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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