The Cubans fire a mock rocket
MAYKEL GONZÁLEZ VIVERO | Sagua la Grande | 12 de Agosto de 2016 - 12:17
"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
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
"Ma'am," I ask a woman, "How old were you when they installed the
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
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