Latin America & Caribbean

Cubans remember missile crisis 'victory'

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Media captionSarah Rainsford finds remnants of the 1962 missile crisis in Cuba's countryside

The countryside around San Cristobal is littered with traces of the Cuban missile crisis, when the world came the closest yet to nuclear war.

It was here that the Soviet Union installed dozens of nuclear missiles, pointing at America. Fifty years on, a local guide called Stalin took me to explore what remains of that history.

The road built by Soviet troops to move their weapons into place is just visible now beneath long grass and weeds.

In a yard nearby, there's a cyclone shelter made of palm tree leaves. The stone arc around its bottom was once part of a nuclear warhead silo. The remainder of that vast store is now a tangled heap of concrete in the woods behind.

It's a trek further up into the hillside to reach the concrete block that marks one of the missile launch sites.

Deadly deployment

Image caption Local guide Stalin Feria Riveron pointed out where the Soviet Union placed its nuclear missiles

"There was a regiment of mid-range R-12 Soviet missiles here," military historian Ruben Jimenez explains, as Stalin leads us into the clearing.

Capable of reaching Washington and beyond, the warhead on each R-12 was almost 80 times more powerful than the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Reluctant at first, Fidel Castro accepted the deadly deployment as protection against further military intervention from America. His troops had fought-off a CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs only a year before, as Cuban exiles attempted to topple Cuba's socialist system. Covert US operations were continuing.

The USSR argued it was simply mirroring the situation on its own border, where the US had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey.

Moscow sent more than 40,000 troops, missiles, tanks, anti aircraft guns and bomber aircraft to Cuba. The plan was to smuggle the missiles into place and then inform the world of their presence.

The tactic failed. "Imagine such big things on our narrow little roads," says Mr Jimenez.

"There were places where they had to move lampposts or even houses to get through. If the missiles had to pass a populated place, the electricity would be cut and no-one was allowed out of their houses. But people talked - they knew what was happening."

'Two huge powers'

The key moment, though, was when a US spy plane snapped aerial images of one of the launch sites. The USSR originally thought the 22 metre-long missiles could be mistaken for palm trees.

"I think the Soviets could have concealed the missiles if they'd asked for Cuban help. They could have disguised the site as a chicken farm or tobacco sheds," Mr Jimenez argues.

"They barely took any camouflage measures. It's one of the incomprehensible aspects of the crisis," he says.

Two days after the photographs were taken, President Kennedy was informed and on 22 October he announced a naval blockade of Cuba.

Older Cubans remember the tense days that followed. Across the island, men had been mobilised. Others took crash courses in first aid, learning how to act under bombardment.

Some recall revolutionary fervour; many stress that work, and socialising, went-on as normal; but plenty were aware of the danger.

"If something had gone wrong, it would all have been over," Julio Luaces, now 76, remembers with a grimace.

His family farm was on one site chosen for a Soviet base so he was moved out, but retained access to round-up his animals that would wander there. He saw the missiles, and spoke to the soldiers.

"These were two huge powers, the USSR and USA. They weren't two lads messing around. We knew the danger for everyone. It was ugly," Mr Luaces says.

Image caption A cyclone shelter made of palm leaves uses part of a nuclear warhead silo for extra protection

'We're still here'

That danger peaked on 27 October when an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba. What the US didn't know then is that the USSR had also sent 100 tactical nuclear missiles to the island. An invasion would likely have triggered their use, and a deadly chain reaction.

Critically, cool heads prevailed. Two days later, Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the strategic missiles, and John F Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba. Quietly, the US also agreed to remove its missiles from the Soviet border with Turkey.

The world breathed an enormous sigh of relief. But in Cuba, that was mixed with anger.

"People didn't understand why they removed the missiles in return for a verbal agreement, something that can be broken," explains Mr Jimenez, a young militia member himself at the time.

"People in our battalion cried that day: not from fear, but indignation. We felt betrayed by the Soviets, doing a deal with the US without considering Cuba. It hurt us a lot," he says.

Fidel Castro's own five demands for a deal, including ending the US trade embargo on Cuba and the return of Guantanamo from the US military, were ignored. Those remain festering issues today.

But the 1962 crisis can boast one result for Communist Cuba, 50 years on.

"We're still here," points out Oscar Fernandez Mel, then commander of the armed forces in western Cuba.

"When it finished, what we thought was - we've won another one! They didn't bomb or attack us," he says.

"It was this little island, against the most powerful country in the world and we're still here."

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