Close neighbors Cuba and the U.S. have had one of the world’s strangest relationships. Think of it: A Caribbean island-nation of just 11 million people locked in a seemingly permanent standoff with a superpower. The row drags on for half a century, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, reshaping the culture and politics of the third-largest U.S. state, and outliving the Cold War that provoked the dispute in the first place. Then the two establish diplomatic relations and the U.S. eases a five-decade trade embargo. Now a new U.S. president, Donald Trump, has dialed back the normalization process. And relations have been disrupted by a mysterious series of health “attacks” on U.S. officials in Cuba.
In September, the U.S. ordered more than half its diplomats in Cuba to leave and warned Americans against traveling to the island after 21 U.S. officials suffered injuries from hearing loss to cognitive problems in the attacks. U.S. and Cuban investigators haven’t determined the source of the ailments. Months earlier, Trump had announced a tightening of travel and trade restrictions that had been loosened by his predecessor, Barack Obama, using executive authority. Trump argued that the Cuban government got too sweet of a deal in the 2014 rapprochement. Under the new rules, Americans will be barred from doing business with Cuba’s military, which plays a major role in the country’s economy. Visiting the island will again become somewhat complicated. Trump’s administration plans stricter enforcement of rules mandating that legal trips fall under one of 12 categories, and Americans will no longer be able to plan educational visits independently. Trump left in place Obama’s rules letting Cuban-Americans send more money to relatives on the island and permitting more exports of telecommunications equipment. As part of the rapprochement, Cuba promised to provide citizens greater access to the internet and mobile phones, and has done so slowly. Cuba’s government freed 53 political prisoners at the time, but afterwards stepped up arrests of dissidents. Obama had said he wanted the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba lifted, but that would require an act of Congress. An old guard of well-organized and wealthy Cuban émigrés to the U.S. who oppose legitimizing Cuba’s government traditionally have had influence beyond their numbers in U.S. politics because in 10 of the last 11 presidential elections, the candidate who won Florida won the presidency.
Fidel Castro’s ousting of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 remained an inspiration to revolutionary movements around the world even as Cuba became a communist dictatorship. After Castro allied Cuba with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. severed relations in 1961 and backed the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple him. After it failed, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo. Cuba’s decision to host Soviet nuclear-missile bases led to a 13-day crisis in 1962 that teetered on the edge of nuclear war. Years of anti-Castro legislation in the U.S. culminated in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which established conditions for lifting the trade embargo, including multiparty Cuban elections and the removal of Castro and his brother Raul, who succeeded him as president in 2008 and has said he’ll step down in 2018. Fidel Castro died in 2016. The embargo permits enough trade, mostly in agricultural products, to make the U.S. Cuba’s seventh-biggest market for imports.
With other countries trading with Cuba, supporters of normalization say the embargo has cheated U.S. companies of opportunities and left the U.S. government without influence. Obama argued that his measures would help undermine one-party rule in Cuba by strengthening the country’s nascent private sector and creating people-to-people contact. Closer U.S. ties could also help marginalize left-leaning Cuban allies like Venezuela, which provides the island with discounted oil. Opponents, including some Cuban human rights groups, say restoring ties threw a lifeline to a dying dictatorship just as economic growth was slowing and Venezuela began struggling to sustain its alliances. Trump has argued that Obama’s deal allowed the Castro regime to continue human rights abuses. The goal of his policies, he’s said, would be to “ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”
The Reference Shelf
- The Council on Foreign Relations explores U.S.-Cuba relations in a timeline.
- The Congressional Research Service examines issues surrounding U.S.-Cuba relations in this paper.
- Pew Research Center surveys reveal shifting demographics and opinions among Cuban-Americans.
First published Jan. 20, 2015
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