Thanks to President Obama’s historic move to normalize relations with Cuba, Americans are closer than they have ever been in the last half-century to being able to freely visit the island. The relationship between these two countries is as complex as it gets. To understand the current dynamic between Cuba and the United States, it helps to delve into the events that shaped the connection between the two nations.
It all started in the late 18th century when the U.S. began trading with Cuba, a country that was then under Spanish rule. U.S. merchants poured boatloads of money into sugar plantations on the island—by the middle of the 19th century, around 40 percent of Cuban sugar was sold to the United States, and American products were being sold to Cuba as well. The island’s location and geography were appealing to U.S. interests, and several presidents – including Jefferson, Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan – tried to purchase Cuba from Spain, but to no effect.
Following the Ten Years War, the U.S. took increased interest in Cuba, and sent the USS Maine to protect U.S. citizens on the island. The ship sank in the Havana Harbor on February 5, 1898, killing over 250 people. The Spanish were blamed, and two months later, the U.S. declared war on Spain. By July 17, the Spanish had surrendered. U.S. military occupation followed.
The U.S. helped shape both the treaty between Cuba and Spain and the Cuban constitution itself. Contained within the constitution was the Platt Amendment, which secured the Guantánamo naval base for the U.S. and also gave the U.S. the right to intervene whenever it deemed necessary.
During the four years that the U.S. occupied Cuba, they improved the infrastructure, established a postal system, created schools, and eliminated yellow fever. In 1902, Cuba was granted independence by the U.S., but the island’s leaders continued to cater to the desires of Uncle Sam. The U.S. helped install (and even pay the salary for) Cuba’s first president. As time went on, the U.S. supported Cuban politicians who provided U.S. investors with business and banking opportunities. Not surprisingly, U.S. companies began to invest in Cuba’s most important industries, including sugar, tobacco, mining, and railroads. U.S. companies eventually owned most of these industries.
Sugar was the most profitable industry. Cubans quickly sold off their property as U.S. investors poured tons of money into sugar. The height of the sugar boom was from 1915 to 1920, and profits soared during this time. Sugar helped build cities and infrastructure throughout Cuba – the mansions you see in Havana or Trinidad were mostly built from sugar money. It was also during this time that Americans began flocking to Havana to enjoy the weather, women, and drinks. Once the Great Depression came, Cuba’s economy tanked.
Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was especially helpful to Washington and amenable to its suggestions. After rubbing elbows with mafiosos in Miami, he helped spur a boom of construction for casinos and hotels modeled after those of Las Vegas. Americans began arriving more frequently to soak up the sun and live the island life for a few days.
During the Revolution, the U.S. supplied the Batista regime with fighter planes and arms, ostensibly in an attempt to keep Communism at bay in Cuba. As it became clear that Castro would prevail, Washington negotiated with Castro while still attempting to stop him from grabbing power. Eventually the U.S. saw the writing on the wall, and persuaded Batista to step down. That’s when Castro took over.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba was strained from the get-go. Castro was aligned with the biggest enemy of the U.S. – Russia – and had taken control of the country from the man who had American interests (and bank accounts) in mind. In 1959, Castro seized sugar and cattle estates, creating massive tension with Washington. In fact, to this day, there are still American property claims in Cuba—the claims of the original owners were never settled.
Following the Revolution, Cubans began pouring into Miami. By 1963, around 250,000 Cubans had left for the United States. Many were well-educated professionals, including doctors, engineers, teachers, and businessmen. Those who left had their homes confiscated by the Communist government.
Two other events dealt a deathblow to U.S.-Cuba relations: the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the sake of brevity, we’ll keep things simple and straightforward here.
In the early 1960s, the CIA began plotting an invasion aimed at overthrowing the Castro government. On April 17, 1961, the invasion was launched and was quickly defeated by the Cuban people, many of them ordinary farmers and fishermen who lived along the coast. The Bay of Pigs helped Castro consolidate his power and turn even more Cubans against the United States.
That same year, Cuba officially declared itself a Marxist-Leninist state. The U.S. promised to rid the world of socialism, and began additional operations aimed at ousting Fidel. In response, Cuba asked the Soviets for rockets to help defend the island in case of invasion. President Kennedy warned the Soviet Union that the U.S. would not allow missiles to be installed in Cuba. Khrushchev responded that no offensive weapons were being supplied to Castro. Fidel was enraged, and over the next 13 days the U.N., U.S., Cuba, and the Soviet Union engaged in bargaining over the removal of missiles from Cuban soil. At the end, the U.S. guaranteed to not invade Cuba and the missiles were removed.
In 1966, the U.S. passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, guaranteeing residency for Cubans who make it to the U.S. Thousands of Cubans have fled to the U.S. on rafts steered towards Florida, hoping to arrive on dry land and gain citizenship in the States. In 1994, Castro decided to not police the country’s own borders and allowed people to leave Cuba legally or illegally. By September of that year, over 30,000 Cubans had been rescued at sea trying to cross the water to Florida. These people were sent back to the Guantánamo navel base.
In 1962, the U.S. enacted a trade embargo aimed at putting Cuba in economic distress and hopefully forcing Castro out of power. President Kennedy enacted the executive order on February 3, 1962 and Clinton signed it into law in 1996. Among other things, the law denies entry in the U.S. for anyone who has exchanged business with the Cuban government or Cuban people, and states that the embargo can only be removed once a “transitional government” is in place.
The embargo is a hot topic—critics say that it violates international law and is terrible for the welfare of ordinary Cubans. The U.N.’s General Assembly regularly condemns it. The economic impact, however, is widely debated. Cuba claims that its losses are upwards of US$1.6 trillion. The International Trade Commission (ITC), however, has stated that the embargo has little impact on the Cuban economy and that domestic policy is the main reason for Cuba’s lackluster economy. Others claim that the embargo has actually helped to keep the Castro brothers in power, by giving them additional fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda and justification for limiting political freedoms.
Many officials in the U.S. State Department have admitted in private that this policy has helped keep Fidel in power. Past presidents and the Republican Party have catered to the interests of Cuban-Americans, many of whom are strongly anti-Castro. This constituency has shaped U.S. policy towards Cuba in the past, and it remains to be seen how it will function in the future.
When Fidel fell ill in 2008, Raúl took over, and has since worked to normalize relations with the U.S. In March 2009, President Obama rescinded travel restrictions for family visits to Cuba and called for more engagement with the island. The next year, Cuban and American officials engaged in the first direct talks since 2004.
In March of 2009, however, problems resurfaced between the two countries when Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. While working on a project to bring democracy to Cuba, he was charged with “crimes against the integrity of the state.” After five years in a Cuban prison, Gross was released on December 17, 2014.
In January 2011, President Obama re-instated a license that allows “people-to-people” travel to Cuba. This allows any U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba via authorized institutions and tour companies.
In January 2015, President Obama moved to establish better diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba. Diplomatic relations have improved and there has been an expansion of some kinds of travel from the U.S. to Cuba. The limit on remittances sent from to Cubans from relatives in the U.S. has also increased. However, at present, the embargo and travel ban still exist. Embassies have yet to open in either country, and we’re eager to see how this will all shape up.
Given the tenuous relationship that has existed between the two nations for the past 50 years, Americans might be afraid of how they will be received when traveling in Cuba. The majority of Cubans, especially those that are younger, love America. They’ll go on and on about American baseball teams, movies, music, freedoms, and prosperity. Cubans are extremely friendly with Americans, and will welcome you with an open hand and heart. Take time to talk with these people if given the chance.
Cubans not only welcome the ideas and objects of America – its freedoms and inventions – but also the dollars that accompany American tourists. The dollar, say many Cubans, has the power to change their life. Those that work in tourism depend on the tips from American tourists (or anyone, really) to help supplement the extremely low wages provided by the Castro government. The extra income buys them food, clothing, and shelter. The Cuban people may also believe that increased economic engagement with the U.S. will change their economic and political systems.
In fact, this exposes a central paradigm of travel to the island. Non-American tourists are often fearful of the arrival of Americans — such travelers say that Americans will bring money and McDonalds and change the nature of Cuba. No doubt, increased income will alter the island. But to deny the Cuban people a chance to improve their lot financially – and potentially politically, too – is selfish and shortsighted. Cuba cannot, and must not, stay grounded in the ideology of the past. It will change, as all things do, and it is only through a conscious and respectful approach to tourism that we can encourage positive development in Cuba.
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