Cuba & the U.S.

April 9, 2008

Castro's resignation has provoked new consideration of the Cuba-U.S. relationship. Two student readings examine the history, the role of Cuban-Americans, the human rights issue, and the stands of the 2008 presidential candidates.

Fidel Castro's resignation as president of Cuba in February 2008 has provoked some new consideration of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. The first student reading below offers an overview of U.S. relations with Cuba, from 1898 and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second reading explores the Cuban-American population of South Florida and its political clout, the embargo, the 2008 presidential candidates' stands on U.S. policy toward Cuba, and human rights in Cuba. Discussion questions and other activities follow.

Student Reading 1:
The U.S.-Cuba relationship—from domination to antagonism

The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, a populous 766-mile-long Caribbean Island 90 miles from the Florida coast, has been a tangled one.

1. The U.S. replaces Spain as the dominant force in Cuba

In 1898 on the eve of a war with Spain, the U.S. Congress resolved "to leave the government [of Cuba] and control of the island to its people." However, after the U.S.'s victory over Spain, American troops occupied the island of Cuba. In a treaty the U.S. required the new Cuban government to allow the U.S. the right 1) to intervene to preserve Cuban independence and maintain law and order and 2) to lease land (ultimately Guantanamo), for a U.S. naval station. American companies moved quickly to dominate Cuban business and agriculture.

"From start to finish the Cubans resented the paternal attitude of the United States and the absence of any promise that guardianship would ever end."

—Henry Wriston, in Cuba and the United States

2. Life under Batista

In 1934, the U.S. gave up its stated right to intervene, but retained Guantanamo. Fulgencio Batista became the Cuban leader, then dictator in a militaristic regime. Under Batista, the Cuban military—with U.S. support—prevented strikes by government employees and sugar plantation workers. Writes Wriston: "Over the years there was marked deterioration in the character of the Batista regime. Graft and corruption, inhuman cruelties, gross misuse of government, and many other manifestations of tyranny became conspicuous."

American companies invested heavily in Cuba, controlling 90 percent of telephone and electric services, 50 percent of railways, 25 percent of bank deposits, about 40 percent of sugar production and much of mining, oil production and cattle ranching. (J. Wilner Sundelson, Cuba and the United States )

For Cuba's middle class, writes Clifford L. Staten in The History of Cuba , "Underemployment was the rule, as university graduates worked as clerks in the local Woolworth's Department Stores." Cubans working for American companies "received firsthand the brunt of American discrimination and racism toward Cubans. Cubans were never in the top-level management, no matter how well they were educated. Cubans who did the same job as Americans received lower salaries."
Havana was a playground for the wealthy few and American tourists. American gangsters ran many of its gambling casinos and were able to keep operating only by paying off government officials. Meanwhile, according to Staten, "Twenty percent of all Cubans were illiterate and this figure was much higher in the rural areas.  Only 40 percent of school-age children attended school."

3. The Castro revolution & the American reaction

In 1953 Fidel Castro, a young law school graduate, led a small group of followers in a failed attack on a military barracks. Castro was captured, imprisoned, but soon released, and three years later began a guerrilla war that drove Batista from power and into exile.

Cheering crowds greeted Fidel Castro when he led his revolutionary band into Havana on January 8, 1959.

Forty-nine years later, on February 19, 2008, Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president and commander in chief. He had survived repeated U. S. plots to overthrow or assassinate him. But at 81 he was too ill to continue. His brother Raul, 76, replaced him.

The Castro government revolutionized Cuba. It seized and redistributed land to peasants. New labor contracts raised workers' wages. Rents were cut. Castro swept aside any opposition by Cubans or American owners of properties. He nationalized the properties of American corporations—International Telephone and Telegraph, sugar plantations and mills owned by United Fruit (now called United Brands and Chiquita) and oil refineries held by Texaco, Esso and Shell after these companies refused to refine oil supplied by the Soviet Union. Corporate leaders argued that they did not receive adequate compensation for their properties. Castro disagreed.

The U.S. government became increasingly hostile to the Cuban government. In 1960, the Eisenhower administration began plotting to kill Castro and to invade the island with U.S.-trained Cuban exiles. President Kennedy, entering office in 1961, inherited this plan. The April 17, 1961, invasion at the Bay of Pigs was a total failure. Cuban forces killed or captured the invaders. CIA predictions that Cubans would rise in revolt against Castro were wrong. Instead, an easy victory over the U.S.-sponsored invasion made Castro more popular.

After the Bay of Pigs, Castro became a closer ally of the Soviet Union, which was then in the midst of the Cold War with the United States. In December 1961, Castro declared that Cuba was adopting communism. A few months later the U.S. imposed an embargo against Cuba.

The Soviet Union became the buyer of most of Cuba's sugar. It provided Cuba with financial credits to buy wheat, fertilizer, and machinery from the Soviet Union. The revolution's proudest accomplishments—free education through the university level, free health care and social security—occurred swiftly with the help of Soviet money.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided that U.S.'s humiliation in the Bay of Pigs gave him an opening to increase military aid to Cuba. The Soviets installed in Cuba medium-range nuclear missiles easily capable of striking the U.S. In November 1962, the missiles were spotted by American U-2 spy planes. The Kennedy administration began considering an all-out attack on Cuba. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and were prepared to use them; the threat of a nuclear holocaust was very real. The "Cuban Missile Crisis" ended when, at the last moment, Khrushchev agreed to remove the nuclear-tipped missiles and Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey that threatened the Soviet Union.

In 1961 the U.S. cut all diplomatic relations with the Castro government, and in following years toughened its embargo. Nine successive U.S. presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, have enforced the embargo, making American business with Cuba illegal. It also became illegal for American citizens to spend dollars there or visit an island 90 miles from Florida.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War. But the absence of Soviet subsidies hit Cubans hard. "Food shipments dropped by more than 50 percent in 1991, and the Cuban economy contracted by as much as 50 percent between 1989 and 1992," writes Clifford Staten in The History of Cuba . "Wages became stagnant and purchasing power plummeted. Fuel shortages electrical blackouts, factory shutdowns and transportation problems were common. Food shortages were becoming a problem and rationing reappeared" for the first time since the 1960s.

"Dissident groups increased," writes Staten. "The government responded with both repression and reform. Noncommunist candidates were allowed to run for office and some have been elected....[but] in early 1996 more than 200 human rights leaders were harassed, arrested and interrogated."

Amnesty International's 2002 Human Rights Report indicated a significant decrease in the number of political prisoners being held by Castro. But state officials maintain control of the media and today "Cubans continue to run the risk of imprisonment if they speak out against the government." Staten says that civic groups "must be officially sanctioned by the state or the members can be jailed."
With the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. shifted its harsh criticism of the Castro regime from anti-communism to Castro's human rights record.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries were greeted in Havana by cheering crowds?

3. What actions did Castro take to change the Cuban economy? What was he trying to accomplish? What success did he have? What failures?

4. Early U.S. opposition to Castro focused on his nationalization of land and properties belonging to Americans, who argued that they had not received adequate compensation. What do you think would be a fair way of determining compensation in such a situation?

5. How do you explain the U.S. embargo?

6. How and why did U.S. relations with Cuba deteriorate further?

7. What was the impact on Cuba of the collapse of the Soviet Union?

8. Why do you suppose that the Cuban government does not permit a free press, freedom of speech and freedom to organize groups without government approval?

Student Reading 2:
Cuban-Americans, presidential candidates on Cuba policy, human rights

The Cuban migration to the U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans left Cuba in the years after Fidel Castro took over. They often came in overcrowded, unsafe boats. Many drowned. Anyone reaching the United States was granted asylum. Today there are 1.5 million Cubans in the U.S., one-third of whom were born here. Close to one million live in Florida, two-thirds of them in Miami-Dade County in South Florida, and most are now American citizens. (, 1/29/08)

Many Cuban-Americans have become prosperous business owners as well as teachers, lawyers, and doctors. They have also become successful politicians in fundraising, getting out the vote and gaining U.S. government support for Cuban-American interests.

The majority of Cuban Americans have supported maintaining the U.S. trade blockade and the anti-Castro Spanish language broadcasts of Radio Marti, which the U.S. beams to Cuba. Most Cuban-Americans have supported Republicans, who typically take a stronger anti-Castro stance than the Democrats. Eighty percent voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Their 500,000 votes are sought eagerly by both parties.

A new generation of Cuban-Americans tends to be more flexible in their views, favoring U.S.-Cuba relations that would improve the lives of their relatives on the island. For 16 successive years the United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba. U.S. free traders and corporate agribusinesses have made some dents in it, but Democratic and Republican leaders have been unwilling to propose dramatic changes. The U.S. embargo has not prevented more than 50 other countries from trading with and investing in Cuba. China is its the biggest investor.

Minor changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba and its 11.3 million people include: permission for the sale of food and medicine in Cuba; allowing Cubans living in the U.S. to travel to Cuba once every three years to visit relatives; and allowing Cuban-Americans to send $300 remittances to Cuban relatives every three months. Other U.S. restrictions on normal trade and travel to Cuba remain.

The candidates on Cuban policy

Senator John McCain supports keeping the embargo and travel ban. He would increase spending on Radio Marti. Senator Clinton would make no changes in Cuban policy and would not talk with new Cuban leaders until they adopt more democratic practices.

Senator Obama said, "Cuban-American connections to family are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy in the island." As a result, he said, "I will authorize unlimited family travel and family cash remittances." ( Miami Herald , August 2007). Obama has also said he would talk with Cuba's leaders without preconditions, but has not supported any embargo change.

Cuba and human rights

The Castro government stifled "grassroots democracy" in Cuba from the outset. Human rights organizations have regularly condemned its behavior: "Cuba remains the only country in the Western hemisphere to effectively outlaw peaceful advocacy for human rights and democratic reforms," according to Human Rights First. "Independent civil society in Cuba—including human rights defenders, democratic activists and independent journalists and scholars—are the targets of constant persecution." Under Fidel Castro, Cuba restricted travel and permitted only the Communist Party. Human Rights First says that the transfer of power to Raul Castro has "not produced a significant change in the human rights situation on the island." (

However, days after Raul Castro became president, Cuba signed two international human rights treaties. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees "civil and political freedom," including peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, privacy, and freedom to leave a country. Amnesty USA welcomed the signing but said Cuba "must honor their human rights commitments by introducing measures to guarantee freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary, starting with the unconditional release of the current 58 prisoners of conscience." (, 2/29/08)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires countries to guarantee fair wages and freedom to organize and join trade unions. Fidel Castro opposed this treaty because it could provide an opportunity "for imperialism to try to divide and fracture the workers, create artificial unions, and decrease their political and social power and influence." ( New York Times , 3/1/08)

U.S. policy change seems unlikely during the remainder of the Bush administration. After Castro's resignation, President Bush said, "Cuba's government must begin a process of peaceful democratic change. They must release all political prisoners. They must have respect for human rights in word and deed and pave the way for free and fair elections." (3/7/08) But this point of view has critics even among human rights advocates.

"For more than four decades, the U.S. government has used Cuba's dismal human rights record to justify a sweeping economic embargo aimed at toppling the Castro regime," says Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "Yet the policy did nothing to bring change to Cuba. On the contrary, it helped consolidate Castro's hold on power by providing his government with an excuse for its problems and a justification for its abuses. Moreover, because the policy was imposed in such a heavy-handed fashion, it enabled Castro to garner sympathy abroad." (, 2/19/08)

For many years, often acting covertly, the U.S. itself has repeatedly violated the human rights of citizens of other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Today it also stands guilty in the eyes of many people worldwide of violating the human rights of prisoners-and flouting other rights included in international treaties which the U.S., and now Cuba, have ratified.

Examples of U.S. behavior

1954: The Eisenhower administration planned and supported with weapons, American pilots and planes the covert overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala. A military dictatorship succeeded it and eliminated free elections.

1973: The Nixon administration ordered a covert CIA operation to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Chile. It may not to have been directly responsible for the military dictator who seized control. But it granted him diplomatic recognition and did not condemn him for suppressing human rights and murdering opponents.

1980s: The Reagan administration ordered a covert CIA operation to mine the harbors of Nicaragua, an action condemned by the International Court of Justice, which President Reagan ignored. In violation of U.S. law, the Reagan administration supplied money and arms to opponents of a government that had overthrown a military dictator.
2008: President Bush vetoed a bill prohibiting CIA interrogators from prisoner torture by such techniques as waterboarding. The president said, "The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror. So today I vetoed it." President Bush has often said, "We do not torture." But the Bush administration also approved torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere in violation of the Geneva Conventions and American law, such as the War Crimes Act of 1996.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why are Cuban-Americans a political force in South Florida? What has been their role in Cuba policy?

3. Why has the U.S. enforced an embargo on trade with Cuba for almost 50 years?

4. What do you think are the pros and cons of such an embargo?

5. What has been the human rights situation in Cuba? Why do you think its record has been so "dismal"?

6. The U.S. has had diplomatic and trade relations with China for more than 30 years. Yet China's human rights record is worse than Cuba's. How would you explain this situation? If you can't, how might you find out?

7. How would you explain repeated U.S. violations of human rights in the Western Hemisphere? President Bush's violations of international treaties and domestic law on torture?

For small group discussion

Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Ask each group to: 1) assess each presidential candidate's position on policy toward Cuba and 2) discuss alternative approaches to U.S.-Cuba relations.

For inquiry

You Are An Historian

Involve students in a project on writing history, using the following as a take-off point:

"History is not 'what happened in the past;' rather, it is the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past. It is something that is done, that is constructed, rather than an inert body of data that lies scattered through the archives."
—James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Face: The Art of Historical Detection , p. xvii

This view of historical writing is important for students to remember as they read accounts of the past, certainly about controversial events like those having to do with Cuban-U.S. relations for the past 50 years.

The project begins with a decision to investigate further one of the subjects discussed in the two readings. For example: the nature of the Batista regime; American domination of Cuban business and agriculture; the U.S. embargo; the nature of the Castro regime; the human rights issue. Given the necessary brevity of these readings, discussions of such matters necessarily omit a great deal.

The assignment for an inquiry: Select one of the subjects discussed in the readings. Investigate it further by reading other sources and taking notes, especially where you think the initial readings above have omitted something important, analyzed a situation incorrectly, perhaps treated it unfairly or inaccurately. Before beginning this work, students might find useful "Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" on this website.

When you have completed your inquiry, construct your own historical account in no more than 150 words. Indicate your sources.