• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary

Tuesday, January 7. We are flying to Miami en route to Havana for a conference, with Fidel Castro, on the Cuban missile crisis.

This is the fifth conference in a series that began in 1987, in Hawk’s Cay, Florida, as an all-American affair, in which Kennedy administration veterans were asked questions about the crisis by political scientists and historians. The second meeting, at Harvard, brought in Soviet representatives. Then Cubans complained that everyone called it the Cuban missile crisis but no one ever asked them. (Actually the Cubans themselves call it the October crisis.) So the third meeting, held in Moscow in 1989, included Cubans, as did a fourth meeting a year ago in Antigua.

The Cubans then proposed a fifth meeting in Havana. But they had stuck so dogmatically to the Party line in Antigua that some of us questioned the usefulness of a Havana conference. Where the Americans and the Soviets had divulged internal debates and declassified relevant documents, the Cubans had gone on about the iniquities of the CIA, long since exposed in the US, and revealed nothing about their own decisions and actions.

After all, Castro had his own CIA; and Cuba’s clandestine war in the early 1960s against other Latin American states, especially against Rómulo Betancourt’s progressive democratic regime in Venezuela, was an essential part of the story. The Kennedy administration had seen the future of Latin America as essentially a contest between the Castro way and the Betancourt way. Castro, we believed, saw the contest similarly and had therefore made Venezuela his major target.

Jim Blight and Janet Lang, the organizers of the Cuban Missile Crisis Project for the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University, last summer got the Cubans to promise to release declassified documents by November 15, but so far no documents have been forthcoming. Robert McNamara and I both have forebodings and agreed last weekend that, if the conference degenerates into a propaganda barrage by Castro and his team, we will walk out.

Wednesday, January 8. After much waiting, a crowded plane takes off on the forty-minute flight to Havana. I first visited Havana in 1950, for a meeting of the Inter-American Association for Democracy and Freedom, when I met Betancourt and other democratic leaders like José Figueres of Costa Rica, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende of Chile. I next visited Havana thirty-five years later—in May 1985 and again in October, this time on human rights missions with Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador, and a champion of Latin American democracy. We had frank, and not uncordial, sessions with Castro on each occasion.

Human rights are obviously not on the agenda of the impending conference, and the primary purpose of the present trip is to clarify the historical record of the supreme crisis of the nuclear age. However, some of us, especially Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interest Section—the de facto embassy—in Havana, and Robert Pastor, McNamara’s son-in-law and a Latin American expert on Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, are also concerned to see what we can of the human rights situation.

That situation has recently been growing worse. September and October 1991 saw the arrest of dissidents on such charges as “illegal association,” “clandestine printing,” “contempt of the President.” On November 19, the poet María Elena Cruz Varela was brutally treated by government demonstrators and forced to swallow a moving declaration of principles she had written for the small human rights group Criterio Alternativo. She was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison, and some in the exile community fear that she has been given psychotropic drugs in preparation for a public appearance at a Havana trial. On November 22, Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was besieged and beaten by a mob in his own house—this was an organized “spontaneous” assault by one of the so-called Rapid Response Brigades in what the regime called an “act of repudiation.” On December 20 Yndamaro Restano, head of the Movimiento Armonía, a social democratic group, was arrested. All these people and their organizations call for political freedom and peaceful reform. All are opposed to violence.

On December 27 Carlos Aldana, the leading ideologue on the Politburo, delivered a vicious attack on the human rights movement. The “imperialist policies promoted by President Carter,” he said, had “granted priority to so-called human rights issues, with all the hypocrisy and cynicism that characterizes this type of accusation.” Human rights activists, Aldana continued, proclaim their apolitical nature; but, though they try to separate themselves from CIA terrorists, they too “are directed by the CIA…they obey instructions and are part of an overall plan.”

The movement of Elizardo Sánchez, Aldana said, is “squalid, counterrevolutionary garbage.” María Elena Cruz “has maintained the most stable, close ties with the CIA center in Miami”; in addition, she has a “personality disturbance” and suffers from “hysterical neurosis.” The human rights agitators have “begun to move from the activities they have traditionally been carrying out in human rights matters—and even though they have insisted that this was all they were about—to direct, clandestine counterrevolutionary activities.” Any Communist receiving counterrevolutionary leaflets would naturally wish “to go to find that person and call him to account for it”—hence the “act of repudiation” against María Cruz, “a brawl,” said Aldana, “in the noblest sense of the word.”

With such wretched events in mind, we ride from the airport into Havana. Returning after half a dozen years, I am struck by the silence of the streets. The oil shortage has left very few private automobiles and not many buses on the road. The motor vehicles are mostly trucks. We pull up at a red light next to one filled with shiny new bicycles imported from China. Castro is engaged in an extensive effort to convert Cuba into a nation of bicycle riders. Cubans, however, appear to be reluctant cyclists. Some are just walking their bikes. We pass many schools; also swimming pools, most of them empty. No portraits of Castro, but occasional revolutionary slogans. Signs point to the Teatro Karl Marx.

We are installed in official guest houses in El Lagito (Little Lake), a pretty estate with rolling green lawns and a placid pond populated by pink water lilies and three brilliant orange flamingos. The Russian group, which includes the sons of Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan, is housed in a neighboring villa. In the afternoon we all—Americans and Russians—drive through the empty streets for a ceremony of welcome around a SS-4 missile standing in a historical park by the sea. Much handshaking and picture-taking.

Thursday, January 9. The “Conferencia Tripartita Sobre La Crisis de Octobre de 1962” opens at 3 PM in the Palace of Conferences.1 Castro arrives promptly, looking extremely fit in well-tailored fatigues. He speaks with his usual magnetic force. No one had reminded him, he disarmingly but unconvincingly says, that the conference was beginning today, so he has not had time to read all the documents. He will therefore defer his major presentation, he says, until he has done his homework. He jokingly recalls the absence of Cubans at earlier meetings: “Just as we were left out of the solution of the crisis, so we have been left out of the historical analysis.” He assures us that he has no animosity toward anyone, adversaries or allies. He finishes in eleven minutes, probably the shortest Castro speech on record.

McNamara’s opening statement masterfully distributes blame for “misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment” impartially among all three countries. If he had been a Cuban, he says, he might well have expected an American invasion in 1962; but “I can state unequivocally we had absolutely no intention of invading Cuba.” To avoid future crises, potential adversaries must try to understand how others will interpret their actions. With the cold war now over, he concludes, the US no longer has security concerns about Cuba. He hopes that remaining issues between the two states can be addressed “through normal diplomatic dialogue.”

General Anatoly Gribkov, a grim-faced military man who had been in Cuba during the crisis, provides an authoritative account of Soviet military deployment. In 1962 there were, he tells us, 43,000 Soviet troops in Cuba. (The CIA had estimated 10,000.) “Never before had we transported so many troops over such a distance.” Moreover, the Soviet force had nuclear warheads (the CIA was never sure whether the warheads had actually arrived)—and not only for strategic but for tactical missiles.

This last statement startles, and appalls, the Americans present. The Soviet force, Gribkov continues, had six tactical missile launchers with nine nuclear warheads—and Soviet field commanders had authority to use tactical nuclear weapons against an American invasion, without clearance from Moscow. Incredible. I had earlier believed that we had overestimated the dangers of the crisis—that Khrushchev, well aware of US overall nuclear superiority as well as of US conventional superiority in the Caribbean, would never have risked war. But Soviet forces, we are now told, were ready to fire tactical nuclear missiles at an invading force.2

McNamara later observes that he had rejected Admiral Dennison’s request that the US troops be equipped with tactical nuclear weapons. But had the Soviets used such weapons against an invasion, he adds, the demand for a nuclear response would have been irresistible.

Gribkov says, almost regretfully, “We expected heavy casualties and were prepared if necessary to move to guerrilla war.” The decision to withdraw the missiles was a terrible blow, though, he concedes, “the wisdom of the three leaders prevented a nuclear catastrophe.” He says with feeling that, in his fifty-five years in the Red Army, “his most humiliating experience was the US inspection of the ships bringing the missiles out of Cuba.”

Oleg Troyanovsky then speaks. The son of the first Soviet ambassador to Washington, a former student at Sidwell Friends School and Swarthmore, later ambassador to Japan, China, and the United Nations, he was a special assistant to Khrushchev during the crisis. He was taken aback, he says, when he learned that nuclear missiles were going to Cuba; “I knew it would entail the most serious consequences.” Khrushchev agreed that it was a serious question: “But why can’t we do what the Americans have been doing all along?” In October Khrushchev told Troyanovsky that the missiles were now going in and would likely cause a storm. Troyanovsky said, “I hope we will not founder.” Khrushchev: “Let us hope not.”

Troyanovsky recounts the reaction at the Kremlin when Kennedy announced the discovery of the missiles. Vasily Kuznetsov proposed that Khrushchev respond by bringing further pressure on Berlin. Khrushchev said harshly, “We do not need that kind of advice.” The grimmest day, Troyanovsky recalls, was Saturday October 27, when word arrived that an American U2 had been shot down over Cuba and when a letter from Castro appeared to call for a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. These developments accelerated the decision to withdraw the missiles.

  1. 1

    Quotations are from my own notes taken at the time. A full and authoritative account will be available in James G. Blight, David A. Welch, and Bruce J. Allyn, Cuba On the Brink: Fidel Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Collapse of Communism, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This is a sequel to Blight’s earlier work, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Re-examine the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed., with David A. Welch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), and The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).

  2. 2

    Gribkov’s account does not square with what General Dmitry Volkogonov, the military historian and biographer of Stalin, told the Moscow conference in 1989. When asked about this, Gribkov merely said that Volkogonov was wrong. Oleg Troyanovsky, however, said that he had never heard this before; and the delegation of authority to use tactical nuclear weapons is unknown in other Soviet theaters. If Gribkov is right—and having been in Cuba at the time and having no reason to dissemble, presumably he is right—then it may be that Khrushchev did not know of, or at least did not appreciate the implications of, the arrangement.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print