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Fidel Castro

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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 After a few harrowing days a deal was done: the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba.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”)



The Cuban Revolution at Fifty

4 January 2009

The Cuban Revolution at Fifty

 By Gwynne Dyer

I have learned one thing from my various visits to Cuba over the years, and that is not to predict the demise of the regime. I did that sometimes in the past, if only to offer a bit of hope to various despairing  individuals who thought that a visiting foreigner might know more about their future than they did themselves. But the brothers Castro are still there, ever more moth-eaten (in Raul’s case, almost mummified), and they have just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their revolution.

Nevertheless, change may be lurking around the corner at last, for Barack Obama represents the greatest danger that the regime has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies seventeen years ago. The survival of the regime is due in large part to the unremitting hostility of the United States, which lets it appeal to Cubans’ patriotism, and to the trade embargo that gives it an excuse for its economic failures.

Obama is clever enough to understand that the best way to kill the Communist regime in Cuba is with kindness, and he has no domestic political debts that would keep him from acting on that insight. In particular, he owes nothing to the Cuban exile establishment in Florida, which mostly voted for Bush.

He could start right away by ending the rule that allows Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island only once every three years, and limits their remittances to $300 every four months. Even within the Cuban exile community in the United States those restrictions are controversial, as it is hard to see how they hurt the Cuban regime.

Once the question of where to send the remaining Guantanamo detainees has been resolved, Obama could close the base down entirely. Indeed, he could give the land back to Cuba as a free gesture, since it has no economic or strategic value to the United States. That would seriously undermine the Communist regime’s argument that the United States is an implacable enemy that Cubans must confront with discipline and solidarity.

Then he could get to work on the ridiculous embargo on trade and travel to Cuba. The sanctions have been written into law in recent years, so he would need Congress’s assent to remove them. But if he got it, all the mechanisms of control built up by Fidel Castro over the past fifty years would probably begin to crumble.

The real question is: what happens then? The last time the fall of the Castro regime seemed likely, a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, I went to Cuba in the guise of a tourist (there’s nothing like having a baby along to make you look innocent) and talked to a great many people informally.

Most of them expected the regime to fall soon, and a majority (though not an overwhelming majority) welcomed the prospect. However, they were all frightened of what might come next, for two reasons. One was the fact that at least ten percent of the Cuban population — over a million people — were true Communist believers, and they were armed to the teeth. Would they let their dream die without fighting to save it?

The other was that the exiles would come back from Miami and take over. Their money would let them buy up everything of value, and those who had endured decades of poverty under Castro would stay poor and marginalised. Even the few good things about “socialist” Cuba, like the health care system, would be destroyed.

Well, my last trip to Cuba was less than two years ago, and things had changed. The poverty, the oppression and the despair were the same, but the true believers who would kill and die to save the revolution were noticeably scarcer.

This visit was part of a project in which various Western embassies, thinking that Fidel Castro’s illness might mean that big changes were on the way, brought in “experts” to talk to the Cuban elite about how things were done in democratic countries. It was pretty pointless work, frankly, but it did offer unusual access to the apparatchiks who really run the show in Cuba.

Most of the officials were about what you’d expect: loyal, fully institutionalised servants of the regime. But very few of them were passionate ideologues who would launch and fight a civil war to save it.

Generational turnover had done its work, and these were just people who were glad to have their jobs and the few privileges that came with them.

Generational turnover has been at work in Miami, too. Fifty years on, the original generation of Cuban refugees is gradually giving way to an American-born generation who still care about the country, of course, but are much less interested in going back and re-creating the Cuba of the 1950s.

So change is a lot less dangerous for Cubans than it would have been if the regime had collapsed in the early 1990s. If Obama sets out to destabilise the Communist regime with offers of help and friendship, it might well work. And even if it doesn’t work right away, it would make the lives of Cubans a lot easier.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“He could…regime”; and “This visit…Cuba”)

Cuba: What If He Comes Back?

23 March 2007

Cuba: What If He Comes Back?

By Gwynne Dyer

For anyone who knew the old Soviet Union, a visit to Cuba is always a trip down Memory Lane. From the ubiquitous revolutionary slogans and the absence of advertising to the cautious shorthand in conversation (stroking the chin means Fidel Castro) and the sour, fatalistic jokes, it is a Communist country of the classic era. But this time, I kept thinking about an old Soviet joke that had not made it to Cuba (though I have now done my best to get it started there).

A rising young apparatchik in the Communist Party, starting to enjoy the privileges that come to high officials of the regime, brings his peasant mother to Moscow from her distant, impoverished village and installs her in a grand apartment in the Arbat. His mother, instead of being delighted, just falls silent and looks worried. So he takes her to one of the special Party shops, a wonderland of Western consumer goods unavailable to ordinary Russians, and tells her to buy anything she wants. She buys only a kilo of oranges, and looks even more troubled.

Desperate to please her, he takes her to dinner at the Praha, the grandest and most expensive restaurant in the capital, but by now there’s no denying it. This display of privilege is not impressing her; it’s frightening her half to death. So her son finally asks her straight out: isn’t she pleased with what he has accomplished? Isn’t she proud of him? “It’s wonderful, darling,” she replies. “But what will happen to us if the Communists come back?”

The question in Cuba is: What will happen if Fidel comes back? It’s eight months since he fell gravely ill and handed the president’s powers over to his brother Raul, and the “transition” is complete. Fidel’s lengthy illness created the ideal circumstances for an orderly hand-over of power, and by the end of last year the new collective leadership was firmly in charge. Most people were quietly relieved that it was all over.

It felt a bit strange no longer having Fidel on TV all the time nagging and exhorting the population, a larger-than-life father figure, but after 47 years of that most people were very tired of being treated like backward children. There was enormous respect for Fidel in Cuba, but there was also enormous weariness with him, combined with a great secret fear of what would happen when he finally went.

Partly it was just fear of the unknown — 80 percent of Cuba’s population have known no other leader — but it was also fear of chaos, because everybody knew that the United States would use Castro’s death to try to change the regime. As Wayne Smith, former head of the US diplomatic mission in Havana, said recently, Cuba has the same effect on the US that the full moon has on a werewolf. Washington doubtless had all sorts of regime-change projects lined up and ready to launch as soon as the Old Man died.

Even Cubans who don’t like Castro don’t want abrupt political collapse and perhaps great violence. Neither do they believe that life would necessarily be better for the people who live in Cuba now if all those Cuban refugees in Miami and all of their money suddenly flooded back. They’d just buy up the island and take over again. So a smooth transition to the next generation of the Communist leadership now is better than the chaos that would have followed if Fidel had just died suddenly one day.

The new leadership is collective, with brother Raul out front as chairman of the board. Its members are well known and respected by the Cuban public — people like Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcon, head of the National Assembly, Ricardo Lage, now in charge of energy, and Francisco Soberon, governor of the Central Bank — and they can expect a couple of years’ grace to show that they can grow the economy faster and give Cubans more freedom without destroying the welfare state that gives people free education and health care.

Or rather, they did expect a couple of years’ grace — but then Fidel started to get better. He is still far from fit, but he is out of bed and on the phone, and the spectre looms that he might decide he is well enough to take over again.

“[Fidel cannot participate in decision-making] the same way he did before, because he has to dedicate a good part of his time to recuperating physically,” said Ricardo Alarcon last week. “To what extent he will go back to doing things the way he did, the way he is accustomed to, it’s up to him.” And it really is up to him. Fidel Castro so dominates modern Cuban history, and the reflex respect that all his colleagues feel towards him is so deep, that nobody would tell him he can’t take back supreme power.

But it would be a disaster for the regime. Many Cubans revere Fidel, but few want him back in power, jerking them around again with his constant, arbitrary changes of policy. Moreover, the odds are very much against another smooth transition of power some time in the future, when death finally does take Fidel. Miracles happen, but not with any regularity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Partly…day”)

A Quick Fix

22 February 2007

A Quick Fix

By Gwynne Dyer

Astonishingly, it was Australia’s Liberal government, so deeply sunk in climate change denial for so long, that took the radical step of banning incandescent light-bulbs. But then, Prime Minister John Howard faces an election later this year, and Australia has been suffering from the worst and longest drought in its modern history, so the electorate has been getting worried about climate change.

Severe drought is the main predicted effect of global warming in the temperate regions of the globe. Australia is already the most arid of the world’s inhabited continents, and speculation has been mounting that the current drought may portend a drastic fall in the country’s ability to grow food. A political gesture was needed, and the light-bulb industry is a lot easier to take on than the coal industry.

The gesture is cynical, but it is also amazingly effective. As Australia’s Environment Minister Bill Turnbull pointed out, “If the whole world switches to these (fluorescent) bulbs today, we would reduce our consumption of electricity (worldwide) by an amount equal to five times Australia’s annual consumption of electricity.” In other words, it would be like turning off all the lights, fans, televisions, computers, fridges, ovens and air conditioners in Japan, and most of the industrial machinery as well. That is a quick fix that would really make a difference.

The incandescent bulb was invented 125 years ago, and has changed little since. Only five percent of the electricity it consumes is converted into light, with most being wasted as heat, but it still accounts for the vast majority of the bulbs that light homes and workplaces around the world. The compact florescent bulb that should have replaced it long ago uses only one-fifth as much electricity, and lasts ten to twenty times as long.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive, and early ones gave a cold white light that many people did not like (but that has been remedied in newer models). They cannot replace spotlights, candle bulbs, or halogen lights, and they are trickier to recycle. But they could replace 99 percent of conventional incandescent bulbs in a year or two (since the latter burn out so often), and the average country’s electricity consumption would immediately fall by about two percent. Domestic electricity bills would fall by around 15 percent.

It’s a cheap, quick, one-time fix, but we need such fixes, because the situation is much worse than the experts thought even five years ago. What we do in the next ten or twenty years will make the difference between a 1.5 degrees C hotter world and a 3 degrees C hotter world in the 2060s and 2070s. [See below] That is probably the difference between great discomfort and inconvenience on the one hand, and global famine, global refugee flows and global war on the other.

Climate change is cumulative, with the greenhouse gases we emit today hanging around year after year to distort the climate further, so quick fixes are not to be despised. Even if the tipping point has finally arrived in terms of public attitudes towards climate change, it will take years to translate good intentions into global treaties — and a one percent cut in emissions this year is as good as a two or three percent cut in 2015. Changing the light-bulbs is something we can do this year.

There are other quick fixes that could offer comparable returns. Just banning all electrical appliances whose “standby” function consumes more than one watt of power would cut global CO2 emissions by an estimated one percent. (The “standby” function means that the appliance comes on right away, rather than warming up for a few seconds first — but current “standby” programmes use up to 10 watts of power.)

Similarly, two measures would cut aviation’s contribution to the emissions problem by up to one percent. One would be to tow departing airliners out to the end of the runway, rather than have them start their engines up about half an hour early and get there under their own power. The other would be to create continent-wide air traffic control systems with a single fee structure, thus ending the nonsense of flying around the more expensive countries (there are thirty separate national air traffic control systems in Europe) to save on fees, at a cost of 6-12 percent higher emissions.

We have to do the hard stuff, too, like figuring out how big developing countries like China and India can continue to raise their living standards while the world as a whole cuts its emissions, but even with the best will in the world that is going to take time. We need to get started on the easy stuff right now.

So here’s to Fidel Castro (who started switching Cuba to compact fluorescent bulbs two years ago) and to Hugo Chavez (now doing the same in Venezuela) and to their comrade-in-arms John Howard in Australia. And lawmakers in California and New Jersey are also proposing a ban on incandescent bulbs. Virtue flourishes in the most unexpected places.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Similarly…now”) NOTE: Fahrenheit users substitute 2.5 degrees and 5 degrees F.