U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Bettmann / Corbis

Cuban refugees wait for U.S. Immigration aboard the shrimp boat Big Babe at Key West on April 23, 1980, after arriving from Cuba.

The U.S. and Cuba sure know how to hold a grudge. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, relations between the two countries quickly devolved into bitter arguments, political grandstanding and the occasional international crisis. And while Cuba lies less than 100 miles (160 km) off the coast of Florida, the two nations have had no diplomatic relations since 1961 and use Switzerland as a mediator whenever they need to talk. But maybe — finally — things might change. On April 13 President Barack Obama announced that he would lift some longstanding restrictions, allowing Cuban Americans to visit and send remittances to their families and easing — but not removing — the 47-year-old economic embargo on the island nation. (Read "Will Obama Open Up All U.S. Travel to Cuba?")

But the U.S. and Cuba's ties go back well before Castro. In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, a defeated Spain signed the rights to its territories — including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam — over to the U.S., which subsequently granted Cuba its independence with the stipulation that the U.S. could intervene in the country's affairs if necessary (later relinquished) and that it be granted a perpetual lease on its naval base at Guantánamo Bay (not). For the next half-century the two countries more or less cooperated, with the U.S. helping to squash rebellions and heavily investing in the economy of its tiny neighbor. The American mafia used Havana as a conference center in 1946. Ernest Hemingway lived there for 22 years; he wrote The Old Man and the Sea at his villa just outside the capital.

Then came the Cuban Revolution and everything changed. It took multiple years and a few attempts but on Jan. 1, 1959 Fidel Castro and his band of guerillas successfully overthrew the government of President General Fulgencio Batista. The United States — which supported Castro by imposing a 1958 arms embargo against Batista's government — immediately recognized the new regime, although it expressed some misgivings over the revolutionaries' execution of over 500 pro-Batista supporters and Castro's increasingly obvious communist tendencies. Castro visited the U.S. just three months after coming to power, touring Washington monuments and meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon, all while wearing his trademark olive green fatigues. It was a rare moment of alliance between the two countries, and one that would not be repeated.

By 1960, Castro's government had seized private land, nationalized hundreds of private companies — including several local subsidiaries of U.S. corporations — and taxed American products so heavily that U.S. exports were halved in just two years. The Eisenhower Administration responded by imposing trade restrictions on everything except food and medical supplies. Decrying "Yankee imperialism," Castro expanded trade with the Soviet Union instead. The U.S. responded by cutting all diplomatic ties, and the two countries have been talking through Switzerland ever since. President Kennedy issued the permanent embargo on Feb. 7, 1962 — right after ordering a shipment of 1,200 Cuban cigars for himself — and within a few years the country, whose economy relied on the use of American-made products, became a shell of its former self. Food consumption decreased. Telephones and televisions were harder to come by. With no way to import American cars, Cubans watched their pre-embargo sedans rust into jalopies.

The early 1960s were marked by a number of subversive, top-secret U.S. attempts to topple the Cuban government. The Bay of Pigs — the CIA's botched attempt to overthrow Castro by training Cuban exiles for a ground attack — was followed by Operation Mongoose: a years-long series of increasingly far-fetched attempts on Castro's life. Between 1961 and 1963 there were at least five plots to kill, maim or humiliate the Cuban leader using everything from exploding seashells to shoes dusted with chemicals to make his beard fall out. The Get Smart-like plans never worked, and Castro's Cuba soldiered on, angry as ever at the United States.

The darkest moment in the countries' relationship came on the morning of October 15, 1962 when U.S. spy planes discovered evidence that the Soviet Union was building missile bases in Cuba. President Kennedy learned of the threat the following morning, while still in pajamas, and for the next 12 days the U.S. and Russia were locked in a white-knuckled nuclear face-off — the Cuban Missile Crisis — that ended only when Nikita Khrushchev accepted Kennedy's secret proposal to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for the de-arming of Cuba. The Soviet missiles were gone within six months, but it would take a long time for America to forgive the nation that allowed them to be placed so close to the American mainland. (Read about the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

In April 1980, a downtown in the economy caused thousands of dissatisfied Cubans to seek political asylum in foreign countries. Anyone who wanted to leave, Castro announced, could do so through its northwestern port, Mariel Harbor. Over the next six months 125,000 Cubans clambered onto boats and made their way to the U.S. in a mass flotilla. Castro also released criminals and mental-hospital patients, of whom as many as 22,000 landed on the shores of Florida; Cuba refused to take them back.

The U.S. strengthened its embargo rules in 1992 and again in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act, which applied the embargo to foreign countries that traded with Cuba and was issued in retaliation after Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian airplanes. The last decade has seen the U.S. tighten and then relax restrictions depending on the political climate. A 2001 agreement to sell food to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle has so far remained in place; the United States is now Cuba's main supplier of food, with sales reaching $710 million in 2008.

President Obama's announcement this week that he would lift remittance and travel restrictions for those with family still in Cuba marked a small but significant change in the U.S.'s position toward the island. Obama also agreed to let telecommunications companies — long barred under the embargo — to pursue business in the country, which still has roughly the same number of phone lines as it did in the 1950s. But the fate of the embargo rests in the sensitive hands of politicians, and no one is sure what Cuba's reaction will be. President Raúl Castro (who took over for his brother after Fidel underwent surgery in 2006) has indicated that he would like to open a dialogue with the U.S. Fidel himself, upon meeting the Congressional Black Caucus in early April, reportedly asked, "How can we help President Obama?" — although his later comments reverted to his typical uncooperative, firebrand type. The U.S. has extended a small olive twig to an ailing nation run by the brother of an ailing man, and what happens next is anyone's guess. Will Cuba respond by releasing political prisoners? Allowing free trade? Or will the 82-year-old former President and his brother rebuff the nation that has made it so easy for them to hate? This is, after all, a man the U.S. once tried to kill with a seashell.

See photos from inside Guantánamo Bay

Read "Changing U.S.-Cuba Policy"