The Unheard Voices of the Cuban Missile Crisis

January 22, 2021 | 3:54 pm
Enrico Strocchi/Flickr
Daniel Puentes
Ph.D. candidate, Michigan State Univ.

The beginning of 2021 marks a prominent time in the world of arms control. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force today, January 22, 2021. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire on February 5, 2021. Both the Biden administration and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have expressed their wish to extend New START unconditionally for five years, signaling the US and Russia’s commitment to arms control. Most people don’t know that over 58 years ago, another important event in nuclear security occurred in January 1963: the formal end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis. While those fateful 13 days (October 16–28, 1962) brought the world near the brink of a thermonuclear war, danger persisted for the remainder of the year. This event was one of the dangerous periods in recent history.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often written and understood as if the conflict was a bilateral issue. However, a perspective not often considered is that of the communist government of Cuba and the Cuban people. This piece aims to shed light on this perspective, necessary for understanding the Cuban Missile Crisis as a whole.

On the brink of war

The events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis were sparked out of frustration from the USSR. The United States and its NATO allies had placed Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, meaning the United States could strike Moscow in approximately 10 minutes in the event of a nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, Russian missile capability meant the United States had approximately half an hour to respond to a threat. As a result, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev felt it was appropriate to emplace missiles on the island of Cuba to level the playing field. When the secret missiles were discovered on the Cuban island, the United States was outraged.

The United States claimed that the USSR lied about its intentions as US intelligence aircraft detected Soviet ships carrying military equipment to the island. The presence of Soviet offensive strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba was unacceptable, and the United States announced a naval “quarantine” of Cuba. After secret negotiations took place via letter between Premier Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy during the October Crisis, the two parties agreed to an end, resulting in the removal of medium-range missiles from the island and dismantlement of all medium-range and intermediate-range missile silos. Separately, there was a secret deal that the United States would remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. The United States also verbally pledged not to invade Cuba.

However, there’s more to the story than what’s recounted in general recollections of the event. Despite the small role that the Cuban government is generally credited with, their perspective shows that the crisis was much more than a 13-day standoff between two nuclear superpowers.

A different perspective

It’s important to remember why the Cuban government accepted the nuclear-capable missiles on its territory in the first place. A year before the crisis, CIA-trained Cuban counterrevolutionaries launched an assault in the Bay of Pigs to establish a foothold on the Cuban island. This invasion failed, resulting in fears within the Cuban government that the United States would soon launch a US military-backed invasion. Acts of sabotage from Cuban counterrevolutionaries and international assassination attempts on 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 traveled to Cuba to propose positioning missiles on the island for its defense, accompanied by Soviet military support. The Cuban government did not initially want to accept the missiles because it did not want to be seen as a satellite Russian missile base. Eventually, they agreed “to strengthen the Socialist bloc,” according to former Cuban Leader Fidel Castro during his testimony at the Havana Tripartite Conference in January 1992. If the Cuban government showed that it was willing to go to extreme lengths in the name of socialism, their logic was that this would strengthen the world’s perception of the global socialist movement.

It is not well known that the Cuban government never wanted the two nations’ military agreement to be a secret. The Cuban government wanted to show the world that it had nothing to hide, including from its US neighbors.[1] The secrecy eventually backfired on both Cuba and the USSR when the missiles’ discovery sparked an immediate crisis.

To bring an end to the crisis, Cuba made demands on the United States, in addition to those made by the Soviet Union.  These demands were:

  1. Lifting the economic embargo
  2. Cessation of subversive activities, such as organizing mercenary invasions
  3. Termination of pirate attacks
  4. Halting Cuban airspace and territorial water violations
  5. Withdrawal from Guantanamo Naval Base and return of the Cuban territory

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

While it is believed that the crisis ended in October, Cuba remained on high alert after its demands were ignored by the United States. Low-altitude flyovers and piracy along the Cuban coast persisted until the end of November, 1962.

Meanwhile, despite all the geopolitical commotion, the Cuban people were left in the dark for the most part. Since the Soviet missiles were transported through the Cuban countryside at night, the Cuban people were unaware of how dangerous the situation was in 1962. It wasn’t until years later that the Cuban people began to understand what could have happened. At the time, the Cuban people appreciated the company of the Russian soldiers. Stories recounting their interactions have been recently published.[2] For example, since the Russian soldiers made very little money, they would trade their belts, watches or other items for a rum known as “alcoholitis” to drink.

There are reasons why these stories had not been told. Cuba has been known to aggressively censor their populations unless statements conform with support for the revolution. Constraints on free speech likely played a large part in the lack of information both to and from the Cuban people. In this information vacuum, stories spread that average Cuban citizens were ready to die during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In reality, most of them had no idea they were at risk.

Cuba and the world today

The end of the crisis formally occurred on January 7, 1963, when all three nations submitted declarations to the United Nations. Frustrated by the USSR’s actions and negotiating silence from the United States, Cuba had no choice but to accept the result the superpowers crafted. Several consequences developed as a result. The first Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone (NWFZ), known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco, was established in 1967, five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This banned the presence of any nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. Fast-forwarding to today, multiple NWFZs have entered into force, covering large portions of the globe.

Relations have also not improved between Cuba and the US since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The economic embargo signed in by the Kennedy administration continues today and will continue for the foreseeable future. Even though tensions eased during the Obama administration, Cuba was added back to the list of state sponsors of terrorism in the Trump administration’s final days, citing Cuba’s support for housing fugitives wanted by the US government, supporting socialist forces in Venezuela and its  human rights violations. This doesn’t significantly impact Cuba since most of the sanctions associated with the list are already in force with the trade embargo.

With the transition of a new administration in the United States, small countries seek to challenge the status quo through the TPWN’s entry into force. Cuba was the fifth state globally to ratify the TPNW, exhibiting Cuba’s modern commitment to global peace and equity. However, since these states do not maintain nuclear weapon stockpiles, they don’t possess any leverage against nuclear weapon states. As history has shown, events involving smaller countries, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, can dramatically impact these states’ national security and global security. Conflicts can never be truly understood unless leaders acknowledge the full scope of an issue, including understanding the motivations and feelings of an adversary, like the unheard voices of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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

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

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

Daniel Puentes is a Cuban-American Ph.D. candidate in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University, with interests in nuclear energy and weapons policy.

About the author

More from Guest Commentary

Leading experts from a variety of fields bring their insights to All Things Nuclear, providing guest commentary on a broad range of issues that connect to our work. Views expressed here belong to the authors, not UCS.