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The U.S. and Cuba

Story by Tim Ballesteros |

Photo by William Everett Bryan |

1961 is the year the United States cut off all diplomatic ties with Cuba. Two years earlier, Fidel Castro came to power in an overthrow of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. With his Communist ideology, Castro nationalized American-dominated industries such as mining and sugar, hiking import taxes on American goods. Washington responded with a full economic embargo with the island country under President John F. Kennedy. A stringent travel restriction came with the embargo.

In January 1961, following the embargo, Washington cut all diplomatic ties with Cuba. Covert operations to overthrow this agent of the Red Menace had begun, and in April, Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the Bay of Pigs. This invasion of Havana was to be a combined air and land strike; the airstrike that planned to wipe out Castro’s air bases failed, but the ground troops – CIA-trained Cubans who fled once Castro came to power – were already in motion. Informed of the brigades impeding invasion, Castro’s forces easily defended Havana. Out of the fourteen hundred troops, 114 were killed and over 1,100 were taken prisoner. These prisoners were later exchanged for $53 million in baby food and medicine.

Mistrust in the United States due to the Bay of Pigs led to a secret Cuban-Soviet deal for a Soviet missile base off Cuba, located strategically 90 miles from the American coast. Plans of this base were not discovered until October of the next year. After a two week standoff with the American navy, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the removal of the Cuban missiles in exchange for Washington’s promise not to invade Cuba, as well as remove nuclear missiles from Turkey.

The economic embargo on Cuba remained, being strengthened in 1992 (Cuban Democracy Act) and again in 1996 (Helms-Burton Act); the latter act declared that the embargo was not to be lifted until “free and fair elections for a new government” were held, excluding the Castros.

Since 1996, minor changes have been made to the embargo, such as permitting medical supplies and select agricultural products to be exported to Cuba. Estimates from the Cuban government claim a loss of over USD$1.1 trillion from the embargo.

In 2008, Castro handed over the presidential reins to his brother, Raúl Castro. Early on in his time as president, the new Castro showed support of normalization with Cuba’s northern neighbor.

The following year, the newly inaugurated President of the United States, Barack Obama, also stated similar views. After Kennedy, Fidel Castro and eight American presidents maintained the status quo between the United States and Cuba, but in these two years, new leadership breathed life into the potential normalization of relations.

With over five decades of using extreme isolation to starve out the Communist regime, Obama’s administration began pursuing new policies to reopen relationships with Cuba. In his first year in office, Obama allowed unlimited flow of money back to Cuba from Cuban-Americans. Additionally, the travel ban was lightened to allow for religious and educational travel.

On 17 December 2014, Obama and Castro announced the plan to thaw relations between the two countries, after almost two years of secret talks brokered by Pope Francis. A prisoner swap was followed shortly thereafter. The United States also gave further ease on remittance, travel, and banking restrictions.

Cuba was removed from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism on 29 May 2015, a list Cuba was placed on since 1982. On July 20th, Cuban and American embassies, in both Havana and Washington, were reopened.  Both embassies had been closed in 1961 and were operating as Special Interest Sections within the Swiss embassies. Largely independent, the special interest sections were seen as de facto embassies, and were separate from their Swiss hosts in all but protocol. While the reopening was a celebratory occasion, neither Havana nor Washington appointed ambassadors.

The embargo remains in place, as the lifting of it is in congressional hands. Lifting of the Helms-Burton Act is unlikely, as members of both parties are critical of removing the embargo, stating that this would do little to help human rights in Cuba. Polls from the last few years show a different opinion, with a majority of Americans supporting the restoration of relationships (63%) and the lifting of the embargo (66%).

The international community mirrors the American public’s views, with near-unilateral support of lifting the embargo. In October 2015, Cuba introduced a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly condemning the embargo; the resolution was passed 191-2, with the United States and its ally Israel being the only two voting against the document. While the Obama administration is working towards lifting the embargo, the resolution was not favorable to the United States nor did it reflect the recent progress made between the two countries.

The future looks bright for Cuban-American relations, with significant thawing of the tensions between the nations. Both leaders are making steps toward full normalization of relations; though there is much to celebrate there is still a long way to go to achieve this goal. The lifting of the embargo still remains a contentious subject, though significant progress is being made towards its lifting.


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