U.S.-Cuba Relationship Hasn't Always Been Bitter

Fidel Castro's recent illness has again highlighted the animosity between Cuba and the United States. But the relationship between the two neighbors hasn't always been so bitter. Host Liane Hansen speaks to Daniel Erikson, the Director of Caribbean Programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, about the history and evolution of U.S. relations with Cuba.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Following Cuban President Fidel Castro's surgery this past week, the Bush administration moved quickly to encourage change in Cuba. On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the Cuban people on the U.S.-sponsored station Radio Marte.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): The United States respects your aspirations as sovereign citizens, and we will stand with you to secure your rights, to speak as you choose, to think as you please, to worship as you wish, and to choose your leaders freely and fairly in democratic elections.

HANSEN: Relations between the United States and Fidel Castro's Cuban government have not always been so bitter. Soon after Castro took power, in 1959, he visited Washington and met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon. But relations quickly soured as Castro built strong ties with the Soviet Union. Daniel Erikson is the director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, and he joins us to discuss the history and evolution of U.S. relations with Cuba. Welcome to the show.

Mr. DANIEL ERIKSON (Inter-American Dialogue): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Take us back to the 1950s, when Castro was leading his rebel forces in Cuba. What was the United States' stance toward the revolutionaries?

Mr. ERIKSON: Well, I think the United States viewed the rebellion that was taking place in Cuba with a great amount of caution. Fulgencio Batiste, who was the president of Cuba at that time, also an authoritarian figure, had been an ally to the United States, and so what you had is basically our diplomatic mission there on the ground watching very closely.

There wasn't a great deal of enthusiasm for Batiste, but certainly Castro was an unknown figure. Some viewed him as kind of a romantic revolutionary figure. He was young at the time, only in his early 30s. He received a great deal of publicity via the New York Times and other major U.S. media outlets. But others saw him as a much more ominous omen of things to come.

HANSEN: So when Castro came to Washington, did he get a warm reception?

Mr. ERIKSON: I would say it was a mixed reception. At the governmental level, he actually sought to meet with then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower rebuffed the meeting and he met with Richard Nixon instead. I think it was a cordial enough meeting. Nixon later reported that Castro will be a figure that maybe we may have to reckon with for some time. And so that proved to be accurate.

Castro also toured Yankee Stadium. He visited Harvard University and gave a speech, and was met in many cities by adoring crowds. And overall, I think the popular reaction to Castro at that time was quite positive.

HANSEN: Soon after taking power, Castro claimed he wasn't a Communist, he wanted to bring democracy to Cuba, but his early political actions - nationalizing the land, controlling the rents - these were hallmarks of Communism and it became clear he was going to build a strong alliance with the Soviet Union. After that, did things become irrevocably bitter between Havana and Washington?

Mr. ERIKSON: Well, I think there are several different turning points. One was certainly Castro's move to nationalize and expropriate many private properties, both of Cuban citizens in Cuba, as well as of U.S. companies. In addition, you had the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was launched in 1961 by Cuban exiles with the approval of then-President Kennedy. Castro rebuffed this attempted invasion.

And then, soon thereafter, on October 1962, you had the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the Soviet Union was putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, which brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. So you could see a very rapid downward trajectory between the U.S. and Cuba at that time.

HANSEN: Has there ever been a time since that relations have warmed up at all?

Mr. ERIKSON: I think that there has been some cooling and thawing over the years. Some people point to the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter was in power in the U.S., as a time when there was some level of rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba. And things did seem to improve slightly at the end of the '70s.

But in 1980 you had a massive exodus of Cuban refugees, known as the Mariel Boatlift, where about 125,000 Cuban citizens fled the island and arrived in the United States. And that soured relations pretty quickly at the end of Carter's term. And then when Reagan came into office in early 1981, things began to freeze up again.

HANSEN: So does having Raul Castro as acting president in any way change the political dynamic between Washington and Havana?

Mr. ERIKSON: I think it's still too early to tell. At the moment, what you're really seeing on the one hand are those who have always called for dialogue are saying, well, now is the time to engage. And those who have been - who have sought to somehow destabilize or crush the Cuban government through sanctions, are saying now we need to really tighten the screws. And I think what you've seen is perhaps a preview of what may happen in the not too distant future if Fidel Castro actually does pass away.

HANSEN: Daniel Erickson is senior associate for U.S. Policy and director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. ERIKSON: Thank you.

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10 Presidents, One Dictator: U.S.-Cuba Policy

Vice President Nixon meets with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Washington in 1959.

Vice President Nixon meets with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Washington in 1959. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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President Kennedy signs a proclamation of a naval blockade against Cuba.

President Kennedy signs a proclamation of a naval blockade against Cuba, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Oct. 23, 1962. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, left, meets with President Johnson in 1966.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, left, meets with President Johnson in 1966. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives
President Nixon

President Nixon ended attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro and focused U.S. efforts on Vietnam. National Archives hide caption

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President Ford talks on the phone in the Oval Office in 1974.

President Ford talks on the phone in the Oval Office in 1974. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum
President Carter holds a press conference in 1978.

President Carter holds a press conference in 1978. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives
President Reagan motions to a reporter during a press conference in 1981.

President Reagan motions to a reporter during a press conference in 1981. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library hide caption

itoggle caption Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
President George H.W. Bush meets with Orestes Lorenzo Perez

President George H.W. Bush, right, meets with Orestes Lorenzo Perez at the White House in December 1992. The Cuban military pilot defected to the U.S. and later flew a small passenger plane to smuggle his wife and children out of Cuba. Robert Giroux/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Giroux/AFP/Getty Images
President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno

In an April 2000 appearance, President Clinton reiterates his approval of the way Attorney General Janet Reno, left, handled the Elian Gonzalez case. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell

President George W. Bush makes remarks about Cuba as Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on, in October 2003. Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States was focused on global communism as its greatest threat. Follow Washington's policy toward Cuba through 10 U.S. presidencies.

Eisenhower: 1953-61

In March 1958, the U.S. government suspends arms shipments to the Cuban government then headed by Fulgencio Batista, virtually guaranteeing the success of the rebellion led by Fidel Castro. The Eisenhower administration initially welcomes Castro to power, but concerns about Castro's politics and intentions lead President Eisenhower to snub Castro when he visits Washington in April 1959. Castro meets instead with Vice President Richard Nixon.

In May 1960, Cuba and the Soviet Union resume diplomatic relations, and Cuba begins importing Soviet oil. When American-owned refineries in Cuba refuse to refine the oil, Castro confiscates the facilities. In response to that and other nationalizations of U.S. properties in Cuba and to Castro's growing friendship with the Soviet Union, the United States places an economic embargo on Cuba in October 1960. Just before Eisenhower leaves office in January 1961, the U.S. government breaks diplomatic relations with Havana.

Kennedy: 1961-63

The most tense moments between America and Cuba occur during John F. Kennedy's presidency. In April 1961, U.S.-supported exiles invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, a mission that was planned during the Eisenhower administration but executed only on Kennedy's orders. The Kennedy administration expects the Cuban people to rise up against Castro and aid the U.S.-backed invasion. When this doesn't happen, the Bay of Pigs mission ends when many of the badly trained fighters are captured or killed by Castro's army.

In October 1962, U.S. reconnaissance planes photograph Soviet missile-construction sites in Cuba, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In return for a Soviet agreement to remove the missiles from Cuba, Kennedy promises Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the United States will not invade Cuba again. However, covert missions to overthrow Castro continue. In February 1963, the Kennedy administration prohibits Americans from traveling to Cuba and from making financial transactions with the country.

Johnson: 1963-69

Under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, the United States continues to support covert operations aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro, though Johnson abides by Kennedy's promise not to attempt another invasion. In November 1966, the U.S. government gives 123,000 Cubans permission to apply for permanent residence in the United States.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in November 1966, Cuban refugees who reach the United States are allowed to apply for residency, virtually guaranteeing an open door to all Cubans fleeing the Castro regime. By the end of the Johnson administration, the U.S. government has shifted its attention from Cuba to the deepening war in Vietnam.

Nixon: 1969-74

Richard Nixon officially ends all U.S. attempts to overthrow Castro and focuses efforts instead on Vietnam. No major U.S.-Cuba policy initiatives develop during his presidency.

Ford: 1974-77

Gerald Ford is the first president to attempt to normalize relations with Castro's Cuba. The initiative ends in December 1975 in response to Cuba's deployment of troops to support the Marxist regime in Angola and to Cuba's support of the Puerto Rico independence movement.

Carter: 1977-81

President Carter makes the second serious effort to reach out to Castro to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. These efforts are derailed again when Cuba sends troops to Ethiopia in support of the Soviet-supported government there. In August 1979, the U.S. government announces the discovery of a Soviet combat brigade of 3,000 troops in Cuba. U.S. officials later conclude the brigade had been there since the 1960s, but had previously gone unnoticed.

In April 1980, refugees begin a mass exodus from the Cuban port of Mariel to the United States after Castro announces that Cubans who wish to leave the island will be permitted to do so. Many of the 125,000 refugees eventually settle in Florida.

Reagan: 1981-89

The United States discovers that Cuban forces are building an airstrip in Grenada that could be used for military aircraft. This discovery, coupled with a coup by allegedly pro-Soviet elements in Grenada, prompts President Reagan to send U.S. troops to Grenada in October 1983. The Grenada intervention is the only time that U.S. and Cuban troops engage in combat with each other. The Reagan administration cites Cuban support for rebel forces in El Salvador and for the Sandinista government in justifying U.S. involvement in Central American conflicts.

George H. W. Bush: 1989-93

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba no longer serves as a Soviet satellite in the Western Hemisphere. As of December 1991, Soviet subsidies to Cuba, worth $6 billion annually, are terminated.

Cuba is no longer considered a serious security threat to the United States, but the Bush administration tightens the trade embargo in an effort to squeeze the Castro regime and hasten its demise. In October 1992, Congress prohibits foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and family remittances to Cuba.

Clinton: 1993-2001

After Castro declares an open migration policy in August 1994, 30,000 refugees leave Cuba for the United States. As in the Mariel exodus, the United States regards the refugee outflow as threatening to U.S. interests, and the U.S. Coast Guard acts to prevent further migration.

In October 1995, Bill Clinton becomes the third president to attempt to improve relations with Cuba. The effort ends in February 1996 when Cuban missiles shoot down two civilian aircraft in international airspace. Three Americans and one Cuban legal resident are killed.

In March 1996, Congress passes the Helms-Burton Act, codifying the embargo against Cuba into law. The Clinton administration attempts to bypass Castro by promoting "people-to-people" contacts.

In 1999, one of the most well-known attempts at migration to the United States occurs when six-year-old Elian Gonzalez is brought to Miami after he is found floating off the coast of South Florida. The Clinton administration seeks to allow Elian to return to Cuba. The Supreme Court refuses to intervene on behalf of those who wanted the boy to stay in the United States. He is reunited with his father in Cuba in June 2000.

Bush: 2001-present

President George W. Bush orders a further tightening of the trade embargo with new restrictions on travel to Cuba and limitations on the transfer of money from Cuban-Americans to their relatives on the island. In 2002, some Bush administration officials charge that Cuba is engaged in research and development on an offensive biological warfare program. President Bush announces a program to assist the transition to a democratic Cuba once Fidel Castro and his brother Raul are both removed from power.

Danielle Trusso contributed to this report.

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