The Cold War was getting hot. As many an excitable history teacher may have told you, AD 1963 almost never came to pass. In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened and the world’s two superpowers came within inches (the precise measurement depending on exactly how excitable your history teacher was) of dragging each other, and the rest of the world with them, into nuclear oblivion.
The United States’ first diplomatic response since the Cuban Missile Crisis was to impose restrictions on travel to Cuba on February 5, 1963. Apart from a temporary lapse in the late 70s and early 80s, the ban would remain in place until 2009, when President Barack Obama eased the restrictions for students, missionaries and Cuban-Americans.
The Missile Crisis had not provided the only heated exchange between the United States and Cuba at the start of the Sixties. Nor had Cuba and its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro always allied themselves with the world’s leading communist power. Indeed, the United States’ first embargo of Cuba occurred during the island’s civil war in 1958 when Castro, accompanied by the face that would launch a thousand posters, guerrilla-for-hire Che Guevara, were fighting US-backed president Fulgencio Batista. President Eisenhower issued an arms embargo which ended up bringing about the downfall of Bautista instead of the defeat of the rebels.
Despite their socialist ideals, in the wake of their revolution Castro’s rebels actually appealed to the United States for help. The world’s largest capitalist power was already forming plans to topple Castro and refused to lift the arms embargo, so Cuba began purchasing weaponry from the Soviet Union instead.
So began a diplomatic war of attrition between the United States and the largest of the Caribbean islands to its south. In July 1960, the US reduced the amount of Cuban brown sugar it imported to 700,000 tons. The Soviet Union offered to buy the sugar from Cuba instead. Later that year, the US cancelled imports of sugar from Cuba entirely. They also cancelled all exports of refined oil. Cuba could still import crude oil from the Soviets, but the island’s three refineries were American-owned and promptly refused to refine any more oil. The Cuban government proceeded to nationalise the refineries in October, refusing to compensate any of their owners. The refineries still function today, and remain state-owned.
Enraged by the loss of the refineries, Eisenhower’s government severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba and put together plans to topple Castro by landing a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group of Cuban exiles in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The attempted invasion failed spectacularly, turning Castro into a national hero and catapulting him to global fame, whilst severely embarrassing Eisenhower’s successor John F. Kennedy, who was saddled with most of the blame for the attempted coup’s failure.
It was only after the Bay of Pigs that the Cuban government officially declared itself Marxist and allied itself with the Soviet Union. In September of 1962, JFK suspended all trade with Cuba apart from food and medicine. After the near-miss of the Missile Crisis, this exception was to prove especially useful when the last Bay of Pigs fighters were returned to the United States on Christmas Eve in exchange for $53 million of food.
The US embargo, or el bloqueo (the blockade) as it is known in Cuba, remains in place today, making it the longest trade embargo in modern history. Some warmth, though not of the missile-crisis-variety, has returned to the relationship. In 2013, US President Barack Obama shook the hand of Castro’s younger brother Raúl at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Three years later, Obama paid an historic visit to Cuba then eased sanctions on Cuban rum and cigars.
The embargo remains a highly divisive issue. The United States cites the $6 billion-worth of financial claimsit holds against the Cuban government as partial justification. Many also criticise the human rights record of Cuba’s government, which faces many allegations including political executions and the use of psychological torture on dissidents. Simultaneously, human rights groups have also condemned the embargo itself. On the other hand, pro-embargo Cuban exiles living in the United States have become increasingly influential in Florida, where they form a crucial voting bloc and have won many politicians to their cause.
The bill for a Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced to Congress in 2015, but is still being referred to by several Foreign Relation committees. Should it pass, it would allow US citizens to visit Cuba for the first time since February 5, 1963. Cuban exiles have been accused by several politicians of stubbornly opposing a reform which would benefit Americans out of an outdated loyalty to Batista and a hatred of Castro.
These same exiles poured onto the streets of Miami in November 2016 to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, whose legacy and government continue under the leadership of President Raúl.