Cuba and the USA

Following the re-establishing of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba back in 2014, we take a look at the last fifty or so years of relations between the two countries, and where it all went wrong...
car Santiago East Cuba Caribbean island America travel, (photo by Apa Publications)
car Santiago East Cuba Caribbean island America travel

Ominous beginnings 

In 1960, Cuban prime minister and leader of the revolution Fidel Castro delivered his first speech to the United Nations and was introduced to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. While in New York, he also met the radical American Black Power leader Malcolm X. At about that time, the US began to see Castro as a threat to its national security and mysterious things started happening. A French ship, La Coubre, delivering Belgian armaments, inexplicably exploded in Havana harbour as unidentified low-flying planes flew over the city. The US was the prime suspect. In response, Castro took an aggressive stance. In January 1961, he expelled 11 US diplomats. Soon after, the two countries severed diplomatic relations and the US began an economic embargo that brought the import of American goods to a halt.

The Bay of Pigs

In April 1961, a CIA-trained brigade of 1,500 mercenaries, mostly Cuban exiles from Miami, landed at Playa Girón in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), hoping to instigate an anti-Castro coup. The invasion was a complete fiasco. The counter-revolutionaries were no match for Cuba’s military, led by Castro. Local people, whom it was hoped would be sympathetic to the exiles’ cause, were strongly pro-Castro.

Castro emerged as the clear victor, while US President John F Kennedy was humiliated. The invasion was seen by Cubans as a blatant imperialist stunt and relations between the two countries worsened still further. The incident also garnered support for Castro throughout Latin America and rendered him fearful of a US military invasion. The United States did little to alleviate those fears, instigating covert activities including plots to assassinate Castro.

In 1961, Castro shocked the world by pronouncing Cuba’s revolution to be a ‘socialist revolution’. Some believe his conversion to Marxism was merely a pragmatic move to gain favour with the Russians, without whom Cuba did not stand a chance of surviving the US embargo.

Playa Girón, the site of the disastrous 1961 US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. Photo: Shutterstock

 Cuban Missile Crisis

In order to support socialist Cuba, the USSR supplied economic aid, as Castro had anticipated, and in 1962, shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba to defend the island. The threat of nuclear weapons stationed just 140km (90 miles) away was too much for the US Government, who demanded that the Soviets remove the missiles and threatened to bomb Cuba if they refused. The world watched in horror as the possibility of war came uncomfortably close. The Soviets eventually relented and an uneasy peace was restored.

Despite the fact that an agreement was reached, President Kennedy relegated relations with Cuba to fall under the US 'Trading with the Enemy Act', which tightened the embargo and prohibited all commercial and personal contact between the two nations. The US became the only country in the world to forbid its citizens to travel to Cuba. The political impasse became even more intractable.

Big Brother is watching

The 1960s marked the beginning of decades of political repression in Cuba. Anyone seen as non-supportive of the government was deemed ‘socially unacceptable’, and thousands of these ‘dissidents’ were jailed. Throughout the 1960s, the ‘better-dead-than-red’ communist-obsessed US continued covert activities against Cuba, including more CIA-backed assassination attempts on Castro. In addition, several of Cuba’s trade missions in Europe were bombed by anti-Castro terrorists.

Mariel boatlift

In 1980 public protests escalated to the point that the government permitted anyone who wanted to leave to do so – including, it is said, many criminals who were freed from prison in order for them to leave. That year, 125,000 Cubans fled to the US in the so-called Mariel boatlift, adding to the several hundred thousand who had left in the early years of the revolution.

Monument at Key West, the southernmost point of continental USA. Photo: Shutterstock

Dreaming of Miami

The obsession with Miami reached a peak in the early 1990s, when Cuba faced crippling hardships after the fall of the Soviet Union and the tightening of US sanctions; people were so desperate to leave that they were willing to risk their lives on a fragile raft. A distance that seemed small on a map took many days, even weeks, to reach and, all too often, empty rafts would wash up on the Florida Keys. The horror stories did not deter those determined to leave, usually sailing with a large painted banner to catch the attention of the Brothers to the Rescue, an exile organisation that launched planes from Miami to search for rafters.

Between 1989 and 1994, more than 10,000 rafters made it to Miami. The Cuban coastguard stopped a further 37,800. Castro claimed that the US precipitated the crisis by refusing to grant sufficient entry visas and said he would no longer prevent Cubans from leaving, sparking a mass exodus – between August and September 1994, around 2,000 rafters a week set sail. The US authorities feared the consequences of a mass migration like that of the Mariel boatlift and started to ship those picked up at sea to internment camps at its Guantánamo military base. Although about 40,000 Cubans made it to the United States that year, it is estimated that between five and nine thousand died in the attempt.

The crisis led to talks between the United States and Cuba, whereby the Cuban authorities agreed to clamp down on the would-be refugees and the US granted 20,000 visas a year by lottery to Cubans seeking to leave the island.

El bloqueo

In 1996, US President Clinton gave way to pressure from Cuban Americans and approved the Helms-Burton legislation, named after its sponsors in the US Congress, which raised the threat of suing any company that did business with Cuba involving assets on the island that had been confiscated by the Castro regime in the 1960s. Consequently, relations between the US and countries that were investing in Cuba – especially Canada and some members of the European Union – came under strain.

The legislation also helped to polarize the debate on sanctions within the United States – some powerful business and humanitarian interests spoke up against the continuation of sanctions, which they believed had failed in their primary objective of bringing down the Castro regime, and which sections of the business community thought were denying US companies valuable investment opportunities.

The US embargo (called el bloqueo in Cuba) also attracted international disapproval. In 1997, 143 countries in the UN General Assembly voted against the embargo, with just three in favour (the US, Uzbekistan and Israel). Pope John Paul II, for his part, criticized Cuba on human-rights issues, but he also spoke out indirectly against US sanctions, calling any such embargo ‘deplorable’. This saw the US Government relax the embargo slightly: direct flights between Miami and Havana resumed in July 1998 and more North American politicians and business people began visiting Cuba, though under tight restrictions.

Raúl Castro takes office

As Cuba moved into the 21st century, the Revolution was already four decades old and in many ways the island seemed to be stuck in a time warp. But change was on the way. The demise of Cuba’s great caudillo, Fidel Castro, has been predicted for decades and in July 2006, when he underwent urgent intestinal surgery, he handed over supreme power ‘temporarily’, to his younger brother Raúl, the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. A further step was taken in February 2008, when Raúl was inaugurated as president by a newly formed National Assembly. Fidel remained head of the Communist Party until 2011 and Raúl promised that his brother would be consulted on matters of national importance.

New legislation in 2013 relaxed travel restrictions, leading to a 35 percent increase in Cubans legally travelling abroad. Cubans no longer had to get an exit visa before travelling and could remain abroad for two years before returning to renew their passport. The most popular destinations are now the US, Mexico and Spain, with some Cubans flying overseas more than once a year. Many will probably not return to Cuba and there has been an upsurge in the number of Cubans crossing into the US from Mexico, but the majority are using the system to travel as tourists.

In 2016, after serving two terms as president, Barack Obama was replaced in the White House by Donald Trump. Photo: Shutterstock 

Barack Obama and beyond

The election of Barack Obama and a Democrat administration in the White House in 2009 saw the end of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans (although not for all Americans) and unrestricted family visits were permitted. President Obama extended a hand of friendship towards the people of Cuba and announces that a US Embassy will open in Havana, life for the people of Cuba and the exile community in the USA is set to change once again. In November 2016, two events occurred that would have huge ramifications for Cuba. On November 9, Republican nominee Donald Trump was elected President of the United states, narrowly beating Democratic rival Hilary Clinton. Then, on 25 November, Fidel Castro died in Havana, aged 90. Since Donald Trump's election, Cuba's relationship with the US has become strained once again, with 15 Cuban diplomats expelled from the US embassy in Havana after a series of mysterious sonic attacks on its staff. 

Ready to take a trip to Cuba with Insight Guides?

If you are planning a trip to Cuba, Insight Guides can help with the planning, organising and booking of your trip. Simply contact us with details of the length of your trip, budget and places you would like to visit and we will put you in touch with a local expert who will plan a personalised itinerary for you. Alternatively, browse our existing Cuba trips. Just remember that all these trips are fully customisation – you can add stops to one (or all!) of these beaches to all of our trips, all you need to do is ask!