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Cuba - US Relations

Cuba has been of strategic interest to the United States at least since 1808, when President Thomas Jefferson called it "the key to the Gulf of Mexico." It was suddenly transformed in that century from an unimportant "ever-faithful isle" of Spain into the world's major sugar producer, attracting United States economic interests. Liberated from Spain by the United States in the Spanish-American War (1898), Cuba came under the tutelage of a new power. The United States granted the island independence and a degree of self-rule in 1902 but kept it dependent as a result of economic involvement and successive military interventions, as authorized by the Platt Amendment of 1901.

The corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar (president, 1940-44, 1952-59), during which there were 20,000 political killings, ended with its overthrow onJanuary 1, 1959, by a popularly supported guerrilla force led by Fidel Castro Ruz. Castro was an attractive and popular figure, and the United States had no real alternative but to support him initially when he came to power. The CIA station officers, many of whose casual contacts saw through the Castro democratic facade, were virtually unanimous in their opposition to Castro from the day he took power. The facade was convincing to many, however, because the ?rst revolutionary government was made up of some people with ostensibly impeccable liberal credentials. Castro did not take long before showing his true colors.

The single most important event accelerating Soviet military involvement in Cuba was the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 17-19, 1961. The failure of the United States to act decisively against Castro gave the Soviets some illusions about United States determination and interest in Cuba. The Soviets moved swiftly. New trade and cultural agreements were signed, and increased economic and technical aid was sent to Cuba. By mid-1962 the Soviets had embarked on a dangerous gamble by surreptitiously introducing nuclear missiles and bombers into the island. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy publicly reacted to the Soviet challenge, instituting a naval blockade of the island and demanding the withdrawal of all offensive weapons from Cuba. For the next several days, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear holocaust.

No neighboring Latin American or Caribbean countries pose a military threat to Cuba. The only country with a history of military intervention in Cuba since the expulsion of Spain in 1898 was the United States, which maintains the US naval base at Guantnamo Bay. The Castro government has always portrayed the United States in Cuban media as a potential military threat to Cuba, often using as an historical example the disastrous landing of an army of Cuban exiles organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency on Playa Girn in the Bay of Pigs on the south-central Cuban coast on April 17, 1961.

In addition to being separated from its northern neighbor by the Florida Straits, Cuba has been isolated socially, economically, politically, and diplomatically from the world's leading democracy for more than four decades by an embargo originally imposed by the United States in 1960 for Cold War reasons. Only one other country has been under embargo longer than Cuba, namely the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (more commonly known as North Korea), which the United States began embargoing in 1950. The Cubans have always called the embargo the blockade (el bloqueo). The embargo has had a significant impact on numerous aspects of the island country, including the history of the Castro regime, the health of the population, the economy, foreign policy and relations, and the armed forces.

Had Kennedy lived, however, Cuba-United States relations might well have taken a turn for the better, a development that would have been anathema to the CubanAmerican community at that time. Kennedy reportedly had second thoughts about the embargo, just as he had regrets about the Bay of Pigs fiasco. On November 17, 1963, he met with FrenchjournalistJean Daniel and asked him to tell Castro that the United States was now ready to negotiate normal relations and to drop the embargo. According to Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, "If Kennedy had lived, I am confident that he would have negotiated that agreement and dropped the embargo because he was very concerned with the role the Soviet Union was playing in Cuba and Latin America .... "

US economic warfare against the island has been a reality for the Castro government, which also portrays the US threat as taking the form of support for internal subversion, human rights activism, and political interference. On August 1, 2006, claiming the country was under threat of US aggression, Acting President Ral Castro ordered a military mobilization of tens of thousands of reservists and militia members and the Special Troops as per plans that Fidel Castro approved and signed on January 13, 2005.

Cuba and the United States have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961, but each country maintains an Interests Section in the others capital. Bilateral Cuban-US relations have remained highly antagonistic since the communist government of Fidel Castro came to power. Progress in this area has been severely constrained by the enduring rigidities of the communist regime and the inflexible US policy stance.

US policy toward Cuba has been held hostage to right-wing exile Cubans in Miami. Cuban Americans have elected leaders with a point of view about Cuba. Opinion polls show that Cuban exiles have a diversity of viewpoints on Cuba and on other political issues; they vote both Republican and Democrat. They know and care more about Cuba than other Americans, so it was normal that they have an impact on US policy, particularly in the absence of any countervailing constituency. In any case, their wish for democracy and freedom in Cuba was consistent with US policy.

Cuba's handling of refugee incidents involving the Peruvian and Venezuelan embassies in Havana was inept and led to the 1980 Mariel Boat-Lift and the flight of more than 100,000 refugees. Castro's attempt to use the Mariel Boat-Lift to force the United States to discuss normalization of relations further exacerbated the situation. In addition, Castro reverted to virulent revolutionary rhetoric and continued support for armed struggle, particularly in Central America, Colombia, and Chile. These actions led the administration of President Ronald Reagan to make new efforts to isolate Cuba.

Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba's diplomatic efforts to counter the embargo have resulted in very significant progress toward the reintegration of the once-pariah island nation into the Caribbean and Latin American communities and the world in general, with the main exception of the United States. As a result of this development, the United States' embargo of Cuba has become paradoxical.

According to embargo critics, it would be in the United States' national interest to have Cuba fully integrated into the world community rather than isolated and unconcerned with international opinion regarding the issue. Because the objective of the embargo was to keep Cuba isolated, the existing situation limits the enormous potential American social, economic, and political influences that scholars seem to agree could accelerate the process of change in Cuba. By keeping United States influence out of Cuba and thereby allowing the Cuban regime to maintain itself in power, the embargo has, according to this argument, served as a sort of reverse Berlin Wall.

Embargo critics include those advocating an approach that calls for engaging Cuba in dialogue while lifting some United States sanctions that they believe hurt the Cuban people. Others call for lifting the embargo completely and restoring all relations. They argue that the embargo continues to provide Castro with a pretext not only for keeping Cuban society militarized (through mass militias) and under the tight control of the Communist Party of Cuba (Partido Comunista de CubaPCC), but also for exploiting United States-Cuban hostilities.

In l980, triggered by a mass invasion of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana by Cuban freedom seekers, Castro resorted to the escape valve to rid himself of the discontented by facilitating mass flight to the United States. He invited Cubans already in the United States to come to the port of Mariel several miles to the west of Havana by boat and pick up loved ones. Castro decided who would leave. He termed them all gusanos (worms), and, though most wanted to leave to join relatives in the United States and live better. Castro managed to send a good measure of antisocial types, including seasoned criminals as well as residents of the Havana Mental Hospital.

Under PresidentJimmy Carter's administration family visits on a significant scale were first authorized. In fact, many observers feel that the 1980 Mariel Boatlift was a direct result of family visits as many disaffected Cubans were deeply influenced by contacts with Cuban-American visitors and the perceptions of their experiences abroad. Visits by Cuban-Americans became more numerous during the 1990s. Several developments contributed to the growing number of visitors, not least of which was the Cuban government's decision to ease, if not encourage, family contacts. This policy, to some extent forced on the government by the economic difficulties associated with the Special Period, was partly intended to facilitate the transfer of emigrants' financial resources to their Cuban families. Foreign remittances had become an important source of foreign exchange. The generosity of the Cuban-American community and the resilience of family bonds were also at play because in response to the economic crisis and often despite long years without any contact, remittances had begun to flow. Family visits followed shortly thereafter. Also contributing to the rise in the number of visitors was the resurgence of large-scale emigration following the rafter (balsero) outflow of the early 1990s, and regularized legal emigration following the 1994 United States-Cuba Migration accord.

In October 1992, the United States Congress enacted the Cuban Democracy Act, whose principal sponsor was Representative Robert G. Torricelli. The new law prohibited United States subsidiaries in third countries from trading with Cuba. Other governments deemed it an extra-territorial secondary boycott in violation of the rules under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In March 1996, the United States Congress enacted the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (also known as the Helms-Burton Act), sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton. However, invoking procedures in the law itself, President William Jefferson Clinton suspended the enforcement of the act's key feature, Title III, which authorized United States citizens and firms to sue in United States courts those firms from other countries that "traffic" with Cuba. The law was broadly written to affect most foreign investment in Cuba as well as trade.

Cuban relations with the United States featured three key events in the 1990s. In the aftermath of the riot in Havana in the summer of 1994, the Cuban government lifted all requirements for an exit permit to emigrate and encouraged unauthorized emigration by boat or raft to the United States. Tens of thousands of Cubans took to the seas. Many were seized by United States Coast Guard and Navy ships and held for months at the United States base at Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, the United States and Cuba reached agreements in September 1994 and May 1995 to end the crisis. The United States accepted almost all Cubans who had emigrated illegally in 1994, although a few criminals were excluded and returned to Cuba, which accepted them. The United States promised to accept no fewer than 20,000 legal immigrants per year for the indefinite future. The United States also undertook to intercept on the high seas and return to Cuba those seeking to enter the United States illegally and without a credible claim to refugee status; this policy has been enforced. Cuba agreed to accept those whom the United States had intercepted and not to discriminate against them. It also agreed to reimpose its barriers on unlawful exit.

The next significant episode occurred on February 24, 1996, when at least one, perhaps three, unarmed civilian aircraft piloted by Cuban-American members of a group called Brothers to the Rescue flew into Cuban airspace. (On a prior trip, Brothers to the Rescue airplanes had dropped antigovernment leaflets over Havana.) As they were fleeing the pursuit of Cuban Air Force jets, two of the planes were shot down over international waters. This Cuban action, condemned by the International Civil Aviation Association, triggered the enactment of the Helms-Burton Act.

In November 1999, a five-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez, was rescued in the Straits of Florida, hanging on a raft after his mother had drowned. At first, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed his great-uncle to obtain provisional custody. Soon, however, the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, claimed custody, requesting the boy's return to Cuba. An intense seven-month legal and political battle developed over the child's custody, engaging both national governments, various local governments in southern Florida as well as state and Federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Consistent with their new migration relations, the United States and Cuban governments assumed similar positions on the issue and ultimately prevailed: Elian Gonzalez, accompanied by his father, returned to Cuba in June 2000. In the United States, the political battle over Elian was fierce; in Cuba, the government used the incident to mobilize nationalist support. In the end, the Cuban American community's insistence that the boy should remain in the United States, and not with his father in Cuba, received little support. The Elian Gonzalez case may have begun a re-thinking of United States policy toward Cuba.

United States policy toward Cuba under the administration of President George W. Bush appeared reminiscent of the 1980s. President Bush committed his administration to a continuation of the traditional Cold War policy toward Cuba. Bush's call for Castro to open his country's political and economic system was part of the "Initiative for a New Cuba" launched as a result of a review that began in January 2002. Bush said that he would veto further measures on trade with Cuba and on lifting the ban that empowers the United States Department of the Treasury to fine Americans traveling to Cuba. In a policy speech at the White House on 20 May 2002, Bush conditioned any easing of this policy on Cuba's adoption of democratic reforms, such as holding democratic elections; giving opposition parties the freedom to organize and speak; freeing all political prisoners; and allowing the development of independent trade unions.

The US Defense Department relesed a report saying that Cuba was not a threat to the United States, although the report's drafter turned out to be Ana Belen Montes, a woman who was convicted for espionage on behalf of the Cuban regime. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst Ana Belen Montes was sentenced in October 2002 to 25 years in prison for spying for Cuba. Although Cuba may not pose a conventional military threat to the US, it clearly demonstrated, with Ana Belen Montes, that it was an intelligence threat. The Cuban regime considers itself an enemy of the US and was an instigator of anti-American activities all over the world, especially in Latin America. Its functionaries in Venezuela and Bolivia helped leaders there assault those countries' democratic institutions.

In addition, in early 2002 the Bush administration began to make a concerted effort to isolate Cuba from traditionally sympathetic Latin American countries such as Mexico, but Cuba has continued to have diplomatic and trade relations with Latin America. Although the successful visit to Havana in May 2002 by former US president Jimmy Carter brought renewed efforts in Congress to lift the embargo, President Bush reaffirmed his support for it and sought to more strictly enforce the US ban on travel by Americans to Cuba. In January 2004, he canceled immigration talks with Havana that had been held biannually for a decade. In May 2004, he endorsed new proposals to reduce the amount of remittances migrs can send back to Cuba and further restrict the number of visits Cubans living in the United States can make to their homeland. Cuba responded by cultivating closer relations with China and North Korea.

In a rare instance of Cuban-US collaboration, Cuban and US doctors worked together for the first time in May 2005 during a seven-day visit to Honduras by a Cuban Medical Brigade. Prospects for an improvement in Cuban-US relations and lifting of the Cold Warera US trade embargo remain poor until the Castro era ends, the country opens to democratization, and the politically powerful migr community in the United States drops its traditional opposition to any rapprochement.

By late 2005 US planning for Cuba after the demise of Fidel Castro had entered a new stage. In July 2005 the Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization, established inside the US State Department by the Bush administration prepare for post-conflict situations, appointed Caleb McCarry as the Cuba transition co-ordinator. He headed a special office preparing for the "day after", at which point Washington will back a democratic government in Havana. The reconstruction office, at that time headed by Carlos Pascual - a Cuba-born former ambassador - had been focused on Sudan, Haiti, Congo and Nepal. In a controversial move, Cuba was added to the list. The inter-agency effort, which also included the Defense Department, included the possibly that the Cuba transition may not go peacefully. In that case, the US may have to launch a nation-building exercise. The US would not accept a handover of power from Mr Castro,to his brother Raul, who was five years younger. The National Intelligence Council revises the watchlist of 25 countries in which instability could require US intervention every six months.

Soon after the 31 July 2006 announcement of the transfer of power to Raul Castro, the Bush administration created five new interagency working groups (State Department, Commerce Department, National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security) to monitor Cuba and to promote US policies. The State Department was unwilling to provide much detail on these groups, but said the focus should be on the democratic transition the groups are pushing for in Cuba and not on the US governments process. The overall idea was to exchange views with other governments and create a common external front as Cuba begins its post-Castro transition.

President Obama came to office with a pledge to end punishing Bush-era restrictions on travel. In 2009, he provided unlimited travel rights to Cuban American family members, and two years later offered broader changes: opening up people-to-people travel, restoring non-family remittances, and giving more airports in the US the opportunity to serve the Cuban market.

On April 13, 2009 the Obama administration announced a series of changes in US policy to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their countrys future. The President directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to support the Cuban peoples desire for freedom and self-determination by lifting all restrictions on family visits and remittances as well as taking steps that will facilitate greater contact between separated family members in the United States and Cuba and increase the flow of information and humanitarian resources directly to the Cuban people.

On January 14, 2011 President Obama directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security to take a series of steps to continue efforts to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their countrys future. The President directed that changes be made to regulations and policies governing: (1) purposeful travel; (2) non-family remittances; and (3) US airports supporting licensed charter flights to and from Cuba. These measures will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities. The President believed these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens. These steps built upon the Presidents April 2009 actions to help reunite divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2016 17:45:41 ZULU