More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet bloc,
United States policy toward Cuba remains rooted in an approach
devised at the height of the Cold War, 40 years ago.
United States policy toward Cuba is dominated by the embargo,
which includes economic sanctions and restrictions on travel
to Cuba. The effect is to limit commercial, political
and civilian relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The goal
of the embargo, according to the State Department, is
to promote a peaceful transition to a stable, democratic form
of government and respect for human rights in Cuba.
U.S. policy toward Cuba also includes a second track meant
to foster people-to-people contacts and encourage the development
of civil society on the island. People-to-people initiatives
include U.S. government-sponsored Radio and TV Martí
broadcasts to Cuba; allowing private humanitarian donations
and remittances to citizens of Cuba; and licensing certain
Americans to travel to the island, including academics and
representatives of nongovernmental organizations.
The embargo dates back to Fidel Castros institution
of repressive and anti-American policies shortly after he
assumed power in 1959 policies that included the expropriation
of Americans property in Cuba and the alignment of Cuba
with the Soviet bloc. It led President Eisenhower, in October
1960, to establish the first provision of an economic embargo
that continues to this day.
U.S.-Cuban relations deteriorated rapidly in the 1960s. In
1961 alone, diplomatic ties with Cuba were severed; the failed
Bay of Pigs invasion occurred; Castro declared
Cuba to be a Marxist-Leninist state; and the United States
initiated Operation Mongoose, a plan of covert actions targeting
Cuban leaders and infrastructure. October 1962 saw the Cuban
missile crisis that stemmed from the Cuban governments
allowing Soviet nuclear missiles on the island.
The United States continued to tighten the embargo in the
early 1960s, making commercial relations with the island all
but impossible for Americans. In February 1963, President
Kennedy made it illegal for almost all Americans to travel
The 1970s and 1980s brought periodic initiatives toward improving
relations between the two countries. Secret talks between
the United States and Cuba over normalization of relations
occurred during the Ford administration in 1974. In 1977 under
President Carter, diplomatic ties were restored somewhat through
the establishment of Interests Sections in each
country, though the U.S. embargo remained.
Cold War ideological and political battles impeded progress
toward normalization. It is widely believed that Cuban support
of leftist insurgents in Angola ended U.S. interest in détente
with Cuba in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration
initially pondered rapprochement with Cuba, but the possibility
ended when Cuba worked with Marxist groups in Central American
civil wars. Events such as the Mariel boatlift in 1980, in
which 125,000 Cubans left the island for the United States,
and the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 -- crafted in part
to thwart Cuban-aided development of a military airfield --
were characteristic of new frictions between the U.S. and
The U.S. began to broadcast Radio Martí to Cuba in
1985, and TV Martí in 1990. The Cuban government began
jamming the television broadcasts soon after they went on
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the end of the
annual $4 billion subsidy of Cuba in 1991 ended the Cold War
context in which U.S. had formulated its policy toward Cuba.
Nonetheless, the 1990s saw a significant tightening of the
embargo, along with the simultaneous increase of people-to-people
initiatives. In 1992, Congress passed the Cuban Democracy
Act, which prohibits foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies
from trading with Cuba, but creates loopholes for travel to
Cuba by a select group of U.S. citizens. The law allows private
groups to deliver food and medicine to Cuba.
In 1994, another rafter crisis erupted, sending 30,000 Cubans
toward U.S. shores. Subsequent U.S.-Cuban negotiations led
to a set of migration accords, in which the two countries
made commitments to promote safe, legal and orderly migration.
The U.S. and Cuban governments still continue their regular
talks on migration.
U.S-Cuba relations took a dramatic turn for the worse in
1996, when Cuban MIG jetfighters shot down two U.S.-based
civilian aircraft belonging to the Miami-based group Brothers
to the Rescue, killing three U.S. citizens and one Cuban resident
of the United States.
Shortly thereafter, President Clinton signed into law the
controversial Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act,
commonly known as Helms-Burton after its original Congressional
sponsors. Helms-Burton enacts penalties on foreign companies
doing business in Cuba; permits lawsuits (even by individuals
who were Cuban citizens at the time) against foreign investors
who make use of expropriated property seized by the Cuban
government: and denies entry into the U.S. to such foreign
investors and their family members. Acting under a waiver
provision in the law known as Title III, Presidents Clinton
and Bush have suspended implementation of the lawsuit measure
at six-month intervals.
In the late 1990s, people-to-people initiatives continued
to grow, nonetheless, as a central element of U.S. policy
toward Cuba. In October 1995, President Clinton announced
measures to allow nongovernmental organizations in the U.S.
to fund projects in Cuba, and to allow U.S. AID funding to
NGOs in the U.S. for Cuba-related projects.
Anticipating the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in January
1998, President Clinton approved licenses for religious groups
and media to use charter aircraft and a cruise ship to travel
to the island. In 1998, the U.S. government took steps to
expedite the sales and donations of medicines to Cuba, including
the licensing of direct cargo flights. In January 1999, President
Clinton expanded the categories and streamlined the issuance
of licenses for those who seek to travel to Cuba; allowed
Americans to send $1200 per year in remittances to Cuba; broadened
the categories of groups to whom sale of food and medical
products could be made; and authorized direct charter passenger
flights to Cuba from U.S. cities other than Miami. Charter
flights now depart from Los Angeles and New York and fly to
Havana and other Cuban cities.
President Clinton, nonetheless, continued the embargo --
even as nearly all other countries had maintained or established
policies of engagement; even as the U.S. sought to expand
markets and increased engagement with China and Vietnam; and
even though the United Nations General Assembly consistently
opposed U.S. policy toward Cuba.
President Bush has stated strong support for the embargo.
In May 2001, the President said, my administration will
oppose any attempt to weaken sanctions against Cubas
government. Later, in July, the President reaffirmed
his position and announced he would enhance and expand capabilities
of the U.S. government to enforce the embargo. In addition,
he expanded people-to-people initiatives by increasing support
for human rights activists in Cuba and instructing the use
of all available means to overcome the jamming of Radio
and TV Martí.
Divergence over U.S. policy toward Cuba is highly visible
in the U.S. Congress. In the 106th Congress (1999-2000), members
proposed legislation both to reduce and increase sanctions
against Cuba. In the end, legislation passed that reflected
both approaches. The Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA), signed
into law by President Clinton in October 2000, allowed the
export of food and medicine to Cuba, but prohibited any U.S.
financing, both public and private, of such exports. The legislation
also codified the ban on travel to Cuba for tourism, which
throughout its history had been mandated only by Executive
In the first session of the 107th Congress (2001), members
again introduced measures both to ease and tighten the embargo.
Several key votes indicate growing support for ending the
embargo. In July 2001, the House of Representatives voted
by overwhelming majority to end funding of enforcement of
the travel ban, and a December 2001 vote in the Senate indicated
strong support for lifting restrictions on the finance of
sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba. In 2002, there
is much speculation that the travel ban could be eliminated
or its enforcement defunded, and restrictions on trade with
Cuba further reduced.
The 40-year-old embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve
U.S. policy goals. Formulated during a Cold War era that ended
years ago, the embargo has damaged U.S. economic, diplomatic
and national-security interests. And it has unconstitutionally
restricted Americans' freedoms. Long after the end of the
Cold War, the Cuba Policy Foundation sees the time for change