The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: America and Cuba Still Frozen in 1962

Raúl Castro's decision this week to let Cubans travel freely outside their communist island is a reminder of the jaded cold-war policies Washington and Havana adopted after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet standoff

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President Kennedy talking with aides, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Washington D.C. on Oct. 29, 1962.

It’s hard to attribute anything but coincidence to the fact that Cuban President Raúl Castro issued a major immigration reform on Tuesday, Oct. 16, which was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cold War’s most harrowing moment, the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the two things are nonetheless related. Castro’s reform—eliminating the onerous exit visa requirement for Cubans who want to travel outside the communist island—is a reminder of how the missile crisis prompted both Washington and Havana to shut down movement into and out of Cuba for the past half century. And it’s one more sign among many that each side needs to put that cold-war past behind it.

Eight months before Oct. 16, 1962—the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was informed of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida—the U.S. had already imposed a unilateral trade embargo on the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. That’s largely because Fidel, who ruled Cuba from 1959 until handing the presidency to his younger brother Raúl in 2006, had aligned his Caribbean nation with the Soviet Union. Now, by letting the Soviets use bases in Cuba to position ballistic missiles that could strike deep into the U.S.—Fidel was convinced that the Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier was just a prelude to a larger U.S. attack on Cuba—he had further stoked Washington’s wrath. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in fact, would later recount that Fidel urged him to fire those missiles at America when Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island during the 13-day U.S.-Soviet standoff.

(PHOTOS: Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: 50 Years from the Brink of Armageddon)

The crisis ended peacefully when the Soviets removed the missiles in exchange for a pledge to eventually remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. But a few months later, on top of the trade embargo, Kennedy ordered a ban on all U.S. travel to Cuba. Meanwhile, Fidel tightened restrictions on Cubans’ ability to leave the island. The embargo and the U.S. travel ban, incredibly, are still in effect—and so is the Cuban regime’s policy of using those measures as a scapegoat for the impoverished island’s economic blunders and as an excuse for the repression of political rights. “For 50 years,” says Tomás Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, D.C., which advocates an end to the embargo as well as democratic reform in Cuba, “both sides have continually taken measures that prevent the free flow of people, to the detriment of Cuban civil society. Now both sides are finally starting to take steps to facilitate it.”

On the U.S. side, Bilbao is referring to the Obama Administration’s policy of permitting unlimited travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island. But this week’s Cuba change is arguably more momentous, given how long Cubans have chafed under their government’s expensive and despised exit-visa constraints—which have forced so many of them to make perilous raft journeys across the Florida Straits. Raúl Castro, considered more pragmatic than his firebrand sibling, had been flirting with abolishing the exit visa for years as part of a reform program that last year let Cubans begin buying and selling private property like cars and homes. Now, starting Jan. 14, according to the immigration reform published Tuesday in Granma, the communist party newspaper, Cubans can freely travel abroad for as long as two years at a time.

There are of course strings if not ropes attached—no Cuban reform is ever without them. Valuable professionals like doctors are likely to be exempted, to keep the “interventionist and subversive” U.S. from “robbing [Cuban] talent,” according to Granma; and so most likely are dissidents. But the regime, which is being forced by economic crisis to lay off as many as a million state workers, may be hoping the reform will relieve some of that pressure as more Cubans not only travel but find employment outside the island and increase the level of remittances Cuba receives from abroad. Washington, meanwhile, will not only have to prepare for an onslaught of visitor visa applications in Cuba, it may have to reconsider its controversial “wet foot-dry foot” policy that grants residency and a track to citizenship for Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil.

Either way, letting more Cubans visit developed economies like the U.S. and Europe, and putting them in contact for the first time with free-market ideas and investment they can take back to the island, could help further Cuba’s so far tentative capitalist reforms and even lead to more democratization when Raúl, 81, and Fidel, 86, are gone. The travel reform in that sense is typical of Raúl’s larger bet: that economic liberalization will save and strengthen Cuba’s threadbare finances without threatening the regime’s grip on Cuba’s autocratic politics.

But while that calculation worked for communist China, it’s a bigger gamble in Cuba, where communism’s viability is much more dependent on the personality cult of the Castros. Which is why it’s ultimately more in the interests of U.S. Cuba policy to drop the embargo and the constitutionally questionable travel ban, laws that even most Cuban-Americans now agree are relics that need to go. For one thing, those measures have failed, utterly, to dislodge the Castros. As a result, engaging Cuba economically—more important, engaging the 12 million hapless Cubans who after half a century are still paying for cold-war clashes like the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis—could help lay stronger groundwork for democratization when old age finally accomplishes what U.S. sanctions couldn’t.

Then again, if this is a season of 50th anniversaries, it’s also a U.S. election season—a reminder that Washington is still terrified of conservative Cuban-American voters in the swing state of Florida. A reminder that Havana still hasn’t grown beyond its anti-yanqui dogma and paranoia. A reminder that both the U.S. and Cuba are still frozen in 1962, to the detriment of the Americas.