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Political Change in Cuba

When the Spanish retreated before US troops in the 1898 Spanish-American War and ceded the islands of the Greater Antilles, both Cuba and Puerto Rico were among the bounty, but their destinies could not have been more disparate. While Puerto Rico is now a US territory, Cuba has become defiantly independent of its neighbor some 90 miles to the north.

In 1956, a ship carrying 82 revolutionaries intent on overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista landed on Cuban shores. Three years later, the revolutionaries marched in victory through Havana. Among them was the leader of the revolution and Cuba's current commander-in-chief, Fidel Castro.

The triumphant arrival of Fidel Castro in Havana on, January 1, 1959, marking a victorious climax of the revolution he had led, was initially heralded in the United States as well as in Cuba. Castro was hailed as a champion of the people, a man who would lead a free and democratic Cuba. While some suspected that Castro had Communist leanings, the majority of the American public supported him. The appointment of Philip Bonsal as US Ambassador to Cuba, replacing Earl E.T. Smith, who was personally wary of Castro, was a clear signal that the United States was interested in amicable relations with the revolutionary government. On appointing Bonsal, President Eisenhower expressed the hope for an "ever closer relationship between Cuba and the United States." By the end of 1959, however, United States-Cuban relations had deteriorated to the point that there was open hostility between the two countries.

As Castro's government implemented socialist policies, relations with the United States became increasingly strained. To begin with, the United States deplored the mass executions of officials of the Batista government that Castro had deposed. In reply, Castro charged that the United States had never voiced objections to killing and torture by Batista. He said the trials and sentences would continue. In his revolutionary economic policies. Castro took steps that severely challenged the traditional role of the United States. In March 1959, the Cuban Government took over the United States-owned Cuban Telephone Co. in May. US companies were among those expropriated in the Cuban Government's first large-scale nationalization action, also in May, the agrarian reform law resulted in the expropriation of large landholdings, many of them US-owned.

With the failed US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, tensions between the nations grew. The United States imposed restrictions under a trade embargo against Cuba, and Cuba's economy came to depend on trade with its ideological and political ally, the former Soviet Union. Cuba exported tons of sugar, nickel, fruit, and other commodities in exchange for canned meat, wheat, weapons, machinery, and fuel from the Soviet Union.

The US economic embargo is not a blockade, and almost every other country in the world has normal relations with Cuba.

In the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, the United States and Cuba began to explore normalizing relations, but the talks were suspended in 1975 when Cuba launched a large-scale intervention in Angola. The United States and Cuba did established interests sections in their respective capitals in September 1977 to facilitate consular relations and provide a venue for dialogue, and both currently operate under the protection of the Embassy of Switzerland. Cuban international entanglements in the 1970s, such as deploying troops to Ethiopia and allowing Soviet forces on the island, continued to strain bilateral relations.

The allocation of agricultural production to cash crops was justifiable during the 1970s and 1980s, when Cuba received an average price for sugar from the Soviet Union that was more than five times higher than the world market price. But the situation created a pattern of dependency on imported foods, which accounted for over 50% of the total calories consumed by the population by the late 1980s.

In the 1980s the focus of friction in US-Cuban relations shifted to include immigration, as well as Cuba's international engagements, when a migration crisis unfolded. In April 1980 an estimated ten thousand Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. Eventually, the Cuban government allowed 125,000 Cubans to illegally depart for the United States from the port of Mariel, an incident known as the "Mariel boatlift." A number of criminals and mentally ill persons were involuntarily included. Quiet efforts to explore the prospects for improving relations were initiated in 1981-82 under the Reagan administration, but ceased as Cuba continued to intervene in Latin America. In 1983, the United States and regional allies forced the withdrawal of the Cuban presence in Grenada.

In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, interrupted in the wake of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were "excludable" under US law. Cuba suspended this agreement in May 1985 following the US initiation of Radio Marti broadcasts to the island, but it was reinstated in November 1987. In March 1990, TV Marti transmissions began to Cuba.

The Soviet collapse in 1990 and the restrictions of the US embargo marked the beginning of a period of extreme economic hardship in Cuba. This period, understatedly referred to by the revolutionaries as "the special period in a time of peace," has severely strained the Cuban economy, which hit an all-time low in 1993, when the gross national product declined by almost 15%.

The Cuban Democracy Act, a US law passed in 1992, pushed for a "track-two" policy of fostering personal contacts between the two countries and seeking to help nongovernmental organizations in Cuba.

In 1994, Premier Fidel Castro carried out his sweeping policy adjustments occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its previous mentorship of Cuba. Politically, these adjustments included the authorization of a massive economic emigration from Cuba to Florida and the lifting of state censorship and other tight security rules affecting Cuban relationships with foreigners visiting or living in Cuba. Economically, Castro opened the Cuban socialist economy to allow about one-third of his population to live "outside the revolution," which means holding a job in a growing free-market sector created primarily by European investment and using the US dollar as primary currency.

Following anti-Castro demonstrations in August 1994, Castro -- in a move widely seen as a repeat of his use of the "migration bomb" against President Carter during the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980 -- announced his government would not interfere with persons who wished to leave Cuba by sea. In the ensuing months an estimated 35,000 Cubans set sail for Florida, resulting in a severe overloading of US abilities to cope with the refugee tide, as well as the deaths at sea of an unknown number of Cubans in unsafe boats and raft. The Clinton Administration housed some 20,000 of the Cubans at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, and opened a separate facility in Panama -- but the refugee flood continued. The two countries in September 1994 and May 1995 signed migration accords with the goal of cooperating to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration.

On February 24, 1996, further worsening relations, the Cuban military shot down two US registered civil aircraft in international airspace, killing three US citizens and one US resident. The unlawful and unwarranted attack on two unarmed US civilian aircrafts resulted in the deaths of Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario M. de la Pea, and Pablo Morales. Immediately after this brutal act, and in response to this violation of international aviation law, Congress and former President Clinton passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Libertad Act. The legislation, among other provisions, codified the US trade embargo into law and imposed additional sanctions on the Cuban regime.

Contrary to the expectations after the Papal visit in January 1998, freedom and democracy did not improve in Cuba. The April 1998 resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights was an expression of international concern.

Cuba considers opposition activists to be "counter-revolutionaries" supported largely by, and working in the interests of, the US government. As one Cuban official put it, dissidents are "people who are directly or indirectly on a payroll from the United States. They are part of a comprehensive hostile policy from the US". Many members of illegal opposition parties are trade unionists, lawyers, economists, engineers and independent journalists. The government's targeting of the latter as dissidents has been well-documented. Anyone deemed by the regime to be in opposition to it is considered a "counterrevolutionary" and an "enemy," and is therefore at risk of persecution

Feet wet/feet dry is a term used to describe if a person has reached the US or not for immigration law purposes. If they touch US soil, bridges, piers or rocks, they are subject to US Immigration processes for removal. If they are feet wet, they are eligible for return by the Coast Guard in accordance with Executive Order 12807. Feet wet/feet dry is is a legal determination of the Department of Justice, and based on the interpretation of laws and court decisions. Feet wet/feet dry applies to migrants of all nationalities.

In 2000 the Elin Gonzlez issue brought much attention to bear on US- Cuba relations and rekindled discussions on the value of maintaining the embargo. Elian Gonzalez was dehydrated, hypothermic and barely responsive when rescued from the water. He was brought ashore to the closest hospital for medical treatment. Unfortunately, because of the danger and rigors of their journeys, migrants of all nationalities rescued by the Coast Guard frequently require immediate medical attention. Those people are brought to the nearest medical facility if they cannot be properly treated at sea. In late June 2000, the US Senate defeated an attempt to create a commission to study the effectiveness of the economic embargo against Cuba, but that vote succeeded, nevertheless, in keeping the debate on Cuban policy alive. In October 2000, legislation was enacted that eases nearly four decades of sanctions on the sale of food to Cuba, though credit and financing restrictions make such sales difficult and perhaps impossible to implement.

Fidelismo may seem to be an illogical, failed policy to the outsider, but that Fidel Castro and his revolution are deeply meaningful to the seven million or so Cubans who live within it. The Bush administration's policy toward Cuba is designed to encourage a peaceful transition to a democratic government characterized by strong support for human rights and an open market economy.

On 20 May 2002, President Bush announced his Initiative for a New Cuba. The Initiative for a New Cuba challenges the Castro regime to undertake political and economic reforms. In particular, the initiative calls for the Cuban government to allow free and fair elections for its National Assembly, open its economy, allow independent trade unions, and end discriminatory practices against Cuban workers. The president said, "Our plan is to accelerate freedom's progress in Cuba in every way possible, just as the United States and our democratic friends and allies did successfully in places like Poland, or in South Africa ...." The president also said: "Our government will offer scholarships in the United States for Cuban students and professionals who try to build independent civil institutions in Cuba, and scholarships for family members of political prisoners ...."

The Title III provisions of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (more commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act) permits legal actions to be brought against firms trafficking in confiscated properties in Cuba. Title III drew criticism from US allies when the law was first introduced. In its final form, the law requires the president to either waive or enforce Title III provisions every six months. Former President Bill Clinton suspended Title III throughout his second term in office, as had President Bush.

Authorized by Section 109 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, USAID has funded action programs -- by US universities and non-governmental organizations -- to build solidarity with Cuba's human rights activists, give voice to Cuba's independent journalists, help develop Cuba's independent libraries, defend the rights of Cuban workers, and provide direct outreach to the Cuban people.

The Castro regime responded to the Cuban people's aspirations with a further crackdown on freedoms. In the past 18 months, Fidel Castro has engineered a constitutional amendment declaring "socialism," immutable; indicated his intention to remain in power until forced from office, including by death, explicitly denied that Cuba will move to open markets, and staged the most sweeping crackdown on peaceful advocates of change in the history of Cuba.

On 18 March 2003, the Cuban government announced the arrests of a group of dissidents. In April, 75 oppositionists advocating political change through non-violent means were jailed for sentences ranging from 6 to 28 years, accused of working with US diplomats to undermine the Cuban government. There are indications that the arrest and imprisonment of the Cuban dissidents was prompted by the Cuban government's fears about contacts between dissidents and Americans. A few days later, three men who attempted to hijack a passenger boat to divert it to the United States were executed. On 05 June 2003, the European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba.

A number of US lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, called for abolishing restrictions on US travel to Cuba. They argue that more contacts between American and Cuban citizens will help spur democratic change in the Communist-ruled island nation. In September 2003 the House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at easing the travel restrictions, by denying the Bush administration the funds to enforce them.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Cuba's military would benefit from an easing of US travel restrictions. He said the Cuban military controls 65 percent of Cuba's hotel rooms, and would use the proceeds to suppress dissent. He said a majority of Cuba's tourist hotels are in isolated enclaves, where ordinary Cubans are not authorized to go. "Tourism travel raises grave doubts, because it is funneling resources directly to the repressive apparatus of the state, and the impact on the Cuban people themselves, and the interaction with the Cuban people, is actually fairly minimal."

Many in the Cuban-American community in Florida had long pressed the Bush administration to take a tougher approach to the government in Havana. Florida could be a crucial state for Mr. Bush's re-election bid next year.

On 10 October 2003 President Bush announced measures he said will strengthen efforts to bring about political change in Cuba. The president spoke at a Rose Garden ceremony on the 135th anniversary of the start of Cuba's war of independence from Spain. He says that struggle continues against Fidel Castro. Bush will increase Cuban immigration and crack down on Americans who illegally travel to the island. President Bush said he is acting to hasten the arrival of democracy in Cuba, after President Fidel Castro ignored his May 2002 offer to improve relations and ease a trade embargo, if Cuba held free elections and allowed more popular dissent. The Department of Homeland Security will more closely monitor that legal travel because he says too often those people are engaged in illegal activities. Speaking to US legislators and Cuban-American leaders at the White House, the president said he will increase US government information to the island, including print, Internet and radio and television broadcasts. Bush announced a new commission on Cuba to be co-chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, who is the Bush administration's highest ranking Cuban-American.

On 23 October 2003 the US Senate voted to bar the use of government money to enforce travel restrictions to Cuba. Defying a veto threat from President Bush, the Republican-led Senate joined the House of Representatives in approving a measure aimed at easing restrictions on US travel to Cuba. The legislation was contained in an amendment to the Transportation and Treasury Department bill. A similar measure was approved by the House in September 2003. Once the Senate votes on the overall bill, differences will have to be reconciled with the House version, before a final bill is sent to President Bush. But Mr. Bush has signaled he would veto the legislation, if it contains the Cuba language.

In December 2003 the White House said a special commission of senior Bush administration officials is expected to put forth recommendations by 01 May 2004 for a peaceful removal of Mr. Castro.

In January 2004 Fidel Castro accused President Bush of plotting with organized crime to kill him. At the end of a five-hour address to anti-free trade activists in Havana, Mr. Castro said on 30 January that President Bush had made a commitment "with the Cuban-American mafia" to assassinate him. The Cuban leader also vowed that if the United States were to invade the island, he would, "go down fighting." He said Cuba is prepared for a conflict, and will not budge from its principles.

On 06 May 2004 the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba issued its report. It makes clear the objectives of U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro's Communist regime. The Commission was set up in October and came after Castro's March 2003 crackdown that resulted in long prison terms for seventy-five Cuban dissidents and members of civil society. One of the proposals in the report is a plan to use US planes, flying in international waters, to transmit signals from US-funded Radio and TV Marti broadcasts. This is aimed at overcoming the information blockade the Cuban government has imposed on its own people by jamming the broadcasts and preventing access to outside sources of news. The report also called for reducing trips to Cuba by Americans and limiting gifts of money and goods to immediate family members in order to limit the amount of hard currency that ultimately ends up in government coffers. All gifts would be banned to Communist Party members and Castro regime officials. The report calls for spending $59 million over the next two years to encourage the pro-democracy movement in Cuba. A large portion of the funds will be used to support efforts to help Cuban young people, women, and Afro-Cubans take their place in the pro-democracy movement.

On 01 August 2006 it was learned that Cuba's President Fidel Castro had fallen ill and handed power to his brother, but the Cuban government said he was only stepping aside temporarily. Mr. Castro's spokesman read a statement saying the president was undergoing surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding caused by stress. The statement said he was expected to recover within several weeks. Until then, Raul Castro will assume presidential powers and lead Cuba's Communist Party. It is the first time the elder Castro is known to have relinquished power during his nearly five-decade rule. Although, the leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution has made a number of television appearances, he has not been seen in public since.

Since Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's July intestinal surgery forced him to transfer power to his brother Raul, the institutions of Cuba's totalitarian apparatus are probably "in a process ... of negotiation as they attempt to determine what the power-sharing arrangements will be" in the post-Castro era, Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said 23 August 2006.

In December 2007, Castro announced he would not "cling to power" and stand in the way of a new generation of leaders. The announcement raised speculation that Castro's days as Cuban leader could be numbered and the National Assembly may well decide to pass permanent power to his healthier, and albeit, slightly younger brother.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro polled 98.2% of the votes in National Assembly elections 20 January 2008, just 1% less than his brother and acting president Raul with 99.3%, official election results reported. Whether the 81 year-old Cuban leader will again be re-elected as president was expected to become clear on 24 February 2008, when the National Assembly of 614 candidates is due to elect its next president.

On 19 February 2008 the Granma daily newspaper reported Fidel Castro's announcment that he will step down as Cuba's president after almost 50 years in power. The leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the man who has outlasted nine hostile U.S. presidents, Castro said in his address to the nation that he could not consent to be elected president of the National Assembly and commander-in-chief of the armed forces due to health problems. "It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that demands mobility and a total devotion that I am not in a physical condition to offer," his statement read. "I am not bidding farewell to you. I want to fight on as a soldier of ideas...My voice will be heard," he went on.



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