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The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

17 October 2012

The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October, 1962), so we’re going to hear a great deal about the weeks when the world almost died. But the past is a foreign country, a place where everything was in black-and-white and men still wore hats, so it’s just scary stories about a long-gone time. Or so it seems.

The outlines of the tale are well known. It was 17 years since the United States had used nuclear weapons on Japan, and the Soviet Union now had them, too. Lots of them: the American and Soviet arsenals included some 30,000 nuclear weapons, and not all of them were carried by bombers any more. Some were mounted on rockets that could reach their targets in the other country in half an hour.

Both Washington and Moscow therefore had some version of a “launch on warning” policy: if you think the other side’s missiles are inbound, launch your own missiles before you lose them. There couldn’t be a more hair-trigger situation than that, you might think – but then things got a lot worse.

At the start of the 1960s Moscow had gained a new Communist ally in Fidel Castro, but the United States kept talking about invading Cuba. So Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved some nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba to deter the United States from attacking the island. However, from Cuba the Soviet missiles would be only five minutes away from their American targets. That caused panic in Washington.

Early in October, 1962 the first Soviet SS-4 missiles arrived in Cuba, and American U-2 spy planes discovered them almost at once. President John F. Kennedy knew about them by 16 October, but he did not go on television and warn the American public of the risk of nuclear war until the 22nd.

He then declared a naval blockade of Cuba, saying that he would stop Soviet ships carrying further missiles from reaching Cuba by force if necessary. That would mean war, and probably nuclear war, but at least the blockade gave the Russians some time to think before the shooting started.

The Soviet leaders were now desperately looking for a way out of the crisis they had created. After a few harrowing days a deal was done: the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba. The crisis was officially over by 28 October, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. It was closest the world ever came to an all-out nuclear war.

Even so, they weren’t really scared enough. They thought that a couple of hundred million people would die in a “nuclear exchange”. At that time, nobody yet knew that detonating so many nuclear warheads would cause a “nuclear winter”: the dust and smoke put into the stratosphere by firestorms in a thousand stricken cities would have blocked out the sunlight for a year or more and resulted in a worldwide famine.

What almost nobody knew until very recently is that the crisis did not really end on 28 October. A new book by Sergo Mikoyan, “The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November”, reveals that it continued all the way through November.

US intelligence was unaware that along with the SS-4s, the Soviet Union had also sent more than a hundred shorter-range “tactical” nuclear missiles to Cuba. They weren’t mentioned in the Soviet-US agreement on withdrawing the SS-4s from Cuba, so technically Khrushchev had not promised to remove them.

Fidel Castro was in a rage about having been abandoned by his Soviet allies, so to mollify him, Khrushchev decided to let him keep the tactical missiles. It was crazy: giving Fidel Castro a hundred nuclear weapons was a recipe for a new and even bigger crisis in a year or two. Khrushchev’s deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, who was sent to Cuba to tell Castro the happy news, quickly realised that he must not have them.

The second half of the crisis, invisible to Americans, was Mikoyan’s month-long struggle to pry Castro’s fingers off the hundred tactical nuclear missiles. In the end, he only succeeded by telling Castro that an unpublished (and in fact non-existent) law forbade the transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to a foreign country. In December, they were finally crated up and sent home.

So it all ended happily, in one sense – but the whole world could have ended instead. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary in 1962, said forty years later, “we were just plain lucky in October 1962 – and without that luck most of you would never have been born because the world would have been destroyed instantly or made unlivable in October 1962.”

Then he said the bit that applies to us. “Something like that could happen today, tomorrow, next year. It WILL happen at some point. That is why we must abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” They are still there, you know, and human beings still make mistakes.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Both…worse”; and “Even…famine”)



Chavez’s Last Campaign

5 March 2012

Chavez’s Last Campaign?

By Gwynne Dyer

“Nobody said it was going to be easy” is the campaign slogan that Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski chose for the presidential election next October, and that remains true. Taking on incumbent President Hugo Chavez, an accomplished populist and self-styled “revolutionary”, is a tall order: for thirteen years, he has seen off all comers. But it is getting easier.

It’s too early to write Chavez’s political obituary, but he is not a well man. Only a year after he had a cancerous growth removed from his abdomen, and despite four bouts of chemotherapy, he is back in Cuba for further treatment. Another tumour has been cut out from the same location, and this time he will require radiation therapy. The signs are not good.

“I swear that I’ll live and I’ll accompany you to new victories,” Chavez told a rally in Caracas the day before he left for Cuba. “No cancer will stop us.” He was equally optimistic after the operation last week: “I continue recovering thanks to Venezuela’s support, the Cuban people, the doctors here in Cuba, to the love from the people that fills me. I’m taking flight, raising the fatherland of the future.”

If sheer willpower and old-fashioned Marxist rhetoric were enough, Chavez would still be ruling Venezuela twenty years from now, but he actually has to win elections to stay in office. He controls all the levers of state power and he bends the electoral rules shamelessly, but in theory he could be voted out. If he has not visibly recovered his health and his strength by October, he probably will be voted out.

For the first time since Chavez won power, all the opposition parties have united behind a single candidate. Capriles is an energetic challenger eighteen years younger than Chavez, and he has the wit not to trade insults with the older man, who is a master of vitriolic abuse.

Chavez recently called his rival “a pig”, but Capriles simply replied: “I wish the head of state a long life. I want him to see the changes that are going to come about in our country, for him to see a Venezuela of progress, a united country, a country where Venezuelans have many opportunities.” He makes Chavez’s rhetoric sound dated and vicious, as indeed it is.

If Venezuela’s politics were a simple matter of the poor against the rich, then Chavez would win every election hands down, for the poor certainly outnumber the rich. In reality, however, the opposition parties won a narrow majority of the popular vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

They failed to turn that victory into a parliamentary majority because they were all running on different platforms, and because Chavez has gerrymandered the system in favour of his faithful supporters among the rural poor. But now all the opposition parties have united behind Capriles, and the gerrymandering has no impact in a simple nationwide vote on the presidency. Chavez would have a real battle on his hands even if he were in good health.

In the last opinion poll of Venezuelan voters, taken just before Capriles was chosen as the joint opposition candidate in a primary on 12 February, Datanalisis, the country’s most trusted polling organisation, found a gap of less than 5 percentage points between Chavez and the still undetermined winner of the opposition vote.

The choice of Capriles will certainly erode Chavez’s lead further. He is a moderate politician firmly rooted in the principles of the modern South American centre-left. As the governor of Venezuela’s second most populous state, Miranda, he has built up a reputation for fairness and efficiency, and he was already making Chavez look like a political dinosaur. He now seems to be a very sick dinosaur as well.

If Chavez were to regain his health in a couple of months, he would still have a good chance of defeating Capriles at the polls, for he is a formidable campaigner who can still mesmerise huge numbers of the country’s poorest people. If he becomes a feeble, absentee campaigner with what voters perceive to be a limited future, the vote will go the other way, and Capriles will win.

Chavez has allowed no obvious successor to emerge in his party, so that could be the end of the country’s long experiment in populist politics. If Capriles wins the election, he can then use Venezuela’s soaring oil revenues to continue Chavez’s anti-poverty programmes and consolidate his hold on power. At least, he could do so if Chavez is willing to accept electoral defeat.

Nobody would have been willing to bet on that a year ago, but if the impression persists that Chavez is on his last legs, the hard-liners in his party will be reluctant to carry out a constitutional coup and risk ending up in power without him. This may really be the end of South America’s most colourful and controversial politician.

That would be no great loss for Venezuela, but it might be a disappointment for God. As Chavez revealed just before leaving for Cuba, “I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, ‘Chavez, arise. It is not time to die, it is time to live.’ With cancer or without cancer, with rain, thunder or lightning, nothing and nobody can prevent the great victory of 7 October….Soon we will return to the battle!”


Mortality and Politics

27 June 2011

Mortality and Politics

By Gwynne Dyer

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” growled Charles de Gaulle, but French history would have been very different if he had died in 1940 (no Free French government, probably a Communist take-over attempt when France was liberated in 1944) or even in 1960 (no quick exit from Algeria, no Fifth Republic). There are a few people whose absence would really make a difference.

Two such people seem to be hovering on the brink of death at the moment, though we have no trustworthy medical information about either one. In each case, their death could open the way to civil war. One is Thailand’s King Bhumibol; the other is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

Bhumibol, now 83 years old, has been the king of Thailand since he was 21, and although he is a constitutional monarch his influence is all-pervasive. It has, on the whole, been exercised in ways that promoted Thai independence, calmed domestic political quarrels, and supported the emergence of democracy. He has been the still centre at the heart of the storm for many decades, and he is revered by most Thais.

King Bhumibol has spent most of the past two years in hospital, and few Thais expect him to live much longer (although this is never discussed in public). When he goes, the crown will probably pass to somebody who takes sides in the ongoing battle between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts” that has divided Thailand, and has already caused many deaths, over the past few years.

There is an election due in Thailand on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that, as before, a majority of Thais will vote for the party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Some ninety red-shirts, the mostly poor and rural supporters of Thaksin, were massacred by the army in a confrontation in central Bangkok last year, and the army may try yet again to reject a pro-Thaksin election outcome.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was once close to Thaksin and probably still secretly supports him, but he is a playboy who is neither loved nor respected by the public. His mother, Queen Sikirit, sympathises with the yellow-shirts, and is rumoured to be angling for the army’s support to make her regent when her (estranged) husband Bhumibol dies, rather than letting the crown prince have the throne.

If the two royals were to align themselves publicly with the opposing sides in a struggle for the throne after Bhumibol dies, they would substantially raise the probability that Thailand could stumble into a full-scale civil war.

Whereas if Bhumibol can hang on for another year the dispute may be settled at the ballot boxes, with the army grudgingly accepting a restoration of the normal democratic order. He may not be utterly indispensable, but he is pretty important for Thailand right now.

And then there is Hugo Chavez. He is not exactly the “dictator” of Venezuela, as US propaganda often calls him (he has been elected a number of times in free elections), but certainly he is a “strongman” in the classic Latin American style. He comes from the army, he once led an attempted coup, and he is a full-time demagogue. The only difference is that he is a strongman of the left. And he may be dying.

The official story is that Chavez was in Cuba on 9 June, in a private meeting with Fidel Castro, when he suddenly fell ill. Cuban doctors were called in, and immediately operated on him for a “pelvic abcess.” But he is still in hospital in Havana two weeks later, virtually incommunicado.

Chavez is an inveterate user of Twitter, but he has only tweeted once in all that time, to announce that his mother, his favourite daughter and his ex-wife had flown to Cuba to see him. He also reportedly telephoned a meeting of his ruling party’s senior leaders on Monday, but that may not be true. Venezuelans are speculating that his illness may be fatal, and the people close to Chavez are struggling to re-assure his supporters.

If Chavez does recover, he might lose the 2012 presidential election anyway. He will have been in power for fourteen years by then, and the mere passage of time has seriously eroded his power base. He has improved the lives of the poor, but a government with an oil income of bazillions of dollars that cannot even produce enough electricity to keep the lights on is bound to lose popularity.

Should Chavez die now, however, there might not even be a 2012 election. His elder brother Adán, the governor of the state of Barinas, reminded everybody that although the socialist government won power through the ballot box, “we cannot forget, as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of fighting.” And the army, whose senior ranks have been stuffed with Chavez loyalists, might well back a “revolutionary” seizure of power.

On the whole, then, it would be better if Chavez survived and came back to Venezuela, only to lose the election honestly next year. Like King Bhumibol, he is the indispensable man for the next little while. After that, if all goes well, he can die whenever he wants.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Bhumibol…Thais”; and “Chavez…supporters”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Waiting for the Bus

31 August 2010

Waiting for the Bus

By Gwynne Dyer

You wait ages for a bus to come, and then three show up at once. It happens to everyone, and journalists are no exception.

When everybody in the northern hemisphere goes away for their summer holidays, the supply of news dries up entirely. The northern half of the world is where most of the criminals and the fools live (because it’s where about 80 percent of the human race lives), and when they’re all at the beach nothing newsworthy happens. Journalists call it “the silly season,” because they end up writing about silly things for want of anything better.

But the drought is over. Everybody is back at work, including the bad people and the powerful-but-basically-loony ones, and they are generating enormous amounts of newsworthy copy. Three buses at once.

Exhibit One: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual adviser to the Israeli political party Shas and a major political player in his own right. His greatest previous notoriety came in 2000, when he explained that “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of (Jewish) sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” So Hitler was actually doing God’s work.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not have put it better – and last Sunday Rabbi Yosef outdid himself. He called God’s wrath down on the Palestinians, asking Him to make “all the nasty people who hate Israel, like Abu Mazen (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas), vanish from our world.” He even suggested how it might be done: “May God strike them down with the plague….”

If Ovadia Yosef did not exist, the enemies of Israel would have to make him up. He even forced the United States to criticise him openly, although the Shas Party is part of Israel’s coalition government.

The Israeli prime minister’s office was forced to repudiate the rabbi, saying that his comments “do not reflect the views of Benjamin Netanyahu or of his government.” US State Department spokesman Philip
Crowley said: “These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace.” As long as Yosef has a mouth, the course of Israeli-American true love never will run smooth.

Exhibit 2: Fidel Castro. The 84-year-old revolutionary hero and retired dictator emerged from relative obscurity (his 79-year-old brother Raul is running Cuba now) to give a very long interview to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. The interviewer asked him why so many homosexuals in Cuba had been driven out of their jobs, imprisoned, or sent to re-education camps under his regime, and he basically denied all responsibility.

In the best confessional style, he did say “If someone is responsible, it’s me,” but then he immediately forgave himself by explaining that he had just been too busy. “At the time we were being sabotaged systematically, there were armed attacks against us, we had too many problems. Keeping one step ahead of the CIA, which was paying so many traitors, was not easy.”

So it was really America’s fault, like everything else. In his heart, Castro was always gay-friendly, but what with having to thwart American plots every day, he never noticed that his colleagues were beating gays up, throwing them in jail, and trying to “cure” them by brain-washing them. Sure, Fidel.

At the end of the 1970s Castro decriminalised homosexuality, and gays in Cuba are now relatively free from persecution. That was when all the “imperialist” countries were starting to clean up their act too, but he still can’t admit that he has been wrong, or ever followed the example of the capitalist countries he so despises.

Exhibit 3: Muammar Gaddafy. On a state visit to Italy last Sunday, the Libyan strongman warned Europeans that “there are millions of Africans who want to come in.” To avoid a “black Europe,” they should pay Libya at least 5 billion euros a year to stop illegal African immigrants.

“We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans,” said Colonel Gaddafy (who also aspires to be the leader of the African continent). “We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”

Of course, it’s different if Europe is to be changed in ways that Gaddafy approves of. In a speech the same day to several hundred young Italian women, he told them that Islam should become the religion of Europe and gave them each a free copy of the Quran. They had all been happy to come and hear him (after they were paid 70 or 80 euros each by a local modelling agency), but it’s unlikely that they went home and read them afterwards.

It was vintage Gaddafy: racism, blackmail and naivete all at the same time. Forty years in power, and the man has learned nothing. But from a journalist’s point of view, he is solid gold.

Three buses in a single day. We’re back in business.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7.