The Cubans fire a mock rocket
"Don't go there," someone warns me, "that's military."
The armies inspire a solemnity bordering on dread, their prestige like a gun to the temple. I talk to an old man. He saw the Russian convoy pass. He heard Kursk; the long name of “Stalingrad” exhausts him, while the concise "Moscow" burns him.
"But the base was abandoned more than 50 years ago," I say.
This town really has some luck. A German tourist guide devotes two paragraphs to it: "Here were the famous missiles from the Crisis of 1962." Perhaps this is why a couple of blondes appear in the streets of the city. And they walk, disenchanted, expecting a sign dedicated to the episode that brought them here, wishing that someone would give them a brochure, or even just a flyer, or a map of how to get to the old nuclear arsenal. This town has such bad luck that nobody even knows where the base is. Such bad luck that not even the feeling that the Island is about to explode serves as a lesson, or a pretext for a museum, or a business for day-trippers.
"It's just that nobody realized it," the old man says. "Only those who were on the port road saw the convoy. To make matters worse, it was late. And the Russians were silent."
"But wasn't there talk of the war?"
"It was carnival time," he explains jokingly. "Someone made a float similar to a missile. Imagine a cardboard rocket covered with little bulbs."
This is the richest image of the October Crisis or Cuban Missile Crisis: a crowd dancing behind a mock rocket, while Kennedy announces a red alert and Americans pile into bomb shelters. In Cuba there was no 17-minute televised panic. The people didn´t even know that nuclear war was looming. Nor was it explained to them.
No one knew anything
The rockets were stationed in the vicinity of a sugar mill. Nobody knew what or where they were, until US spy planes took some photos on October 17, 1962. "MRBM Field Launch Site, Sagua la Grande No. 2," reads the caption of the famous image. The missiles stuck out from under the shade of a palm grove.
The mill is called Mariana Grajales. They demolished it a few years ago. It is far from the busiest roads, about 15 km from Sagua la Grande. Where the factory once stood there is now a vacant lot. People prefer to sit near the store, in the shade.
"Do you remember the Russians who were here?" I ask, trying to sound casual.
The old man will not talk until he knows who I am and what I want.
"Oh, yes. But I don't remember anything. I was little. "
"And you, how old are you?" I prevent another one, with a more venerable air, from getting away.
"So, you must remember the Russians who were in town ..."
Yes, yes. But I can't tell you anything. I've forgotten everything. I'm very old."
"Ma'am," I ask a woman, "How old were you when they installed the Russian base?"
"Twentysomething. But I never heard any talk. Don't drag me into anything! Because I live alone, and I'm old. I'm afraid of all those things, going to a trial ... "
A rough road
Nobody believes that I can actually get to the base. They’re exaggerating, however, when they say it cannot be reached. Over the years it has drifted away, and now it's like a legend to them.
There is no detailed account of the Cuban Missile Crisis produced by Cuba. The Island’s designation of the event, the “October Crisis,” seems more ambiguous, euphemistic, than the Russian and American terms for the episode. October is just a situation, just another month. And there certainly has been no in-depth historical inquiry. This story usually has two all-absorbing characters: the US and the USSR. The superpowers. Cuba is a pawn that is only sometimes afforded a point of view in the Cold War game of chess. And when Cuba talks about it there is no sign of Fidel Castro, fuming because Nikita did not drop the bomb, feeling mocked because the bombs were never used, and were taken away without even a note of gratitude, or so much as a Siberian flower at their nuclear front. Nearly 50,000 Russians came to Cuba, and we do not know what they said, what they did, or how they disrupted the daily lives of a handful of towns.
In the US, the crisis is a landmark event of the 60s, with its corresponding cultural imprint. In Cuba, the crisis was not critical. Few saw the Russians and few knew about the dangerous site. The drums of war were beating, but we were still dancing to the sounds of son.
They all know about it
At this point I should clarify that these people actually do know all about the Russians. They got used to me. They lost their fear of me. Their reticence gave way to loquacity. I sit in the picnic area and they all gather round.
"The bridge there … right the way you came," says Ramón Ramos, "the Russians built it in 24 hours, in order to bring the famous missiles."
"I saw two rockets go by," Isabel Subbond eventually confesses. "They were the length of this store is, and maybe even larger. They went right by here."
Reinaldo is at the center of the conversation:
"My own brother was with the Russians. They went to my house, and they ate because one of them was in love with my sister. I was just a kid, maybe 10 or 12. "
"There was a moon like it was daytime..." He tells it as if it were an old Cuban story, "and I could hear the commotion of the Russians at the base. I could hear people talking, I guess they were watching movies. You could hear it clearly. It seemed like they were right there inside the cane. And I was scared!"
Roberto, one of Reinaldo's brothers, also heard Russian songs.
"They had good music, nice. And they could drink. Wow! They drank store alcohol. My old man gave them liquor in exchange for boots and shoes. Even clothes were sold. They wanted alcohol to drink."
"They also liked the fruit a lot," adds Jerome, an octogenarian. "We offered them guavas once. 'No, guavas are not normal,’" they told us. "
"Oh, how good!'" Barbara Valdespino imitates a Russian accent, "but the next day they could not go to the bathroom."
"They put the base on lands that belonged to us," Jerome explains, upset. "They split them down the middle. There were three posts. We ended up at the edges they left us. I was building, to get married. "
"'Comandire, comandire!'" Roberto Rios yells. "There was a 'comandire' that took prisoners, put them in a cage, and punished them! They had bad Russians there."
"And how did the Russians communicate with you? Did they speak Spanish? "
"They did what they could. Many could be understood a bit. They called the women 'señorita.' 'Senorita, cinco pesos'. They knocked on the doors of the houses: 'Cinco pesos'. They wanted to screw the women for five pesos."
"And how did they react?"
"They spurned them. Ugly, albino Russians. No way! They were all scared of them ... "
A clear path
The Soviet base is next to the old sugar mill settlement. About three kilometers. The road is open and clear, and runs under a canopy of foliage.
The vegetation grows denser. The path, very narrow, is intermittent. The forest swallowed the base. The last few meters are like leagues. Where the missiles once were is concealed under the greenery, better camouflaged than during the era of the Red Army.
"The warehouse is there, a kind of warehouse!" Reinaldo says, exclamatory, hyperbolic. "A few rockets fit there!"
And there it is. The block wall is there at the back. Silent mouths could swallow any masterpiece of the arms race, but it is the jungle that is consuming the warehouse, armory or hangar. The overgrowth extends. Outside a broken plaque survives. Apparently they wanted to commemorate the successful Operation Anadyr.
I read the fragments. It says "Pueb ..." - pueblo? - somewhere. At the end there is an incomplete date and an unmistakable trace of the missiles: "R-12," the name of one of the first intercontinental ballistic missiles.
With the USSR gone, and Cuba historically impotent, no one lays claim to this relic of the Cold War. No museum or visitors. Nor fear part of people’s memories. Because Cubans were distracted, festive, irresolute. "There was talk of war, but without fear, as if it were not going to affect us." Rum for shoes. And the mock rocket, that frivolity of ours, never had a chance to explode.