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U.S.-Cuba Relations - Council on Foreign Relations

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U.S.-Cuba Relations

Authors: Danielle Renwick, Copy Editor, and Brianna Lee
Updated: April 15, 2015

Courtesy Reuters

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On April 11, 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, marking the first meeting between a U.S. and Cuban head of state since the two countries severed their ties in 1961. The meeting came four months after the presidents announced their countries would restore ties. Successive U.S. administrations have maintained a policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The change in the countries' relations, initially marked by a prisoner swap and Havana's release of a jailed U.S. contractor, prompted some experts to point to better prospects for Cuba’s economy and U.S. relations more broadly in Latin America. But the U.S. trade embargo, which requires congressional approval to be rescinded, is unlikely to be lifted any time soon.

Historical Background

The tumultuous U.S.-Cuba relationship has its roots in the Cold War. In 1959, Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries seized power in Havana, overthrowing Fulgencio Batista. Despite misgivings about Castro's communist political ideology, the United States recognized his government. However, as Castro's regime increased trade with the Soviet Union, nationalized U.S.-owned properties, and hiked taxes on American imports, the United States responded with escalating economic retaliation. After slashing Cuban sugar imports, Washington instituted a ban on nearly all exports to Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy expanded into a full economic embargo that included stringent travel restrictions.

In 1961 the United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and began pursuing covert operations to overthrow the Castro regime. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, a botched CIA-backed attempt to topple the government, fueled Cuban mistrust and nationalism, leading to a secret agreement allowing the Soviet Union to build a missile base on the island. The United States discovered those plans in October of 1962, setting off a fourteen-day standoff. U.S. ships imposed a naval quarantine around the island, and Kennedy demanded the destruction of the missile sites. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended with an agreement that the sites would be dismantled if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba; the United States also secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Following the events of 1961–62, economic embargo and diplomatic isolation became the major prongs of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Following the events of 1961–62, economic and diplomatic isolation became the major prongs of U.S. policy toward Cuba. This continued even after the Soviet Union's collapse. Washington strengthened the embargo with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act (PDF), which state that the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and transitions to a democratic government that excludes the Castros. (Raul has said he will leave office in 2018.) Some adjustments have been made to the trade embargo to allow for the export of some U.S. medical supplies and agricultural products to the island. But the Cuban government estimates that more than fifty years of stringent trade restrictions has amounted to a loss of $1.126 trillion.

Obstacles to U.S.-Cuba Diplomacy

U.S. President Barack Obama came into office seeking greater engagement with Cuba, and in 2009 reversed some of the restrictions on remittances and travel set by his predecessor, George W. Bush. During his first term, Obama also permitted U.S. telecommunications companies to provide more cellular and satellite service in Cuba and allowed U.S. citizens to send remittances to non–family members in Cuba and to travel there under license for educational or religious purposes.

Both countries appeared open to further engagement (PDF) until Cuban authorities arrested Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor, in Havana in 2009. Gross had traveled to the country to deliver communications equipment and arrange Internet access for its Jewish community. Cuban authorities alleged he was attempting to destabilize the Cuban regime and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. At the same time, Raul Castro wanted to secure the release of the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami in 1998 and convicted in 2001, who had become national heroes in Cuba.

Another contentious issue between the two countries was Cuba's designation by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, a status first assigned in 1982 in light of Fidel Castro's training of rebels in Central America. Castro announced in 1992 that Cuba would no longer support insurgents abroad, and the State Department's annual report for 2013 states there is no evidence that the country has provided training or weapons to terrorist groups. In April 2015 Obama announced that he planned to remove Cuba from the list, following the State Department’s recommendation. Cuba’s listing had been a major obstacle to talks about restoring diplomatic relations.

Human rights in Cuba continue to be a concern for U.S. policymakers. In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch said Cuba "continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights" through detentions, travel restrictions, beatings, and forced exile. The report also notes that Cuba released dozens of political prisoners and foreigners in Cuban prisons in 2010 and 2011.

U.S. domestic politics in the United States long made a U.S.-Cuba détente politically risky. The Cuban-American community in southern Florida traditionally influenced U.S. policy toward Cuba, and both Republicans and Democrats have feared alienating a strong voting bloc in an important swing state in presidential elections. The Cuban exile community in the Miami area, which makes up about 5 percent of Florida's population, has been "a pillar of Republican support in presidential elections since 1980," writes Arturo Lopez-Levy in Foreign Policy. However, recent trends suggest that may change: Obama won the Cuban-American vote in Florida in the 2012 elections.

Interactive Timeline of U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement

On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years. The announcement followed a prisoner swap: The three still-jailed members of the Cuban Five (one had been released in 2011 and another earlier in 2014) were released in exchange for a U.S. intelligence asset, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who had been imprisoned in Havana for nearly twenty years. Gross was also released that morning on humanitarian grounds. The agreement came after eighteen months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials that were encouraged and brokered by Pope Francis.

In addition to the prisoner releases, the United States agreed to further ease restrictions on remittances, travel, and banking; and Cuba agreed to release fifty-three prisoners the United States had classified as political dissidents. U.S. officials confirmed in January 2015 that all fifty three were released. Obama also announced that he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In January, new travel and trade regulations were enacted that enable U.S. travelers to visit Cuba without first obtaining a government license. Airlines will be permitted to provide service to the country and travelers will be allowed to spend money there. The new rules also chipped away at economic sanctions by allowing, among other things:

  • Travelers to use U.S. credit and debit cards;
  • U.S. insurance companies to cover health, life, and travel insurance for individuals living in or visiting Cuba;
  • Banks to facilitate authorized transactions;
  • U.S. companies to invest in some small businesses; and
  • Shipment of building materials to private Cuban companies.

Yet Congress maintains control over U.S. economic sanctions, and experts say the repeal of Helms-Burton is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Several members of Congress from both parties, including Cuban-American Senators Marco Rubio (R-TX) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), denounced the détente, arguing it would do little to improve human rights on the island.

Public Opinion

Polls conducted shortly after the U.S.-Cuba announcement in December 2014 found that a majority of Americans supported reestablishing diplomatic ties. A Pew Research poll found 63 percent of Americans supported resuming diplomatic relations, and 66 percent would like an end to the trade embargo. A Washington Post–ABC News poll found 74 percent of respondents were in favor of an end to the travel ban. A June 2014 Florida International University poll indicates a majority of Cuban Americans also support normalizing ties and ending the embargo, signaling a generational shift in attitudes toward the island. A 2015 poll conducted by the U.S. firm Bendixen & Amandi International found that 97 percent of Cubans favor the restoration of ties. Normalization between the United States and Cuba has been celebrated in much of Latin America, where U.S. policy toward Cuba—particularly the embargo and designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism—was deeply unpopular.

A majority of Cuban Americans support normalizing ties and ending the embargo, signaling a generational shift in attitudes toward the island.

Global support for the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations was also overwhelming, particularly in Latin America. In 2013, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo for the twenty-second consecutive year, with 188 member countries backing the resolution and only two—the United States and Israel—opposing.

Domestic Reform in Cuba

Since taking office in 2008, Raul Castro has spoken of the need to reform Cuba's economic system. Facing an aging population, heavy foreign debt, and economic hardship amid the global economic downturn, Castro began to liberalize parts of Cuba's largely state-controlled economy and loosen restrictions on personal freedoms, including ownership of certain consumer goods and travel outside the country. Some of Castro's reforms included:

Cuba's private sector has swelled as a direct result of these reforms, and in 2014 was reported to be about 20 percent (PDF) of the country's workforce. Cuban figures estimate that the number of self-employed workers nearly tripled (PDF) between 2009 and 2013.

Prospects for U.S.–Cuba Ties

Regional powers and many rights groups have praised the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, arguing that engagement instead of isolation could help improve human rights in Cuba. Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza welcomed the announcement. "Cuba is undertaking a process of economic reforms that will, I hope, lead to political reforms," he said.

Experts say Cuba’s participation in the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama signaled a “new era” of hemispheric relations. Obama and Castro’s meeting was cordial, with Castro saying he believed Obama was “honest.” Members of civil society, including high-profile Cuban dissidents, also participated in the summit, a move that some say signaled increased political openness. Yet even with such developments and the release of political prisoners, some analysts are cautious about how rapidly Cuba’s political system will change.  

Many observers, including foreign leaders and rights activists, argue that the United States should go further and lift the economic embargo. That is unlikely to happen in the near future, experts say, due to strong opposition in the U.S. Congress.

Despite the embargo, the United States has become Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner since 2007, boosted in part by Bush’s 2003 decision to reauthorize the export of U.S. agricultural products to the island, writes CFR’s Jennifer Harris. She says the U.S. industries that stand to gain the most from expanded trade to Cuba are agriculture and telecommunications.

In the short term, Julia Sweig, a Cuba and Brazil scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, says Obama will continue to use executive authority to open U.S.-Cuba ties around trade, investment, banking, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and travel. This, she predicts, may create "a political dynamic that would ultimately shift opinion inside Congress to eventually repeal, or no longer enforce, Helms-Burton."

Additional Resources

This White House Fact Sheet outlines changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

This Foreign Affairs article by Julia Sweig and Michael Bustamante looks at how economic reforms are transforming Cuba.

In her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Sweig offers a guide to Cuba's politics, its relationship with the Untied States, and its shifting role in the world.

More on this topic from CFR

  • Memo to President Obama
    Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
  • Wariness in Cuba toward the Obama Administration
    Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
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  • Fidel's Final Victory
    Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
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