HAVANA TIMES — Another conference dealing with the missile crisis will be held on the island. At it will be scholars and the few still-living participants from the US, Russia and Cuba. They will again discuss the issue from the perspective of those who at that time decided the fate of humankind.
We looked for other actors, those who also speak of the “missile crisis” but experienced it from the front lines with guns in their hands or by loaning their farms to store nuclear missiles. These were ordinary people who perhaps would have been the first to have died had the war actually broken out.
Most Cubans knew the risks that were being run. They tell me that the thousands of children born in Cuba in July 1963 were known as “the sons and daughters of the crisis” because they were the products of the intense and impetuous sexual passion whipped up among Cubans who thought the world was on the verge of ending.
Serafin Guilleaux, a campesino turned soldier by the deed and grace of the revolution, told us: “I was guarding a store of ammunition in the Atares Fortress, but I snuck out to make love.” He admits that his eldest son is the product of those disappearances when he was still “young and strong,” he nostalgically recalled.
Leaving the capital, we found the Chusco family, who are originally from Mexico and have a farm in Madruga, off the highway between Havana and Matanzas Province. On their land was installed “one of those high-level Russian command centers,” recalls 76-year-old Rosa Chusco.
Her memory went back to the days when she was a teenager: “The Russians spoke Spanish and were very good, they brought things to my mom and dad – cans of milk, cookies and canned Russian meat. They were very good people, they were socialist people,” she said.
She took us to a cave where we could see two tunnels of the exact size, length and width that had been drilled into the wall for storing some of the nuclear missiles that Cuba had back then. There were still some heavy iron structures on the floor of the cave.
In 2002, Emilio Chusco (now deceased) remembered that before the beginning of the crisis the military removed his family from the farm and drove in tarp-covered trucks. “I could see that those were huge arms. I asked the guards what they were bringing here and they told me that it was a rocket and that they were going to put it in the cave,” he said.
While this was happening in Madruga, on the other side of Havana a Marine sergeant arrived at the Mariel Naval Base to position himself on the front line. Luis Adrian Betancourt was only 24 years old and had a newborn son that he was hardly able to see.
They had just got off the truck when the “loudspeakers on the base blasted the announcement, “Attention, attention…the unit in now on war footing, everyone to their posts.” We would always do that kind of training, but when the ranking officers talked to us then, they said that this time it was the real thing.”
The tension increased daily. “I spent many sleepless hours; I went for two days without sleeping at all, because information was constantly arriving saying a ship had been spotted over here or over there, until one morning we found a curtain of warships.”
The US battleships were so close I could easily tell what type of boat each one was. “Every day that naval force was growing, and at around 8 o’clock in the morning two American planes flew overhead. They made tremendous noise and we could see their rockets attached underneath.
Luis Adrian recalls that one morning the possibility of war became more apparent than ever: Fidel Castro ordered all units to fire on US military planes that violated Cuban airspace.
“I was leading a brigade with three detachments, each with four barrel Chinese anti-aircraft guns being handled by 14 and 15-year-old boys.” The night before, one of them said he wouldn’t dare to shoot one of the planes. “Did you see those rockets on them?” he pointed out.
Betancourt was sincere when he said at that time: “I know that tomorrow they’re going to wipe us out of here, but you and me — filled with fear and shitting in our pants — we’re going to shoot at them because if they really do bomb us, they’re going to get us anyway.” Fortunately, for the first time, that day the planes didn’t fly over.
They knew they were risking a nuclear war. “I still have a book here that they distributed back then — an American one, to be exact — about how to protect oneself as much as possible in the case of a nuclear war. Yes, that was clearly among the possibilities.”
“The hardest day, the most terrible one, was when I had a message in my hands that said that at that very moment, over the city of Havana were flying aircraft with nuclear weapons.” That day I didn’t sleep. I sat in an abandoned place thinking about my son.”
He then recalled that back then his main motivation was feeling that “behind our defenses were our families, our parents, our children, our wives and the country. We couldn’t fail. We had to shield the country because it meant defending everyone.”
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.