The commanding heights of Havana are controlled by two imposing forts on the east side of Havana Harbor. They’re impossible to miss from the Malecon, and for nearly four hundred years, with the exception of a brief British interlude, they kept Havana safe as a rallying point for Spanish galleons laden with successive waves of Aztec, Inca, and native-mined riches.
Today, they have gone from indispensable to inessential, housing a couple restaurants and some underwhelming museum exhibits. That’s fair enough, though, as arms technology had outpaced these forts even by the turn of the twentieth century, as the United States overtook Havana with ease in the Spanish American War.
While it’s worth crossing Havana Harbor (by 1 CUC ferry, if you’re going, sharing the slow boat with locals) to see these castillos up close, and while the view from the heights back down upon the city is worth the hassle on its own, the most pleasant surprise for me was the unpublicized open air exhibition on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Here it is known as the “so-called October Crisis” or, when the propagandists are feeling slightly less arch, just the plain old October Crisis. The exhibit on the east side of the bay has a pretty thorough run down on just what weapons the Soviets had installed in Cuba way back in 1962, along with the genuine articles from primitive short range missiles – which are literally just out dated surplus planes retrofitted with a remote control systems – to replicas of the more sophisticated nuclear missiles that caused the kerfuffle in the first place.
It is pretty incredible to see all of this stuff in real life. What’s also powerful is the way in which the incident is framed by the Cubans. Like the obsolete castles, these nukes were all about defense and deterrence.
Nothing lasts forever, but some things never change.
If you’re reading this in the US, you probably learned about how the missile crisis was an unprecedented, unprovoked act of Soviet aggression. But consider this: a year earlier, the US had sponsored the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The embargo was already underway. Several assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro had already failed. And aside from deposing the corrupt US-backed Batista dictatorship and nationalizing some assets belonging to all important US corporations, what had the Cubans done to the US?
Step back from the hysteria of the Cold War for a minute, and try on some empathy. You can take it off again if it doesn’t fit, but humor me. I’m opposed to nuclear weapons in any form, but Cuba’s desire to defend itself is understandable – far from paranoid.
So, yes, please let’s all agree that nuclear weapons are crazy in any context. The US justifies possessing them by claiming to be the good guys. Castro was a fallible, far from perfect man, but those words describe Kennedy or just about anyone else, while we’re being honest. But in his own story, he was the good guy, trying to create a more just, equitable Cuba in the hostile shadow of the United States which has a long history of military interventions throughout the hemisphere, squelching revolutions and reforms just like his own.
Anyway, it’s some food for thought as I lay my head down for my last night in Cuba.
Tomorrow I follow the path those missiles thankfully never did, 90 miles straight north, back home to the USA.