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Militiamen trained in the Escambray mountains while superpowers tested each other’s resolve. The background in this composite image is from a U-2 photo of Cuba. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)

Cuba During the Missile Crisis

Fifty years later, Cubans remember preparing to fight the Americans.

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“Cubans on the island noted the movement of trucks and materiel, tipping off American intelligence services,” says Brian Latell, a former Latin America specialist at the CIA and author of After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution. “But in the first few days, the missiles being described could not be proven to be offensive. Those reports of truck convoys…were critical to discovering the secret cargo. All human intelligence coming out of Cuba was checked and double-checked.”

In the early hours of Sunday, October 14, a U-2 Air Force pilot, Major Richard Heyser, took photos of the western part of the island. The next morning, fuzzy images of rural Cuba were unfolded on U.S. analysts’ light tables at the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Suitland, Maryland.

As photo interpreters scanned the images, several distinctive shapes caught their attention: 12 missile launch sites were detected near San Cristobal, 60 miles west of Havana, their presence kept secret even from the Cuban military. “The only Cubans on the island that knew of the missiles,” del Pino says, “were Fidel, his brother Raul, and [Argentinean-born confidant] Che Guevara.” The weapons were determined to be R-12 (NATO codename: SS-4) medium-range (600 to 1,000 miles) ballistic missiles. They could reach Washington, D.C., along with 40 percent of the Strategic Air Command’s bomber bases, in less than 20 minutes after being launched.

On Monday, October 22, President John F. Kennedy announced to a stunned world that he knew of the nuclear threat in Cuba. In a radio and TV address to the American people, Kennedy ordered a “quarantine” of the island (his word, since imposing a blockade would be considered an act of war) to intercept any Soviet ships carrying more missiles. The reaction on both sides was immediate.

“American kids on the U.S. side of the crisis were practicing duck-and-cover drills, and their parents were building bomb shelters in the back yards. But the kids in Cuba were joining the communist Young Pioneers and chanting slogans and waving fists in the air, ‘Down with Yanquis!’ ” says Miami resident Diego Gonzales. (He also asked that his real name not be used because he fears for family members still in Cuba.) Gonzales had just earned a business degree at the University of Havana and was living with his parents in Havana.

“Cuban kids never did cover drills for bombing because the secrecy maintained by Castro’s government about the situation kept the people from knowing what was going on,” he says. “The kids wore their brand-new Young Pioneers’ uniforms. We were told the Yanquis were invading us and that the Russians were protecting us. When we discovered [after Kennedy’s address] that Fidel had allowed Russian missiles on the island, we thought that was the end of the story. We would be invaded by the Americans for sure, or we would all die in a huge nuclear blast.”

One of the iconic phrases that sprang up all over Cuba in the days after the Bay of Pigs—on walls, sidewalks, sides of buses, anywhere there was space to write—was Patria o muerte; venceremos: “Fatherland or death; we will prevail.” This call to action reminded the island’s six million people of the showdown’s seriousness. (Fifty years later, the graffiti still adorns Cuban walls and buildings.)

Even as the Cubans prepared to fight the invaders, they feared and mistrusted one another, says historian Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Castro had strengthened the police-state he imposed after the Bay of Pigs. Anyone suspected of being a “counter-revolutionary” faced prison or the firing squad, and people were encouraged to report their suspicions about counter-revolutionary activities. The missile crisis “was a period of heightened tension for the government and for the Cuban people,” says Suchlicki. “The regime was scared that their hard-won revolution might be stolen back by the Americans. It was a time everyone was on edge.”

By October 25, Cuban men and women of all ages and professions were taking their place in people’s defense units—civilian “militias” organized by the Cuban military to counter the perceived U.S. threat. These were unarmed civil defense units, and included brigades for health and sanitation, firefighting, and construction. But they were loosely organized; only the firefighters and medical emergency responders conducted drills.

“All over the island, fed by Fidel’s fiery speeches, people were getting ready to fight,” recalls Canas. “We were a small island. The United States was our enemy. Everybody was yelling Patria o muerte! It was crazy. Fidel is up there telling everyone the Yanquis are coming back to finish the job. Everyone was joining defense brigades, even grandmothers.”

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