The Soviet leaders do not seem to have been willing to press for Havana’s key demand, the end of the embargo. Policymakers in Washington rubbed more salt into Cuban wounds in February 1963, when the embargo was fully codified in US law.
In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, Cuban rhetoric spoke of fierce defiance, heroism (in implicit contrast with a “spineless” Soviet Union), and determination to resist as a pueblo (people) rather than by normal military means. There was a tacit view that the Soviets had betrayed Cuba, which built on existing evidence of “betrayal” by their PSP allies.
In March 1962, one of the PSP’s most respected leaders, Aníbal Escalante, had attempted to shape the planned merger of the PSP and Castro’s 26 July Movement, together with a smaller group of former guerrillas, Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (Student Revolutionary Vanguard), in a way that disproportionally favoured the PSP. The Cuban leadership drawn from the 26 July Movement publicly shamed Escalante for this move and dispatched him to a diplomatic post in eastern Europe. The PSP was soon marginalized at all levels, making it clear that it was the former rebels who were in charge of “their” revolution.
That question of “the revolution” and its character was in fact already a key issue in ideological differences between the 26 July cohort and the PSP (with the Soviet Union standing behind the latter). The PSP’s understanding of Marxism led it to believe a “semi feudal” Cuba could not aspire to socialism, since the necessary “objective conditions” were lacking.
The party’s private attitude was that the drive toward socialism spearheaded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara was reckless and a historical. Its leaders considered downright heretical Guevara’s view that it was possible to substitute the “subjective” factor of popular revolutionary consciousness for objective conditions of socialist development.
For Castro and his allies, the PSP’s orthodox ideological interpretation of what Cuba’s leaders could and should do, when taken together with Soviet neglect of Cuba’s priorities and demands, seemed like a colonial attitude. One immediate response to the Escalante affair was to create the new United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC), as if to emphasize that Cuba was developing a socialism of its own and not simply copying the Soviet version.
However, the angry response in Havana to the agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union partly ignored one of its key achievements: a secret protocol whereby the US government undertook not to invade Cuba. By creating space for Cuba to act abroad with impunity, this protocol led to an intensification of the insurrectionary policy — supporting armed revolution across Latin America — that Cuban leaders had already begun in 1961. They now pursued that project in the knowledge that Washington’s ability to retaliate was limited.
The Cuban leadership could also now flaunt the same revolutionary approach in the face of a Soviet Union whose policy of peaceful coexistence and acceptance of “spheres of influence” ran counter to what the Cubans were saying and doing. Indeed, Soviet embarrassment at Cuban criticism of their performance in the negotiations, combined with their need to avoid losing face in the Third World, may have obliged them to continue supporting the Cuban economy. This assistance — in the form of trade (oil for sugar), advice, and some financial subsidies — carried on throughout the 1960s, even as Cuban leaders revealed their distaste for Moscow’s policy.
Faced with the economic crisis of the 1990s, Havana reduced the size of its armed forces by nearly 50 percent. The Cuban plan for defense of the island once again relied on the idea of popular resistance, as in 1962. Military strategy, under the supervision of Raúl Castro, was now defined as a Guerra de Todo el Pueblo (A War of All the People), with clear echoes of the missile-crisis days. The discourse of struggle and combat has continued up to the present day, as Joe Biden refuses to overturn Donald Trump’s vengeful tightening of the embargo.
We can still glimpse the long-term effects of the crisis in Cuba today. The continued use of the term bloqueo to describe the embargo is still as powerful an idea for Cubans as it was in 1962. Every time that Cuba’s leaders and publicists deploy that term, whether at home or abroad, it is a salutary reminder of Cuba’s isolated geopolitical situation and of those “heroic” days of lonely struggle.
One lasting consequence of the crisis was to lock perceptions of Cuba into a Cold War framework, shaping the way that US policymakers (and even sections of US academia) have continued to interpret the Cuban revolution and its leaders. To some extent those interpretations have barely changed since 1962. The Soviet Union might have disappeared, along with the international communist movement, but Washington’s foreign-policy elite still perceives Cuba as an annoying relic of a spent ideology and a blot on the landscape of neoliberal capitalism in Latin America.
Although the justifications for the embargo may have evolved over the years in line with shifting contexts, from the Cold War to the “war on terror,” the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act still undergirds it, as Biden reminded us by renewing the Act earlier this year. This dates back to a time when communism was by definition “the enemy” and thus unacceptable in the Western hemisphere.
We may remember the 1962 crisis for what it meant to us then and in the years since. But the same is true of Cubans, who are now recalling what happened at the time and its importance for their self-understanding in great detail, through their own media, schools, and universities.
Politicians and media outlets in Western Europe or the United States will chiefly see the crisis as a reminder of the awful fate that might have befallen humanity in the event of nuclear war. Cubans, on the other hand, look at it through different eyes. Not only did Cuba find itself on the frontline in the Cold War: it also turned out to be located on the frontline of the Third World, defining its future between the other two “Worlds,” one of which has since passed into history. (IPA Service)