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Unheard Voices of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The beginning of 2021 marks an important period in the world of arms control. The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty (TPNW) comes into force today on January 22, 2021. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement (New START) is expected to end on February 5th, 2021. Both the Biden administration and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs signaled the commitment of the US and Russia to arms control and expressed their willingness to extend the New START for five years unconditionally. Most people don’t know that more than 58 years ago, another major event in nuclear safety took place in January 1963: the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, officially known as the October Crisis. While this fate put the world on the brink of thermonuclear war for 13 days (16-28 October 1962), the danger continued for the rest of the year. This event was one of the dangerous periods of recent history.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often written and understood as if the conflict was a dual issue. However, the communist government of Cuba and the perspective of the Cuban people are often not taken into account. This article aims to shed light on this perspective necessary to understand the Cuban Missile Crisis as a whole.

On the brink of war

The events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis stemmed from the disappointment of the USSR. United States and NATO allies that they placed Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, which meant that Moscow could hit the United States in about 10 minutes in case of a nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, Russian missile capability meant the United States had about half an hour to respond to a threat. As a result, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev felt it was appropriate to place missiles on the Cuban island to level the playing field. When hidden missiles were discovered on the island of Cuba, the United States was enraged.

The United States claimed that it lied about the intentions of the USSR after the US intelligence aircraft detected Soviet ships carrying military equipment to the island. The existence of Soviet aggressive strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba was unacceptable and the United States declared Cuba’s “quarantine” at sea. Prime Minister Khrushchev and President John F. ranged missile silos during the October Crisis. Separately, there was a secret agreement that US nuclear missiles removed from Turkey. The United States also promised verbally not to invade Cuba.

However, there is more to the story than is told in general memoirs of the event. Despite the small role that the Cuban government is generally credited with, their perspectives show that the crisis is much more than a 13-day stalemate between two nuclear superpowers.

A different perspective

It is important to remember why the Cuban government first adopted nuclear-capable missiles on its territory. A year before the crisis, Cuban counter-revolutionaries trained by the CIA launched an offensive in the Bay of Pigs to establish a foothold on the island of Cuba. This invasion was unsuccessful and caused fears within the Cuban government that the US would soon launch a US military-sponsored invasion. The sabotage actions of Cuban counter-revolutionaries and the international assassination attempts of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro only fueled these fears.

Of course, the USSR noticed these actions in the Caribbean. In May 1962, Russian leaders, with Soviet military support, traveled to Cuba to plant defensive missiles on the island. The Cuban government initially did not want to accept the missiles because it did not want to be seen as a satellite Russian missile base. According to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in his testimony at the Havana Trilateral Conference in January 1992, they finally agreed to “strengthen the Socialist bloc”. If the Cuban government showed its willingness to go to extremes in the name of socialism, their logic was that it would strengthen the world’s perception of the global socialist movement.

It is not known that the Cuban government has never wanted the military agreement of the two nations to be a secret. The Cuban government wanted to show the world that it has nothing to hide from its US neighbors.[1] When the discovery of the missiles caused a sudden crisis, the secrecy eventually backfired to both Cuba and the USSR.

Cuba made demands from the United States, as well as those made by the Soviet Union, to end the crisis. These demands were:

  1. Lifting the economic embargo
  2. Stopping destructive activities such as organizing mercenary invasions
  3. End of pirate attacks
  4. Stopping Cuban airspace and territorial water violations
  5. Withdrawal from Guantanamo Naval Base and return of Cuban soil

None of this happened. The Soviets ended the crisis with the United States on their own terms, without backing Cuba’s demands.

While the crisis is believed to be over in October, Cuba remained on high alert when its demands were ignored by the United States. Low altitude overpasses and piracy along the Cuban coast continued until the end of November 1962.

Meanwhile, despite all the geopolitical turmoil, the Cuban people remained largely in the dark. The Cuban people were unaware of how dangerous the situation was in 1962, as Soviet missiles were transported from the Cuban countryside at night. The Cuban people were beginning to understand what could happen years later. At that time, the Cuban people appreciated the friendship of the Russian soldiers. Stories about their interactions were recently published.[2] For example, Russian soldiers made so little money that they traded their belts, watches or other items for a rum known as “alcoholic” to drink.

There are reasons why these stories are not told. Cuba is known to aggressively censor its populations as long as statements do not agree with support for the revolution. Restrictions on freedom of expression played a huge role in the Cuban people and the lack of information from them. In this knowledge gap, stories spread that average Cuban citizens were ready to die during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In reality, most of them didn’t know they were at risk.

Cuba and the world today

The official end of the crisis took place on January 7, 1963, when all three countries submitted their statements to the United Nations. Tired of the actions of the USSR and negotiating the silence of the US, Cuba had no choice but to accept the result created by the superpowers. As a result, several results emerged. The first Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ), known as the Tlatelolco Treaty, was established in 1967, five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This prohibited the existence of any nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many NWFZs, which have progressed rapidly to date, have entered into force covering a large part of the world.

Relations between Cuba and the United States have also not improved since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The economic embargo signed by the Kennedy administration continues today and will continue in the near future. While tensions subsided during the Obama administration, Cuba’s support for sheltering fugitives wanted by the U.S. government was added back to the list of state sponsors of terrorism in the last days of Cuba’s Trump administration, which supported socialist forces and human rights violations in Venezuela. . This does not significantly affect Cuba, as most of the list-related sanctions are already in place with a trade embargo.

With the transition of a new administration in the United States, smaller countries are trying to challenge the status quo through the introduction of the TPWN. Cuba became the fifth state to endorse the TPNW and demonstrate Cuba’s modern commitment to global peace and equality. However, since these states do not have nuclear weapons stockpiles, they do not have any leverage against nuclear weapons states. As history shows, events involving smaller countries, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, can significantly affect the national security and global security of these states. Conflicts can never really be understood unless leaders acknowledge the full scope of an issue, including understanding an enemy’s motivations and emotions, like the unheard voices of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[1] Lechuga, C., & Hevia, CL (1995). In the Eye of the Storm: Castro, Khrushchev, Kennedy and the Missile Crisis. Ocean Pr.

[2] Karlsson, H., and Acosta, TD (2019). The Missile Crisis from the Cuban Perspective: Historical, Archaeological and Anthropological Reflections. Routledge.

The featured image on this blog is courtesy of Enrico Strocchi on Flickr.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons Tags: Cuba, Russia, TPNW

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