Cuba Through Time
The Siboney and Guanahatabey Indians are the earliest known inhabitants of Cuba. They arrived there sometime after 3500 b.c. Both groups lived in small temporary settlements. Their dwellings were concentrated near the ocean, because sea life was their main source of food. They gathered clams, mussels, crabs, and lobsters; hunted manatees and sea turtles; and fished. They also collected wild nuts and fruits and hunted and trapped iguanas, snakes, and birds.
Warlike Arawak Indians began arriving in the ninth century and pushed the Siboney and Guanahatabey to the western one-third of the island. The Arawak originated in South America and migrated northward along the West Indies archipelago. They had larger, permanent villages, usually numbering more than 1,000 inhabitants. The Arawak also were healthier and stronger than the Siboney and Guanahatabey because they grew most of their own food. Farming made their food supply dependable, abundant, and varied. They cooperated in planting, weeding, and harvesting their crops.
Christopher Columbus first sighted Cuba during a driving rainstorm on the late afternoon of October 27, 1492. A few months earlier, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had hired Columbus, an Italian adventurer and businessman, to find a sea route to India. This was his first voyage of discovery. Historians dispute exactly where he disembarked the next morning, but a location near Gibara, a small village on Cuba’s northeast coast, is the most likely place.
Once on shore, the explorer was astonished by the island’s beauty. Columbus wrote: “Everything I saw was so lovely that my eyes could not weary of beholding such beauty, nor could I weary of the songs of the birds large and small…. There are trees of a thousand species,” he continued, “each has its particular fruit, and all of marvelous flavor.” Columbus claimed this land for Spain. For the next five weeks, he sailed eastward along the indented northern coast, dropping anchor periodically in the many pouch-shaped harbors to explore the island.
The Spanish crown had hired Columbus to find a new water route to the riches of the Indies, the islands lying off the southeast coast of Asia. When he arrived in Cuba, he noted that the natives—whom he mistakenly called Indians because he thought they were inhabitants of the Indies—wore what appeared to be silver jewelry. He also thought the island’s pine forests would be a natural resource for shipbuilding. Columbus was optimistic that there would be pearls in offshore waters, gold in streams, silver in the mountains, and spices in the mangrove forests. “It is certain that where there is such marvelous scenery, there must be much from which profit can be made,” he noted. Columbus was convinced that he had found the riches of the Indies.
Columbus’s second voyage took him back to the West Indies in November 1493. This time he sailed along Cuba’s southern coast as far as the Gulf of Bataban. From there he sailed south to Cuba’s second largest island, which he could see in the distance, and named it the Isle of Pines because of the large pine forest on the northern half of the island.
Motivated to find Cuba’s riches, especially gold, Columbus explored the main island’s southern coast for three months before returning to Spain. He never discovered gold. He also never sailed around the west end of the island. If he had done so, he would have discovered that he had not found a continent. Instead, on this voyage he officially declared that Cuba was a peninsula of Asia. In 1503, the admiral stopped briefly on the island’s southern shore during his fourth and final voyage to the New World.
SPANISH CONQUEST AND COLONIAL PERIOD (1512-1898)
At first, Cuba did not receive much attention from Spain, because it had only small deposits of gold. Occasionally, Spanish expeditions visited the island in search of able-bodied Indians to work as slaves in Hispaniola’s gold mines and in its newly established towns and plantations. The Arawak, however, fought back. Sadly, their bows and arrows were no match against the raiders’ mobility on horseback and their steel swords, muskets, and armor. The Spaniards overreacted to the Indian revolt and attacked swiftly and ruthlessly. They massacred tens of thousands of Indians. By 1519, the Indian population was down from its original size of 112,000 to just 19,000. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had shrunk to less than 2,000.
Diego de Velazquez, a wealthy landowner in western Hispaniola, led the conquest and early settlement of Cuba. The king of Spain made him Cuba’s first governor. Velazquez established the island’s first seven Spanish settlements. He chose the sites of Baracoa (1512), Bayamo (1513), Trinidad (1514), Havana (1514), Puerto Principe (now Camagtiey) (1514), Sancti Spiritus (1514), and Santiago de Cuba (1515). Velazquez chose Santiago de Cuba as the island’s first capital. Although this town was isolated at the eastern end of the island and surrounded by rugged mountains, it had a good harbor and was near the main trade routes at that time.
Cuba experienced an economic boost almost immediately after Velazquez’s conquest. The Spanish Empire was expanding north into Florida, west into the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico, and south into Venezuela, Colombia, and eventually Peru. Havana became the center of maritime activity. Jobseeking colonists from Spain were drawn to Cuba. Havana’s large harbor, favorable currents and winds, and location on the most direct route between Mexico, North America, and Europe made it the logical stopover point for expeditions to Spain’s emerging empire. Cuba also served as a tactical support base for the sixteenth century exploration of Florida and the creation of permanent Spanish settlements there.
Recognizing Havana’s strategic importance, Spain built three fortresses around its harbor in the late 1500s to protect it from pirates and enemy warships. For the next two centuries, treasure fleets (flotas) from Vera Cruz in Mexico, Cartegena in Venezuela, and Panama City (known then as Puerto Bello) in Panama assembled there. From there, the fleets would take their cargos to Spain. A vast array of businesses developed around the needs of crews, passengers, and the city’s growing population.
Havana became the colony’s capital in 1607. By 1700, this port city accounted for more than half of the inhabitants on the island. Havana’s population grew to 236,000 by 1899—a population more than five times greater than the second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, which had a population of only 43,100. The 1607 transfer of the political capital from Santiago de Cuba to Havana worsened conditions in eastern Cuba. The presence of less officials, including smaller army garrisons, made the eastern region more vulnerable to raids by pirates and enemy warships. Convoying Spain’s treasure fleets through Havana isolated the former capital and immensely reduced commerce there. The eastern region’s economy never flourished during the Spanish colonial period. However, its people survived and developed a strong distrust of Spain, Havana, and central control of government. Eastern Cuba is where future revolutionaries, such as Jose Marti and Fidel Castro, would first seek popular support from the people.
Spanish occupation of Cuba was not different from the Crown’s rule over its other Latin American colonial holdings. Unlike some other colonial powers, the Spanish created polarized societies immediately upon their arrival. New territories instantly became parts of the Spanish empire, rather than just overseas colonial possessions. This approach led to the implementation of an identical administrative structure to Spain’s. At that time the Spanish kingdom was organized under feudal principles. Feudalism was a legal and social system in Europe in which a monarch attempts to control his kingdom through joint agreements with regional leaders.
Political and economic power remained in the hands of a few wealthy families. They strictly enforced the feudal system to mirror that of Castile. It is the system of removal instead of investment, and economic expansion rather than competitive entrepreneurship. It meant that a small nobility owned the land, while the sea of commoners and slaves had very little. The former concentrated wealth, while the latter worked for them without an opportunity to climb economically. This socioeconomic structure produced slow development, particularly compared to rapidly growing northern America (the United States and Canada). Keep in mind that agriculture always was, and still is, among the leading economic activities in Latin America. The agriculture sector employs the majority of people. Without the ability to own land, particularly larger tracts, ordinary people were permanently stagnated. Those in power did not want to allow any changes in existing conditions for fear of losing benefits. By the mid-nineteenth century Cuba had continued to stagnate and had no modern industrial development. To allow this transition, the establishment would have had to create major social changes in favor of the masses. Rampant poverty, therefore, was perpetuated and the least developed geographic areas suffered the most. Conditions in Cuba, as in other parts of Latin America, were ripe for rebellion.
THE WARS OF INDEPENDENCE (1868-1898)
Cuba experienced two wars of independence during the second half of the nineteenth century. Both conflicts were responses to Spain’s refusal to allow Cubans the right to govern themselves concerning local issues, such as taxation, public works, and trade policy. Cuban rebels in both conflicts used the impassioned political slogan Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) as they fought against Spanish soldiers.
To better illustrate the Cuban situation, we must include this island in a larger picture of nineteenth-century geopolitical changes. After continuous decline, the once-mighty Spanish Empire stood on legs of glass in Latin America. It relinquished power over all major possessions in the Western Hemisphere except for Cuba. Tired of being exploited, the Middle Americans chose revolutionary paths toward independence. They followed the approach of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the South American political leader who played a key role in the liberation of Spanish South American possessions and who participated in the foundation of the first republic of Colombia. Adamant to retain Cuba or otherwise entirely lose any significant presence in the Western Hemisphere, Spain chose to refuse Cuban independence. Unlike earlier, however, Spain had to deal with another vital factor: The arrival of the new imperialistic force from the north, the United States, entirely changed the geopolitics in the Caribbean realm. Eager to see the Spanish gone forever, the Americans willingly supported the Cuban anti-Spanish rebellion. The second part of the nineteenth century marked the period of rapid American economic and military presence in the Caribbean region.
The First War of Independence (1868-1878) began on October 10, 1868, in eastern Cuba. The uprising failed in part because the rebels had weak leadership. The leaders who carried out the revolt, Maximo Gomez (a black man originally from the Dominican Republic) and Antonio Maceo (a former black slave), were inexperienced in conducting war and could not agree on strategy. Moreover, wealthy sugar plantation owners of western Cuba did not support the revolt. They feared that it would lead to the freeing of slaves, upon whom they depended for labor to work their cane fields.
Seventeen years would pass between Cuba’s First War of Independence and its second. The brilliant Jose Marti was the chief organizer, propagandist, fund-raiser, and political leader of the Second War of Independence (1885-1898). He became Cuba’s first national hero. Marti traveled to France, the United States, and Venezuela to raise financial support for an independent Cuba. He chose to start the war in eastern Cuba, where there was much popular sentiment for an uprising.
Marti enlisted key military leaders, including Gomez and Maceo (leaders of the First War of Independence), and returned to Cuba on April 11, 1885. After only a few weeks, Spanish troops killed the 32-year-old Marti in a brief skirmish near the town of Dos Rios in today’s Granma Province. However, Marti’s vision and Gomez and Maceo’s military experience routed the Spanish. (Nevertheless, Spaniards killed Maceo in a battle south of Havana before the war ended.)
Cubans shared their victory over Spain with American soldiers because the United States intervened and declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898. The Spanish-American War and the Second War of Independence ended shortly thereafter on August 2, 1898. Spain agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Cuba.
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR AND U.S. OCCUPATION (1898-1902)
The Spanish-American War lasted less than four months. Cuban troops already had control over most of the island. On July 1, 1898, the U.S. Army attacked Spanish positions on San Juan Hill just east of Santiago de Cuba. The battle was bloody. Future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt personally led the famous charge of the “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill and claimed victory. Two days later, on July 3, the American navy destroyed the Spanish fleet when Spaniards tried to break out of the Bahia de Santiago de Cuba (Bay of Santiago).
Spain and the United States signed a peace treaty in Paris, thereby ending the Spanish-American War on December 12, 1898. The Cubans were not invited. The treaty included U.S. annexation of three Spanish colonies: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Only the Teller Amendment prevented the Americans from annexing Cuba. The United States placed Cuba under military occupation instead.
In November 1900, an assembly of elected Cuban delegates drew up a constitution similar to that of the United States. A year later, the U.S. Congress passed the Platt Amendment, giving the president the authority to send U.S. troops to Cuba whenever U.S. strategic interests and American lives there were threatened. The provisions of the amendment also enabled the United States to buy or lease land for naval bases in Cuba. The United States gave Cuba the option of accepting the Platt Amendment or being under military occupation indefinitely. Cuba accepted the amendment.
Cuba became an independent republic on May 20, 1902, when its people elected Tomas Estrada Palma the first president of the Republic of Cuba. The United States withdrew its military forces from the island after the election.
THE REPUBLIC (1902-1959)
A popular guidebook describes 1902 to 1959 in Cuba as the “Age of Decadence.” During this period, the country had a series of presidents who led corrupt and incompetent governments. Moreover, during the years of U.S. Prohibition (1919-1933), when alcohol was illegal in the United States, lavish Havana hotels, casinos, and brothels became a destination for American pleasure seekers. Additionally, members of organized crime in the United States rubbed shoulders with the Cuban elite at these establishments. Soon organized crime was operating Havana’s casinos. American dollars tainted by corruption filled the pockets of many Cuban politicians. American corporations owned most of the farmland, essential services, and sugar mills.
The United States used the Platt Amendment to send troops to Cuba several times to put down labor strikes, riots, and armed rebellions—activities that jeopardized American business interests. The Platt Amendment kept corrupt governments in power at the expense of civil liberties, which aroused the collective indignation of the Cuban people. The American government ignored Cubans’ angry protests. In 1903, under the provisions of the Platt Amendment, the United States obtained a permanent lease on Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba and began construction of a naval base there. The United States still maintains the naval base, despite the hostility between the two countries today.
President Gerardo Machado (1924-1933) was one of Cuba’s worst presidents. He relied on censorship, military force, and terror tactics in his last years, which coincided with a depression produced by the collapse of the world sugar market in 1930. Cuban discontent and U.S. pressure forced Machado to flee Cuba for the Bahamas in 1933.
Fulgencio Batista led a brief revolt to take power shortly after Machado fled. Batista ruled Cuba as army chief of staff or as president from 1933 to 1958. He got the United States to revoke the Platt Amendment in 1934, and he instituted a liberal constitution in 1940. Nevertheless, Batista was an ineffective and corrupt leader. He hid bribery and extortion money in a bank account in Switzerland. He used a secret police force to root out, torture, and assassinate dissidents. He rigged elections and ignored the rural poverty, city slums, and crime that plagued the country. As a century earlier, Cuba experienced conditions that were ripe for rebellion. The reasons remained the same. Despite independence, the socioeconomic structure changed little. The wealthy minority remained in control, while the landless peasants remained in poverty. Land reform and redistribution, yet again, were key terms that Cuban revolutionaries applied to attract public support and to begin fighting. This explains why Communism, with its perceived socioeconomic equality and care for the masses, eventually gained the Cubans’ interest.
On January 1, 1959, under pressure because of rebel victories in the countryside, Batista fled from Havana to the Dominican Republic and eventually to a comfortable exile in Spain. One week after the infamous Batista left Havana, the charismatic Fidel Castro, leader of Cuba’s rebel army, entered the city a national hero.
THE CUBAN REVOLUTION (1953-1959)
Castro’s plan for a Cuban revolution started poorly. On July 26, 1953, he led a band of 119 rebels in an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the most important military base in eastern Cuba at the time. Government troops captured Castro. He stayed in prison until Batista granted a general amnesty in 1955.
Upon his release from prison, Castro organized a small group of underground leaders in eastern Cuba. Castro moved to Mexico and used money from Cuban exiles in the United States to organize and train a small military force of 82 men. He called the force M (Movement)-26-7, after the date of the failed July 26 attack on the Moncada barracks.
Castro and the M-26-7 force returned to Cuba on December 2, 1956, in a leaky yacht named the Granma. They landed at Cape Cruz in eastern Cuba. Batista’s army crushed the rebel force shortly after it landed. Castro and 11 others (including future commanders and revolutionary heroes Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel’s brother Raul, and Camilo Cienfuegos) managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra range.
At first, Castro’s underground was unable to rally the local population to his cause; however, by the end of 1957, Castro’s revolution had captured the imaginations of the Cuban people. His rebels were making guerrilla warfare—descending from the mountains to raid cane plantations and mines, and then hiding out in the mountains again. A radio station, set up at his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, kept the people informed of the revolution’s growing strength.
Graham Greene, author of Our Man in Havana, was traveling in Cuba at the time. He wrote: “The Oriente Province (eastern Cuba), almost to the last man, woman and child . . . was on the side of Fidel.” Castro had repulsed efforts by Batista’s army to push him from his Sierra Maestra stronghold. Raul Castro controlled a second eastern front in the Sierra de Cristal. Together, the Castro brothers had Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s second largest city) surrounded. Guevara and Cienfuegos were in charge of a third force in the Sierra del Escambray of central Cuba. By mid-1958, all three forces could hold their own in pitched battles against government troops.
In late November 1958, Castro’s forces moved quickly out of the mountains. They scored major victories against Bastista’s army in large cities: Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, and Santa Clara. In December, the armies of Guevara and Cienfuegos had victories in central Cuba and then swiftly moved toward Havana, compelling Batista to flee the country. The cause of Cuba Libre seemed finally to have cast out the last dictator and foreign power from Cuban soil.
CASTRO MOVES TOWARD COMMUNISM (1959-1961)
When Castro took power, he was not a Communist. A series of events—involving the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the United States—moved him toward Communism and into the Cold War.
Shortly after taking power, Castro made it clear that he was not going to create a government based on coalitions with Cuba’s wealthy elite, many of whom had close ties with the United States. In 1959, he held “war crimes” trials that targeted wealthy Cubans and the political opposition. As the news cameras rolled, Castro coldheartedly condemned prisoners to death. Castro and Castro-appointed judges threw countless other opposition members into prison or exiled them. Firing squads executed more than 600 people after these mock trials. Castro had the trials televised live. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban political refugees poured into the United States.
Nor was Castro going to return Cuba to foreign domination. As part of his agrarian reform, he seized landholdings of large U.S. companies, such as the United Fruit Company. In the summer of 1960, he seized U.S. and British oil companies for their refusal to refine Soviet petroleum. In August 1960, the Cuban government seized the American-owned telephone and electricity companies and sugar mills. Castro believed correctly that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was hatching plots against him in the U.S. embassy in Havana. He told the United States to reduce its embassy staff from 300 to 11 persons.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to Castro’s actions in January 1961 by breaking off official diplomatic relations with Cuba, imposing a partial trade embargo, and banning U.S. citizens from traveling there. The U.S. policy since then has been to isolate Cuba geographically and diplomatically.
THE BAY OF PIGS INVASION
The Bay of Pigs invasion dashed any hope that Cuba might stop its slide toward Communism. The invasion took place on April 14, 1961. It involved about 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban refugees. President Kennedy permitted the U.S. Navy to escort the invaders’ ships to Cuban waters but canceled use of U.S. planes by anti-Castro pilots in the actual fighting.
The battle took place where the invaders disembarked, at the Bay of Pigs, just west of Cienfuegos. The fighting lasted three days. Castro’s troops and local militias killed more than 100 invaders and took the survivors prisoner. The defeat of the invaders made Castro a national hero for a second time. Castro declared that Cuba should become a Communist-style state on April 16, 1961—during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In a speech in December 1961, he declared that he was a true believer in Communism.
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
Tensions between Cuba and the United States peaked during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That event, which involved high-stakes diplomacy between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev (the Soviet Union’s premier), brought the world close to the brink of nuclear war.
The crisis began when U.S. high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft spotted Soviet Union nuclear missiles inside Cuba that were capable of striking Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The crisis ended when Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the missiles after receiving secret assurance from Kennedy that the United States would not invade Cuba. The United States also promised to withdraw some of its nuclear missiles from Turkey (which borders the former Soviet Union). Afterward, Castro and the Americans continued to engage in a war of hostile diplomacy. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly, and the Castro regime moved toward adopting a one-party Communist system. The Soviet Union became Cuba’s main trading partner.
CUBA-U.S. RELATIONS (1965-2009)
Cuba officially became a Communist government in 1965. The country started receiving military aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist countries. Castro used this aid to support guerrilla movements (focos) in Africa and several countries in Latin America. The United States protested vigorously against Cuba’s policy of exporting revolution.
In 1980, the focus of U.S. concern expanded to include the “Mariel boatlift.” This started when Castro announced that 125,000 Cubans could legally depart for the United States from the Cuban port of Mariel. Over the next several months, a large number of “boat people” died trying to cross the Straits of Florida in unsafe boats and rafts. During the 1980s, U.S. reports described the poor treatment of political prisoners in Cuba. Additionally, broadcasts beamed from the U.S. Radio Marti (since 1985) increased tensions between the two countries.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan authorized the invasion of the island of Grenada (in the eastern Caribbean Sea) by U.S. Special Forces to stop Cuba from building an airfield there. A number of Cuban troops were killed during the operation. In the late 1980s, Cuba’s policy of exporting revolution ended, in part, because of the Grenada defeat. Additionally, the Soviet Union and Communist countries in Eastern Europe were in the processes of breaking up, and these countries cut off aid to Castro’s foreign wars of liberation.
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Since then, Cuba’s economy has suffered severe shortages of food and oil (products Cuba could no longer import from the Soviet Union). In August 1994, food shortages and prolonged blackouts caused Cubans to riot in Havana. The Cuban government responded by allowing 30,000 more Cubans to leave by boat for the United States.
Once again, a large number of “boat people” died trying to cross the Straits of Florida. In May 1995, the United States and Cuba agreed to permit 20,000 Cubans to immigrate legally to the United States each year. To encourage legal immigration, the United States also began sending all boat people found at sea back to Cuba.
Pope John Paul II visited Cuba for five days in January 1998. He called for an end to the U.S. trade embargo, while pressing Castro to release political prisoners and to allow political and religious freedom. The United States responded by giving special “licenses” to delegations of American businesspeople and researchers to visit Cuba. Such visits are still possible today.
On June 28,2000, U.S. authorities returned Elian Gonzalez to Cuba to live with his father, ending a seven-month legal battle that began when a fishing boat off Florida rescued the boy from a shipwreck that killed his mother. The boy’s Miami relatives had sought to keep him in the United States. The Miami Cuban-American community passionately supported the relatives through demonstrations and vigils outside the home of Elian’s uncle, where Elian was staying. In the meantime, Castro orchestrated demonstrations in Havana for the return of Elian to his father and even sent his father to the United States to meet with U.S. authorities. In accordance with U.S. law, the local authorities returned Elian to Cuba with his father. The “Elian affair” brought into focus the strong dislike the large Cuban-American community has of Castro and his Communist government.
Cuba-U.S. relations got worse in 2002. Cuba sided with other countries questioning the motives of the U.S.-led war on Iraq that began that year. Castro began jailing scores of political dissidents in an apparent protest. In 2003, Cuba executed three men who tried to hijack a passenger ferry to sail to the United States.
The American-Cuban relationship depends significantly on political circumstances in Florida, a state with many electoral votes in presidential elections. During George W. Bush’s Republican administration and his brother Jeb’s governorship in Florida, a firm stance against Cuba was expected. Elderly Cuban Americans tend to be more politically conservative and supporters of a conservative stance against Cuba. Because they personally experienced tragedies of exile, their goal is complete removal of the Castro brothers and the Communists from power. Younger generations of Cuban Americans do not share identical views. Unfamiliar with memories of the Cold War, while politically leaning toward liberal viewpoints, they seek normalization of the relationship without extreme demands. Their support for Republican administrations is not as strong. The Democratic Obama administration seeks to capitalize on this issue. They believe that the normalization of relations with Cuba can lead to political benefits for the party.
U.S. ECONOMIC SANCTIONS (1960-2005)
The United States has used economic sanctions in an effort to force economic policy and human-rights changes in Cuba. The purpose of sanctions is to pressure the country to end the violations.
The United States began sanctions by cutting off the remaining portion of Cuba’s 1959-1960 sugar imports and by banning U.S. exports to Cuba, except certain foodstuffs and medical supplies. Kennedy imposed the total ban on trade in 1961. Additionally, the U.S. government froze all Cuban-owned assets in the United States and forbade American tourists from traveling to Cuba.
In 1992, the U.S. government passed the Cuba Democracy Act. The act has two tracks. The first track discourages trade with Cuba by preventing foreign businesses owned by U.S. companies from trading with the island and by preventing foreign vessels that are carrying Cuban goods from entering U.S. ports. The second track allows Cuban Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba once a year.
The U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996 is the most recent economic sanction taken by the United States against Cuba. It was a U.S. response to the 1996 downing of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over international waters. This act authorizes the U.S. president to prevent business executives of foreign countries from entering the United States if their companies use U.S. property seized by the Castro government. The law also gives American businesses the right to sue in U.S. court any foreign nations that benefit or profit from using the seized property.
Although the Helms-Burton law is well intentioned, U.S. presidents have been reluctant to use it. The law would require that the United States take action against allies and important trading partners of the United States. These partners include Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and France. All of these countries regularly conduct trade with Cuba today and have established diplomatic relationships. Western European nations, however, do vocally criticize the Cuban human-rights record. This resulted in a temporary diplomatic downturn in 2003. In 2008, regular interaction resumed.
Cautious diplomacy between Cuba and the United States is taking place now. The United States modified its trade sanctions in 2000 to allow limited trade with Cuba in farm products, medicines, and medical supplies. In mid-December 2001, the first U.S. ship to dock in Cuba in almost 40 years arrived in Havana. Its cargo included food and medicine from the United States. Progress in trade talks chilled in 2004, after the United States applied more pressure on Castro to improve his human-rights record. It set more limits on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba in order to reduce the flow of U.S. dollars into the country. In 2009, as a goodwill attempt, the White House removed some barriers and allowed Cuban Americans to travel and send money to families in Cuba.