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Policy Towards Cuba, 1959-2004

    Fidel Castro's 26th of July movement took possession of Havana on January 1, 1959, finding a looted treasury and bankrupt country. On January 2, 1959, Manuel Urrutia became as President and José Miró Cardona, Prime Minister. Fidel arrived in Havana on January 8th, walking across the island to great acclaim. The United States recognized the new government. On February 7, 1959, Fidel's government passed the Fundamental Law of the Republic, reinstating but modifying the Constitution of 1940, which General Batista had suspended in 1952. Less than a week later, Fidel became Prime Minister Cardona.
    The United States had tried to get Fulgencio Batista, the dictator to resign the December before so it could install a US-approved junta but he had refused. The 32-year-old Castro would not have been surprised, for the United States treated Cuba as a satellite nation. That would change quickly. It was not uncommon for Cuban politicians, especially young ones, to criticize US policy in Cuba. Few took that seriously. Castro, however, meant it. His goal was to make Cuba a sovereign nation not beholden to any nation.
    He had a long history of anti-Americanism. He feared US intervention. The last time leftists had tried to revolutionize Cuba, the Revolution of '33, the United States had used pressure to get a more conservative government in place, with Batista as the power behind the scenes.  Castro and others blamed the United States for Cuba's economic and political ills, believing that the US kept Cuba dependent, a colony in all but name. The United States paid Cubans higher than the world price for sugar and gave it a substantial portion of its sugar quota.1 Nationalists, such as Castro, saw the sugar quota as simply a means to control Cuba and to discourage Cubans from finding alternative and more lucrative ways of making a living. It was not surprising to those who knew him that he turned down US offers of aid when he visited that country in April. The US, for its part, adopted a "wait and see" policy.
    Soon after taking power, Castro took a number of measures that disturbed the US government. He arrested a number of Batista supporters, held quick "trials," and then executed many of them. He also arrested US citizens. On March 3, 1959, Cuba nationalized the Cuban Telephone Company, an affiliate of International Telephone & Telegraph of the United States, and reduced telephone rates. On May 17, 1959, his government passed an  Agrarian Reform Law, which prohibited ownership of farms larger than one thousand acres, excepting, of course, sugar and rice plantations which, by necessity, have to be at least that large. The measure Americans because most of the US-owned land in Cuba was much greater than that. Cuba offered to compensate the owners based on the amount of taxes they paid.  The tax assessments were thirty years old, however, because the landowners had managed to get the government to keep them low. To their protests in 1959 that their land was worth much more, the Cuban government responded that they might be guilty of tax evasion. The US was disturbed by Cuban filibustering expeditions in the Caribbean and suspected that Castro was responsible.
    Relations worsened in 1960. In January, the Castro government expropriated  70,000 acres of property owned by USsugar companies. One of those companies adversely. The expropriation of United Fruit land in Guatemala in 1954 was one reason the Central Intelligence Agency had overthrown the Arbenz government. President Eisenhower  asked for Congressional authority to cut off Cuba's sugar quota. In February, Cuba signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, which included Cuba buying Soviet oil. When the oil began arriving in June, US (ESSO and Texaco) and a British-Dutch company (Shell) refused to refine it.  Castro contended that they had no choice if they were going to do business in Cuba. They still refused. On June 28th, he nationalized the refineries. On July 6, the US canceled all sugar imports from Cuba. Castro responded on August 6th by nationalizing all US-owned businesses, industries, and farms. By mid-September, Castro nationalized US-owned banks. On September 18, 1960, Castro addressed the United Nations General Assembly and protested what he called US aggression. He stayed in a hotel in Harlem to show his solidarity with oppressed people.  His Urban Reform Law went into effect on October 14th. It nationalized all commercial real estate and made housing free. The Eisenhower Administration responded to Cuba's radicalism on 16th by a partial embargo on Cuban goods.2  In response, Cuba announced the nationalization of the rest of the property owned by US citizens on the island. Castro also reduced the staff of the US embassy to eleven to reduce the number of potential spies. The US broke diplomatic relations and began to train Cuban exiles and others secretly to invade the island in 1961.
    Neither country trusted the other and the United States refused to allow Cuba to govern its own affairs. Expropriation is legal. The United States uses it, most commonly as eminent domain. That was not the issue. When property is taken without compensation, then it is confiscation not expropriation. Whether it will be confiscation depends upon the bargaining skills of the diplomats. The refusal of the multinational oil companies to refine oil would never have been allowed in the United States or Great Britain. That they refused to refine Soviet oil in Cuba and were backed by the United States said, clearly, that they were not deciding on business criteria but political criteria. No nation would tolerate that behavior if it had a choice. Castro was willing to pay the price because he had the Soviet alternative.  The US had dealt successfully with both land and oil company expropriation in Mexico and the two nations had become close. Castro, for his part, thought he had to break ties with the US. 
    Castro knew that the US was planning an invasion using exiles. He told the world so in late March and early April On April 1st, he declared the Cuban Revolution to be a socialist revolution.3 The Bay of Pigs invasion, April 17-20, 1961, involved 1,500 exiles; most were killed or captured by April 20th.4 Castro army and air force reacted so quickly that the invading army never made it to the mountains. The invasion had been planned on the premise that Cubans were so unhappy with Castro's regime that there would be a mass uprising once news of the landing was known. They misjudged. Many Cubans were happy with the changes Castro was making. Most of those who were not had left the country. Even those willing to rise against Castro were unlikely to do so unless there was clear evidence that victory would occur. Few people are suicidal. 
    Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in December, 1961. To many, it appeared that he was enlisting the support of the USSR to forestall future attacks on Cuba. For its part, the USSR had little choice but to strengthen its ties to Cuba. By doing so, it could thumb its nose at its chief rival, the United states; not to do so would mean that it was not interested in helping Marxist-Leninist revolutions. Fidel never became a puppet, however, to the consternation of Soviet leaders. To defend Cuba as well as itself against the United States, the USSR installed intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba. When the US confronted the USSR in October, 1962, the latter could not claim that these long-range missiles were purely defensive for they could strike major Latin American as well as US cities. The two nations went to the brink of nuclear war until the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles and the US promised not to invade Cuba. The US also began dismantling its missile bases in Turkey.
    Castro was not consulted on this deal and he began to court the Chinese Communist government, another arch rival of the USSR. In his "Sino period" from 1963-66, he became more radical. He attempted to industrialize his country with "backyard" industry. He supported revolutionary movements in Latin America, including an attempt in 1963 to overthrow  the Venezuela government. He fought with Latin American Communist parties, which were aligned with the conservative USSR.  He failed in his policies and admitted it.
    When the Soviets invaded its satellite, Czechoslovakia, when it became too liberal, Castro sided wit it. He had decided that Cuba had to have great power support. The USSR was subsidizing Cuba as much as the US was subsidizing South Viet Nam. In the early 1970s, USSR military and economic aid increased dramatically. In 1972, Cuba was granted full membership in COMECON, the Soviet's equivalent of the European Common Market. In return, it had to support Soviet foreign policy, which meant that Cuba had to quit supporting revolutionary movements in Latin America. On the other hand, Cuba sent troops to Angola in the Fall of 1975 and to Ethiopia in 1978 as the Soviet Union tried, unsuccessfully,  to gain the dominant influence in these places.
    Although the total economic embargo against Cuba, begun in 1961 and  continued into the year 2004, did not bring down the Castro government as intended, relations between the United States and Cuba improved in the 1970s. Under President Jimmy Carter, restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba were lifted in 1977; study groups, journalists, and selected others could visit the island. In 1979, Castro began allowing US relatives of Cubans to visit the island, largely because he needed the income they would bring (he allowed free farmers' markets beginning in 1980 because the state system had been failing). 
    More complicated for both nations was the Mariel boatlift which began in May, 1980 and lasted  until September 25. When some Cubans crashed a bus into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, thus gaining sanctuary, thousands other Cubans flooded the embassy grounds. Infuriated and no doubt embarrassed, Castro not only allowed them to leave through the port of Mariel but also sent others. According to US Coast Guard records, 124,776 left for the United States. Of these, about 10% of these marielitos were criminals and were incarcerated once they came under US jurisdiction. In 1984, the two countries negotiated an immigration agreement. Some of the marielitos would be returned to Cuba and 20,000 Cubans would be allowed to migrate to the United States each year. When the US established Radio Martí to broadcast to Cuba and try to create discontent, Castro suspended the immigration agreement and forbade Cuban-Americans from visiting Cuba. The US barred Cubans from visiting the US. In November,1987, however, the immigration agreement was resumed and the two nations began discussing Cuban troops in Angola. In February, 1988, Angola announced that the Cubans troops would leave. Clearly, that was a result of US-Cuban negotiations. 
    The collapse of the Soviet Empire which began in November, 1989 when the Berlin Wall was destroyed and ended in 1991 greatly affected Cuba's situation. Not only did it lose its subsidies, it no longer had great power support.  The US tightened the noose. In 1992, the Cuba Democracy Act forbade the entry of third-party ships and planes that had carried goods or people to Cuba. It reduced economic aid to nations that traded with Cuba; increased the for violating the US embargo; and prohibited subsidiaries of UScompanies abroad from trading with Cuba. Cubans had to tighten their belts as their economy shrank. The situation worsened in 1993 when Russia withdrew 3,000 troops from Cuba, reducing income even further. Cubans began leaving the island by any means.
    In August ,1994, the increase in refugees led the Clinton Administration to announce that Cubans interdicted at sea would be taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or to Panama). Over 30,000 Cubans  were caught and sent to live in camps outside the United States.5 On September 9, 1994, the US and Cuba agreed to fix the problem. The US would continue to place Cuban refugees in safe havens outside the United States and Cuba would discourage its nationals from sailing to the US. The US agreed to admit a minimum of 20,000 Cuban immigrants per year in addition to admitting immediate relatives of US citizens. 
On May 2, 1995, the two agreed to admit to the United States Cubans kept at Guantanamo, who were counted primarily against the first year of the 20,000. It also established the "wet foot, dry foot policy." Those who made it to the US could stay; those interdicted at sea would be returned to Cuba and Cuba would not punish them.
    When Cuba shot down two unarmed planes flown by the Brothers to the Rescue group in 1996, President Clinton signed the  Helms-Burton Bill  (the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act). The law removed the President's power to change policy towards Cuba without Congressional approval  and that the embargo would continue until Cuba had a transition government without Fidel Castro or his brother. Further, funding would be withdrawn from any international institution providing humanitarian aid to Cuba. A $50,000 civil fine could be levied on US citizen who traveled to Cuba without permission. Entry into the US territory is denied foreign executives who traffic in property confiscated from American nationals and US banks are barred from loaning to them. Any American citizen whose property was confiscated after the Revolution is allowed to sue any foreign corporation that has "benefited" from the property or from its use. This holds true even if the claimant was not a US citizen at the time of expropriation.6  US businesses did not like the law, preferring to trade freely with Cuba as the rest of the world was doing.
    Castro encouraged tourism to offset the loss of Soviet Bloc subsidies. Tourism from Europe increased dramatically. Those with hard currency could find good lodging and ample food and drink on the island because the Cuban government gave them special treatment contrary to socialist idealism. Even the number if Americans tourist increased. Cuba was only a pariah nation to some Cuban exiles and ideologues in the US. As soon as Castro dies, relations are apt to be normalized.


1. The US did not produce all the sugar that it wanted so it imported sugar from Mexico, Cuba, and other nations. It used a quota system to maintain prices for US producers and to reward friendly nations.
2. Under President John F. Kennedy, it would become a total embargo 16 months later.
3. The term socialist has become so misunderstood in the United States that it needs clarification. Socialism is group ownership of the means of production and/or distribution not for profit but for members of the group. The group can be a governments or a co-operative or some other groups. City and county owned public utilities or airports are socialism, for example. So are public roads, but they are the norm and few call them that. The US commonly dealt with socialists when they were in power in the United Kingdom, France, (then) West Germany, the Scandinavian countries, etc. Many governments in the US practiced socialism in part because the US economy had long before become a mixed economy.
4. Castro returned over 1113 prisoners in December, 1962 in return for $53 million in medicine and food raised by private donations. The US government had to deny responsibility.
5. More than 20,000 Haitians were also caught.
6.Max Henze, "US Embargo on Cuba," reprinted at

Don Mabry