Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 55 Years Ago

The October Crisis, when everyone won.

October 22d marked fifty-five years since the beginning of the most dangerous crisis during the Cold War, a moment when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. Fortunately, seven days later, on October 28, the United States and the Soviet Union reached an agreement that ended the confrontation over the nuclear missiles installed in Cuba, an agreement that was received with universal relief.

Because the world has never been so close to a nuclear war, and the magnitude and drama of the events, the whole process is periodically analyzed from all possible approaches- e.g. military, diplomatic, and political. Some analysts try to draw lessons for the future; others study the negotiations between President John F. Kennedy and the Secretary General of the CPSU and Prime Minister of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. It’s also examined what was the fate of these two leaders, and of then Prime Minister Fidel Castro who rejected the part assigned to Cuba by the two superpowers. Many others are dedicated to determine which side gained more, ignoring that in fact –as Khrushchev expressed then– who won was world peace. Or, rather, all parties involved.

In order to make a judgment on who won in the Missile Crisis it’s not enough to look at the agreement that ended it; you have to appreciate how relations between the superpowers evolved from that moment and the impact in Cuba. An additional interest is to know what the future brought to each one of the three leaders involved.

Reviewing the various versions of the reasons that led Khrushchev to propose the installation of the missiles in Cuba –and Fidel Castro to accept it–, it is clear that the Soviet Union intended to change the strategic situation vis-a-vis the United States and also to safeguard Cuba. The Cuban leader, for his part, accepted because Cuba was under threat of a direct invasion of the United States -and also because he was politically compelled to show solidarity with the Soviet Union for ideological reasons and in response to the considerable essential aid it provided to Cuba.

The United States reacted against a fait accompli, the missiles were in Cuba. If they remained there a change in the strategic balance will have been achieved and for the first time a hostile power would use the Cuban territory as a base, something that the United States had try to avert for a very long time.

The objectives of the Soviet Union and Cuba were to modify the correlation of forces between the two superpowers and to prevent a direct aggression against Cuba. The reaction of the United States sought to reverse the initiative taken by the Soviet Union and to ratify their principle that strategic armaments that would threaten them could not be installed in Cuba

As a result of the negotiations, the Soviet Union withdrew all strategic weapons from Cuba, including the Il-18 bombers, allowing verification of their withdrawal, accepting in fact that the territory of the island could not be used for these purposes. In exchange, Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and withdraw the missiles installed in Turkey.

Considering that the United States maintained its missiles in Italy and the United Kingdom and that it had great superiority in the total amount of nuclear warheads and vehicles capable of transporting them, the nuclear strategic balance in its favor was maintained.

But the Soviet Union achieved the withdrawal of those which it considered most threatening to its security and also to stop the possibility of an invasion to Cuba, which helped to consolidate the only socialist revolution in the Western Hemisphere in a country that had declared its adherence to socialism and preserved it without the need of Soviet tanks and troops, as was the case in Eastern Europe.

In addition, and as a follow up result of the negotiations during the crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Testing Limitation Treaty, stopping the tests of these weapons in the atmosphere, established the so-called "hot line" for immediate and direct communications that would help to avoid a conflict due to misinterpretation of actions, and started the road that led to the adoption in 1969 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty whose importance has only increased over time.

In the Western Hemisphere, the Government of Mexico called on the Latin American countries to negotiate a denuclearization treaty for the region. To this end, in 1963, the Preparatory Commission for the Denuclearization of Latin America was established, whose negotiations culminated in the first treaty of its kind in the world for an entire populated region, the well-known Treaty of Tlatelolco signed in 1967 by all the Latin American states, except Cuba, and two from the Caribbean. Although Cuba did not endorse it until 1995, it always respected its spirit and essence by placing its research and activities in the peaceful use of atom under safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The reaction of the Cuban leader to the agreement reached by Khrushchev and Kennedy was of indignation. Fidel reacted to the fact that Cuba had been ignored in the process of negotiating the agreement. The great socialist power had treated Cuba as a mere pawn. History had already given Cubans a bitter lesson in this regard when in 1898, in the Treaty of Paris, the fate of the island was decided between the United States and Spain without representatives of the people who had fought so hard in the war that was being negotiated.

Cuba rejected the part assigned to it by the United States and the Soviet Union by refusing to allow on its territory the inspection of the withdrawal of the armaments. This demonstration of independence vis-a-vis the two major world powers made it clear that the main political basis of the Cuban Revolution was, and is, the defense at any cost of its sovereignty and independence. Alternatively, the American airplanes would control from the air the rockets and airplanes that returned in Soviet ships.

But Washington's commitment not to invade Cuba would provide it with a major element of security. Although the United States continued its plan of subversion, terrorist acts and financial, economic and commercial blockade, the Revolutionary Government was now able to concentrate on defeating all actions of subversion, including the promotion of a civil war through the organization and delivery of weapons and supplies from the United States to counterrevolutionary gangs in Cuba.

In April 1963, Fidel Castro made his first visit to the Soviet Union, a visit that lasted for 38 days, receiving unique honors such as being the first foreign Head of Government to speak to the Moscow people from the mausoleum of Lenin, and the first to visit a submarine base with strategic nuclear weapons. Most importantly, it achieved important economic and military supply agreements and a reiteration of the Soviet commitment to the defense of Cuba.

Because of the results of this visit and the United States' commitment not to directly attack it, Cuba strengthened its external security.

Negotiating firmly and calmly President Kennedy forced the withdrawal of Soviet weapons from Cuba and opened a path of fruitful negotiations with the Soviet Union that would benefit the position of the United States in the world. He emerged before public opinion as the great winner in the crisis, but was assassinated thirteen months later, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

Nikita Khrushchev –who secured assurances for Cuba, got the American missiles withdraw from Turkey and opened the way to negotiations with Washington that were a strategic interest for the Soviet Union– was deposed from his positions in the Communist Party and the Soviet government on October 14, 1964.

Fidel Castro continued as the leader of the Cuban revolution. The consolidation of the external and internal security of the country led to the beginning of the period known as the "revolutionary offensive”, which with the total eradication of private activity in the economy in 1968, laid the foundations of the economic model prevalent on the island. In political terms in 1975 the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party and the adoption in 1976 of the current Constitution completed the main aspects of the system.

José Raúl Viera Linares.
La Habana, October 17, 2017.

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