April 14, 2012

HAVANA – Fifty years ago this month the US and USSR came terrifying 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.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012

This post is in: Latin America


  1. Cuba might do well to ask the BRICS Alliance over for a chat. The “B” – Brazil – may be able to offer Cuba good advice and assistance if necessary.

    • BRICS has not done much, it seems, yet. But I think that it will become more important as US and her lackies (NATO) decline.
      Cuba’s best bets as allies will be Brazil and Venezuela, methinks.
      It’s about time for huge South America to take to the world stage!

  2. CubaJack says:

    The Cuban Missile Crisis mentioned seems to be a different one than I remember. First of all, it was not fifty years ago this month. That would make it April, 1962. It all started on October 14, 1962. That is why the Cubans refer to it as the October Crisis.

    Also as I remember it, and as many Cubans remember it, the Soviets did not prevail. The Soviets withdrew, earning much anger from Fidel and many Cubans.

  3. Concerned says:

    This is quite a solid and interesting article, but I don’t share the bleak fatalism with which you look at what will likely happen after the departure of Raul. In the 1990s it was commonly believed that after Fidel’s departure the system would collapse rapidly because Raul – the obvious successor –would not have the moral authority of Fidel. But the transition to Raul was very smooth – there was never a moment of panic or uncertainty. I am not predicting that the transition from Raul to his successor will be equally smooth: I am just pointing out that those who anticipated a cataclysm were wrong before and may be wrong again.

  4. Steve_M. says:

    When I re-read the column, I noted this statement: “Ironically, Cuba, with a living standard not far from that of the US in the early 50’s….”. Although the affluent people Eric Margolis’s parents likely socialized with in Cuba might have been almost as well off as Americans back in the 1950s, I don’t for a second believe that was the case for most Cuban people aty that time. If they had been as well off as Margolis suggests, Communism would not have been so tempting to the poor tenant farmers and urban working people who initially supported Fidel Castro so strongly.

    • Mike Smith says:

      I am not sure now… I thought he meant the current standard of living was similar to 1950’s US…

      I wonder about ” The combined pressure of crushing US trade and financial sanctions and the inherent failures of the Marxist economic system ”

      Would the Marxist economic system have failed without the crushing US sanctions and policys ?

      Marx envisioned his system for Britain, not massive countries like Russia or China. Perhaps without the external pressures his theories might have fared better in Cuba.

      One can argue either case, but it is interesting to consider.

  5. stage1dave says:

    Great column about an increasingly important subject, IMHO. The official US attitude is medieval & obviously needs to change.

    GF’s daughter was down for a week in February & her capsule description was: “awesome, fascinating, but kinda depressing”. I’m looking forward to expanding upon that next winter when The GF & I visit.

    I was barely into kindergarden during the crisis, but do remember the tense atmosphere around the house. My dad was a freshly-retired Clunk driver in the OLD RCAF & his late 1950’s postings in Europe had convinced him (and my mother) of American hypocrisy on this issue. Developments since have only cemented their views, in my mind anyways.

    One thing I’m curious about: I remember reading many years ago in a reputable journal about a Russian Navy officer “who saved the world…” during the “missile crisis” (Arkhonov? Arkhonopov?) Apparently the Americans actually fired on the Russian convoy & he ordered his gun crews to sit tight & not to return the fire? Is there any truth to this, & does anyone have some more detailed info?

    Anyway, like the new forums; great look & a lot more visually friendly.

  6. solum temptare possumus says:


    What a Memory of Hemingway! It must have been tragic for you to here of his suicide. I trust your parents helped you through it.
    I will visit Cuba someday. For now, as a regular Platelet donator, I can visit the US and Western Europe, but can be temporarily suspended by the Canadian Blood Services (to await incubation of numerous diseases) if I stray to far afield. Ever heard of Chaga’s Disease, Babesiosis and Leishmaniasis?
    Ad iudicium

  7. Some Canadian says:

    One thing I’d like to note about Cuba that Eric didn’t appear to have mentioned is that this particular country is often portrayed as an exceptional showcase of environmentalism where its ecological footprint is among the lowest in the world and that it actually has a sustainable economic plan that permits (a degree of) self-sufficiency and environmental conservation.

    But once the embargo is lifted, the same may not be true anymore. Here’s an article about why the end of embargo can be bad for Cuba (in some ways): http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/25/science/25cuba.html?_r=1

    • Concerned says:

      People carelessly assume that once the so-called “embargo” – which in many ways is a blockade – ends Cuba will be at the mercy of the whims of US corporate interests. This is not necessarily the case. The embargo/blockade is a US policy whose intention is to force Cuba into economic isolation. If the US suspends this policy, Cuba would have the option of allowing US business interests uninhibited access to Cuba. However, we should not assume that Cuba is a nation of Brian Mulroneys, itching to be penetrated by US capital. Cuba might very well preserve and even strengthen current rules about foreign investment and the importation of foreign goods.

      • Some Canadian says:

        Once Fidel and Raul are gone, it’s going to be a new era of politics in Cuba. How different, do you think, are the Mao and Deng generations of government?

  8. scissorpaws says:

    Krushev didn’t “win” in Cuba. The US had no intention of invading the island, which Kennedy made abundantly clear – and paid for direly – during the Bay of Pigs. Invading the whole island would have made Vietnam look like a cakewalk, and Kennedy, no stranger to war, readily understood that. What the world saw, and what invariably happened, was the Russians backed off, turned their ships away. Krushev grossly underestimated Kennedy, thought he was a weak flake. And the hawks in the Situation Room, and McNamara, eager for a display of strength, were curbed by Kennedy. I hate to think what The Boy King would’ve done in the situation. Instead of fiddling his last words echoing down through time: “Mission accomplished.”

  9. I distinctly remember the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis…like it happened yesterday.An interesting point Mr. Margolis makes is that the Soviets ‘won’ this confrontation but by the magic of propaganda, Kennedy was seen as the real hero here according to the never ending US propaganda machine going at full tilt even today not only in regards to Cuba,but the ME situation as well.

    When are those insane embargos going to be lifted against Cuba.They make absolutely no sense at all.The only ones who really end up suffering are the citizens.This has no boundaries no matter what countries are being “punished”….the citizens are ALWAYS the real losers.Not one reputable American politician,except the distinguished Ron Paul,had the sincere courage to call for an end to this inhumane economic embargo.Cuba is clearly being made an example of when American wishes or directions are disobeyed.What happened to President Obama’s election promise to close down Guantanamo Bay…?This inhumane, and embarassment to the US,prison needs to be closed down pronto.This would be an important first step into normalizing relations with Cuba.The Soviet Union is long gone and there is NO danger of any country ever setting up nuclear missles in Cuba ever again.So what’s the hold up….over to you President Barack Obama.I’d like to see what you’re made of once and for all.November is fast approaching and from an economic point your chances of re-election look slim at this point.Do something positive for the betterment of Mankind….anything…just do something and don’t listen to the overabundance of self serving special interest groups of which you have been surrounded by since Day One of your inauguration.
    The Cuban people are NOT America’s enemy…the true enemies are alive and functioning in Washington,DC…..sadly.

    • Some Canadian says:

      America has more enemies than that. There are those pseudo-state media (i.e. CNN, MSNBC, etc) and there are those ignorant generic public voters who think Muslims eat babies.

      Oh yeah, we also have our share of those in Canada. 🙂

      • I agree with you Some Canadian that America has more enemies.But that is a direct result of past and present American foreign policy….which originated,by politicians, in Washington DC.The once ridiculous thought up notion that “other countries” were jealous of America’s freedoms was just that…nothing but jibberish.This Washington “thought up excuse” unfortunately worked too well in convincing the American people that this was the “real reason” for terrorist attacks against America…another outrageous lie.Terrorists are found in just about every corner of the world…America included.

    • Concerned says:


      When you call the US embargo of Cuba “inhumane” you are being accurate; not so when you call it “insane.” It is sane – a rational and also effective way of pursuing US foreign policy issues. It makes many items in Cuba more expensive than they would otherwise be, it seriously undermines the health care system and it deprives Cuba of the natural market for many of its exports. The result is that Cuba suffers a deformed socialist economy, not the robust socialist economy it might otherwise have, which would be an intolerable ideological embarrassment to the US and an irresistible temptation for the rest of Latin America.

      • Concerned,
        Point taken.But I always like to try and look at situations as they affect the ordinary citizen,who is always the one who suffers,if you want to use this term.Having said this,the embargo makes absolutely no sense to me.And to me the vast majority of politicians are highly unsensible…just self serving.Thank you for your feedback.

      • Well said. For the Americans to allow Cuba to show its full potential, would be suicidal for their decrepit version of capitalism. It already is under very high strain because of megalomanic mismanagement.

  10. Winterpeg says:

    It seems pretty quiet on the site this morning. Could it be that most of the people that comment on your articles have never been to Cuba(ie: Americans)?
    I agree 100% with Eric on this topic. Cuba is still a great place to visit and you get this “twi-lite” zone effect when you start approaching Havanna that you can not duplicate arriving anywhere!
    It’s sad that the American embargo on Cuba is still in effect. I keep reminding all of our American friends how liimited their rights and freedoms are when their supposed “great” country tells it’s citizens that they can NOT travel some where. I wonder why Americans can still travel to China?
    Anyway, I am rambling this morning as I too will feel something is missing when the Castro brothers are no more and the “ignorant” expatriots from Florida start to return and claim what was supoosedly theirs.
    Adios amigos(Fidel & Raul)

  11. An interesting column that I’ll be sharing with my barber, who herself is from Cuba. I noted that Eric says he was in attendance at Georgetown University in Washington at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, when he was 15 (according to the information posted about him).

    As for Nikita Khrushchev, he wasn’t overthrown for another two years, in October 1964, However, his actions during the missile crisis were only a few of the reasons for that.

  12. I enjoy talking about Cuba. By their actions, they prove again and again who is running the mighty USA and for what outcome. ($$$$.) Cuba, with one of the best health cares and mass education. A society that kicked out the corporations and have no obesity problem to contain with. A country where one can smoke in the street and not be harassed, or suffer adverse health effects.
    Go ahead Tories, and tell me that I am free to move over there. LOL.

    • Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US…

    • AnotherCanuck says:

      Actually, there IS an “obesity problem” in Cuba, currently approaching that of North America… in global obesity stats, N.A.+Cuba are lumped together, far from the rest of Latin America. But yes lower infant mortality, and higher life expectancy than the US.

  13. My wife and I are frequent visitors to Cuba going back to before the Soviet withdrawal and we have witnessed the very difficult times the Cuban people have experienced. As much as we would like to see conditions improve we fear the return of the Americans. Maybe we are selfish but unless a strong government in Havana stands up to them the people will be no better off than they now are. Eastern European countries had to deal with the return of expats when Communism collapsed and we hope Cubans will follow models developed there. I think based on your phrase “a tsunami of US money will swamp Cuba” you are concerned too. It won’t be pretty.

  14. Mike Smith says:

    Another option for Cuba… and the one I hope prevails

    Cuba does need a ” tsunami ” of foreign investment, but does it need the United States? Particularly a United States with its failing economy and its prejudices which would see Cubans treated as second class citizens within their own country…

    Two options

    Investment from Mercosur


    This South American trade block already has the political and economic ties to allow for a smooth relationship, plus the economy’s of member states Brazil and Venezuela have both resources and markets to offer in a balanced trade relationship.

    Work in this direction has already started


    and the other option… China

    China is investing its riches all over the place, including Cuba


    If Cuba has the off shore oil/gas some suspect, I am sure China would be very interested.

    Most likely a combination of the two… Mercosur and China, will provide the kick start Cuba really needs… Not the snobbish buyout that ex-pats and Americans would provide.

    Independence and pride maintained, yet firmly on the road to the future.

    Particularly at a time when betting on the failing American economy is a gamble in itself.

    • Mike Smith says:

      In addition, the US doesn’t seem to have any plans to allow Cuba to join the OAS over the objections of many of its members.


      ” Despite Colombia’s traditional closeness to Washington, which has helped finance its war on guerrillas, Santos also spoke bluntly on the issue of Cuba.

      “It’s an anachronism that keeps us anchored to a Cold War era we came out of various decades ago,” he said, calling another summit without Cuba “unacceptable”.

      Cuba’s allies in Latin America declared on Saturday that they would be boycotting future summits if the country was not invited to attend.

      The left-leaning ALBA bloc said in a statement that that Cuba’s exclusion was “unjustified and unsustainable”.

      The bloc was set up by Venezuela and Cuba but now includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Caribbean islands of Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, as well as St Vincent and the Grenadines. ”

      Perhaps the OAS should simply close its doors and reorganize as a central / south American organization.

      Why do the Americans seem to veto anything they don’t like in any international group… ( or otherwise attack them if they can’t veto )

      spoiled children sometimes need a spanking

      and theirs is long overdue.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      Mike Smith

      Mexico and Cuba just signed a non-binding memorandum that could allow Mexico to help Cuba drill for Petroleum on adjacent tracts of the Gulf of Mexico. Pemex has much experience in Mexico’s territorial waters of the gulf.
      Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil are all that Cuba needs to increase energy self-sufficiency.
      Ad iudicium

      • Mike Smith says:

        Good for Canada too

        I have worked for a couple of companies that had dealings with Pemex.

        They purchase alot of equipment from Canada, and does Venezuela.

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