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U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

June 1997

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Statistics taken from the CIA World Factbook 1996.

Overview of U.S. Policy Toward Cuba


The island nation of Cuba, located just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, is home to 11 million people and has one of the few remaining communist regimes in the world. Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, came to power in 1959 and immediately instituted a communist program of sweeping economic and social changes. Castro allied his government with the Soviet Union and seized and nationalized billions of dollars of American property. U.S. relations with Cuba have been strained ever since. A trade embargo against Cuba that was imposed in 1960 is still in place today. Despite severe economic suffering and increasing isolation from the world community, Castro remains committed to communism.

The United States and Cuba share a long history of mutual mistrust and suspicion. All aspects of U.S. policy with Cuba, such as the current trade embargo, immigration practices, and most recently the possibility of a free exchange by members of the media, provoke heated debates across the United States. While most Americans agree that the ultimate goals should be to encourage Castro’s resignation and promote a smooth transition to democracy, experts disagree about how the U.S. government should accomplish these aims. Some believe that the country’s current policy toward Cuba is outdated in its Cold War approach and needs to be reconstructed. However, many still consider Fidel Castro a threat in the hemisphere and a menace to his own people and favor tightening the screws on his regime even more.

History of U.S.–Cuban Relations

During the first half of this century, Cuba resembled a U.S. colony: Many wealthy Americans vacationed on Cuba’s beaches, but the majority of the island’s citizens lived in extreme poverty. The United States supported the pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista, who ruled for almost twenty years before being overthrown by Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. Directly following Castro’s rise to power, President Dwight Eisenhower first enacted America’s trade embargo against Cuba. He cut off economic relations with the country in response to Castro’s confiscation of American property, the regime’s human rights violations, and its close ties to the Soviet Union.

Cuba became a focal point of the Cold War. In 1962, U.S. leaders learned that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. In a tense standoff, known as the Cuban missile crisis, President John Kennedy placed U.S. military forces on alert and blockaded the island until the Soviets agreed to abandon their installation. The Soviet Union withdrew the missiles, and a possible nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was avoided.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Cuba’s lifeline of economic and political support was cut. The Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner, had provided the Cuban economy with over $6 billion a year. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade embargo remained in place, further weakening Cuba’s deteriorating economy.

Tightening the Embargo

For almost forty years, the United States has not imported any Cuban products, nor allowed any American food, medical supplies, or capital to enter Cuba. President Clinton, like each of his predecessors, supports the trade embargo. Two recent pieces of legislation have tightened the economic restrictions on Cuba.

The Cuban Democracy Act, passed by Congress in 1992, further isolates Cuba from the world economy by prohibiting any foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with the country. The bill’s goal was to cripple the Cuban economy in order to bring down Castro “within weeks,” according to the bill’s primary advocate Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

More recently, in February 1996, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act. The law was a retaliatory measure against the shooting down by the Cuban military of two unarmed U.S. civilian airplanes flying just outside Cuba’s territorial waters. The Helms-Burton Act states that American citizens can sue foreign investors who utilize American property seized by the Cuban government. In addition, those who “traffic” in this property or profit from it will be denied visas to the United States. Bill cosponsor Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) stated that the message of the legislation is simply “Farewell Fidel.” Supporters of the legislation believe that prohibiting foreign investment will quicken Castro’s downfall.

International Response. The United States is alone in the international community in enacting restrictive Cuban policies. No other country has joined the United States in the trade embargo against Cuba; in fact, the Helms-Burton Act angered nations that do business with Cuba. For example, Canada, Spain, France, and Italy are among Cuba’s top trading partners. These nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) contend that the United States has no right to dictate which other countries Cuba can and cannot trade with. Furthermore, Cuba, along with the United States, is a founding member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which prohibits cutting off trade with a member nation. Supporters of Helms-Burton, however, cite a WTO “escape clause” that says that a nation can enact a trade embargo if its national security is in jeopardy. Many U.S. lawmakers believe that Castro poses such a threat, thereby giving the United States permission to implement trade sanctions against Cuba.

Foreign Investment. Many foreign investors see great opportunities in the Cuban trade market, because of the end of Soviet aid and decades of the U.S. trade embargo. For example, Canadian businesses are benefiting from the lack of competition from the United States. Canadian pharmaceutical companies are marketing Cuban products, Canadian mining companies are developing uninhabited areas in Cuba, and hotel chains are operating state-owned resorts on Cuban beaches. American investors take note of all this and conclude that they are missing out on valuable business opportunities.

Canada and many other nations believe that the best way to promote democracy in Cuba is to express hopes for political reform after becoming engaged—economically and otherwise—in the country. Many people in the United States, however, do not think that foreign countries’ dollars should support or encourage Castro’s regime in any way.

Economic Upheaval in Cuba. Although the goal of the U.S. trade embargo is to help facilitate the removal of Castro from power, its recent effect has been to deepen the suffering of the Cuban people. Cuba has been in a state of economic ruin during most of Castro’s regime. Cubans live under conditions of mass unemployment, widespread hunger, insufficient wages, as well as energy and medicine shortages. One Cuban market vendor commented that “the only way people can buy [meat] regularly is if they get money from relatives abroad or from something illegal.”

One consequence of the suffering in Cuba is the great number of refugees who have tried to immigrate to the United States. In 1980, about 125,000 Cuban refugees, many of whom were former prisoners of Castro’s jails, came to the United States in the Mariel boat lift. President Jimmy Carter accepted them, an action that was very unpopular with the majority of the American public. Fourteen years later in a similar boat procession, more than 30,000 Cubans demonstrated their frustrations with rising food prices and increasing poverty by sailing to Florida. President Clinton only allowed 12,000 refugees to be processed for admission into the United States at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Opponents of the U.S. trade embargo point out that crippling the Cuban economy is only bringing great suffering to the Cuban people, not weakening Fidel Castro. They believe that the United States is acting inhumanely by denying people basic essentials like food and medical supplies. However, supporters of the embargo argue that isolating Cuba from the global economy is the most effective way to weaken Castro’s political support, and bring about his resignation or his overthrow.

Castro’s Economic Reforms. In recent years, Castro has attempted to reduce his country’s financial hardship by instituting mild economic reforms. In 1990, Cuba opened its borders to foreign investors in an attempt to bring in hard currency. Four years later, the government allowed the Cuban people to be self-employed, rather than employed by the state. This reform has led to many people running their own businesses to supplement their incomes. Even though some of these reforms may appear to be moving the country slowly toward capitalism, Cuban industry is still state-owned and -operated.

Communicating Through the Media

Upon coming to power in 1959, Castro sharply limited Cuban citizens’ freedom of speech—a policy that continues today. The media, along with all other major industries in the communist country, is state-operated. Although the number of independent media organizations has grown in Cuba in the past two years, members of these news agencies still undergo constant harassment and face the possibility of imprisonment by the government at every turn. One journalist, Rafael Solano, the director of an independent news agency called the Habana Press, was detained at least eight times between July 1995 and February 1996. He has faced charges of “association to commit crimes” since resigning from his job as a radio journalist in a government-controlled press office.

Exchanges Between the Cuban and U.S. Media. There is no free exchange of information between journalists in United States and Cuba. The few Cuban journalists in the United States today are restricted, by the U.S. government, to covering United Nations and international affairs in New York City.

In February 1997, President Clinton granted ten news organizations, including CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Miami Herald, permission to open offices in Havana. Many lawmakers believe that greater media coverage will encourage democratic reform in Cuba. White House Press Secretary Michael McMurry said that U.S. journalists “will keep international attention focused on the situation in Cuba.” However, so far, CNN is the only news agency to be granted permission by Castro to open a bureau in Cuba.

Due to advancements in telecommunications capabilities, there is a greater opportunity for “underground” journalism. For example, some Cuban reporters pass articles directly to foreign news offices in order to avoid the censorship of Castro’s government. These journalists dictate stories to people in the United States, who broadcast the pieces back to Cuba on the U.S.–sponsored Radio and TV Martí. Radio Martí began broadcasting anti-Castro programs in 1985. Five years later, TV Martí went on the air, and twenty-three minutes into the first broadcast, Castro began jamming the station’s electronic signal. Many members of the U.S. government would like the Cuban government to allow Radio and TV Martí to open an office in Havana before extending greater access to Cuban journalists in the United States.


Six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Cuba continues to command the attention of U.S. policymakers. Although Russia and the former eastern bloc countries have undergone widespread democratic and free-market economic reform, Cuba remains one of the only communist dictatorships in the world. Removing Castro from power and implementing reform in Cuba are top U.S. foreign policy priorities, but lawmakers disagree on the best course of action. While some argue that the U.S. trade embargo has proved ineffective and inhumane, others respond that the United States should continue to apply pressure on Castro until he is toppled from power. As the lawmakers debate, the misery in Cuba is worsening, and some countries are now beginning to blame U.S. policy. Time will tell whether the United States continues its present course or revises a policy that is increasingly unpopular with even its most loyal allies.

Questions to Consider

1. How do you think that countries can best encourage democracy in Cuba? Do you think that the United States should try to further isolate Cuba, or encourage reform with economic investment?

2. Do you think that the Helms-Burton Act is an effective way for the United States to encourage its allies to stop investing in Cuba? Do you think that the United States should enact stronger measures if its allies do not support the U.S. trade embargo?

3. Do you think that a free exchange of information between the U.S. and Cuban media would encourage democratic reform in Cuba? Why or why not?

Timeline of U.S.–Cuban Relations


U.S.S. Maine blows up in Havana Harbor. In February, 229 U.S. sailors die in a mysterious explosion that becomes the major pretext for war against Spain.


U.S. declares war on Spain. In six months, U.S. forces defeat the Spanish in both the Caribbean and Pacific. Spain relinquishes control of Cuba, which becomes a de facto colony of the United States.


Cuban independence declared. Cuba officially declares its independence on May 20, when the United States ends its direct administration of the island.


Platt Amendment enacted. Cuba becomes a U.S. protectorate as the Cuban constitution is amended to allow U.S. intervention to protect “life, property, and individual liberty” in Cuba. U.S. forces intervene in Cuba seven times over the next 32 years.


Platt Amendment rescinded. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ends overt U.S. role in Cuba under his "Good Neighbor Policy" towards the Caribbean and Latin America.


Batista seizes control of Cuba. Former president and military officer Fulgencio Batista suspends the Cuban constitution and establishes a dictatorship following a military coup.


Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro leads revolutionary forces into Havana. Batista flees.


United States imposes sanctions. As the new Castro regime increasingly allies itself with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower prohibits U.S. oil companies in Cuba from refining Soviet oil. The United States also moves to embargo Cuban sugar, and cuts off all military and economic aid to Cuba. By the end of the year, the United States imposes a total embargo on exports to Cuba, excepting only food and medicine.


Castro declares himself a Marxist-Leninist. In a December speech, Castro announces his political leanings.


U.S. breaks diplomatic ties to Cuba. In January, President Eisenhower breaks diplomatic relations and tightens the embargo.


Bay of Pigs invasion. In April, President Kennedy authorizes an invasion of Cuba by 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles. The anti-Castro forces are defeated within three days of their landing on the island.


U.S. sanctions tightened. President Kennedy bars from U.S. ports any vessel engaged in trade with Cuba. In addition, all financial transactions with Cuba are banned, except for family remittances.


Cuba’s OAS membership suspended. The United States gathers just enough votes to have Cuban membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended.


Cuban Missile Crisis. Following the installation of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy orders a “naval quarantine” around the island. The two superpowers teeter on the edge of nuclear confrontation for more than a week. The Soviets finally agree to remove their missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.


Cuba supports communist movements in Third World. The Castro regime sends aid and troops to support communist movements across Latin America and Africa. By the early 1980s, the United States is threatening military action against Cuba, especially for its role in aiding communists in El Salvador and Nicaragua.


U.S.–Cuban relations thaw. The U.S. and Cuban governments agree to open “interest sections” in each others’ capital.


Soviet Brigade discovered in Cuba. The United States discovers that a Soviet brigade has been deployed in Cuba. Controversy ensues over whether the stationing of these forces in Cuba violates Soviet pledges made during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Mariel Boat Lift. Close to 125,000 refugees, many of them former prison inmates, flee Cuba for the United States. Despite public opposition, President Carter agrees to admit them.


United States invades Grenada. Claiming that U.S. citizens are in danger, the United States invades the island nation of Grenada following a Cuban-backed coup. Twenty-four Cubans are killed and over 700 are captured.


United States and Cuba conclude immigration pact. The United States and Cuba negotiate an agreement to normalize immigration and return to Cuba the "excludables" (criminals or insane persons who, under U.S. law, are not allowed to reside in the United States) who had arrived during the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift.


Radio Marti begins broadcasts to Cuba. In an effort to weaken the Castro regime, the United States begins beaming radio news and information to Cuba. The Cuban government immediately jams the signal and President Castro suspends the 1984 U.S.–Cuban immigration agreement.


United States and Cuba conclude new immigration pact. The pact allows for the annual immigration of up to 20,000 Cubans to the United States. Cuba also agrees to the repatriation of up to 2,500 Cubans jailed in the United States since the Mariel Boat Lift. The Cuban government reneges on the pact after five months.


TV Marti begins broadcasts to Cuba. The United States expands its anti-Castro regime telecommunications efforts. Cuba begins jamming the signal 23 minutes into the broadcasts.


Soviet economic subsidies to Cuba end. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba loses about $6 billion in annual Soviet subsidies. The Cuban economy rapidly deteriorates.


Congress passes Cuban Democracy Act. The law prohibits foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. In addition, U.S. citizens are prohibited from traveling to Cuba, and family remittances to Cuba are banned. However, the law allows private groups to deliver food and medicine to Cuba.


New wave of Cuban refugees. Thirty thousand refugees set sail from Cuba as economic conditions continue to deteriorate. President Clinton allows entry into the United States for about 12,000, but in a shift of U.S. policy he orders the rest repatriated to Cuba.


Cuba shoots down two U.S. civilian aircraft. The Cuban Air Force shoots down two unarmed Cesnas flying over international waters near Cuba, killing four people. The planes were on a mission for “Brothers to the Rescue,” a Cuban-American rescue group aiding Cuban refugees and advocating the overthrow of the Castro regime. The shoot-down exacerbates U.S.–Cuban relations and precipitates passage of the Helms-Burton Act.


Congress passes Helms-Burton Act. The law allows American citizens to sue foreign investors who make use of American property seized by the Cuban government. The law also provides for the denial of U.S. visas to those who “traffic” in such property.


President suspends enforcement of Helms-Burton provisions. Fearing retaliatory trade sanctions from the Europeans, Canadians, and others, President Clinton suspends the law's provisions against foreigners doing business in Cuba.


Economic conditions improve in Cuba. The Castro regime loosens its control of Cuba's centralized economy and allows for some small-scale capitalist activity. It also encourages new foreign investment and the promotion of the tourist trade. Despite the continuing U.S. embargo, the Cuban economy expands greatly throughout the year.


President again suspends enforcement of Helms-Burton provisions Working to avoid a public confrontation with U.S. trade partners, President Clinton once again suspends the law's provisions against foreigners doing business in Cuba. Instead, the president says he wants to build a "common approach to advancing democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,"


U.S. news organizations allowed to operate in Cuba. Also in February, President Clinton permits ten U.S. news organizations to open bureaus in Cuba. The Cuban government grants rights to one, the Cable News Network (CNN).

U.S.–Cuban Relations Hot Links

U.S. Government

Cuba: CIA World Factbook 1996 Information from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on Cuba's geography, people, economy, government, defense, transportation, and communications.

U.S. State Department Several items are available, including:

Radio & TV Marti A gopher menu providing links to the history and operations of Radio and TV Marti, legislation and policy surrounding the broadcasts, program and frequency schedules, and information about Cuba.

Background on the Helms-Burton Act The United States Information Agency maintains this page on the provisions and policy moves surrounding the Act, officially known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996.

Cuban Sources

Granma International A Cuban weekly news magazine (English version) offering a pro-Cuban government perspective. Also available in Spanish.

The National Web Site of the Republic of Cuba Geared mostly towards business professionals and investors, this site includes a large number of links in the following categories: airlines, hotels, marinas, land tours, rent-a-car, health tourism, art & culture, conventions, trade shows & events, business and trade, exports & imports, consular information, Cuban medicine, and science & technology.

Prensa Latina, S.A. Prensa Latina bills itself as the premier news agency in the Republic of Cuba. It offers a daily newsfeed direct from Havana to subscribers, via e-mail or the World Wide Web. Prensa Latina also provides news on Cuban politics, economics, tourism, science, the arts, and sports.

Outside Analysis

American Enterprise Institute on Cuba Read Mark Falcoff's June 1996 article, What's Next in U.S.–Cuban Relations, for a perspective from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank located in Washington, D.C. This article is one in AEI's Latin American Outlook series.

Brothers to the Rescue The home page for the Cuban refugee organization whose planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force in February 1996. Read their account of the events that day. This Web site is in English and Spanish, with news, articles, opinion, and a "repatriations photo gallery."

Cuban American National Foundation Founded in 1981, this anti-Castro Cuban exile group publishes articles and other materials on Cuba, human rights, and U.S. policy.

Free Cuba Foundation Another anti-Castro group, the site offers news and information on human rights, political prisoners, Cuban history, refugees, along with links to other groups.

Cuba Solidarity Web Site A pro-Castro regime site calling for the lifting of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. This site boasts many pages and links, including news from sources in Cuba and press releases from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. Also read their take of the downing of the two "Brothers to the Rescue" planes in February 1996.

Freedom House on Cuba Read the introduction to the Cuba section from Freedom House's annual report on political and economic freedom around the world. Self-described as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting democracy, Freedom House creates the widely-published annual Map of Freedom. Check out how Cuba fares on their table of Comparative Measures of Freedom 1995-1996.

Washington Office on Latin America Founded in 1974 by a coalition of religious and civic leaders, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) promotes human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. WOLA works as an intermediary between governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For WOLA's take on current U.S. policy toward Cuba, read Helms-Burton Becomes Reality by Geoff Thale.


Cuba's Entrepreneurial Socialism More of a news analysis rather than a straight reporting piece, this Atlantic Monthly article by Joy Gordon argues that the economic embargo hurts both Cubans and Americans as other nations rush to invest in Cuba's now rapidly growing economy.

Miami Herald "Americas" Section Miami is home to the single-largest concentration of Cuban-Americans in the United States. And the Miami Herald covers Cuba and the rest of the Americas as closely as any U.S. newspaper, with reports, such as Be Fair or Lose Privileges, Cuba Tells Foreign Media by staff writer Juan O. Tamayo.

Newshour with Jim Lehrer The Newshour has presented several reports over the last year-and-a-half, including:

  • Ill Trade Winds Charles Krause's background report on the negative reaction of the United States' trade partners, including Canada, Mexico and various European countries, to the Helm-Burton Act. (Broadcast July 11, 1996.)
  • Ill Trade Winds Art Eggleton, Canada's Trade Minister, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida's 18th District, debate the legitimacy of the Helm-Burton Act. (Broadcast July 11, 1996.)
  • Remaining Defiant Betty Ann Bowser's report on memorial ceremonies in Miami and in the Florida Straits conducted by "Brothers to the Rescue," the refugee group whose planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force in late February 1996. (Broadcast March 4, 1996.)
  • Confronting Cuba In the aftermath of the Cuban shootdown of two unarmed planes flown by members of the group "Brothers to the Rescue," Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with Frank Calzon of Freedom House and Jose Pertierra of Cambio Cubano about the future of U.S.–Cuban relations. (Broadcast March 1, 1996.)
  • Cuba Warned Betty Ann Bowser's report on "Brothers to the Rescue," the Cuban refugee group whose planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force in February 1996. Following the report, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, talks to Jim Lehrer about the Clinton administration's response to the attack, and possible action against the Cuban government. (Broadcast February 26, 1996.)

U.S.A. Today's Cuba Shootdown Index A listing of stories relating to the February 1996 shootdown by Cuba of two unarmed U.S. civilian planes and the subsequent hardening of U.S. policy towards the Castro government.

Other Pointers

Cuba Internet Resources This annotated list of hyperlinks is maintained by the Cuba Working Group at Cornell University. The Cuba Working Group seeks to promote what it terms "mutual understanding of Cuban science, society and environment." While not a pro-Castro group, it seeks to increase contacts – especially academic contacts – between Cuba and the United States despite the ongoing embargo.

Cuba Links A meta-page of Cuba hyperlinks maintained at the University of Heidelberg in Denmark, this is basically just a long, long list of links. Some of the linked material is dated, so use it especially carefully and selectively when doing research.

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