On April 11,2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at the summit of the Americas in Panama, marking the first meeting between a US and Cuban head of state since the two countries severed their ties in 1961. The meeting came four months after the presidents announced their countries would restore ties. Successive US administrations have maintained a policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The changes in the countries relations, initially marked by a prisoner swap and Havana’s release of a jailed contractor, prompted come experts to point to better prospects for Cuba’s economy and US relations more broadly in Latin America. The tumultuous US Cuba relations has its roots in the Cold War. In 1959, Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries seized power in Havana, overthrowing Fulgencio Batista. Despite misgivings about Castro’s communist political ideology, the United States recognised his government. However, as Castro’s regime increased trade with the Soviet Union, nationalised US owned properties and hiked taxes on American imports, the United States responded with escalating economic retaliation. After slashing Cuba sugar imports, Washington instituted a ban on nearly all exports to Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy exnded into a full economic embargo that included stringent travel restrictions. In 1961, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and began pursuing covert operations to overthrow the Castro regime. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, a botched CIA-backed attempt to topple the government, fueled mistrust and nationalism, leading to a secret agreement allowing the Soviet Union to build a missile base on the island. The United States discovered those plans in October of 1962, setting off a 14-day standoff. US ships imposed a naval quarantine around the island, and Kennedy demanded the destruction of the missile sites. The Cuban missile crisis ended with an agreement that the sites would be dismantled if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba; the United States also secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey. Following the events of 1961-62, economic and diplomatic isolation became the major prongs of US policy towards Cuba. Washington strengthened the embargo with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which states that the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and transitions to a democratic government that excludes the Castros( Raul has said he will leave office in 2018).
US President Barack Obama came into office seeking greater engagement with Cuba, and in 2009 reversed some of the restrictions on reittances and travel set by his predecessor George W. Bush. During his first term, Obama also permitted US telecommunications companies to provide more cellular and satellite service in Cuba and allowed US citizens to send remittances to non family members in Cuba. Both countries appeared open to further negotiations until Cuban authorities arrested Alan Gross, a US Agency for International Development (USAID) sub-contractor, in Havana in 2009. Gross had travelled to the country to deliver communications equipment and arrange internet access for it’s Jewish community. Cuban authorities alleged he was attempting to destabilise the Cuban regime and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. At the same time, Raul Castro wanted to secure the release of the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami in 1998 and convicted in 2001, who had become national heroes in Cuba. Another contentious issue between the two countries was Cuba’s designation by the US State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, a status first assigned in 1982 in light of Fidel Castro training of rebels in Central America. Castro announced in 1992 that Cuba would no longer support insurgents abroad, and the State Department’s annual report for 2013 states their is no evidence that the country has provided training or weapons to terrorist groups. In April 2015, Obama announced that he planned to remove Cuba from the list, following the State Department’s recommendation. Cuba’s listing had been a major obstacle to talks about restoring diplomatic relations.
On December 11,2015, Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than 50 years. The announcement followed a prisoner swap. The three still jailed members of the Cuban Five (one had been released in 2011 and another earlier in 2014) were released in exchange for a US intelligence asset, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who had been imprisoned in Havana for nearly 20 years. Gross was also released that morning on humanitarian grounds. The agreement came after 18 months of secret talks between US and Cuban officials that were encouraged and brokered by Pope Francis. In addition to the prisoner releases. The United States agreed to further ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking: and Cuba agreed to release 53 prisoners the United States has classified as political dissidents. US officials confirmed in January 2015 that all 53 were released. Obama also announced that he instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Since taking office in 2008, Raul Castro has spoken of the need to reform Cuba’s economic system. Facing an aging population, heavy foreign debt and economic hardship amid the global economic downturn, Castro began to liberalise parts of Cuba’s largely state-controlled economy and loosen restrictions on personal freedoms, including ownership of certain consumer goods and travel outside the country. Cuba’s private sector has swelled as a direct result of these reforms, and in 2014 was reported to be about 20 percent of the country’s workforce.
Regional powers and many rights groups have praised the normalisation of US-Cuba relations, arguing that engagement instead of isolation could help improve human rights in Cuba. Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza welcomed the announcement. “Cuba is undertaking a process of economic reforms that will, I hope, lead to political reforms,” he said. Experts say Cuba’s participation in the April 2015 summit of the Americas in Panama signalled a “new era” of hemispheric relations. Obama and Castro’s meeting was cordial, with Castro saying he believed Obama was “honest.” Members of civil society, including high profile Cuban dissidents, also participated in the summit, a move that some say signalled increased political openness. Yet even with such developments and the release of political prisoners, some analysts are cautious about how rapidly Cuba’s political system will change. Despite the economic embargo, the United States has been Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner since 2007. In the short term, Julie Sweig, a Cuba and Brazil scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, says Obama will continue to use executive authority to open US-Cuba ties around trade, investment, banking, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals agriculture and travel. This, she predicts may create a “political dynamic that would ultimately shift opinion inside Congress to eventually repeal, or no longer enforce, Helms-Burton.