U. S. — Cuba Relations


The island nation of Cuba, located just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, is home to 11 million people and has one of the few remaining communist regimes in the world. Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, came to power in 1959 and immediately instituted a communist program of sweeping economic and social changes. Castro allied his government with the Soviet Union and seized and nationalized billions of dollars of American property. U.S. relations with Cuba have been strained ever since. A trade embargo against Cuba that was imposed in 1960 is still in place today. Despite severe economic suffering and increasing isolation from the world community, Castro remains committed to communism.

The United States and Cuba share a long history of mutual mistrust and suspicion. All aspects of U.S. policy with Cuba, such as the current trade embargo, immigration practices, and most recently the possibility of a free exchange by members of the media, provoke heated debates across the United States. While most Americans agree that the ultimate goals should be to encourage Castro’s resignation and promote a smooth transition to democracy, experts disagree about how the U.S. government should accomplish these aims. Some believe that the country’s current policy toward Cuba is outdated in its Cold War approach and needs to be reconstructed. However, many still consider Fidel Castro a threat in the hemisphere and a menace to his own people and favor tightening the screws on his regime even more.

History of U.S.­Cuban Relations

During the first half of this century, Cuba resembled a U.S. colony: Many wealthy Americans vacationed on Cuba’s beaches, but the majority of the island’s citizens lived in extreme poverty. The United States supported the pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista, who ruled for almost twenty years before being overthrown by Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. Directly following Castro’s rise to power, President Dwight Eisenhower first enacted America’s trade embargo against Cuba. He cut off economic relations with the country in response to Castro’s confiscation of American property, the regime’s human rights violations, and its close ties to the Soviet Union.

Cuba became a focal point of the Cold War. In 1962, U.S. leaders learned that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. In a tense standoff, known as the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy placed U.S. military forces on alert and blockaded the island until the Soviets agreed to abandon their installation. The Soviet Union withdrew the missiles, and a possible nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was avoided.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Cuba’s lifeline of economic and political support was cut. The Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner, had provided the Cuban economy with over $6 billion a year. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade embargo remained in place, further weakening Cuba’s deteriorating economy.

Tightening the Embargo

For almost forty years, the United States has not imported any Cuban products, nor allowed any American food, medical supplies, or capital to enter Cuba. President Clinton, like each of his predecessors, supports the trade embargo. Two recent pieces of legislation have tightened the economic restrictions on Cuba.

The Cuban Democracy Act, passed by Congress in 1992, further isolates Cuba from the world economy by prohibiting any foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with the country. The bill’s goal was to cripple the Cuban economy in order to bring down Castro “within weeks,” according to the bill’s primary advocate Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

More recently, in February 1996, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act. The law was a retaliatory measure against the shooting down by the Cuban military of two unarmed U.S. civilian airplanes flying just outside Cuba’s territorial waters. The Helms-Burton Act states that American citizens can sue foreign investors who utilize American property seized by the Cuban government. In addition, those who “traffic” in this property or profit from it will be denied visas to the United States. Bill cosponsor Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) stated that the message of the legislation is simply “Farewell Fidel.” Supporters of the legislation believe that prohibiting foreign investment will quicken Castro’s downfall.

International Response. The United States is alone in the international community in enacting restrictive Cuban policies. No other country has joined the United States in the trade embargo against Cuba; in fact, the Helms-Burton Act angered nations that do business with Cuba. For example, Canada, Spain, France, and Italy are among Cuba’s top trading partners. These nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) contend that the United States has no right to dictate which other countries Cuba can and cannot trade with. Furthermore, Cuba, along with the United States, is a founding member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which prohibits cutting off trade with a member nation. Supporters of Helms-Burton, however, cite a WTO “escape clause” that says that a nation can enact a trade embargo if its national security is in jeopardy. Many U.S. lawmakers believe that Castro poses such a threat, thereby giving the United States permission to implement trade sanctions against Cuba.

Foreign Investment. Many foreign investors see great opportunities in the Cuban trade market, because of the end of Soviet aid and decades of the U.S. trade embargo. For example, Canadian businesses are benefiting from the lack of competition from the United States. Canadian pharmaceutical companies are marketing Cuban products, Canadian mining companies are developing uninhabited areas in Cuba, and hotel chains are operating state-owned resorts on Cuban beaches. American investors take note of all this and conclude that they are missing out on valuable business opportunities.

Canada and many other nations believe that the best way to promote democracy in Cuba is to express hopes for political reform after becoming engaged—economically and otherwise—in the country. Many people in the United States, however, do not think that foreign countries’ dollars should support or encourage Castro’s regime in any way.

Economic Upheaval in Cuba. Although the goal of the U.S. trade embargo is to help facilitate the removal of Castro from power, its recent effect has been to deepen the suffering of the Cuban people. Cuba has been in a state of economic ruin during most of Castro’s regime. Cubans live under conditions of mass unemployment, widespread hunger, insufficient wages, as well as energy and medicine shortages. One Cuban market vendor commented that “the only way people can buy [meat] regularly is if they get money from relatives abroad or from something illegal.”

One consequence of the suffering in Cuba is the great number of refugees who have tried to immigrate to the United States. In 1980, about 125,000 Cuban refugees, many of whom were former prisoners of Castro’s jails, came to the United States in the Mariel boat lift. President Jimmy Carter accepted them, an action that was very unpopular with the majority of the American public. Fourteen years later in a similar boat procession, more than 30,000 Cubans demonstrated their frustrations with rising food prices and increasing poverty by sailing to Florida. President Clinton only allowed 12,000 refugees to be processed for admission into the United States at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Opponents of the U.S. trade embargo point out that crippling the Cuban economy is only bringing great suffering to the Cuban people, not weakening Fidel Castro. They believe that the United States is acting inhumanely by denying people basic essentials like food and medical supplies. However, supporters of the embargo argue that isolating Cuba from the global economy is the most effective way to weaken Castro’s political support, and bring about his resignation or his overthrow.

Castro’s Economic Reforms. In recent years, Castro has attempted to reduce his country’s financial hardship by instituting mild economic reforms. In 1990, Cuba opened its borders to foreign investors in an attempt to bring in hard currency. Four years later, the government allowed the Cuban people to be self-employed, rather than employed by the state. This reform has led to many people running their own businesses to supplement their incomes. Even though some of these reforms may appear to be moving the country slowly toward capitalism, Cuban industry is still state-owned and -operated.

Communicating Through the Media

Upon coming to power in 1959, Castro sharply limited Cuban citizens’ freedom of speech—a policy that continues today. The media, along with all other major industries in the communist country, is state-operated. Although the number of independent media organizations has grown in Cuba in the past two years, members of these news agencies still undergo constant harassment and face the possibility of imprisonment by the government at every turn. One journalist, Rafael Solano, the director of an independent news agency called the Habana Press, was detained at least eight times between July 1995 and February 1996. He has faced charges of “association to commit crimes” since resigning from his job as a radio journalist in a government-controlled press office.

Exchanges Between the Cuban and U.S. Media. There is no free exchange of information between journalists in United States and Cuba. The few Cuban journalists in the United States today are restricted, by the U.S. government, to covering United Nations and international affairs in New York City.

In February 1997, President Clinton granted ten news organizations, including CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Miami Herald, permission to open offices in Havana. Many lawmakers believe that greater media coverage will encourage democratic reform in Cuba. White House Press Secretary Michael McMurry said that U.S. journalists “will keep international attention focused on the situation in Cuba.” However, so far, CNN is the only news agency to be granted permission by Castro to open a bureau in Cuba.

Due to advancements in telecommunications capabilities, there is a greater opportunity for “underground” journalism. For example, some Cuban reporters pass articles directly to foreign news offices in order to avoid the censorship of Castro’s government. These journalists dictate stories to people in the United States, who broadcast the pieces back to Cuba on the U.S.­sponsored Radio and TV Martí. Radio Martí began broadcasting anti-Castro programs in 1985. Five years later, TV Martí went on the air, and twenty-three minutes into the first broadcast, Castro began jamming the station’s electronic signal. Many members of the U.S. government would like the Cuban government to allow Radio and TV Martí to open an office in Havana before extending greater access to Cuban journalists in the United States.


Six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Cuba continues to command the attention of U.S. policymakers. Although Russia and the former eastern bloc countries have undergone widespread democratic and free-market economic reform, Cuba remains one of the only communist dictatorships in the world. Removing Castro from power and implementing reform in Cuba are top U.S. foreign policy priorities, but lawmakers disagree on the best course of action. While some argue that the U.S. trade embargo has proved ineffective and inhumane, others respond that the United States should continue to apply pressure on Castro until he is toppled from power. As the lawmakers debate, the misery in Cuba is worsening, and some countries are now beginning to blame U.S. policy. Time will tell whether the United States continues its present course or revises a policy that is increasingly unpopular with even its most loyal allies.

Excerpted from:
Close Up Foundation