The October Crisis after 60 years, in addition to being a panel that was sponsored by the Unión de Periodistas de Cuba [The Union of Cuban Journalists] and the journal Temas, was a master class in history, one that had many actors. On the one hand, there were the professors Fabián Escalante, José Juan Sánchez, Tomás Diez Acosta and Oscar Larralde, and on the other, the listeners who became producer-consumers as the discussion was enriched by their participation several hours afterwards.
Rafael Hernández, sociologist and director of the host publication, led the discussion, and warned—in an “authoritarian” manner—that each presentation should be limited to around 12 minutes, in order to illustrate the Cuban perspective of the “practically unexplored issue” that makes up the so-called October Crisis of 1962.
Referring to this purpose, researcher Dr. Fabián Escalante, specified that “in order to objectively analyze any historical fact, it is essential to situate it in the scenario in which it takes place,” and he therefore carried out a minute characterization of the crisis as being the “pinnacle of the Cold War” and being the “direct result of the aggressions initiated by the United States after January 1959.”
According to Escalante, the nuclear missiles were placed on October 14th, 1962, accepted by the government of Cuba as a sign of solidarity, with the aim of consolidating the power of the socialist camp.
For this historian, something is very clear: “With missiles or without them, there was going to be a crisis in the Caribbean, because Cuba would always be ready to defend its independence and national security,” not—as it became clear later—because of an ideological principle, but because of a patriotic principle, “inherited from the mambises [19th century Cuban independence fighters] and from our ancestors.”
When speaking of the decision to move the rockets to Cuba—an “action related to the disparity of the correlation of power between the United States and the Soviet Union”—Tomás Diez Acosta, a researcher at the Instituto de Historia, pointed out that the “aggression of the United States against Cuba was not taken into account as one of the direct causes of the crisis.”
Jorge Domínguez, who was connected through the videoconference network of UPEC [Union of Journalists of Cuba], referred to the “nuclear thinking” of the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro, who “did not stay stuck in the sixties, but who progressed” with the passing of time. In addition, retired colonel Oscar Larralde, an ex-gunner and writer based in Holguín, also intervened in the videoconference. In this context he recounted some details of the downing of the American U-2 spy plane in eastern Cuba by the Soviet-Cuban anti-aircraft forces.
Larralde, who in 1962 was a boy of 16—but even so, was called into action—knew about Fidel’s alerts relating to the low-flying enemy planes, and was a witness to the episodes associated with the decision to cut off that air-intrusion by two rocket blasts. Being a participant in this action, and then a specialist in military intelligence, Larralde wrote Crisis de Octubre, Península de Ramón [October Crisis, Ramon Peninsula], in which he describes in detail the process of the downing of the U-2, as well as other important events in the Holguín area.
From the United States, Peter R. Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archives, mentioned the current relevance of conflicts such as the one being analyzed—a situation reflected in the very recent words of the US president, Joe Biden—in the sense that, after the October Crisis, we are now experiencing the first threat of the use of nuclear weapons, in relation to the Ukrainian conflict. Kornbluh commented that his institution hoped to access all the documents in the entire world that relate to the events of 1962, and so he reiterated the request for the Cuban side to declassify more information. Like the other panelists, he considered that the Cuban view in this history is still not well represented in the academic work that has been made public.
Among the very interesting comments from all the participants, perhaps those of Dr. José Juan Sánchez, professor at the Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales (ISRI), gathered the most original components of the event, by broaching the complex internal motives held by the Soviet leadership when proposing to Cuba the placement of the missiles in their territory.
According to Sánchez, the Cuban Revolution triumphed in a difficult moment for the Soviet Union, because the direction of its Communist Party (PCUS) considered that the Island, and in fact the whole of Latin America, formed part of the zone of influence of the United States, and therefore it would not be prudent to interfere in that region. And in addition, the Kremlin assumed that this attitude would be reciprocated by the White House in relation to the latter’s position towards the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. So when Cuba requested weapons from Czechoslovakia for its defense, the USSR—whose approval in this field was law for the entire socialist area—authorized it if it would only involve weapons that had been taken from the Nazis in the Second World War, but not if it involved weapons manufactured by Czechoslovakia.
On the other hand, as the ISRI professor explained, inside the USSR there had been discontent with the 1957 reforms of President Nikita Khrushchev, whose results were not satisfactory. A clear struggle resulted, between Khrushchev’s concepts and those of the old PCUS guidelines, which eventually, in October of 1964, cost the statesman his job.
“The USSR was not prepared for a phenomenon like the Cuban Revolution,” Sánchez stated with confidence. In his view, this responded to the fact that in the great Euro-Asian nation there was not a true concept of a revolution of national liberation, something that was better understood within the socialist camp at the time by China and Yugoslavia.
At the top echelon of the PCUS, the majority was inclined not to uncover the steps they were taking in the—eventually doomed—policy of peaceful coexistence with the United States. In this vulnerable situation, Khrushchev felt there to be some political advantages in becoming involved in Cuba, to show that he could make more progress than Stalin; he could improve the image before the people and obtain some external geographic support which would compensate for the military imbalance—especially in the field of nuclear missiles.
And so, despite the first negative response by the PCUS to send arms to Cuba, in response to a request to Poland in September of 1959, Khrushchev approved this other transfer [from Czechoslovakia].
These powers in the USSR, which were reluctant to open up to Cuba—and who had the president in the minority—blocked not only the progress of the economic and commercial relations, but also extended their objections to the way the Soviet media presented the thriving Cuban reality.
Khrushchev also created conditions for opening the coverage of the young Revolution in the media of his country, which—as professor Sánchez commented—provoked great enthusiasm in the Soviet population, causing long lines to form at the Cuban embassy in Moscow of people offering to go and fight in Cuba during the October Crisis. Eventually, more than 40,000 Soviet citizens were present in Cuba during that time.
The questions posed by the audience at the event—which mostly went unanswered because of the dilemma of the limited time available in a single meeting and the complexity of the issue under discussion—evolved around several topics: the lack of precision in the progress of the final writing-translation-interpretation process of a historic letter written by Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, to president Khrushchev; the current possibility of a “Nuclear Armageddon” that Joe Biden has outlined; and the continuity of the aggressive plans of the CIA against Cuba.
In summary, and with the aim to clarify some of these questions, the panelists made brief interventions. Professor Sánchez affirmed that Cuba, who did not request the missiles, really had no other option but to accept them for their defense, since their own weaponry was insufficient for the expected upcoming aggression, and they could not obtain a supplier that would give them what they really needed.
In Professor Sánchez’s view, among the consequences of the bad resolution of the conflict, which are still palpable today, are the continuity of the usurpation of our territory at the Guantánamo naval base, and the persistence of the U.S. blockade of Cuba. The end of this blockade, in both cases, would have been demanded of the White House by the Revolutionary Government if the Soviet Union would not have agreed—with the enemy that was common to it and to the Cuban people—to leave the Island out of the negotiations.
In addition, the expert sustains the point that another consequence of the bad management of this crisis on the part of the two superpowers of that time is that, from that moment on, several countries understood that only by developing their own nuclear weapons could they safeguard their own national security [Case in point: North Korea].
And as for the present, José Juan Sánchez pronounced himself to be distressed: in the midst of the current dangers, he does not understand the “tranquility” of mankind. “There is not even any negotiation going on, although war is coming our way,” he lamented.
In his last comments, Dr Tomás Diez Acosta, writer and researcher at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba, noted that what unleashed the October Crisis were not the Russian missiles, but the aggressive policies of the White House.
This imperial aggression led to the biggest military mobilization in the history of Cuba, calculated by professor Diez Acosta to be 269,000 combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, a number to which another 150,000 men and women in popular battalions and thousands in other organizations were added—all of whom totaled half a million armed people, in a small country that at the time barely counted seven million inhabitants.
As for his part, at the closure of the event, Dr. Rafael Hernández commented that the October Crisis, among other results, resulted in the lesson that the security of a country should not be left to the support of some other power. And again, he mentioned the—regrettable—reality that we can all see: the conclusion of that crisis did not make the world more secure.