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US and Cuba Have History of Complex Relations

Imprisonment of USAID Worker Snags Progress

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US and Cuba Have History of Complex Relations

Fidel Castro during the 1959 Cuban revolution.

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The US and Cuba marked the beginning of their 52nd year of broken relations in 2011. While the collapse of Soviet-style Communism in 1991 ushered in more open relations with Cuba, the arrest and trial in Cuba of USAID worker Alan Gross strained them once again.

Background: Cuban and American Relations

In the 19th Century, when Cuba was still a colony of Spain, many southern Americans wanted to annex the island as a state to increase American slave territory. In the 1890s, while Spain was attempting to suppress a Cuban nationalist rebellion, the United States intervened on the premise of correcting Spanish human rights abuses. In truth, American neo-imperialism fueled American interests as it sought to create a European-style empire of its own. The United States also bristled when a Spanish "scorched earth" tactic against nationalist guerrillas burned out several American interests.

The United States began the Spanish-American War in April 1898, and by the middle of July had defeated Spain. Cuban nationalists believed they had achieved independence, but the United States had other ideas. Not until 1902 did the United States grant Cuban independence, and then only after Cuba had agreed to the Platt Amendment, which roped Cuba into America's sphere of economic influence. The amendment stipulated that Cuba could not transfer land to any foreign power except the United States; that it could not acquire any foreign debt without U.S. approval; and it would allow American intervention in Cuban affairs whenever the U.S. thought it necessary. To speed their own independence, Cubans added the amendment to their constitution.

Cuba operated under the Platt Amendment until 1934 when the United States rescinded it under the Treaty of Relations. The treaty was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, which attempted to foster better American relations with Latin American countries and keep them out of the influence of rising Fascist states. The treaty retained American rental of Guantanamo Bay naval base.

Castro's Communist Revolution

In 1959 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the Cuban communist revolution to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista's regime. Castro's ascent to power froze relations with the United States. The United States' policy toward Communism was "containment" and it quickly severed ties with Cuba and embargoed trade the island.

Cold War Tension

In 1961 the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated a failed attempt by Cuban emigres to invade Cuba and topple Castro. That mission ended in a debacle at the Bay of Pigs.

Castro increasingly sought aid from the Soviet Union. In October 1962, Soviets began shipping nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba. American U-2 spy planes caught the shipments on film, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. For 13 days that month, President John F. Kennedy warned Soviet first secretary Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles or face consequences - which most of the world interpreted as nuclear war. Khrushchev backed down. While the Soviet Union continued to back Castro, Cuban relations with the United States remained cold but not warlike.

Cuban Refugees and the Cuban Five

In 1979, faced with an economic downturn and civilian unrest, Castro told Cubans they could leave if they did not like conditions at home. Between April and October 1980, some 200,000 Cubans arrived in the United States. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 the United States could allow arrival of such immigrants and avoid their repatriation to Cuba. After Cuba lost most of its Soviet-block trading partners with the collapse of Communism between 1989 and 1991, it suffered another economic downturn. Cuban immigration to the United States climbed again in 1994 and 1995.

In 1996 the United States arrested five Cuban men on charges of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. The U.S. alleged they had entered Florida and infiltrated Cuban-American human rights groups. The U.S. also charged that information the so-called Cuban Five sent back to Cuba helped Castro's air force destroy two Brothers-to-the-Rescue planes returning from a covert mission to Cuba, killing four passengers. U.S. courts convicted and jailed the Cuban Five in 1998.

Castro's Illness and Overtures at Normalization

In 2008, after a prolonged illness, Castro ceded the presidency of Cuba to his brother, Raul Castro. While some outside observers believed that would signal the collapse of Cuban Communism, it did not happen. However, in 2009 after Barack Obama became president of the U.S., Raul Castro made overtures to talk to the United States about foreign policy normalization.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the 50-year American foreign policy toward Cuba had "failed," and that Obama's administration was committed to finding ways to normalize Cuban-American relations. Obama has eased American travel to the island.

Still, another issue stands in the way of normalized relations. In 2008 Cuba arrested USAID worker Alan Gross, charging him with distributing U.S. government-purchased computers with the intent of establishing a spy network inside Cuba. While Gross, 59 at the time of his arrest, claimed no knowledge of the computers' sponsorship, Cuba tried and convicted him in March 2011. A Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Former United States President Jimmy Carter, traveling on behalf of his Carter Center for human rights, visited Cuba in March and April 2011. Carter visited with the Castro brothers, and with Gross. While he said that he believed the Cuban 5 had been jailed long enough (a position that angered many human rights advocates), and that he hoped Cuba would quickly release Gross, he stopped short of suggesting any type of prisoner exchange. The Gross case seemed capable of halting any further normalization of relations between the two countries until its resolution.

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