HAVANA - Fifty years ago this month the US and USSR came terrifyingly close to full-scale thermonuclear war. I recalled those days of fear while staring at a rusting Soviet medium-ranged SS-4 missile displayed outside La Cabana fortress
Nuclear-armed Soviet SS-4’s, secretly brought into Cuba, were ready to destroy Washington and the entire US East Coast. Nuclear war was imminent. US forces were at DEFCON 2 and massed to invade Cuba. Washington was the prime target. As a student there at Georgetown University, I vividly recall how frightened we were, and how helpless we felt.
In the end, the Soviets prevailed in the Cuban missile crisis. President John Kennedy backed down, pledging the US would never invade Cuba. US missiles in Italy and Turkey targeted on the USSR were removed. Moscow took its SS-4’s out of Cuba.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev won his goal of saving Cuba and Fidel Castro’s Marxist regime from a US invasion. But it was such a terrifying gamble the Soviet Politburo deposed Khrushchev shortly after. Kennedy got far more credit than he deserved for the crisis.
In the early 1960’s, Communist Cuba was the vanguard of revolution in Latin America, then Africa. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s Cuba was the only Communist regime outside Mao’s China that had romantic appeal to western youth. Fidel’s vows to promote education, health care and land distribution sounded revolutionary when Latin America was mostly ruled by US-backed oligarchs and generals.
But that was long ago. The combined pressure of crushing US trade and financial sanctions and the inherent failures of the Marxist economic system left Cuba isolated, trapped in the past. Today, once picturesque colonial Havana is a Caribbean Pompeii, a museum of the 1950’s with its crumbling buildings and magnificent vintage American cars.
Half a century later, Latin America has rid itself of inept military dictators and achieved dramatic social and economic development. The US no longer treats Latin America with the paternalism and frequent contempt it did fifty years ago. Ironically, Cuba, with a living standard not far from that of the US in the early 50’s, was left behind in a time warp. Castro’s Cuba does have a high standard of health care and education, but the rest of the economy and society are battered beyond belief. Still, the Castro dictatorship, now run by brother Raul, has been honest and genuinely concerned for its people.
I’ve been going to Cuba since the pre-Castro era. My parents used to meet Ernest Hemingway for daiquiri cocktails at the famed La Floridita Bar, today, sadly an over-priced tourist trap. In my bookcase: “A Farewell to Arms,” inscribed “to Eric the painter from his friend Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1952.”
Contrary to expectations, no big changes occurred after Raul Castro assumed leadership from the ailing Fidel. Yet I have observed many small but significant developments on my regular trips to Cuba. Things are changing.
Thanks to Raul’s recent reforms, small private enterprise is bubbling up everywhere. Aid and oil from Venezuela has been very important. People are more outspoken, less wary of the secret police and informers. One feels growing energy pulsating into Havana’s delightful old city. With its beautiful buildings, friendly, attractive people, and little music bars with their superb salsa bands, Havana is poised to resume its role of 50 years ago as the most fun – and perhaps wickedest city – in the world.
America’s Great Satan, Fidel Castro, is sidelined by age and illness, but Cubans still love their national papa figure. Brother Raul, now pushing 81, has gained respect for his leadership. But once the Castro era is over, what will happen?
Either a power grab by the military and old guard, or the half million Miami-based Cubans will return and rebuild Cuba. A tsunami of US money will swamp Cuba, washing it into the modern world. Many friends of Cuba do not look forward to this change, though Cubans desperately need relief from their threadbare existence.
Fidel Castro was admired across Latin America for proudly defying the mighty US and refusing to follow Washington’s direction. Cuba paid a heavy price for its independence: poverty, repression, Soviet influence. Today’s Cubans may decide continued independence is not worth the heavy cost.