‘El bloqueo’ and the Cold War: A history of US-Cuba relations
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‘El bloqueo’ and the Cold War: A history of US-Cuba relations

While reading some articles about recent diplomatic developments between the governments of the United States and Cuba, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. has already lifted its long-standing trade embargo against the Marxist–Leninist republic. A year-old piece in the Huffington Post states outright that it had already been “three months since President Obama repealed the American embargo on all things Cuba”.

However, the U.S. President has not repealed the embargo, which was strengthened in 1996 by the Helms-Burton Act and requires a congressional vote in order to be overturned.

While the embargo remains in place, it is true that over the past roughly 15 months, diplomatic relations have been re-established. Progress has been made in the areas of prisoner exchanges, American investment and travel — though tourism in Cuba is still banned under U.S. law.

Why did the embargo begin and why has it lasted so long?

On 19 October 1960, nearly two years after Fidel Castro’s forces took Havana, the new revolutionary government of Cuba nationalized U.S.-owned oil refineries and sugar businesses on the island without providing compensation to their American owners. This provoked the establishment of the longest running trade embargo in modern history.

Following the revolution, Castro declared that he was not a communist, but the economic downturn resulting from the embargo forced Cuba into close ties with the Soviet Union.

So far 11 U.S. Presidents have overseen the embargo, which has been adjusted over the years. Though relations have warmed under the Obama administration, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, there is no reason to believe the embargo will completely end in the near future.

The Bay of Pigs

The U.S. government ended diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and in April of that year, a CIA-trained and armed force of 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban exiles invaded and attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government. It took less than 24 hours for them to be defeated.

Though President John F. Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist, he was also against going to war. He was pressured into facilitating the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was the plan of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy was reluctant about it and subsequently embarrassed by its failure. It had the negative consequences of worsening U.S. relations not only with Cuba, but with the Soviets as well.

A Cold War relic 

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, strategic reasons for the embargo all but evaporated. However, strong anti-communist and anti-Castro sentiment among Americans and particularly Cuban-Americans remained. The pro-embargo argument shifted to one ostensibly based on human rights and democracy.

While Cuba’s human rights record cannot be considered exemplary, if compared to many countries with which the U.S. has solid diplomatic and economic relations — from Honduras to Saudi Arabia — it can be all but ruled out as the true motivation for the embargo. In fact, the United Nations, along with human rights groups like Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Human Rights Watch, has cited negative humanitarian impacts directly connected to the embargo.

It’s politics, stupid

The large and affluent Cuban-American community living in Florida — the third largest state in the U.S. — is mainly made up of pre-revolutionary Cuba’s highest socio-economic group and their descendants. This community has had a disproportionately large influence on U.S. foreign policy regarding Cuba.

However, the tide is changing, even amongst traditionally strident anti-communist Republicans, second and third generation Cuban Americans and recent arrivals. Furthermore, in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Obama won the Cuban-American vote.

Recent polls have shown that a clear majority of Americans and Cuban Americans are in favor of normalizing ties and ending the embargo. Back in Cuba, nearly everyone is in favor of a restoration of normal relations between the two neighboring countries. Yet there are still strong factions in the U.S. Congress in favor of maintaining “el bloqueo”, though it certainly seems doubtful that they are still representing the majority of their constituents.

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