Cuba, Relations with

views updated Jun 08 2018


CUBA, RELATIONS WITH. As early as the late eighteenth century, the United States and Cuba became inextricably tied. When the Spanish Crown opened its empire to trade in 1778, American merchants made Havana and other Cuban ports major places of business and continued doing so until near the end of Spanish rule.

U.S. Acquisition Efforts

In the mid-nineteenth century Americans focused their attention on Cuba. Cuba retained slavery, and its agro-export economy strongly resembled that of the American South. Discontented with Spanish rule, Cuban exiles in New York City, New Orleans, and other cities made speeches, published newspapers, and lobbied Congress for Cuba's annexation to the United States. Allied with sympathetic Americans—and especially southerners, who saw the acquisition of Cuba, as well as countries in Central America, as essential to the survival of slavery in the United States—the movement gained strength in the 1850s.

In response to the clamor the federal government tried to buy the island from the Spanish on several occasions. In 1848 President James Polk offered Madrid $100 million for it, but Spain immediately rejected the bid. After purchase attempts had failed some Americans planned to seize it. The most serious was General Narciso López, a Venezuelan-born adventurer who adopted Cuba as his homeland. In August 1851 he and five hundred men—including William Crittenden, son of President James Buchanan's attorney general—boarded ships for Cuba. The Spanish killed or executed the men, including Crittenden and López.

The United States continued its efforts to purchase Cuba in the 1850s. President Franklin Pierce instructed the U.S. minister to Spain, Pierre Soulé, to offer Madrid $130 million for the island. When rebuffed, Soulé conducted talks with other American ministers, and they agreed in the Ostend Manifesto of 1854 that if Spain refused to sell the island, then the United States could justify seizing it. Although neither Washington nor Madrid officially recognized the statement, it sparked fierce debates. However, tensions subsided temporarily as attention was diverted to the American Civil War.

The Cuban Struggle for Independence

After the Civil War the United States faced a major crisis over Cuba. In October 1868 a group of Cubans declared independence and asked Washington to annex the island. However, U.S. leaders hesitated. For ten years the Cubans fought for independence. Much to their consternation, Washington officially supported continued Spanish rule, although it pressured Madrid to make reforms. In 1878 the insurrection ended when the Spanish implemented reforms, including the abolition of slavery and amnesty for the rebels.

A small minority of Cubans, including José Martí, refused to surrender. For nearly two decades he called for Cuban independence and the establishment of a democratic and egalitarian society through his writing and oratory. Finally, in 1895, Martí and General Máximo Gó-mez rallied Cubans and declared independence.

Most Americans enthusiastically supported the Cuban independence movement. American attention heightened as the fighting escalated, catching U.S. investors and businessmen between the warring factions. Additional problems evolved when the Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, began herding Cuban civilians into concentration camps. In response American journalists and their editors stirred up public anger against the Spanish.

In 1897 President William McKinley told Congress that the United States must avoid intervention if possible. However, Washington sent the USS Maine to Havana to protect American citizens. Tensions heightened in February 1898 with the publication by a New York City newspaper of a private letter in which Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister to Washington, injudiciously called McKinley a weak leader. This insult infuriated Americans. Less than a week later, an explosion wracked the Maine. The ship sank quickly, sealing the fates of 260 American sailors.

The Spanish American War

With the general public clamoring for retribution, Mc-Kinley sent Madrid an ultimatum demanding significant concessions on Cuban policy. The Spanish refusal to meet all of McKinley's demands ended diplomatic efforts. Rebuffed, McKinley went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war. On 20 April Congress passed a four-part resolution supporting him. The fourth section, the Teller Amendment, was the most controversial because it rejected any American claim to Cuban territory. Congress formally declared war on 25 April.

Dubbed "a splendid little war" by future Secretary of State John Hay, the conflict went well for the United States. The war on land and sea ended quickly in July. U.S. troops and Cuban irregulars captured Santiago, and the U.S. Navy destroyed the Spanish fleet as it fled the area. U.S. troops also took Puerto Rico, losing only three men. On 12 August an armistice was signed. On 1 October Spanish and American diplomats went to the bargaining table in Paris. After more than two months of negotiations they signed a peace treaty on 10 December 1898 calling for the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Cuba and permitting U.S. occupation. In addition, the treaty ceded Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the United States.

The Platt Amendment, Batista, and the Cuban Revolution

The fate of Cuba remained in limbo for several years until it was defined by U.S. policy makers in the Platt Amendment. Drafted in 1901, the amendment effectively gave the United States control over a nominally independent Cuba. It prohibited the Cuban government from entering into treaties with foreign nations that impaired Cuba's independence, provided for U.S. military bases on the island, and conceded Washington the right to intervene in Cuban affairs to preserve stability. For more than thirty years, the Platt Amendment remained in place.

During the era of the Platt Amendment the threat of intervention, and actual occupation from 1906 to 1909, kept Cuba's political parties from defying Washington. In 1933, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a major challenge when Cubans revolted against their authoritarian president Gerardo Machado. Following a short-lived democratic experiment, army sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized control. In 1934 Washington abrogated the Platt Amendment, passed favorable tariff concessions, and provided loans to the government. Batista and his cronies would rule for twenty years, providing the United States and its businessmen with a very favorable climate in Cuba.

Problems resurfaced in the early 1950s as Batista faced a determined enemy, Fidel Castro. As a young man in 1953, Castro led a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. Jailed for two years, he wrote a manifesto that outlined his desire to restore constitutional government and create a more egalitarian society. After his release he began a three-year guerrilla war. Over time he gained a strong following among those tired of Batista's corruption and of foreign control of the economy.

The administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower apprehensively watched the revolution unfold, fearful of losing a strong anticommunist ally in Batista. As early as 1955, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported that Castro and his followers could threaten U.S. security. In October 1955 FBI agents arrested and interrogated Castro when he visited New Jersey. They ultimately released him, and he returned home to fight.

Early Deterioration of Relations and the Bay of Pigs

On 1January 1959 Castro emerged victorious as Batista fled into exile. Castro immediately implemented controversial programs, including cutting the electric prices of the U.S.-dominated Cuban Electric Company. In March the Cuban government nationalized that American-owned subsidiary of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Finally, it promulgated the Agrarian Reform Law in May 1959, which expropriated estates larger than one thousand acres and distributed them to small private owners and cooperatives.

By early 1960 relations between Havana and Washington had deteriorated further. Castro increased his level of anti-Americanism, denouncing the use by Cuban exiles of Florida's airfields to drop propaganda and allegedly some bombs on Cuba. The gulf widened when in February, Castro welcomed the Soviet first deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan to open a trade exhibition in Havana. Soon after, the Cubans signed an agreement with Moscow to exchange sugar for industrial products.

The final break began in March 1960 when Eisenhower approved a plan, eventually code-named Project Zapata, that allowed the CIA to recruit and train Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. As the Eisenhower administration prepared to leave office, the United States terminated diplomatic relations with Cuba on 3 January 1961.

President John F. Kennedy continued Eisenhower's policies. On the morning of 17 April 1961, Cuban exiles landed at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs. Problems immediately developed with the landing, and the expected arrival of internal Cuban dissidents to aid the invasion never developed. Instead, Castro's regular army routed the exiles. Kennedy ultimately admitted American complicity and negotiated the release of the captured men in exchange for American agricultural supplies.

In retaliation for the defeat in Cuba, Kennedy ordered Operation Mongoose, under which General Edward Lansdale headed a group that coordinated attacks on sugar mills, bridges, and oil refineries in Cuba. At the same time, it tried to assassinate Castro, planning at least eight different attempts between 1961 and 1965.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, sought no accommodation or negotiation with Cuba, and in turn Castro adopted all measures necessary to protect his revolution. One of Castro's responses was to seek more Soviet assistance. In the summer of 1962 the Soviets began stationing missiles in Cuba. On 14 October, two U-2 reconnaissance planes on a routine mission photographed the missile sites. In response President Kennedy organized a group of his advisers into ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) and asked for policy options. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and others recommended air strikes to destroy the missiles, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Meanwhile, a group led by Robert Kennedy pressed for a naval blockade, or "quarantine," of Cuba.

After much argument, the president decided on a quarantine. Soon American ships were deployed around Cuba to stop approaching Soviet ships. Kennedy then took a dramatic step and made a national television address on 22 October denouncing the Soviets and calling for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles.

In the end the Soviets chose a prudent course. On 26 October, Moscow proposed to remove the missiles in return for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev also asked for the elimination of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey. After some tense moments Washington agreed. Soviet ships carrying more missiles to Cuba turned back on 28 October. Over Castro's vigorous objections, the Soviets removed the missiles already in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had taken the world closer to the point of nuclear conflict than at any other time during the Cold War.

The Johnson and Nixon Administrations

The preoccupation with Cuba continued into the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, which intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent another Cuba. Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, had an even stronger preoccupation with Castro. When Nixon took office, he ordered the CIA to increase efforts to sabotage

Cuba and renewed attempts to organize anti-Castro elements.

In September 1970 a fresh crisis developed. Intelligence agents presented National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with U-2 photographs showing construction of a submarine base at the harbor of Cienfuegos. Nixon moved prudently. Meeting privately with the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Nixon emphasized that he viewed the base with great concern. Without consulting Castro, the Soviets responded that they would respect the 1962 agreement about offensive missiles. In early October Nixon sent a note to Dobrynin stating that the United States would not allow nuclear-missile-carrying submarines to station in Cuba. The Soviet submarines continued visiting the island, although no ballistic-missile-carrying vessels made port calls.

President Carter and a Failed Rapprochement

When President Jimmy Carter took over in 1977, he and his advisers tried altering U.S. policy toward Cuba. His secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, had convinced the president that the boycott in place since the early 1960s had been ineffective and that negotiation could prevent misunderstanding and confrontation. Once in office Carter moved quickly. Early in 1977 the administration removed most restrictions on travel to Cuba and suspended spy flights over Cuban territory. In May the two nations agreed to establish "interest sections" in third-party embassies in Washington and Havana.

The efforts at a rapprochement lasted only a short time. In February 1978 the Carter administration began complaining about the presence of Cuban troops in Africa. President Carter stated that the withdrawal of those forces from the region would be required before any normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. The reported discovery of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba in 1979 set off another diplomatic controversy that increased Washington's focus on Cuban activities in Central America and the Caribbean. By 1980 the Carter administration had returned to the old policies of isolation and containment.

As relations chilled, Washington increasingly denounced Castro's human rights record. In response Castro suddenly invited Cuban Americans to Mariel to pick up their relatives. A mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans began. Painted into a corner, Carter accepted them at first but over time restricted the flow. In a final insult Castro emptied his jails and mental hospitals and put the people on ships bound for Florida. When U.S. officials discovered this, the Mariel boatlift ended.

The Perpetuation of Hard-Line U.S. Policies

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, relations between the two countries remained tense. Cuban assistance to the Sandinistas and other revolutionary forces in Latin America ensured further distance. In 1983 Cuban workers fought U.S. troops on the island of Grenada. The virulently anticommunist Reagan and his advisers made no significant efforts to end the two-decade-long policy of embargo and isolation.

Despite the end of the Cold War, relations between the United States and Cuba remained uneasy into the 1990s, although Castro began making concessions. By 1992 he had withdrawn his troops from overseas, announced that Cuba would provide no additional assistance to revolutionary movements, and initiated some free market reforms. Nevertheless, the administration of President George H. W. Bush responded by signing the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, strengthening the trade embargo and punishing companies investing in Cuba. This act required open elections, constitutional reforms, and free markets before improved relations could occur.

After his election President Bill Clinton perpetuated U.S. policy, following the precedents established by his eight predecessors. The result was more flight from the devastated Cuban economy, now in disarray without Soviet subsidies. Thousands of refugees, including Castro's daughter and granddaughter, fled the country. A crisis developed when Cubans began hijacking boats to flee, leading Castro to plan for allowing 35,000 refugees to leave. Clinton responded quickly and negotiated with Havana to increase legal immigration in return for Cuban prohibition on illegal immigrants. Washington also announced it would immediately return all future illegal refugees to Cuba.

Problems resurfaced in February 1996. A Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, flew over Havana and dropped propaganda leaflets. Ultimately, Cuban MIGs shot down two planes, killing four people. A political outcry arose. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the act cowardly, and Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.) pushed through a law allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign businesses using confiscated Cuban lands and barred the easing of sanctions until democratic elections occurred.

Many complained that the Helms-Burton law made it easier for Castro to control dissent by allowing him to continue blaming the United States for his economic failures. Ultimately, the Clinton administration suspended parts of the act because the European Union complained that it violated rules of the World Trade Organization. By 1999 the Clinton administration had eased other restrictions by allowing more American flights to Cuba, permitting Cuban Americans to send a modest sum of $1,200 per year to their families in Cuba, and easing restrictions on the transfer of food and medicine through nongovernmental agencies. Still, the rhetoric remained strident. The Elían GonzÁlez episode in 2000, when fishermen rescued a Cuban boy at sea who had been attempting to escape the country with his mother, sparked an international confrontation. Cuban American relatives in Florida tried to prevent the boy's father in Cuba from gaining custody, but ultimately the Justice Department extracted him and returned him home. Relations appeared unlikely to thaw with the election of President George W. Bush because of the prominence of the Cuban American constituency in a state important to him and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush.


Benjamin, Jules R. The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution: An Empire of Liberty in an Age of National Liberation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, 1895–1902. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Gellman, Irwin. Roosevelt and Batista: Good Neighbor Diplomacy in Cuba, 1933–1945. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

Hernández, JoséM. Cuba and the United States: Intervention and Militarism, 1868–1933. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Morley, Morris H. Imperial State and Revolution: The United States and Cuba, 1952–1986. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Offner, John L. An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain over Cuba, 1895–1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Paterson, Thomas G. Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Pérez, Louis A., Jr. Cuba under the Platt Amendment, 1902–1934. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

———. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy. 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

———. The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Revolution: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, 1959–1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


See alsoBay of Pigs Invasion ; Central Intelligence Agency ; Mariel Boatlift ; Ostend Manifesto ; Platt Amendment ; Spanish-American War ; Teller Amendment ; andvol. 9:The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary .

Cuba, Relations with

views updated May 08 2018


The Cuban Communist Party began its frequently interrupted existence in 1925. Classically aligned with Moscow, the Cuban communists were among the most active communist parties in Latin America, placing one of their members in the President Batista's cabinet during World War II. The Soviet Union had diplomatic relations with Cuba during the war and for a few years afterward, and reopened them in 1960.

In the mid-1950s Fidel Castro, the leader of a radical nationalist revolutionary movement, organized an armed revolt against Batista's increasingly dictatorial rule. Castro was not a member of the Communist Party; the communists provided little or no support to his movement and openly criticized his tactics and strategies. After Castro seized power in 1959, communists, with a few exceptions, did not staff his new government and fell into obscurity.

In 1960 President Eisenhower concluded that Castro threatened U.S. private and public interests and was not amenable to U.S. direction. Castro was seizing American-owned properties and moving toward one-man rule. In order to protect U.S. public and private interests and to reassert traditional bilateral relationships, the U.S. government embargoed sugar, Cuba's main export, cut off access to oil, and continued an embargo of arms and munitions begun against Batista. These measures, unopposed, would have terminated Castro's rule.

U.S. actions had unexpected results. The USSR seized this chance to establish a toehold in Cuba. Countering U.S. sanctions, the USSR bought Cuba's sugar, sold its oil, and provided arms. U.S. efforts to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs failed, and Cuba's ties with the USSR were strengthened. Castro, his party, and the Cuban state adopted communist models.

The resolve of the three governments in the new triangular relationship was tested in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1963. Emboldened by his toehold near Florida and reassured by Castro's anti-Americanism and revolutionary intentions, Khrushchev ordered Soviet missiles to Cuba. President Kennedy, risking war, ordered the Navy to block missile deliveries. In subsequent negotiations Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, and Kennedy agreed not to use force against Cuba.

The Cuban Missile Crisis settlement set the framework for the relationships between the three countries. Castro became even more dependent on Soviet largess, as he was deprived of political and economic ties with the United States, previously Cuba's most important economic partner. The United States continued its anti-Castro campaigns short of invasion. The USSR replaced the United States as the hegemonic power over Cuba with all the advantages, costs, and risks involved.

Castro's dependence on the Soviet Union for trade, military equipment, and foreign aid grew steadily over the years. In return for Soviet aid, Castro copied the ideology, political structure, and economic system of the USSR. In 1976 the constitution formalized a communist structure in Cuba that harmonized with communist structures elsewhere, with party control of agriculture, industry, and commerce. Cuba's ties with the USSR facilitated Castro's iron one-man rule for more than thirty years. Castro reciprocated ongoing Soviet assistance through his support of pro-Soviet revolutionary movements in Latin America, including Nicaragua and El Salvador, and elsewhere, including Angola and Ethiopia. These movements supported the USSR and copied Soviet models.

The Soviet Union's ties with Cuba had global implications. Soviet armed forces had access to the Western Hemisphere, and Cuba could serve as a point of contact for regional revolutionary movements. This alliance, taken together with Communist governments in Eastern Europe and Asia, provided Moscow with an arguable claim to worldwide influence. Moscow also took satisfaction in having a presence in Cuba matching that of the U.S. in Berlin.

Castro proved independent and unruly, not an ideal client by Soviet standards. The leaders of other Communist parties in the hemisphere were under Soviet control through the Foreign Department of the Soviet Communist Party. Unlike most other Communist leaders, Castro manipulated Moscow as much as or more than Moscow manipulated him.

The Soviet Union's ties with Cuba proved very costly over the years. The USSR paid high prices for Cuban sugar, and Cuba paid low prices for Soviet oil. Moscow equipped Cuba with one of the strongest military forces in Latin America. Foreign economic assistance probably far exceeded $70 billion during the relationship. Cuba became the Soviet Union's largest debtor along with Vietnam. The Soviet leadership kept these huge expenditures secret until the USSR began to collapse.

Soviet economic and military investments in Cuba, including the establishment of a military brigade near Havana, were both a strategic advantage and a vulnerability, the latter because of the preponderance of U.S. power in the region. Soviet leaders were careful to make clear that they did not guarantee Cuba against a US attack. Nor was Cuba admitted to the Warsaw Pact. In that military sense their relationship was more a partnership than an alliance. After the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, Moscow was even more careful, learning from lessons in Cuba, not to guarantee the Sandinistas economic viability or military security.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's commitment to glasnost led to public knowledge in Russia of the costly nature of Soviet subsidies to Cuba; perestroika led to a reexamination of the Cuban regime and its relationship to Soviet interests. In his efforts to put the USSR on a more solid footing, particularly with respect to Germany, Gorbachev sought support from the United States. For their part, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker sought Gorbachev's collaboration in ending the Cold War in Latin America. In response to U.S. pressure among other factors, Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet military brigade from Cuba and ended lavish economic aid to Cuba. His actions led to the termination of Soviet and Cuban involvement in revolutionary movements in Central America. To Moscow's advantage, and to the huge impoverishment of Cuba, the Soviet Union and Cuba were set free of their mutual entanglements.

See also: cold war; cuban missile crisis; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; united states, relations with.


Blasier, Cole. (1989). The Giant's Rival: The USSR and Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mesa-Lago, Carmelo, ed. (1993). Cuba after the Cold War. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Pavlov, Yuri. (1994). Soviet Cuban Alliance, 19591991. Miami: University of Miami North South Center.

Smith, Wayne S., ed. (1992). The Russians Aren't Coming: New Soviet Policy in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Cole Blasier