Although the Missile Crisis is an event archived and analyzed from all angles, it is still a subject for existing and future stereotypes.
A calendar is enough to verify that between October 22, when JFK denounced the presence of the missiles and the deployment of forces and the air-naval blockade began, and November 20, when the U.S. armed forces received the order to move from Defcon 3 to normal alert level, 29 days had gone by, not 13 as stated.
More than 13 days
This thing with the duration would not be very important, if it were not for the fact that the myth of the 13 days reinforces the idea that the crisis was a struggle between two leaders, and was sealed as soon as they reached an agreement. It leaves out that the danger of confrontation extended throughout the time that the air-naval blockade of the island was maintained; fighter jets continued to fly low, to “verify the dismantling of bases”; the pressure continued so that, in addition to the nuclear missiles, the Il-28 bombers, the Komar speedboats, the MiG 21s, and other conventional weapons in Cuba, which the U.S. had not turned into a source of gossip, were withdrawn.
Put to film by Robert Kennedy’s best-seller Thirteen Days, that myth of the 13 days does not include the time in which the United States tried to continue forcing the Soviets, taking advantage of the fact that they were in retreat, and minimizing their effective support to Cuba, taking advantage of the fact that the island had not participated in the negotiation. The Crisis dragged on not only because of that U.S. pressure, the mediation of UN Secretary General U Thant, and the diplomatic mission of Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, but also because of the ongoing low-altitude flights. Only when Fidel Castro announced in a public letter to U Thant, on November 14, the decision not to allow more low-altitude flights, which thundered the airspace and the combat morale of Cubans, did JFK order them to be suspended (the next day), and then to demobilize the troops. That’s when the Crisis was sealed.
Another repeated idea is that “JFK’s unyielding position” and “sanity” and the equanimity of the two leaders were key in pushing back the conflict, and cauterized its roots. If one considers that JFK was terrified by the predominance of the invasion of Cuba in his National Security Council, and Khrushchev had realized that the situation was getting out of hand after the shooting down of the U-2 in Holguín, can it be understood that neither of the two sought a substantive, stable and lasting agreement, but only a quick settlement, to stop the nuclear strike, in the midst of a situation so hazardous that it could trigger World War III.
This would not be of much importance if it were not because the cause of the crisis, that is, the U.S. threat, and its effects on the lives of Cubans, never ceased. Because being exposed and alone with a not exactly appeased United States determined its political system and the conduct of its leadership from then on. Because the Guantánamo naval base, with its constant provocations; support for the rebels in various provinces, and the headquarters of paramilitary organizations in Florida, throughout the 1960s and 1970s; the economic blockade, which has become the axis of the isolation and destabilization strategy, continued being present. And also, because the island remained a recurring actor on its radars about threats in the Caribbean, and a target in its contingency plans.
Thus, in 1978 a “mini-crisis” would be triggered around some MiG 23s “recently discovered” on the island; and another one, a year later, about an alleged “nuclear submarine base” in Cienfuegos. Both vanished into thin air, but fed by the same steam of 1962: Cuba as a “Soviet proxy” and “exporter of revolutions,” in the region and beyond. According to a Pentagon report in the 1980s, Cuba was a threat to the United States “only less than the Soviet threat.”
As soon as the Central American wars began in that decade, General Alexander Haig, Secretary of State, publicly proposed “going to the source” of the conflict, and launching a “surgical strike” against Cuba, which, according to him, was the cause of the war in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The expression that General Haig used in private was the same as that of General Lemay in 1962: “we can turn the island into a parking lot in five minutes.” The USSR, for its part, would secretly remind Cuba that the umbrella of the Warsaw Pact, twenty years later, was limited to the other side of the Atlantic.
At the same time, Pentagon military planners reasoned about Cuba’s ability to interfere with the “sea lanes of communication” required by the forces that crossed the Panama Canal and the Caribbean, in the scenario of a military contingency in Europe or the Middle East. The mere idea that the Cuban Navy — a fleet of coast guard boats, missile boats and three training submarines — was trying to stop the convoy of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in a battle station in the Caribbean might seem more like the plot of a thriller. Except if you consider that its inverted version became a reality with the invasion of Granada, in 1983.
Gathered in Antigua to prepare the Tripartite Conference on the Missile Crisis in Havana, McNamara assured me that if Cuba stopped intervening in El Salvador, the United States would seek to normalize relations, and that he knew it “in good faith,” that is, through George H. Bush’s White House. Assuming that the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were maintained due to Cuban support, I told him, why then did the U.S. veto Cuba’s participation in the Contadora and Esquipulas negotiating tables? Instead of sitting down with the Cuban government, as when the peace agreement was reached in Southwest Africa, in 1988. Although the United States surely knows that Cuba has halved its armed forces after Angola, however, none of that has moved relations a millimeter. How can we guarantee that it would if Cuba turned its back on the FMLN; and that they will not continue to ask us for domestic policy concessions ad infinitum? “I guarantee it,” he told me.
And 30 years later
Thirty years later, without wars in Central America, Cuban troops in Africa or a Cuban-Soviet alliance, U.S. policy towards the island basically continues to drag the conflict structure inherited from the 1962 Crisis, and maintains the pattern of pre-conditions and double standards Just like it keeps trying to continue putting force against its big enemies and ignoring the little ones.
In the context of the crisis around Ukraine, it seems as if the alarm bells of 1962 have gone off, and hawks, bears, dragons and other cold war zoo animals have woken up. I wonder, for example, what would happen if tomorrow a correspondent or an anti-government media here announced that they had been given the information that “Russia will grant Cuba a credit of more than 50 million USD to buy all kinds of weapons and military material.” That in addition to “modernizing the Cuban weapons industry, Cuba will buy tanks, armored vehicles and helicopter gunships from Russia.”
Before setting off the alarm about it, it’s good to know that this news is more than three years old, and nothing has happened. In fact, Russia has been selling military means to several Latin American countries, including Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, for more than 15 years. And the U.S. military have not said a single word.
In any case, any parallel between the crises around Ukraine and Cuba should not ignore one: the domestic dimension. As I pointed out earlier, citing a conversation with Arthur Schlesinger, the 1962 Crisis was more of a political overreaction to the Soviet presence in the backyard than a proportional response to the real strategic-military challenge. The election year factor, which we might call the seven-year bad luck, influenced the JFK team, especially after the Bay of Pigs disaster a few months earlier. The ghost of the “red menace” encrypted in the phrase “the Russians are coming!” was an integral part of the political culture of the Cold War, and an essential ingredient of the political conflict, not excepting JFK in his campaign against Richard Nixon in 1960.
It is known that the outcome of the Crisis had the aura of a political victory for Khrushchev among the Soviet people, to the extent that he had wrested from the U.S. the promise not to invade Cuba. It is not difficult, shall we say, to imagine the impact of a NATO deployment on Russia’s Ukrainian border for the people, and by extension, for the political consensus in Moscow. In any case, even for a country accustomed to the proximity of the adversary, such as Russia, anticipating that it will be door to door must have a problematic connotation for the popularity of the government.
Finally, the Missile Crisis was part of an escalation whose acceleration was encrypted by the embargo Act, in February 1962. Contrary to what some argue, it did not respond to the seizure of embezzled assets, agrarian or urban reforms, property interventions, nationalizations and other measures in 1959-60; not even closer relations with the USSR. It was signed by JFK three years after the Agrarian Reform Law seized the estates of the largest U.S. sugar companies in Cuba. On the other hand, the total economic blockade anticipated a hot war, as part of the island’s hemispheric isolation, and a prolegomenon for direct military intervention, foreseen as the final stage of the Mongoose Operation. It was no accident that the Cuban-Soviet agreement on missiles was preceded by only two months.
When the Crisis sealed, at least temporarily, the invasion, the blockade emerged as the backbone of that policy, aimed at rendering the communist island vulnerable to hunger and human drainage, combined with the 1961 Cuban Refugee Program. This binomial — blockade plus migratory attraction — has been in the matrix of a policy aimed at isolation and the erosion of internal consensus. That is, to promote and accelerate the collapse of the system, or what is the same, to achieve the goal of the invasion by other means.
One does not have to be a critic of capitalism, of the left, much less a sympathizer of the Communist Party of Cuba, to understand that the greatest impact of the blockade is not on the Cuban State, but on the people, in such a way that even neoliberals and conservatives discredit it. A purely numerical analysis can demonstrate its effects on “family consumption and the dynamics of sales and employment in the private sector, without appreciating a significant effect on the indicators of the state economy.” On the other hand, its internal political effect is not always appreciated.
When the Cuban or foreign media comment on the embargo, they do not seem to consider how much it affects the political reactions of Cubans, their perception of the country’s problems, and the defensive mechanisms of the system. To what extent does it contribute to dividing opinions about the embargo itself, for example, distinguishing between “real effects of the blockade” and “bad policy justification.” To maintain the mentality of a besieged fortress, for example, fearing the secondary effects of a normalization with the United States, due to the uncertainty in the face of a new and unknown circumstance. To other collateral effects, let us say, that people not necessarily opposed to socialism acquire the notion of fatally being “in the wrong place,” with “the wrong passport,” due to the disadvantages imposed on Cuban citizens by the simple fact of being so, with respect to those of any other country. To a system of regulations and controls, security and defense devices, aimed at protecting the national interest, whose operation weighs heavily on daily life.
Having survived the successive dimensions of hostility for 60 years, since the Crisis, has created unusual strengths and costs, whose external and internal aspects are often inextricable. Apprehending them in their contradictory nature, beyond black and white, and reviewing the lessons of the Crisis for current Cuban politics and national security requires thinking about them hard and again.