Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
May 1, 2001
U.S.- Cuba Relations
The relationship between the United States and Cuba for the last 40 years has been marked by tension and confrontations. The United States recognized the new Cuban government, headed by Fidel Castro, on January 7, 1959. However, bilateral relations deteriorated rapidly as the regime expropriated U.S. properties and moved towards adoption of a one-party Marxist-Leninist system. As a result, the United States established an embargo on Cuba in October 1960 and broke diplomatic relations the following January. Tensions between the two governments peaked during the April 1961 "Bay of Pigs" invasion and the October 1962 missile crisis.
Cuba established close ties with the Soviet Union and served as a Soviet surrogate in Africa and several countries in Latin America, which fueled cold war tensions and kept the bilateral relationship distant during the 1960s. In the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, the United States and Cuba began to explore normalizing relations, but the talks were suspended in 1975 when Cuba launched a large-scale intervention in Angola. The United States and Cuba did established interests sections in their respective capitals in September 1977 to facilitate consular relations and provide a venue for dialogue, and both currently operate under the protection of the Embassy of Switzerland. Cuban international entanglements in the 1970s, such as deploying troops to Ethiopia and allowing Soviet forces on the island, continued to strain bilateral relations.
In the 1980s the focus of friction in U.S.-Cuban relations shifted to include immigration, as well as Cuba’s international engagements, when a migration crisis unfolded. In April 1980 an estimated ten thousand Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. Eventually, the Cuban government allowed 125,000 Cubans to illegally depart for the United States from the port of Mariel, an incident known as the "Mariel boatlift." A number of criminals and mentally ill persons were involuntarily included. Quiet efforts to explore the prospects for improving relations were initiated in 1981-82 under the Reagan administration, but ceased as Cuba continued to intervene in Latin America. In 1983, the United States and regional allies forced the withdrawal of the Cuban presence in Grenada.
In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, interrupted in the wake of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were "excludable" under U.S. law. Cuba suspended this agreement in May 1985 following the U.S. initiation of Radio Marti broadcasts to the island, but it was reinstated in November 1987. In March 1990, TV Marti transmissions began to Cuba.
The 1990s witnessed another migration crisis that set back U.S.-Cuban relations. When demonstrations fueled by food shortages and prolonged unannounced blackouts erupted in Havana in August 1994, the Cuban Government responded by allowing some 30,000 Cubans to set sail for the United States, many in unsafe boats and rafts, which resulted in a number of deaths at sea. The two countries in September 1994 and May 1995 signed migration accords with the goal of cooperating to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration.
On February 24, 1996, further worsening relations, the Cuban military shot down two U.S. registered civil aircraft in international airspace, killing three U.S. citizens and one U.S. resident. The unlawful and unwarranted attack on two unarmed U.S. civilian aircrafts resulted in the deaths of Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario M. de la Peña, and Pablo Morales. Immediately after this brutal act, and in response to this violation of international aviation law, Congress and former President Clinton passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Libertad Act. The legislation, among other provisions, codified the U.S. trade embargo into law and imposed additional sanctions on the Cuban regime.
Support for the Cuban people is the central theme of our policy. New measures will increase this support without strengthening the government. These measures (broadening remittances, expanding people-to-people contacts, increasing direct flights, authorizing food sales to independent entities, and establishing direct mail service) respond to Pope John Paul II’s call to open up to Cuba.
U.S. policy also pursues a multilateral effort to press for democratic change by urging our friends and allies to actively promote a democratic transition and respect for human rights. The U.S Government opposes consideration of Cuba’s return to the OAS or inclusion in the Summit of the America’s process until there is a democratic Cuban government. The U.S. has repeatedly made clear however that it is prepared to respond reciprocally if the Cuban government initiates fundamental, systematic democratic change and respect for human rights.
In another area of concern, the U.S. Government monitors the possible use by narcotraffickers of Cuban airspace and territorial waters for the transshipment of drugs from South America to the United States. Additionally, Cuba continues to provide safe haven to fugitives from the U.S. justice system.
Additional information on the relationship between the United States and Cuba is available through the Department of State.