Backgrounder

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Communist Cuba was a major foreign policy challenge for the United States during the Cold War. Though tensions still linger, the relationship has thawed considerably in recent years.    
A man shows U.S. and Cuban flags at his house in Havana.
A man shows U.S. and Cuban flags at his house in Havana. Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • The United States and Cuba have had a strained relationship for more than sixty years, rooted in Fidel Castro’s overthrow of a U.S.-backed government.
  • Presidents Obama and Castro took several steps to normalize bilateral relations, including restoring diplomatic ties and expanding travel and trade.
  • The Trump administration reversed many aspects of this détente. In turn, President Biden has pledged to walk back Trump’s policies, raising hopes in Cuba of another thaw.

Introduction

The U.S.-Cuba relationship has been plagued by distrust and antagonism since 1959, the year Fidel Castro overthrew a U.S.-backed regime in Havana and established a socialist state allied with the Soviet Union. During the half century that followed, successive U.S. administrations pursued policies intended to isolate the island country economically and diplomatically. The United States has sanctioned Cuba longer than it has any other country.

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President Barack Obama took some extraordinary steps to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, meeting with leader Raul Castro and restoring full diplomatic ties. However, President Donald J. Trump largely reversed course, hitting Cuba with a raft of new sanctions. The Joe Biden administration could thaw relations once again, experts say, but it is unclear how quickly and to what extent.

What triggered the falling out between Washington and Havana?

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Raul Castro

The tumultuous U.S.-Cuba relationship has its roots in the Cold War. In 1959, Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries seized power in Havana, overthrowing the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista. After the Cuban Revolution, the United States recognized Fidel Castro’s government but began imposing economic penalties as the new regime increased its trade with the Soviet Union, nationalized American-owned properties, and hiked taxes on U.S. imports. After slashing Cuban sugar imports, Washington instituted a ban on nearly all U.S. exports to Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy expanded into a full economic embargo that included stringent travel restrictions.

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and began pursuing covert operations to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime in 1961. The missile crisis arose after Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to secretly install nuclear missiles on the island following a botched CIA attempt to topple Castro, known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. U.S. surveillance aircraft uncovered the Soviet installations in October 1962, setting off a thirteen-day showdown between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that threatened to escalate into nuclear war.

Kennedy demanded that the Soviets remove the weapons and ordered the U.S. Navy to impose a maritime quarantine of Cuba to block additional arms from reaching the island. In the end, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a pledge from Kennedy not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. The crisis was a turning point in the Cold War, as the two superpowers made efforts to avoid nuclear confrontation.   

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How did relations evolve over the rest of the Cold War?

In the decades that followed, economic and diplomatic isolation became the major prongs of U.S. policy toward Cuba. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan labeled Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism [PDF] for its support of leftist militant groups in Central America and Africa. Both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton signed laws—the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 [PDF] and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 [PDF]—that strengthened U.S. sanctions and stated that the embargo would remain in place until Cuba transitioned to a democracy that excludes the Castro family and upholds fundamental freedoms. 

Some adjustments in 1999 allowed for the export of U.S.-made medical supplies and food to the island. Restrictions tightened, however, under President George W. Bush, whose Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba increased enforcement of existing sanctions.

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How did U.S.-Cuba relations normalize?

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said isolating Cuba had failed to advance U.S. interests and that it was time to pursue diplomacy with the Castro regime. Several weeks after taking office, he eased restrictions on remittances and travel, allowing Cuban Americans to send unlimited money to Cuba and permitting U.S. citizens to visit Cuba for religious and educational purposes.

As Obama began softening U.S. policy toward Cuba, the island signaled openness to reform under the new leadership of Fidel’s brother, Raul. Facing an aging population, a heavy foreign debt load, and economic hardship amid the global downturn, Raul Castro began liberalizing Cuba’s state-controlled economy in 2009. Reforms included decentralizing the agricultural sector, relaxing restrictions on small businesses, opening up real estate markets, allowing Cubans to travel abroad more freely, and expanding access to consumer goods. Cuba’s private sector swelled as a result, and the number of self-employed workers nearly tripled [PDF] between 2009 and 2013.

Obama and Raul Castro surprised the world in late 2014 by announcing that their governments would restore full diplomatic ties and begin to ease more than fifty years of bilateral tensions. The historic moment marked the culmination of eighteen months of secret diplomacy brokered by Pope Francis, during which the parties agreed to an exchange of prisoners, including Cuban intelligence officers and an American development contractor, among other concessions.

The thaw continued in the years that followed. The Obama administration further loosened restrictions on remittances and travel, as well as trade, telecommunications, and financial services. It also removed Cuba’s designation as a terrorism sponsor, a major obstacle to normalization. The two governments reopened their embassies, a move met with widespread public support in both countries, and negotiated a spate of bilateral agreements [PDF].

In early 2016, Obama took another significant step toward normalization, visiting Havana in what was the first trip to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. In a keynote address broadcast live, with Raul Castro sitting in the audience, Obama urged both countries to press on with reforms. The Cuban government should continue political and economic liberalization, and the U.S. Congress should lift the trade embargo, he said. Later that year, U.S. commercial airlines began offering service between the countries for the first time in more than fifty years.

Days before leaving office in January 2017, Obama repealed the Clinton-era “wet foot, dry foot” policy [PDF], which allowed Cubans who came to the United States illegally to pursue permanent residency. The move, which the Cuban government welcomed, brought the U.S. government’s treatment of Cubans in line with its handling of other unauthorized immigrants.

What policy changes did President Trump make?

The death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016 rekindled debates over U.S.-Cuba policy. While in office, Trump followed through on campaign pledges to reverse course on much of the Obama administration’s thaw with Cuba.

In 2017, the Trump administration prohibited commerce with businesses controlled by or operating on behalf of the Cuban military, intelligence agencies, and security services. It also banned Americans from traveling to Cuba individually for educational and cultural exchanges. Months later, the administration said it would pull most of its embassy staff from Havana, after American and Canadian diplomatic workers suffered unexplained injuries, including hearing loss and cognitive impairment. Many of the U.S. embassy’s functions, including the processing of most visas, were suspended. The Cuban government denied involvement in the mysterious attacks and urged the United States not to cut diplomatic ties. (The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that directed, pulsed radio frequency energy was the most plausible explanation for the injuries among those it considered.)   

Washington turned up its pressure on Havana in 2019, when it began allowing U.S. nationals to sue entities that traffic in or benefit from property confiscated by the Cuban regime. Congress provided for this in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, but past U.S. presidents had routinely waived the provision. Canada and the European Union, both major foreign investors in Cuba, condemned the move as a violation of international law and pledged to protect their companies by fighting the decision through the World Trade Organization.

In addition to ending almost all individual travel to the island, Trump banned group educational exchanges in 2019. His administration prohibited cruise ships and other vessels from sailing between the United States and Cuba, and banned U.S. flights to Cuban cities other than Havana. It also suspended private charter flights to Havana and barred U.S. travelers from staying at hundreds of establishments linked to the Cuban government or Communist Party. (Americans have long sidestepped travel restrictions by flying to Cuba through other countries, including Mexico.) Administration officials framed the travel bans as an effort to keep tourism dollars out of Cuban government coffers. The White House further targeted Cuba’s finances by curbing remittances and imposing economic sanctions. In 2018, the United Nations estimated that U.S. trade restrictions had cost Cuba more than $130 billion since the embargo began. That same year, Raul Castro’s handpicked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, took office.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration grew increasingly wary of Cuba’s close ties with the embattled socialist regime in Venezuela. In 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton characterized Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as a “troika of tyranny,” blaming these governments for massive human suffering and regional instability. The Trump administration sought to staunch the flow of oil from Venezuela to Cuba by sanctioning shipping firms and Cuba’s state oil company. It also banned Cuban officials from entering the United States for their alleged complicity in Venezuela’s human rights abuses.

Where does the Biden administration stand on Cuba?


As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s policies on Cuba, which he says did not advance human rights and democracy. For their part, Cubans are reportedly hopeful for a return to the Obama-era thaw. Still, analysts say that any rapprochement would have to overcome deep divisions between the two governments on issues such as Venezuela, as well as prickly domestic politics in both countries. For instance, observers say, an effort by President Biden to warm relations with Cuba could push Cuban voters in Florida, a swing state, away from the Democratic Party in future elections.

Recommended Resources

The Congressional Research Service explains how the Trump administration reshaped U.S. policy toward Cuba [PDF].

The New Yorker explores the mysterious injuries that afflicted U.S. and Canadian personnel in Cuba.

Michael Bustamante looks at the consequences of Trump’s rollback on Cuba in Foreign Affairs.

In her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, Julia Sweig offers a guide to the island’s politics, its relationship with the United States, and its shifting role in the world.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to communications@cfr.org.
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