Last December, only a little over a year ago, it was announced that President Obama would be opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in over fifty years. Consequently, there has been quite a fuss over this dramatic diplomatic change, as questions about what this means for trade, travel, and human rights continue to be debated. However, after the embassies re-opened in each country back in July, discussions have more or less died down while people wait for the next step. Such news came Thursday when President Obama announced that he will be visiting Cuba in March. What’s shocking everyone is that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in 88 years.
An island nation clouded in mystery, Cuba was more or less only known by the U.S. population for its old-fashioned cars, cigars, and communism. Historically, most people learn about Cuba in the context of the Bay of Pigs Invasion or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both of these events took place under the Kennedy administration and consequently make Kennedy one of the U.S. Presidents most often associated with Cuba. However, it was President Eisenhower in January of 1961 who officially severed ties with the Caribbean nation. That means this has been a more than 50-year break-up for two nations separated by a mere 90 miles of water. With such proximity in mind, people are surprised to hear that it was none other than Calvin Coolidge who last visited Cuba, and that was in 1928. No sitting president has visited since before the Great Depression. What.
Though Jimmy Carter did visit in 2011, this will be a significant gesture on behalf of the United States and it comes only a little over a year since opening our doors to Cuba. Sadly, after 50 years off our radar, a significant portion of Americans have paid relatively little attention to U.S.-Cuba relations until this past year and if you’re one of those people who want to now be in the loop, here is my attempt to sparknote the situation with 10 things you need to know about then and now:
- Fidel Castro overthrew the incumbent Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 only to have his communist ideology emerge with rapid strength. Enough so, that in the midst of the Cold War, President Eisenhower ended diplomatic relations with the nation in January of 1961, at the conclusion of his presidency.
- It’s impossible to talk about U.S.-Cuban relations without some mention of both Kennedy’s “perfect failure” (a.k.a. the Bay of Pigs Invasion) and his successful maneuvering of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly avoided nuclear catastrophe. Know about it.
- Being no more than 90 miles away, thousands of Cubans fled to Florida in the wake of Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Perhaps the most famous incident involved a custody battle over Elian Gonzalez, a five year-old boy, rescued from a raft off the coast of Florida in 1999 after attempting to flee with his mother. He was returned to his father in Cuba despite extreme controversy.
- Between 1960 and 1962 a little-known event known as Operation Peter Pan took place. Thousands of children were sent to the U.S. by their parents who were desperate for them to have a better life. It was a controversial program with striking similarities to recent situations with unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border.
- There has been an embargo on Cuba since about 1960, strengthened by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 which remains in place. Some business and commerce has opened up between the U.S. and Cuba but the change has been miniscule. Only Congress will be able to lift the embargo. For now, Americans can begin to use their credit and debit cards if they travel there, but most importantly, it means people can send more remittances and stop hiding their Cuban cigars.
- Lifting full travel restrictions will also require Congressional action. However there are significantly more ways to be approved for travel including government business, journalism, humanitarian work, public performances, and athletic competition.
- In 1982 Cuba was placed on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and only lifted that designation in May of 2015. Now, only Iran, Syria, and Sudan have the honor.
- Fidel Castro handed power over to his younger brother Raul Castro in 2008. This is what we call good but not great.
- Pope Francis was involved in getting the U.S. and Cuba to talk again. He also visited Cuba in September 2015.
- On the bright side, thanks to Cuba we have been gifted with Bacardi (ever wonder why that rum and coke is often called a Cuba Libre?), Cuban Cigars, Café Cubano, and wonderful cuisine such as black beans and rice with plantains.
This list only scratches the surface of a rich but tumultuous history. Yet I hope it helps frame the importance of this diplomatic development. Not everyone is happy about these changes, however. The Castro regime is notorious for its human rights abuses and oppression of business owners, religion, etc. Many people feel that to restore diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, without first addressing human rights issues, is to wrongly appease a cruel communist government. Some of the staunchest critics are the Cuban exiles living in the U.S. and their families, including U.S. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Among these Cuban-American families there now exists an interesting generational gap that has accounted for some of the divided sentiments on this issue.
Speaking with Notre Dame Senior, Danny Chomat, he expresses frustration saying: “The trip, while well intentioned, undermines U.S. leverage with a country that continues to violate the rights of its citizens.” Personally, as the daughter of a Cuban exile and a student of political science, I have seen the photos and heard the stories, and I am fascinated. I am curious to see where this relationship will go, but also justifiably wary; neither jumping for joy nor decrying the change. This is history in the making and only time will tell if this change will prove to be for the better.