The Cuban Missile Crisis and War as Seen by Ordinary People

Fernando Ravsberg*

Rosa Chusco assured us that in the cave on her farm is installed “one of those high-level Russian command centers” while her brother Emilio is positive that they put a rocket in that same cave. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

The youngest generation of Chuscos playing in the remains of what was once a Russian nuclear rocket base from which World War III could have been triggered. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

Luis Adrian Betancourt was a young 24-year-old sergeant who received the order to begin shooting down American war planes flying over Cuba. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.




3 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis and War as Seen by Ordinary People

  • Yes it was Krushev’s idea, I think the real danger was though (or one of the dangers) a slip up in the line of command, some ship/aircraft or submarine left without comms and pushing the button for example. I was a teenager at this particular time and yes it was very frightening, but I am glad that Cuba survived and went on to defy the American’s threat of invasion.

  • Americans are claiming that it was big victory for USA. How brazen, arrogant and foolish attempt to stubbornly try prove something completely opposite of truth. So american…. Under Batista Cuba was loosing it’s last of its integrity and national identification. 70% of economy was already controlled by US and loosing rest of it fast. Batista’s army was armed, equipped and trained by USA. Cuba was quickly turning into another “take over” state and except for handfull chosen puppets Cubans were becoming irrelevant in their own home country. for USA it was unbelievable plunder from heaven – Lack of any regulations other than Batista’s monkey deals provided uncontrollable opportunities to all kind of criminal plunder further depriving common Cubans of their rights and pushing them into virtual slavery in their own home. No wonder we hate Castro so much – he changed it all for us. There’s no doubt that USA would invade Cuba – it was just a matter of short little time. Bay of Pigs was just a prelude to what was coming. And Cubans knew it. Inviting soviet rockets was last ditch effort to sustain their independence. It was’t that crazy as US is trying to insinuate. We already had our nukes aimed at Soviets in their next door neighbor Turkey and other locations. The “crisis” helped Cubans keep their country for themselves (at least for now) and got rid of the Turkey located US nukes. Somebody had to teach us a lesson. And good we happend to have smart president at that time. Our hypocrisy being tempered, rage re-directed. Unfortunately fine print didn’t say about taking Cuba by other means (famine for example) so starve them we do. Yet they persevere and win.. poor but strong in their posture thankful they didn’t fall to our expansion of “democracy”.

  • it was nikita krushchev´s idea to put missiles in cuba, not fidel´s, and it wasn´t a complete disaster because the russians got 2 concessions. cuba would never be invaded again and american missiles were removed from turkey. john kennedy made no plans to leave the white house and fly somewhere safe like wyoming or the tunnels under a mountain at strategic air command, SAC, near omaha, nebraska. kennedy did not believe that the situation would result in a nuclear war so i wonder if the missile crisis has been hyped by historians. it´s the same with the story that the russians were planning a first strike in 1983 because they believed that ronald reagan was crazy enough to believe that he could win a nuclear war against the evil empire. was the world really on the brink? stanley kubrick wanted to make a serious movie about a nuclear war but he found the thinking of those at the top so absurd that he made his movie as a comedy. ¨dr. strangelove. or how i learned how to stop worrying and love the bomb.¨

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