My mother was just a girl of five living in a tenement in central Havana and I was barely one egg of the many dozing in her womb. Amid the daily grind and the first signs of shortages – already noticeable in Cuban society – not even my grandmother realized how close we were to the holocaust that October of 1962. The family felt the tension, the triumphalism, and the collective nervousness of something delicate happening, but never imagined the gravity of the situation. Those who lived through that cruel month all behaved the same, whether they were unaware or accomplices, uninformed or ready to bring sacrifices, enthused or neutral.
The so-called Missile Crises, known in Cuba as The October Crisis, touched several generations of Cubans in different ways. If some recall the terror of the moment, it left others with the constant tension of the trenches, the gas mask, the shock of the alarm that might sound in the night, the island sinking into the sea, offered metaphors for speeches and songs. Nothing returned to normal after that October. Those who didn’t live through it first hand still inherited its sense of unease, the fragility of standing right on the edge that could end in the abyss.
Perhaps what most draws our attention now is the enormous capacity to make decisions that was taken by some individuals on matters of such great importance. If, in a moment of weakness, the Soviets had given into the temptation to leave the red button near the finger of the Maximum Leader in olive-green, as he would have liked, probably no one would be reading this article. What’s more, this article would not even exist. Luckily, to arm a missile with a nuclear charge and to launch it is a lot more complex than some doomsday movies would have us believe. And it was especially so in 1962, when the electronic controls required huge labyrinthine metal cabinets arranged in hermetically sealed rooms.
The slogans that were shouted in Cuban plazas in those days would be frowned upon today, by the common sense that is beginning to take hold in the early days of the twenty-first century. It would sound too irrational, absurdly excessive, contrary to life. Because when European mothers put their children to bed with the fear that the sun wouldn’t rise, on Havana’s Malecon people were chanting the strident “If you come you stay”; and while the entire world was calculating with pessimistic exactitude what would be lost and what would be left standing, on this Island they repeated to the point of exhaustion that we were ready to disappear “before agreeing to be the slaves of anyone.” When the USSR decided to remove the missiles, irresponsible people in the streets hummed, “Nikita, faggot, what you give you can’t take back.”
Recently Fidel Castro himself returned to some of that puerile — almost childish — arrogance when he stated that, “We will never apologize to anyone for what we did.” His words were an attempt to surround with glory the intransigent attitude of the Cuban government during those days that shook the world. Now, at least, we enjoy the relief of knowing that this stubborn old man of 86 is ever further from that red button that would have unleashed disaster. Every day the impossibility of his influencing the global road map becomes greater. The missile crisis will not be repeated on the Island, no matter how many Octobers lie ahead of us.