The nerve-wracking crisis at the height of the Cold War  began on Tuesday October 16, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy  was informed that the Soviet Union was secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba . The ensuing stand-off, in which Kennedy demanded their removal, lasted 13 days—a term now in common parlance to denote the event, which the Cubans call the ‘October Crisis’ or ‘Caribbean Crisis.’
While the anniversary is big news across the USA, on the other side of the Florida Straits  relatively little media attention was given to the chilling fortnight of ’Russian roulette’ , most likely because Castro was incensed when the Soviets backed down.
Still, yesterday Fidel Castro  wrote a lengthy piece for Granma , the daily rag of the Communist Party (it is printed on newsprint imported from Arkansas , but that’s another story), to debunk rumors of his passing but also to look back on the crisis.
Castro took offense to be named as one of the three “responsible” parties, alongside John F. Kennedy (“a newcomer to leadership of the empire”) and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev . He also took the never-to-be-missed opportunity to jab Uncle Sam in the eye: “Cuba had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, nor the unnecessary killing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki  perpetrated by U.S. President Harry S. Truman , establishing the tyranny of nuclear weapons.”
Shortly after the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs  invasion in April 1961, Castro formally announced that Cuba was officially a Marxist-Leninist  state. Kennedy’s subsequent threat to do away with socialist Cuba (and Castro’s knowledge, supplied through Soviet intelligence, that the U.S. was planning a full military invasion) virtually obliged Fidel to ask the Soviets for rockets to defend Cuba in the event of a U.S. invasion.
Claims Castro: “When Khrushchev suggested we install medium-range missiles similar to what the U.S. had in Turkey, closer still to the USSR than Cuba to the U.S.,… Cuba did not hesitate to accede to such a risk. Our conduct was ethically irreproachable.”
What Cubans on the island will never read or hear is that according to Khrushchev’s own memoirs , Fidel implored the Soviet premier (in a cable of October 26) to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA. Nor that Fidel himself pushed the button that shot down a U-2 spy plane  on October 27 (pilot Rudolf Anderson  was the only casualty of the conflict), according to Carlos Franquí , a leading revolutionary and editor-in-chief of Revolución, who claims in his biography  to have been present with Fidel at the time. “Well, now we’ll see if there’s a war or not,” said Castro. Franquí’s claim seems plausible given that the Soviet ambassador in Cuba, Alexander Ivanovich Alexeev, had cabled Khrushchev (who details this in his memoir) on October 25 warning him that Castro wanted “to shoot down one or two American planes over Cuban territory.”
The Soviets withdrew all the ballistic missiles subsequent to October 28, 1962, after receiving a pledge from Kennedy not to invade Cuba and a promise to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey .
Travelers to Cuba will find few sites to visit that relate to the crisis, and the actual missile sites take some searching out. To my knowledge, no memorials mark the actual missiles sites, which were concentrated around the small rural towns of Banes, Sagua la Grande, and San Cristóbal, south and west of Havana .
But some of the S-75 Dvina anti-aircraft missiles  that defended the missile sites can be seen displayed at the Museo de la Revolución , in Havana (the engine from Rudolf Anderson's U-2 spy plane is also here); and on the north side of the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña , guarding Havana’s harbor channel.
And visitors to Pinar del Río  province can call in at Cuevas de los Portales  (easily reached from Viñales ), where Che Guevara  established his headquarters when he commanded the Western Army charged with defending the missile sites. The massive cavern still contains Che’s cement-block office and dormitory with original furniture, including Che’s narrow iron bed. A guide is usually on hand to give you a spiel. I regale my first visit, in 1996, in my literary travelog: Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba .
For a more thorough understanding of the crisis, visit www.cubamissilecrisis.org .
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