What Washington was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis (2002)

On 27 October 1962, US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara stepped out of crisis meetings and looked up at the sky. ‘I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see,’ he recalled.  This month marks 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2002, Peregrine Worsthorne wrote about what it was like to be in Washington during humanity’s closest shave. Forty years ago the Americans won what I hope will be the nearest thing to nuclear war between superpowers — of which only one is left — ever fought; and the fact that they won it without firing a shot should not diminish but rather increase the extent of the victory.

Why are Labour MPs excusing Cuba’s authoritarian regime?

Thousands have taken to the streets in Cuba this week to protest against the authoritarian government that rules over them. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated Cuba’s already bad living conditions, and anger at the government’s handling of the situation reached a point where it could no longer be contained. Cuba’s one-party state has cracked down hard on the protesters, by beating, shooting and imprisoning its own citizens. Last night, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canal took a novel step and admitted that his government’s handling of the crisis had possibly not been as brilliant as his people should have expected. ‘We have to gain experience from the disturbances,’ he said during a

Portrait of the week: Mixed messages on masks, protests in Cuba and good news for pandas

Home England expects everyone to wear masks in crowded places, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said in a televised address, even though the law requiring it was to be dropped on 19 July. He said: ‘We’re removing the government instruction to work from home where you can but we don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as one from Monday.’ He added that the ‘single most crucial thing’ people could do was to get vaccinated. He declared it ‘a matter of social responsibility’ for nightclubs and other venues to demand a Covid pass, proving vaccination or a recent negative test, to allow entry. The Night Time

Cuba libre: why Cubans have reached breaking point

Havana There is an astonishing patience in the Cuban people, born of endless waiting. When a store has, say, chicken, people queue, often for days. But on Monday, outside the Zanja police station in central Havana, people weren’t waiting for food. They were waiting — patiently — for news of family members who had been arrested during unprecedented protests at the weekend. The demonstrations flared like a petrol fire. Cubans had settled down for lunch, many preparing to watch the Euro 2020 final, when news spread of a march in the town of San Antonio de los Baños on the outskirts of Havana. Videos on social media showed people, driven

Could street protests finally topple Cuba’s communist regime?

Could the growing tide of protests finally topple Cuba’s communist government? Many Cubans are certainly angry: Sunday marked the largest-ever demonstration against the island’s regime. Organised through social media, the protests, which began in a town twenty miles outside Havana, quickly spread across Cuba. Thousands of demonstrators marched along some of Havana’s most iconic streets, chanting ‘Freedom!’, ‘Fatherland and Life’ and ‘Down with the dictatorship!’ Discontent with the regime, which took power in 1959, has been rising for the past year. Before this weekend, the most high-profile protests had been from artists and intellectuals demanding freedom of expression. But this discontent is spreading rapidly. Provoked by the parlous state of the health

The mystery of the ‘Havana syndrome’ attacks

In late 2016, an official at the US Embassy in Cuba woke up in the middle of the night with a ‘severe pain and sensation of intense pressure in the face’. He also felt ‘a loud piercing sound in one ear… and acute disequilibrium and nausea’. A report by the National Academy of Science reported the official was left with, ‘symptoms of vestibular and cognitive dysfunction’, or in simpler terms, left totally dazed and confused. What happened? Five years later, and with over 200 similar cases reported by American diplomatic personnel around the world, mystery and conspiracy theories swirl around the so-called ‘Havana syndrome’. As of May 2021, over 200

How the third world war was narrowly averted

Nuclear weapons carry a payload of cold logic: if both sides have them, neither will ever use them. But in 1962, when the Soviet Union and US squared up to one another over Cuba, that logic broke down. As this superb new book shows, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the product of miscalculation, ignorance and staggering recklessness. The main culprit was Nikita Khrushchev. His first error was to mistake the US president for a callow weakling. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured his Cuban friends, ‘I’ll grab Kennedy by the balls.’ After their first meeting, JFK remarked that negotiations with Khrushchev had been the ‘roughest thing in my life’. The argument concerned

The creators of Breeders are locked into a game of How Far Can You Go

Sky One’s Breeders (Thursday) bills itself as an ‘honest and uncompromising comedy’ about parenting. To this end, the opening scene featured Martin Freeman as Paul trying to do some work while his two children under seven made a bit of noise a couple of rooms away. Having given himself a little pep talk about not screaming at them, Paul then screamed at them — bursting in on their blameless fun to yell: ‘Jesus fucking Christ! How many times do I have to tell you to be quiet?’ He further informed them that he was going to leave home and they should ‘tell mummy that daddy’s gone cos he couldn’t stand

Sun, sea and spooks

Cuba meant a lot to Graham Greene. Behind his writing desk in his flat in Antibes he had a painting by the Cuban artist René Portocarrero, presented to him by Fidel Castro, who had signed his name on the back, so that Greene didn’t know which way to hang it. Another prize possession was a tatty Penguin copy of Our Man in Havana, kept together by Sellotape, which the Russian cosmonaut Georgy Grechko had read in outer space, and in which, while circumnavigating our planet, Grechko had underlined the places in Havana that he had visited. ‘I’ve been reading it all my life, both on earth and in space,’ he

Prince Charles’s trip to Cuba is a big mistake

More than 120 years ago, Winston Churchill sailed to Cuba. While there, he dreamt of a country ‘free and prosperous…throwing open her ports to the commerce of the world, sending her ponies to Hurlingham and her cricketers to Lords.’ Now, in spite of Cuba’s communist revolution, the British government seems to have the same optimistic view as Churchill. But is it right to do so? On Sunday, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall landed in Havana. Their tour is the first official royal appointment in Cuba, a four-day trip the British government hopes will strengthen economic and diplomatic relations with the communist country. The royal trip may

The old man and the siren

One rainy evening in December 1948, a blue Buick emerged from the darkness of the Venetian lagoon near the village of Latisana and picked up an Italian girl — 18, jet black wet hair, slender legs — who had been waiting for hours at the crossroads. In the car, on his way to a duck shoot, was Ernest Hemingway — round puffy face, protruding stomach and, at 49, without having published a novel in a decade, somewhat past his sell-by. He apologised for being late, and offered the rain-sodden girl a shot of whisky which, being teetotal, she refused. So did Papa, that ‘beat-up, old-looking bastard’, encounter the siren he

The city of ugly love

Cuba’s gorgeous, crumbling capital has always been a testing ground for writers. That heady combination of revolution, cocktails, sex and unpainted mansions seems somehow to set literary pulses racing. Trollope, Hemingway and Graham Greene all described it with verve, but there’s also plenty of dross. The city certainly charmed me, and, a few years ago, I thought I’d add to the pulp with my own contribution. I started courting London’s Cubans, and even had the ambassador to lunch. But despite some intriguing gossip (e.g. that Che Guevara was no fun at parties, and utterly deadpan), I abandoned the whole idea. It seemed to me that Havana was about to change

On the trail of a lost masterpiece

On 27 May 1939, the German liner St Louis docked in Havana with 937 passengers on board: all but a handful of them were Jews in flight from the Third Reich. After a dismal farrago of diplomatic obstruction, bare-faced corruption among local officials and the incitement by Nazi propaganda of anti-Semitic prejudice ‘even’ (as Leonardo Padura sorrowfully puts it) ‘among the open and happy Cubans’, only a score of refugees could disembark. The US refused entry to the rest. Their ship of despair sailed back to Europe. Around this shaming episode, the genial gadfly of Cuban literature has built a digressive, eccentric but deeply absorbing novel: part-detective story, part-historical enquiry,

A hellish paradise

‘Short of writing a thesis in many volumes,’ Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in his preface to The Traveller’s Tree, ‘only a haphazard, almost a picaresque, approach can suggest the peculiar mood and tempo of the Caribbean and the turbulent past from which they spring.’ Island People, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s first book, is an academic picaresque. This unlikely hybrid might be the ideal vehicle for a trip around the ‘American lake’; the Caribbean’s cultures and peoples are also hybrids, legacies of unlikely crossings. The masters, slaves, indentured labourers and merchant middlemen of the Caribbean were the first truly modern societies, drawn and dragged to a hellish paradise solely to serve a global

Long life | 8 December 2016

While American conservatives, including Donald Trump and the Cuban exiles in Florida, whooped with joy at the news of the death of Fidel Castro, and while millions of America-haters throughout the world extravagantly mourned his passing, Barack Obama was circumspect. ‘History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,’ he said. This was a restrained comment by an American president about a foreign leader whose 47 years of dictatorship had been sustained almost entirely by stirring up hatred of the United States; and we won’t have to wait for history’s verdict on his impact on that particular country, for we

The Spectator’s Notes | 1 December 2016

It seems perplexing that François Fillon, now the Republican candidate for the French presidency, should be a declared admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Although she certainly has her fans in France, it is an absolutely standard political line — even on the right — that her ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic liberalism is un-French. Yet M. Fillon, dismissed by Nicholas Sarkozy, whose prime minister he was, as no more than ‘my collaborator’, has invoked her and won through, while Sarko is gone. In this time of populism, M. Fillon has moved the opposite way to other politicians. He says his failures under Sarkozy taught him that France needs the Iron Lady economic reforms which it

Revolutionary Cuba’s racism problem

You can tell a lot about a country from its sexual politics. Out one night at La Fabrica, a state-funded arts venue and club in suburban Havana, a friend and I got chatting to a group of local girls. While we were talking, a trio of young black men were doing some kind of coordinated dance routine next to us. ‘That’s cool,’ I said. One of the girls rolled her eyes. ‘I would never dance with a black guy,’ she said, with a nonchalance suggestive of something that subsequently became very apparent. Racism is normal, and everywhere, in Cuba. Since Castro’s death we’ve heard everything about the perceived successes and failures

Watch: Douglas Murray gives Richard Gott a history lesson

With Emily Thornberry en route to Cuba to attend the funeral of Fidel Castro, back in Blighty landbound socialists — with selective memories — continue to take to the airwaves to heap praise on the late dictator. Happily during one such appearance, from Richard Gott — a former literary editor of the Guardian — on Sky News, Douglas Murray was on hand to offer a few home truths. After Gott heralded Castro ‘one of the most remarkable figures of the last century’ and ‘a really great, great man’, Murray gave an alternative take on the Cuban dictator: ‘History will remember him as one of the more minor 20th century dictators but a dictator nonetheless, a brute,

Is Justin Trudeau totally clueless about Castro’s Cuba?

In Miami’s Little Havana, champagne fizzed all weekend. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the free world amused ourselves comparing the barmiest political reactions to the death of Fidel Castro. Jeremy Corbyn is strong in the running for the ‘Despot Hagiography Award’, though top honours must go to the national statesmen remembering a tyrant as a saint. ‘A giant among global leaders,’ Irish President Michael Higgins gushed, ‘whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’ His statement went on to praise Cuba’s health system as ‘one of the most admired in the world’. Yes, the same one where

Jeremy Corbyn’s celebration of Castro proves that he’s not a serious leader

Just when you thought the story of the Labour Party in the 21st century couldn’t get any more tragic, Jeremy Corbyn decided to issue a statement celebrating the life of a totalitarian leader who tortured and murdered his opponents. I wonder how many people will be ripping up their membership cards after Corbyn’s comments on Fidel Castro. Perhaps not many, because Castro’s Cuba acted for so long as a lodestar for those who still see the United States as the greater evil in the region: a predatory colonial force holding the poor of Central and South America as hostages to neo-liberalism. A country without adverts, but with a functioning health