The US and Cuba: History of the relationship

The story

The US and Cuba are updating their relationship status from ‘non-existent’ to ‘officially complicated.’

Back up.

All the drama started in the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro – just a guy with a Communist handbook in his pocket – kicked out the American-backed President Fulgencio Batista and took over Cuba. The US gave him side-eye, but recognized his new government. Then, Castro became BFFs with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. And took control of US companies in Cuba and hiked taxes on US imports. No more Mr. US Nice Guy.

So what happened?

The US said ‘adios, Felicia’ and cut off all diplomatic ties with Cuba. Meaning no trade, no travel, no Cuban cigars for Father’s Day. Things got so bad that in ‘61, the US tried to take out Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fail. That’s when Castro inked a secret deal to let the Soviets build missile bases in Cuba. Cue the Cuban Missile Crisis, aka that time the US blocked all ships from entering Cuba and demanded that the Soviets destroy the missile sites. Surprise: the US-Cuba relationship was destroyed too.

Thanks for the history lesson. What's up now?

Times they are a changin’, thanks in big part to Pope Francis’s matchmaking skills. He texted President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel’s baby bro) and said, ‘can you please bury the hatchet.’ Prompting Obama to make it a priority to get the Cuba relationship back on track. So in late 2014, Obama announced that the US would be restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cuba has basically been stuck in a 50s movie since breaking up with the US, so resuming relations is a BIG deal for the country. Cut to now, and Obama just became the first sitting US prez to visit Cuba in more than 80 years. But there’s only so much he can do.

What do you mean?

This all has to do with the Double Es: “economic embargo.” Since the big breakup in the ‘60s, the US has banned trade with Cuba. It’s US law that the embargo can’t be lifted until Cuba holds free elections and puts someone in charge not named Castro. Guess which branch of government has the power to reverse this law? Congress. Guess which voter group is highly influential? Cuban-Americans.

What are they saying?

A lot of older Cuban-Americans don’t feel like their home country has changed. Think: press censorship, free speech censorship, internet censorship. They’re warning the US that Cuba isn’t ready to join the international community again.

What is everyone else saying?

Some people (mostly Dems) think that being friends with Cuba is a good diplomatic look and a gold star for the US’s relationship with Latin America. Other people (mostly Republicans) think that Cuba hasn’t changed enough (see: the president’s last name), and that this won’t improve human rights abuses by the Cuban gov.

But can I book a trip to Cuba?

Mmm, depends. Under a new travel agreement, there will be dozens of round-trip flights a day between the US and Cuba. Just don’t start planning adult spring break 2017 there yet. You need to be able to check one of 12 boxes if you’re flying to the country. Like...visiting family, volunteering, opening a medical clinic, reporting on a story. And no, smoking a Cuban with your friends does not count as humanitarian activity. Yet.


For the US, this is more of a symbolic move that signifies the thaw of a long Ice Age. But this isn’t just about the US and Cuba. This half-century breakup has affected US relations with Latin America too. So this could help heal wounds across the continent.

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