NPR logo The U.S. And Cuba: A Brief History Of A Complicated Relationship

The U.S. And Cuba: A Brief History Of A Complicated Relationship

Fidel Castro looks up at the Jefferson Memorial on April 16, 1959. The Cuban leader visited Washington several months after seizing power. But U.S.-Cuban relations quickly frayed, and the U.S. imposed an embargo of the island in 1960. AP hide caption

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Fidel Castro looks up at the Jefferson Memorial on April 16, 1959. The Cuban leader visited Washington several months after seizing power. But U.S.-Cuban relations quickly frayed, and the U.S. imposed an embargo of the island in 1960.

AP

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in December 2014 when President Obama announced plans to improve U.S. ties with Cuba. We're republishing it with minor updates following Fidel Castro's death.

Just months after he seized power in Cuba, Fidel Castro visited Washington in April 1959 and received a warm welcome. Castro met Vice President Richard Nixon, placed a wreath at the base of both the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and was photographed looking up in seeming admiration of both U.S. presidents.

For U.S.-Cuba relations, it was almost all downhill for the next half-century.

The standoff outlasted 10 U.S. presidents, a failed invasion, a nuclear crisis and countless boatloads of Cuban asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the Castros kept running Cuba uninterrupted.

President Obama, the 11th president to deal with the Castros, said in December 2014 it was time for a change.

"We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result," the president said as he announced plans to normalize relations, including embassies in both capitals.

Richard Nixon, then vice president, meets with Cuba's Fidel Castro on April 19, 1959, in Washington. Castro had just seized power a few months earlier and U.S.-Cuba relations had not yet soured. AP hide caption

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Richard Nixon, then vice president, meets with Cuba's Fidel Castro on April 19, 1959, in Washington. Castro had just seized power a few months earlier and U.S.-Cuba relations had not yet soured.

AP

The U.S. Embargo

With Fidel Castro's rise, attempts to establish normal relations soon gave way to mutual recriminations. The young Cuban leader denounced "Yankee imperialism" and developed ties with the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower placed an economic embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and diplomatic relations were severed the following year. The Cold War moves were intended to contain, if not roll back, communism, but those measures would soon be overtaken by far more dramatic events.

The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, a 1961 disaster carried out by Cuban exiles, was just one of at least eight futile U.S. attempts to oust Fidel Castro in the 1960s. The Bay of Pigs was followed a year later by the Cuban missile crisis, a U.S.-Soviet staredown that ended with Moscow removing its missiles from the island.

Lesser crises came and went in the years that followed, but the embargo endured. It has succeeded in keeping Cuba poor and isolated but has also served as a badge of defiance for the Castros, who have blamed their own shortcomings on the U.S. policy.

Despite the embargo, the Castro regime has never been seriously threatened from inside Cuba and over time the U.S. policy developed its own contradictions.

The older generation of Cuban-Americans who fled during the early years of Fidel Castro's authoritarian regime has been the strongest proponent of maintaining the tough embargo.

Yet over time, growing numbers of this generation have conceded that the policy was not working. Cuban-Americans have also been the most frequent visitors to Cuba, often delivering assistance to relatives on the island and thus helping ordinary Cubans cope with economic hardships.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of Cuban-Americans born in the U.S. has shown far less interest in waging the battle launched by their parents.

In this image from TV, President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Soweto in December 2013. It was reported to be just the second handshake between leaders of the two countries in 50 years. AP hide caption

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In this image from TV, President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Soweto in December 2013. It was reported to be just the second handshake between leaders of the two countries in 50 years.

AP

For Decades, Few Changes

Prior to Obama's policy change, alterations to the status quo were marked by limited steps. Under President Carter, the countries opened interests sections in each other's capitals.

Carter also said those wishing to leave Cuba would be welcome in the U.S. Some 125,000 Cubans set off from the island, most all in small boats in the so-called Mariel boatlift. The new arrivals included many thousands that Castro cut loose from the country's prisons and mental institutions.

Many Americans felt Castro pulled a fast one on the U.S., and the embargo was tightened with a series of measures in the 1980s and '90s. The pendulum swung the other way in 1999, when President Clinton eased travel restrictions and encouraged increased cultural exchanges.

Under President George W. Bush, U.S. relations with Havana deteriorated as the president declared: "We're not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom; we are working for the day of freedom in Cuba."

However, the U.S. embargo faced increasing criticism from the international community, particularly in Latin America, where many countries felt that Washington's isolation of Cuba increasingly proved counterproductive.

There were hints that the U.S. policy might change, but little concrete action, after Raul Castro assumed the presidential duties from his ailing brother in 2006 and Obama expressed his preference for increased ties. Raul Castro has taken some steps to allow small-scale private businesses, though the reforms have moved slowly.

Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at a memorial service in South Africa following the 2013 death of Nelson Mandela. It was described as only the second handshake between leaders of the two countries in the past half-century and observers tried to divine whether it held any meaning for the future of U.S.-Cuban relations.

"Mandela showed us the power of action," Obama said in his speech, "of taking risks on behalf of our ideals."

A year later, Obama began to normalize the U.S.-Cuba ties, and followed that up with a visit to Cuba in March of this year, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to go to the island in 88 years.

The two countries are still trying to define the new relationship. But after Fidel Castro died on Friday night, Obama offered hopeful words on Saturday morning:

"For nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements," Obama said. "During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends."

Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.