On eve of anniversary, Castro lays some blame on Khrushchev

Thursday, October 10, 2002

HAVANA -- President Fidel Castro said on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev helped create the conflict by misleading President Kennedy -- indicating that there were no nuclear weapons on the communist island.

Castro's comments, which came in an interview with ABC's "20/20" program, coincided with a conference here bringing together Cubans and Americans who played roles during the real life Cold War drama. ABC, which will broadcast the interview Friday, made the transcript public Wednesday.

"He believed what Khrushchev told him," Castro said during the interview, conducted this week in Havana. "Therefore, Kennedy was misled. That was a very big mistake on the part of Khrushchev ... one that we opposed vehemently."

The crisis began in mid-October 1962 as Kennedy became convinced that there were Soviet nuclear warheads on the island just 90 miles south of the Florida coast. Their discovery brought the world to the edge of nuclear conflict.

Former members of the Kennedy administration are heading to the Cuba conference to revisit that earlier standoff.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former special aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. are among those expected at the conference, aimed at showing a lesser known view of the crisis: Cuba's. Castro is also expected.

In his ABC interview with Barbara Walters, Castro said his country did not agree to accept the missiles out of fear, and "we would have rather not had them in order to preserve the prestige" of Cuba.

He also said officials on the communist-run island did not like being considered "the Soviet base in the Caribbean."

Still, Castro indicated respect for Khrushchev and his support of the Cuban revolution.

"Even though Nikita was a bold man, he was a courageous man ... and I can make criticisms of him ... of the mistakes he made. I have reflected a lot on that," Castro said. But misleading Kennedy, the Cuban president said, "was his main ... flaw."

The crisis, marking the Cold War's tensest moments, was defused when Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.

Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez, an organizer of the conference, was an army commander when Castro put 400,000 soldiers in position to repel a possible invasion of the island.

As Kennedy's words clicked onto the paper rolling off the teletype machine at military headquarters Oct. 22, 1962, Fernandez knew the Americans meant business.

"I had the impression that war was probable," recalled the 79-year-old Fernandez, now a vice president in Castro's government. "I was also preparing myself to die, all the while hoping that I would stay alive."

Kennedy's message to the United States and the world was direct.

"Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missiles is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," Kennedy said in his speech to the nation. "The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere."

Earlier that day, about 2,500 relatives of U.S. forces stationed at Guantanamo Bay were given 15 minutes to pack a bag each before evacuated to Norfolk, Va.

"I was ordered to destroy papers and help move ourselves elsewhere because obviously the ministry (of defense) would be a target," Fernandez told The Associated Press this week.

Most Americans invited to the conference, including McNamara, Schlesinger, former Kennedy speechwriters Richard Goodwin and Ted Sorensen and ex-CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, will arrive Thursday.

Also attending are several Kennedy family members, including Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother who was attorney general and a key player in the crisis.

Along with the gathering, Cuba will release some formerly classified documents about the days known here as the Crisis of October.

The nonprofit National Security Archive at George Washington University will also release newly declassified American documents about the crisis.

During a similar conference last year, Cuban organizers worked with the National Security Archive to release a wealth of U.S. and Cuban documents about the unsuccessful CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The missile crisis conference will feature seminars on Friday and Saturday. Participants will visit crisis-related sites, including a former missile silo in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

Fernandez said he hoped new lessons would emerge for politicians and military leaders, "to never again take the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe."

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