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The Cuban-American Relationship: Historical Outline


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Distances of Major US Cites from Cuba
Distances of Major US Cites from Cuba

Only 90 miles south of Florida you will find Cuba. But even though Cuba and the US are close geographically speaking, there is a political abyss between the two countries. Hostility between Cuba and the United States has been persistent since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. This is more than 50 years of hostility. How can we explain this? In order to understand today’s relationship between the US and Cuba, we have to understand the history between the two countries. Here is a short summary of the most important historical events:

Cuban Independence and American Involvement

Until 1898 Cuba was a Spanish colony. In 1895 the Cuban War of Independence started, and with the help of the US, Spain was forced out of Cuba. This opened up a void that the US quickly filled. They took over much of the control Spain had had before the War of Independence, and the US established a strong influence over the island.

The Platt Amendment

This position was fortified by the signing of the Platt Amendment in 1901. The Amendment was an agreement between the two countries which kept the island under American protection and gave the US the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Only the United States was allowed military bases on the island, and could intervene militarily whenever they deemed it necessary.

Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista Visits USA 1938
Fulgencio Batista Visits USA 1938

For more than 30 years Cuba was ruled by a number of authoritarian and military figures,protected by the US. These were rulers who either obtained or remained in power by force. In 1933, Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant, rose to power. After having overthrown the sitting president he appointed himself chief of the armed forces, and he wielded significant power behind the scenes before he was elected president in 1940. Entering his presidency, he went into league with the wealthiest landowners in Cuba. This resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor, and an increasingly disgruntled population. Corruption was widespread, and many wanted to put an end to Batista’s abusive rule.

American Investments

Cuba was at this time a very popular holiday destination for rich Americans. Americans invested large amounts of money in the country and owned numerous companies, hotels, casinos and holiday resorts. The US became a more and more dominant power in Cuba during the 1940s and 50s, and American companies maintained a strong control over the island. Many Cubans resented this foreign domination over their country. America’s profit at the expense of the Cuban people did not go unnoticed, and hatred towards Batista and the current situation united Cubans with Fidel Castro.

The Cuban Revolution

Che Guevara Mural
Che Guevara Mural

In 1959, an increasingly discontented population welcomed Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as they moved into Havana with their revolutionary forces. The Cuban Revolution was a fact. They brought down President Batista who fled the country, and Castro became Prime Minister. In 1976, he changed his title to President.

Trade Embargo

In 1960, all US businesses in Cuba were nationalized without compensation. All companies, hotels and casinos which had previously been American property, were transferred to the Cuban government overnight. As a result, the US broke off diplomatic relations with Havana and imposed a trade embargo in response to Castro’s reforms.


Fidel Castro Speaking
Fidel Castro Speaking

In 1961, Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist state and proclaimed himself a “Marxist-Leninist”. Batista had been a close ally to the US for many years, but now Castro broke ties with the US and turned towards the USSR for political and economic support. The US was faced with a massive problem: a country only 90 miles away from their coastline that would provide a base for anti-American activities in the Western Hemisphere. This could only lead to a deterioration of the relationship between the countries.

Bay of Pigs

In an attempt to overthrow Castro, many exile Cubans participated in an invasion of the island on April 1, 1961. The invasion of the Bay of Pigs was an attempt to create an uprising against the Castro regime, and it was supported by the American government and airforce. However, it failed miserably and it became a very humiliating defeat for the Americans. Cuban’s own military forces, trained and equipped by the USSR, got the invasion under control in just a few days. This caused further deteriorion of the relationship between the two countries, and the US felt that Cuba became more and more a part of the communist Russian threat against the free world.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuban Military Camps
Cuban Military Camp

Probably the most dramatic event in the postwar era took place in October 1962 when the Americans discovered that the Russians were secretly deploying offensive nuclear missiles inCuba. After considering different options, Kennedy decided on a quarantine to prevent Soviet ships from bringing additional missiles to Cuba, and he demanded publicly that the Soviets remove the weapons. The US and the rest of the world could follow the Russian ships with the missiles hour by hour, day by day, as they were approaching Cuba. The crisis was solved after two nerve-wracking weeks when Kennedy struck a deal with the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikita Khrusjtsjov: The Russians would dismantle the bases in Cuba if the US promised not to invade the island. In addition, the Americans promised to withdraw all nuclear missiles that had been deployed in Turkey. The world has never – before or since – been closer to a nuclear war.

The Mariel Boat Lift

Since 1960 when the trade embargo was put into force, the borders between the USA and Cuba had been completely closed. Commercial flights were forbidden, and desperate Cubans who tried to leave the country, had to risk their lives in small fishing boats or rafts crossing the ocean between the two countries. However, in 1980, what has become known as the Mariel Boatlift took place. Due to internal tensions in Cuba, Castro temporarily lifted restrictions, and between April and October that year 125,000 Cubans departed for the USA. The exodus was organized by Cuban-Americans based in Florida.

The Fall of the Soviet Union

Due to the trade embargo, Cuba was forced to look to other parts of the world to sell their products, and the USSR became their main trading partner. However, in 1991 the USSR disintegrated, and as a result, Cuba lost its most important political and financial supporter. During the 1990s, Cuba endured a massive recession due to the collapse of the USSR.

Elian Gonzalez

The same year that Castro celebrated 40 years in power, another important event took place in the relationship between Cuba and the USA. In November 1999, 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was picked up off the Florida coast, clinging to an inner tube. In an attempt to flee, Elian, his mother and stepfather had left Cuba in a small boat. The boat had capsized during a storm, and his mother and stepfather drowned together with 9 others. Elian was one of three survivors. A huge campaign by Miami-based Cuban exiles began with the aim of keeping him in the USA and preventing him from being sent home to Cuba. After prolonged court battles, Elian finally rejoined his father in Cuba.

Guatanamo Bay

Detainees Guantanamo Bay
Detainees Guantanamo Bay

The United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba dates from 1903, when the American government leased the site from the Cuban government. It was the result of the Platt Agreement that was signed in 1901. The United States has held on to the base for strategic reasons, even though there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries today. In 2002, the function of the Naval Station changed, and Guatanamo Bay Detention Camp was established. The purpose of the camp was to hold detainees from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2009, US President Barack Obama gave orders for the detention camp to be closed by 22 January 2010. As of the present day, the detention camp remains open.

Raul Castro

In February 2008, Cuba’s ailing leader, Fidel Castro, announced that he would step down after 49 years in power. The 81-year-old handed over power to his younger brother Raul. Raul and Fidel had worked together since the 1950s, when they plotted the Cuban Revolution. Since then Raul had held numerous key positions under his brother, including being the head of the Communist Party and the senior official in the armed forces. Many hoped that he would be a more pragmatic leader than his brother had been, and some of the first things he did was to relax restrictions on owning mobile phones and computers and allowing a rise in salaries and state pensions. This was widely celebrated by Cubans. However, there have been few major changes since he took over, and there is no doubt that Raul belongs to the old generation, and that he is the head of an aging government. The relationship to the US has improved slightly since Barack Obama was elected, and there is some hope that the two countries can take their first steps towards normalization.