Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

DOOMSDAY LOOMED IN CUBA

The fall of 1962 was a tense and dramatic period in Cuba. Ever since the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, undertaken the previous year by Cuban exiles, there was constant talk about the possibility of a second invasion, this time supposedly by U.S. forces.

I was 13 years old at the time. It was not an easy time to be young and living in Havana.

Like most Cubans, I was an avid baseball fan and all my spare time was spent playing or watching baseball. But during those dramatic days, politics intruded. Games were cut short or postponed as the tension built up and people could talk or think only about the impending showdown.

At school, teachers told us over and over that the evil Americans were getting ready to strike our country. They said it was our duty to be ready to give our lives in defense of our beloved homeland in order to repulse the foreign invader.

While I was too young to join the militia, all my older friends were enrolled and, to me, it seemed rather exciting at the time. I really didn't give much thought to the alarming implications involved and my parents tried to downplay the danger _ at least at first.

However, as the pressure built up, awareness of the danger increased and, for the first time, I contemplated the possibility of dying or having family members and friends die. I didn't say anything because I felt guilty and ashamed of myself for such thoughts at a time when everybody was preparing to confront the Americans. Everybody tried to put up a brave front _ at least in terms of what they said in public.

At the time, Fidel Castro's regime was only in its third year and was riding the wave of its victory over the exiles the previous year.

During the initial stage, no mention was made of the Soviet role; things were always presented in terms of a nationalist confrontation _ the U.S. vs. Cuba. Even after the actual crisis was in progress, we were told that our Soviet brothers had simply come to the aid of tiny Cuba, which had every right to have whatever weapons it needed to prevent an American attack. It was never made clear to the Cuban people that the weapons were under Soviet control.

As I look back on my own efforts to be tough in public, I feel it may have been yet another example of the tendency, so widespread in Cuba and other totalitarian states, to say one thing in public and another in private, but of course, I could not recognize that at the time.

When the Soviets pulled their missiles out and the crisis was resolved, Castro was furious because the way the problem was handled showed him to be a mere pawn. So, he kept the war hysteria and the fear of American invasion going for some time. I was secretly relieved to be free from the threat of death hanging over myself, my family and my friends, but of course I didn't say so.

When reading articles by Americans about the events in October 1962, I am struck by the difference in how it was all viewed on this side of the Florida Straits. While people here focused on the possibility of nuclear doom, very few people in Cuba realized the nuclear threat the country faced. In large measure, this was because the Cuban media were under total government control and did not give people a true picture of the situation. At the time, most Cubans felt the greatest danger they faced came from American troops, not nuclear missiles.

Looking back, much has changed over the last 30 years. Communism has collapsed and the once-mighty Soviet empire has disintegrated. The once strongly popular nationalist and revolutionary government in Cuba is bogged down in economic stagnation and political repression, and every day scores risk their lives in small rafts to reach Florida.

I left Cuba in early 1991 via Jamaica _ this once dedicated revolutionary has changed a great deal.

The combined impact of events in Eastern Europe and the Gorbachev era in Moscow, plus dramatic developments in Cuba, all helped to change my views.

Like many Cubans, I had been told to look up to the Soviet Union and when it began moving toward democracy, I hoped we would do likewise. It was a bitter disappointment when Castro ruled out all change.

The 1989 case of General Ochoa and other heroes of the revolution who were shot for allegedly being involved in drug trafficking, had a dramatic impact too. Their trial was a carbon copy of those staged by Stalin in the 1930s.

Many of those who were in school with me when I was a boy are now living in various parts of the United States, and others are doing all they can to get out as life in Cuba grows more and more difficult. The irony is that the large percentage of those who are leaving are the children of the revolution, those who were either very young or had not been born in October 1962. They have come to see all of Castro's promises for a better future as the empty chatter of a dictator trying to stay in power.

Although the propaganda machine of the dictatorship continues to talk about a looming American invasion, such a charge has less and less credibility in the eyes of the Cuban people with every passing day.

It is this contrast _ the difference between the high hopes of the past and the grim reality of the present in Cuba _ that remains most vividly in my mind as I look back over the last 30 years and what they have represented. While the bitterness is real, so are the hopes for a better future.

Manuel Lopez, 42, is a Cuban journalist now living in Tampa. He writes under a pen name to protect family members still living in Cuba.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement