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The Cuban-American Relationship

For more than 50 years a Castro – first Fidel and then Raul – governed Cuba. And for the whole of this period, Cuba and the United States have been in conflict.

A Man Cycles past a Cuban Flag in Havana
Vocabulary

embargo, sanctions, substantially, remittance, resume, unilateral, predecessor, prolong, friction

A Motorist Drives past a Mural in Havana
A Motorist Drives past a Mural in Havana

Since 1959, in all 11 different presidents have governed the US, and prolonged economic sanctions have been one of their means to bring down Castro. However, this has not substantially weakened Castro's rule. In February 2008, Fidel formally resigned from office. This was sixteen months after transferring many powers to his brother Raul due to illness.

Since 1961, the official US policy toward Cuba has been two-sided: economic embargo and diplomatic isolation. In reality, this means that there is no trading, no travelling and no diplomatic contact between the two countries. In fact, anyone engaging in trade with Cuba or entering the country without US consent may risk long prison sentences and heavy fines. In 2002 for instance, James Sabzali, and two American company executives were found guilty of trading with an enemy of the United States by selling water purification chemicals to Cuba.

Public opinions differ on whether or not the US should resume relations with the Cuban government, even among the Cuban exiles in Florida. Some believe in loosening the strict limitations on travel and remittances, while others do not want to resume relations with Cuba until Castro and the Communist regime have been removed. Recent polls, however, have shown that support for Cuban isolation is diminishing among Cuban exiles, and among the American people as a whole it is at an all-time low.

Opinions in Congress are also mixed. Some, especially within the Republican Party, are strongly anti-Castro, while others favor improving relations with Cuba. Many high profile politicians have recently recommended that the United States takes some unilateral steps to end the sanctions. However, the removal of sanctions would be just one step in the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, and no doubt, such a process is sure to be controversial. At the moment, there are several bills before Congress that aim to lift travel restrictions, but whether or not these will pass is uncertain.

The three most important issues preventing normalization of US-Cuba relations include the following:

  • For the US to repeal the trade embargo, Cuba has to do something about human rights. Government critics continue to be imprisoned, and many report that they are beaten during arrest. Restriction on freedom of expression is widespread, and the government limits freedom of association and assembly.
  • Guantanamo Bay was established in 1903 and was a product of the Platt Amendment; an agreement that was forced on the new Cuban government at the time. It is today the oldest existing US military base outside US territory. The US Navy occupied the site, and leased it from the Cuban government. The current government of Cuba regards the US presence in Guantánamo Bay as illegal, and the base has become a constant source of friction between the two countries.
  • The Cuban-American community in southern Florida traditionally has had a strong influence on US policy with Cuba. Both the Democrats and the Republicans fear alienating a strong voting bloc in an important swing state in presidential elections. Even though the Cuban Americans only constitute about 3% of all Hispanics in the US, their lobby has been a strong one that has always been treated with respect from the politicians.
Raul Castro
Raul Castro


The major question now is whether Barack Obama and Raul Castro are able and willing to create a better political climate than their predecessors. While the George W. Bush administration strongly enforced the embargo and strengthened travel restrictions, Obama seems to be the first American president to realize what the rest of the world has seen ages ago: the trade embargo has not worked. The relationship to Cuba became a very central theme in Obama’s presidential campaign. He stated that he very much wanted to sit down with Raul Castro in order to find solutions that could improve the relationship between the two countries. He has stated that the US is willing to look at their stern policy towards Cuba, but not before he receives signals from Havana of democratic change. The release of political prisoners and guarantees of human rights are issues that have to be met before the trade embargo can be lifted. There has been some policy softening under President Barack Obama, but many still believe that it will take many years before the U.S.-Cuba relations are normalized.

Raul Castro, on the other hand, has signaled his intention to reconsider the structure of the Cuban government and the country's economic system. Several changes related toagriculture, including a decision in 2008 to give individuals land for farming and allowing farmers to have unlimited salaries, were meant to spur food production on the island. Also, he has authorized the unrestricted sale of computers, DVD and video players and other appliances. Reforms like these are cheered in Cuba, and regarded as good signs from the US. However, most experts agree that Raul Castro is unlikely to introduce significant economic reforms in the near future. He has also made it clear that he wants to ensure that Cuban communism continues after the current leadership. And the democratic changes that Obama is looking for are still lacking.

Tasks and Activities

Comprehension

Cuba - USA, True or False?

Vocabulary

Work together in pairs. Take turns explaining the background and meaning of the keywords below and their relevance for the topic of the text.

  • Communism
  • Trade embargo
  • Diplomatic isolation
  • Public opinion
  • Travel restrictions
  • Remittance
  • Human rights
  • Guatanamo Bay
  • Exile-Cubans
  • Political reforms


Writing

Write a Letter to the Editor where you express your opinion about the trade embargo and what must be done to improve the relationship between the US and Cuba. Choose your political perspective (for or against the embargo).

See How to Write a Letter to the Editor.


Further Reading and Research

The Cuban-American Relationship: Historical Outline

Thirteen Days in October - The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Mariel Boatlift

Elian Gonzalez

GITMO - Guantanamo Bay

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