Most people have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis – known in Cuba as the ‘Crisis de Octubre’, where, for 13 days in 1962 the world came closer than any time before or since to global nuclear conflict. So surely in Cuba, almost everyone should know about the crisis, and exactly what happened and where? Not really so. Most Cubans asked have, of course, heard about the crisis, but solid information about what happened and exactly where is nearly non-existent.
The first stop was the town of Bejucal, about 20 km south of Havana. Our driver had already taken us to a couple of unusual spots well off the tourist trail in his red 1950s Chevrolet, so he didn’t bat an eyelid when he was directed him up a very steep road leading to a hilltop overlooking the town. On the way up the hill we passed some mysterious caves cut into the cliff at the side of the road. Eventually we passed what looked like a guard hut, long since boarded up. Then there was a large concrete five-pointed star, emblem of socialism, on a traffic island in the middle of the rarely-used road. A small statue of Cuban national hero Jose Martí had been recently added. There was a series of rather dilapidated buildings which appeared little different to those found in any other Cuban town, except that there was little logical reason for them to be on a hilltop rather than in the valley below. There were two- and three-storey apartment blocks with children playing outside, and another building which looked like it had once been offices on the upper floor, with car parking at ground level. This had once been a Soviet military command post for the bunker where the nuclear warheads had been stored in 1962, pending an order being given for them to be sent out to the launch sites. But nothing here confirmed the former purpose of the place.
On the other side of the valley we had more luck. After following the winding old road back towards Havana for a few kilometres, we turned off onto an unpaved and very rocky track. I fully expected our driver to declare that he was going no further – the 1950s cars in Cuba are precious and are treated with respect befitting their age. But he continued, carefully steering around the largest of the holes in the track. At the first turning, we set off on foot for the last hundred metres. We were looking for a particular design of fence, which had shown up on the photographs taken by CIA spy planes. It turned out we had come down the wrong track, leaving a few Cuban farm workers wondering what on earth had brought a group of gringos to their front doors.
The next turning proved more fruitful. After a few hundred metres we came to a gate which matched the characteristic angle of fence posts in the photos taken more than 50 years before, by F-8 Crusader reconnaissance pilots risking anti-aircraft fire flying only 1000 feet above the Cuban landscape, with little chance of a successful bailout if they were hit. Ironically, this fence was what had put the USA’s intelligence analysts off the scent of the 1-megaton Soviet warheads. Poring over the thousands of feet of film in a secret facility in Washington, they had initially considered this as a possible location for the warheads, but had discounted it due to the single fence and lack of obvious security, instead believing that the nuclear components were being kept near the port of Mariel, 50 km away.
Our driver parked up and once again we continued on foot. On a previous visit to this site, the residents of the nearest house had said that yes, many years ago there had been something military here, but no, there was definitely no bunker or anything similar nearby. We assumed this to be true, and expected to find nothing but a few farm buildings, once again giving no indication of their former purpose. We turned away from the simple farmhouse buildings, heading downhill and through a gate in a barbed wire fence which had been strung across the overgrown track. The track seemed to disappear into the jungle, but we pushed on, before nearly stumbling across a three metre high opening in the hillside.
It was immediately clear that this was something which had to be checked out, so we pushed aside the branches and headed inside. In front of us was a concrete tunnel built into the hillside, stripped bare of all but painted revolutionary slogans, but perfectly
Here was ample space for storage of the warheads, which in conjunction with the R-12 medium-range missiles had given the Soviet Union for a few short days in 1962 the capability to drop a bomb with the power of 70 Hiroshimas on Washington DC and at the very limit of the rocket’s 2000 km range, on downtown New York City.
It was not until long after the crisis was over, and indeed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, that the location was revealed. If the CIA had correctly identified the site back in October 1962, it’s possible that President Kennedy would have bowed to pressure from his generals and ordered a pre-emptive air strike, or even a parachute drop of elite troops to try and destroy the warheads. How Moscow would have responded is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely that things would have escalated very quickly. We had just been to the spot which was the most probable location for World War III to have started. As we headed back to Havana for a round of cold mojitos, we considered it rather a good thing that Kennedy and Khruschev had managed to knock their heads together and avert armageddon.