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The Mikoyans Visit Havana

It was Sergo Mikoyan’s second visit to Havana. His first had made quite an impression. The tropical air. Celebrity revolutionaries–Fidel Castro and Che Guevara–mixing easily with the crowd. The charm of Havana’s old town. The Cuban hospitality. It had been an exotic–and even slightly scandalous–break from the drabness of life and work in Moscow.

This time things were very different. The mood was gloomy. The country was still on military alert. And it was all business.

The Mikoyan mission to Cuba in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis lasted from November 2 to November 26.

This trip was in the first days of the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. The 33-year-old Sergo was again accompanying his father, Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers. Anastas had been sent to smooth things over with Fidel Castro. Castro had made it abundantly clear that he was furious with Khrushchev for making a deal with Kennedy without consulting him. His talk about nuclear armageddon was scaring his Soviet allies.

Castro hadn’t asked for the missiles. He had been persuaded to accept them. But once they had been sent, he thought Khrushchev had shown weakness by caving to the Americans’ ultimatum. But what stuck in his craw most was that Khrushchev had made the deal with Kennedy without consulting him.

The reception was frosty and the tone dour.

We flew into Havana at twilight. What a contrast compared with 1960! Back then, this was a lovely white city flooded with sunlight and opulent tropical greenery. When we arrived, a city that had extinguished its lights in case of an air strike was presumably hidden behind the expansive darkness. The airport’s usual crowd of musicians in stray hats with guitars and folk instruments had been replaced by a handful of people with serious countenances. Still, they smiled as they welcomed us at the gangway.1

Castro resumed his usual practice of meeting foreign dignitaries at the airport–a courtesy he pointedly did not do with Acting Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant a few days earlier.2

“Havana looked nothing like the city that I remembered from my last trip.”

But the drive in from the airport on the southern edge of the city gave Sergo a chanse to see more of how much things had changed in just a few short years into a transition from a country reaping the financial rewards of American tourism–especially the gambling variety–to a communist agricultural economy depending increasingly on Soviet foreign aid. Castro had let a foreign news crew film in Havana during the crisis, but their movements were closely supervised by government minders.

But for the Mikoyans’ visit, there was none of the hamming it up for the cameras.

Havana looked nothing like the city that I remembered from my last trip. Twin-barreled antiaircraft guns and artillery crews in olive-colored fatigues were found everywhere from public squares to rooftops. There were patrols on the streets. Of course, there were passes-by, too, but nothing typical for Cuba. Were there happy groups of young people? Pretty mulattos proudly strolling around the Malecon? Subdued, yet playful, conversation among residents in their gardens? All gone. All that remained was an atmosphere of anxiety that, unwittingly, even conveyed itself to me.3

The trip went from worse to worse. Castro maintained his rage, making Moscow’s negotiations with the Americans infinitely more difficult. And half a world away, Sergo’s mother–Anastas’s wife–died. Anastas stayed in Havana to finish the negotiations. Sergo flew back to Moscow for her funeral. Five years earlier to the month, Sergo’s own wife had died. “November is a miserable month,” Sergo later wrote.4

Notes:

1. Sergo Mikoyan, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Press, 2012) p.173.
2. Tad Szulc, “Diplomats Expect Castro to Seek Inspection Delay,” New York Times, 31 October 1962.
3. Sergo Mikoyan, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Press, 2012) p.173.
4. Sergo Mikoyan, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Press, 2012) p.193. The Mikoyans arrived in Havana on November 2. Anastas Mikoyan flew out on November 26. For an excellent narrative of the Mikoyan mission, see Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) pp.290-315.

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