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The small town of Bejucal, 20 miles south of Havana, looks much as it did in October 1962. Horse carts carry passengers and fresh-cut green bananas through narrow streets lined with pastel-colored homes.
The sleepy town doesn't seem like the kind of place to put an arsenal of nuclear weapons. But a military bunker here was the biggest storage depot on the island for the Soviet nuclear weapons 50 years ago.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had secretly put dozens of intermediate and short-range nuclear-armed missiles on the island, disguising some of the rockets as palm trees.
On the morning of October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was first told the Soviet Union had installed nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the tense 13 days that followed brought the world as close as it's ever been to nuclear war.
By the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis — known to Cubans as the October Crisis — U.S. spy planes were roaring overhead in Bejucal, snapping photographs.
Antonio Torres was a 23-year-old Cuban militiaman at the time.
"They flew low and close to the ground," said Torres, a local farmer who stopped on his bicycle to share a few war stories. "We pointed our guns at the planes but our Commander Fidel [Castro] hadn't given the order to shoot."
Talk Of A U.S. Invasion
When the U.S. imposed a naval blockade, Cuba's 36-year-old leader Fidel Castro lined Havana's seafront boulevard with anti-aircraft battalions and told Cubans to brace for an imminent U.S. invasion.
Carlos Alzugaray, a university student and defense analyst at the Cuba's Foreign Ministry in 1962, remembers coming back to the ministry late at night exhausted after spending the day digging trenches, and getting questions from his colleagues about the U.S. Army nuclear warfare manual he'd been reading. They wanted to know what happened would happen if there was a nuclear war. He was 19.
"I said, 'Well, most probably what will happen is we will see a big flash. We will feel a lot of heat. And then we will be dead,'" Alzugaray recalls, laughing. "And with that we went to bed."
Alzugaray went on to be a Cuban diplomat and a professor of international relations at the University of Havana. Like Fidel Castro, he insists it was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles in April 1961 that led directly to the missile crisis, pushing Castro to reach for an equalizer to deter future U.S. intervention.
"The U.S. was pursuing relentlessly a policy of regime change in Cuba," Alzugaray says. "If Kennedy hadn't pursued the destroying of the Cuban Revolution in the way that he did probably nothing like this would have happened."
Of the episode's main protagonists, only Fidel Castro is still alive. Now 86-years-old, the ailing revolutionary hasn't been seen in public since March. His brother Raul now runs Cuba but doesn't have the same affection for re-hashing the glory days with old foes.
In 2002, Fidel Castro hosted a gathering that brought together aging Soviet commanders with former Kennedy advisers like Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
A Low-Key Commemoration
This year's commemoration will be far more low-key. But Cuban scholar Esteban Morales was there 10 years ago and, ironically, he and other Castro supporters have come to see the episode just as many of their American adversaries do. It was Khrushchev, they say, who blinked.
"I think we lost a great opportunity in the crisis," Morales says. "The only great opportunity we've ever had in our conflict with the United States. Because what we've learned over the years about the United States is that you have to have something to negotiate with. You have to have something to give."
Kennedy gave Khrushchev his word that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, but Morales says the missiles could have been bargaining chips to end the U.S. trade embargo, or the covert operations against Castro that carried on for decades.
Newly-uncovered Soviet archives show Moscow left nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons on the island without U.S. knowledge.
But by late November 1962, the Soviets removed them anyway, wary of the hot-tempered young Castro.
Over the years, Castro leveraged that perceived betrayal to secure other military hardware and the generous Soviet aid that ensured his survival. And even without the missiles, the American invasion never came.