About U.S.-Cuba Relations
The relationship between the United States and Cuba for the last 40 years has been marked by tension and confrontations. The United States recognized the new Cuban government, headed by Fidel Castro, on January 7, 1959. However, bilateral relations deteriorated rapidly as the regime expropriated U.S. properties and moved towards adoption of a one-party Marxist-Leninist system. As a result, the United States established an embargo on Cuba in October 1960 and broke diplomatic relations the following January. Tensions between the two governments peaked during the April 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion and the October 1962 missile crisis.
Cuba established close ties with the Soviet Union and served as a Soviet surrogate in Africa and several countries in Latin America, which fueled cold war tensions and kept the bilateral relationship distant during the 1960s. In the 1970s, during the Nixon administration, the United States and Cuba began to explore normalizing relations, but the talks were suspended in 1975 when Cuba launched a large-scale intervention in Angola. The United States and Cuba did established interests sections in their respective capitals in September 1977 to facilitate consular relations and provide a venue for dialogue, and both currently operate under the protection of the Embassy of Switzerland. Cuban international entanglements in the 1970s, such as deploying troops to Ethiopia and allowing Soviet forces on the island, continued to strain bilateral relations.
In the 1980s the focus of friction in U.S.-Cuban relations shifted to include immigration, as well as Cuba’s international engagements, when a migration crisis unfolded. In April 1980 an estimated ten thousand Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. Eventually, the Cuban government allowed 125,000 Cubans to illegally depart for the United States from the port of Mariel, an incident known as the “Mariel boatlift.” A number of criminals and mentally ill persons were involuntarily included. Quiet efforts to explore the prospects for improving relations were initiated in 1981-82 under the Reagan administration, but ceased as Cuba continued to intervene in Latin America. In 1983, the United States and regional allies forced the withdrawal of the Cuban presence in Grenada.
In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, interrupted in the wake of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were “excludable” under U.S. law. Cuba suspended this agreement in May 1985 following the U.S. initiation of Radio Marti broadcasts to the island, but it was reinstated in November 1987. In March 1990, TV Marti transmissions began to Cuba.
The 1990s witnessed another migration crisis that set back U.S.-Cuban relations. When demonstrations fueled by food shortages and prolonged unannounced blackouts erupted in Havana in August 1994, the Cuban Government responded by allowing some 30,000 Cubans to set sail for the United States, many in unsafe boats and rafts, which resulted in a number of deaths at sea. The two countries in September 1994 and May 1995 signed migration accords with the goal of cooperating to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration.
On February 24, 1996, further worsening relations, the Cuban military shot down two U.S. registered civil aircraft in international airspace, killing three U.S. citizens and one U.S. resident. The unlawful and unwarranted attack on two unarmed U.S. civilian aircrafts resulted in the deaths of Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Alberto Costa, Mario M. de la Peña, and Pablo Morales. Immediately after this brutal act, and in response to this violation of international aviation law, Congress and former President Clinton passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Libertad Act. The legislation, among other provisions, codified the U.S. trade embargo into law and imposed additional sanctions on the Cuban regime.
Present U.S. Policy
The fundamental goal of United States policy toward Cuba is to promote a peaceful transition to a stable, democratic form of government and respect for human rights. Our policy has two fundamental components: maintaining pressure on the Cuban Government for change through the embargo and the Libertad Act while providing humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, and working to aid the development of civil society in the country.
Support for the Cuban people is the central theme of our policy. New measures will increase this support without strengthening the government. These measures (broadening remittances, expanding people-to-people contacts, increasing direct flights, authorizing food sales to independent entities, and establishing direct mail service) respond to Pope John Paul II’s call to open up to Cuba.
U.S. policy also pursues a multilateral effort to press for democratic change by urging our friends and allies to actively promote a democratic transition and respect for human rights. The U.S Government opposes consideration of Cuba’s return to the OAS or inclusion in the Summit of the America’s process until there is a democratic Cuban government. The U.S. has repeatedly made clear however that it is prepared to respond reciprocally if the Cuban government initiates fundamental, systematic democratic change and respect for human rights.
In another area of concern, the U.S. Government monitors the possible use by narcotraffickers of Cuban airspace and territorial waters for the transshipment of drugs from South America to the United States. Additionally, Cuba continues to provide safe haven to fugitives from the U.S. justice system.
About Human Rights in Cuba
The Castro regime has frequently been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extra-judicial executions. Many argue that several thousand unjustified deaths have occurred under Castro’s decades-long rule.
Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also criticize the censorship, the lack of press freedom in Cuba, the lack of civil rights, the outlawing of political opposition groups and unions, and the lack of free and democratic elections.
Justifying his actions, Castro sees this as an appropriate response to his claims that the United States is continuing to engage in covert activities against Cuba using spies and mercenaries, and claims that many human rights activists are in fact agents of the United States. Declassified documents now evidence that the US has used such tactics in the past, including counterfeiting Cuban currency, covert military actions, diversions and sabotage.
Opposition to Castro’s regime is thus frequently portrayed as illegitimate, and the result of an ongoing conspiracy fostered solely by Cubans with ties to the United States or the CIA. Many Castro supporters thus feel that Castro’s often harsh measures are justified to prevent the United States from installing a foreign or puppet leader, which is assumed to be Washington’s ultimate goal. Castro’s opposition, though, maintains that he uses the United States as an excuse to justify his continuing political control.
The United States government maintains the continuing US foreign policy goal in regards to Cuba is to bring democracy to the nation. The Cuban-immigrant population of the US state of Florida, which holds considerable political clout in US electoral politics, has significant influence in US relations with Cuba.
Supporters also contend that Cuba’s human rights record is by far better than that of many other countries in the Caribbean or Latin America, particularly those that were ruled by U.S.-backed military regimes, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, they argue the human rights record and quality of life in Cuba is better than under his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Cuba on October 28, 1492, during his initial westward voyage. In honor of the daughter of Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain, his benefactors, Columbus named it Juana, the first of several names he successively applied to the island. It eventually became known as Cuba, from its aboriginal name, Cubanascnan.
Colonization by Spain
When Columbus first landed on Cuba it was inhabited by the Ciboney, a friendly tribe related to the Arawak. Colonization of the island began in 1511, when the Spanish soldier Diego Velázquez established the town of Baracoa. Velázquez subsequently founded several other settlements, including Santiago de Cuba in 1514 and Havana in 1515. The Spanish transformed Cuba into a supply base for their expeditions to Mexico and Florida. As a result of savage treatment and exploitation, the aborigines became, by the middle of the 16th century, nearly extinct, forcing the colonists to depend on imported black slaves for the operation of the mines and plantations.
Despite frequent raids by buccaneers and naval units of rival and enemy powers, the island prospered throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Restrictions imposed by the Spanish authorities on commercial activities were generally disregarded by the colonists, who resorted to illicit trade with privateers and neighboring colonies. Following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, during which the English captured Havana, the Spanish government liberalized its Cuban policy, encouraging colonization, expansion of commerce, and development of agriculture. Between 1774 and 1817 the population increased from about 161,000 to more than 550,000. The remaining restrictions on trade were officially eliminated in 1818, further promoting material and cultural advancement.
During the 1830s, however, Spanish rule became increasingly repressive, provoking a widespread movement among the colonists for independence. This movement attained particular momentum between 1834 and 1838, during the despotic governorship of the captain general Miguel de Tacón. Revolts and conspiracies against the Spanish regime dominated Cuban political life throughout the remainder of the century. In 1844 an uprising of black slaves was brutally suppressed. A movement during the years 1848 to 1851 for annexation of the island to the United States ended with the capture and execution of its leader, the Spanish-American general Narciso López. Offers by the U.S. government to purchase the island were repeatedly rejected by Spain. In 1868 revolutionaries under the leadership of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes proclaimed Cuban independence. The ensuing Ten Years’ War, a costly struggle to both Spain and Cuba, was terminated in 1878 by a truce granting many important concessions to the Cubans.
In 1886 slavery was abolished. Importation of cheap labor from China was ended by 1871. In 1893 the equal civil status of blacks and whites was proclaimed.
Although certain reforms were inaugurated after the successful revolt, the Spanish government continued to oppress the populace. On February 23, 1895, mounting discontent culminated in a resumption of the Cuban revolution, under the leadership of the writer and patriot José Martí and General Máximo Gómez y Báez.
The U.S. government intervened on behalf of the revolutionists in April 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War. Intervention was spurred by the sinking of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana of February 15, 1898, for which Spain was blamed. By the terms of the treaty signed December 10, 1898, terminating the conflict, Spain relinquished sovereignty over Cuba. An American military government ruled the island until May 20, 1902, when the Cuban republic was formally instituted, under the presidency of the former postmaster general Tomás Estrada Palma. The Cuban constitution, adopted in 1901, incorporated the provisions of the Platt Amendment, U.S. legislation that established conditions for American intervention in Cuba.
Certain improvements, notably the eradication of yellow fever, had been accomplished in Cuba during the U.S. occupation. Simultaneously, U.S. corporate interests invested heavily in the Cuban economy, acquiring control of many of its resources, especially the sugar-growing industry. Popular dissatisfaction with this state of affairs was aggravated by recurring instances of fraud and corruption in Cuban politics. The first of several serious insurrections against conservative control of the republic occurred in August 1906. In the next month the U.S. government dispatched troops to the island, which remained under U.S. control until 1909. Another uprising took place in 1912 in Oriente Province, resulting again in U.S. intervention. With the election of Mario García Menocal to the presidency later in the same year, the Conservative Party returned to power. On April 7, 1917, Cuba entered World War I on the side of the Allies.
Mounting economic difficulties, caused by complete U.S. domination of Cuban finance, agriculture, and industry, marked the period following World War I. In an atmosphere of crisis, the Liberal Party leader, Gerardo Machado y Morales, campaigned on a reform platform and was elected president in November 1924. Economic conditions deteriorated rapidly during his administration, the chief accomplishment of which, an ambitious public-works program, was achieved by floating huge loans abroad. Before the end of his second term, he succeeded in acquiring dictatorial control of the government. All opposition was brutally suppressed during his administration, which lasted until a general uprising in August 1933, supported by the Cuban army, forced him into exile. A protracted period of violence and unrest followed Machado’s overthrow, with frequent changes of government. During this period the United States instituted various measures, including abrogation of the Platt Amendment, in an effort to quiet popular unrest on the island. A degree of stability was accomplished following the impeachment in 1936 of President Miguel Mariano Gómez by the senate, which was controlled by Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar. With the support of Batista, the head of the Cuban army and unofficial dictator of Cuba, the new president, the former political leader and soldier Federico Laredo Brú, put into operation a program of social and economic reform. Batista won the presidential contest of 1940, defeating Ramón Grau San Martin, the opposition candidate. The promulgation in 1940 of a new constitution contributed further to the lessening of political tension.
In December 1941 the Cuban government declared war on Germany, Japan, and Italy; consequently it became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. The presidential election of 1944 resulted in victory for Grau San Martin, the candidate of a broad coalition of parties. The first year of his administration was one of recurring crises caused by various factors, including widespread food shortages, but he regained popularity the following year by obtaining an agreement with the U.S. government for an increase in the price of sugar. In 1948 Cuba joined the Organization of American States (OAS).
Fluctuations in world sugar prices and a continuing inflationary spiral kept the political situation unstable in the postwar era. Carlos Prio Socarrás, a member of the Auténtico Party and a cabinet minister under Grau San Martin, was elected president in June 1948. Shortly after his inauguration a 10 percent reduction in retail prices was decreed in an attempt to offset inflation. Living costs continued to rise, however, leading to unrest and political violence.
The Batista Regime
In March 1952 former president Batista, supported by the army, seized power. Batista suspended the constitution, dissolved the congress, and instituted a provisional government, promising elections the following year. After crushing an uprising in Oriente Province led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953, the regime seemed secure, and when the political situation had been calmed, the Batista government announced that elections would be held in the fall of 1954. Batista’s opponent, Grau San Martin, withdrew from the campaign just before the election, charging that his supporters had been terrorized. Batista was thus reelected without opposition, and on his inauguration February 24, 1955, he restored constitutional rule and granted amnesty to political prisoners, including Castro. The latter chose exile in the United States and later in Mexico.
In the mid-1950s the Batista government insituted an economic development program that, together with a stabilization of the world sugar price, improved the economic and political outlook in Cuba. On December 2, 1956, however, Castro, with some 80 insurgents, invaded. The force was crushed by the army, but Castro escaped into the mountains, where he organized the 26th of July Movement, so called to commemorate the 1953 uprising. For the next year Castro’s forces, using guerrilla tactics, opposed the Batista government and won considerable popular support. On March 17, 1958, Castro called for a general revolt. His forces made steady gains through the remainder of the year, and on January 1, 1959, Batista resigned and fled the country. A provisional government was established. Castro, although he initially renounced office, became premier in mid-February. In the early weeks of the regime military tribunals tried many former Batista associates, and some 550 were executed.
Cuba Under Castro
The Castro regime soon exhibited a leftist tendency that worried U.S. interest in the island. The agrarian reform laws promulgated in its first years mainly affected U.S. sugar interests; the operation of plantations by companies controlled by non-Cuban stockholders was prohibited, and the Castro regime initially de-emphasized sugar production in favor of food crops.
Break with the United States
When the Castro government expropriated an estimated $1 billion in U.S.-owned properties in 1960, Washington responded by imposing a trade embargo. A complete break in diplomatic relations occurred in January 1961, and on April 17 of that year U.S.-supported and -trained anti-Castro exiles landed an invasion force in the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba. Ninety of the invaders were killed, and some 1200 were captured (see Bay of Pigs Invasion). The captives were ransomed, with the tacit aid of the U.S. government, in 1962, at a cost of about $53 million in food and medicines.
American-Cuban relations grew still more perilous in the fall of 1962, when the United States discovered Soviet-supplied missile installations in Cuba. U.S. President John F. Kennedy then announced a naval blockade of the island to prevent further Soviet shipments of arms from reaching it. After several days of negotiations during which nuclear war was feared by many to be a possibility, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed, on October 28, to dismantle and remove the weapons, and this was subsequently accomplished. For the rest of the 1960s U.S.-Cuban relations remained hostile, although, through the cooperation of the Swiss embassy in Cuba, the U.S. and Cuban governments in 1965 agreed to permit Cuban nationals who desired to leave the island to emigrate to the United States. More than 260,000 people left before the airlift was officially terminated in April 1973.
Despite several efforts by Cuba in the United Nations to oust the United States from its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, leased in 1903, the base continues to be garrisoned by U.S. Marines.
Period of Isolation
Many of Castro’s policies alienated Cuba from the rest of Latin America. The country was expelled from the OAS in 1962, and through most of the 1960s it was persistently accused of attempting to foment rebellions in Venezuela, Guatemala, and Bolivia. In fact, Che Guevara, a key Castro aide, was captured and summarily executed while leading a guerrilla group in Bolivia in 1967. Meanwhile, Cuba continued to depend heavily on economic aid from the Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries. In 1972 it signed several pacts with the USSR covering financial aid, trade, and deferment of Cuban debt payments, and also became a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).
The first congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in late 1975. The following year a new national constitution was adopted. Among other provisions, it increased the number of provinces from 6 to 14 and created an indirectly elected National Assembly. The assembly held its first session in December 1976 and chose Castro as head of state and of government.
In the mid-1970s Cuba emerged from diplomatic isolation. At a meeting in San José, Costa Rica, in July 1975, the OAS passed a “freedom of action” resolution that in effect lifted the trade embargo and other sanctions imposed by the organization against Cuba in 1964. Relations with the United States also began to improve; U.S. travel restrictions were lifted, and in September 1977 the two nations opened offices in each other’s capitals. The United States, however, warned Cuba that relations could not be normalized until U.S. claims for nationalized property had been settled and Cuba reduced or terminated its activites in Africa.
Cuban presence in Africa had begun inconspicuously in the mid-1960s, when Castro provided personal guards to such figures as President Alphonse Massamba-Débat of the Congo. It was not until 1975, however, that Cuban combat forces were actively engaged on the continent, fighting for the Marxist faction in Angola. Cuban troops later shored up the Marxist regime in Ethiopia, providing the winning edge in its war with Somalia over the Ogaden region. By 1980 Cuban activities had expanded into the Middle East (Southern Yemen). In both regions the Cuban presence was generally seen by the West as the spearhead of a growing Soviet thrust. In return, the Cuban economy continued to be supplemented by some $3 million in daily Soviet aid. Despite its relationship with the USSR, Cuba in 1979 played host to a meeting of the so-called nonaligned nations, at which Castro was chosen the group’s leader for the following three years.
In 1980, when Castro temporarily lifted exit restrictions, some 125,000 refugees fled to the United States before the outflow was again halted. The U.S. government accused Cuba of aiding leftist rebels in El Salvador; another sore point in U.S.-Cuban relations was the aid given by Cuban advisers to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Several hundred Cuban construction workers and military personnel were forced to leave Grenada as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of that island in October 1983. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Havana in April 1989, when the USSR and Cuba signed a 25-year friendship treaty, but Castro explicitly rejected the applicability of Soviet-style political and economic reforms to his country. In July four army officers were executed and ten others sentenced to prison for smuggling and drug trafficking, in the worst scandal since Castro came to power.
With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Soviet-bloc aid and trade subsidies to Cuba were ended, and Soviet military forces were gradually withdrawn. After the United States tightened its sanctions against trade with Cuba, the UN General Assembly in November 1992 approved a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. embargo. By 1993 all of the Soviet troops sent to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis had been withdrawn. Cuba’s sugarcane production dropped to a 30-year low in 1993 and worsened in 1994, precipitating an economic emergency. As the effects of this poor yield filtered down through the population, greater numbers of Cubans attempted to flee the country for economic reasons. One such group hijacked a ferry and and attempted to escape, only to be challenged and sunk by the Cuban Coast Guard. The sinking sparked violent antigovernment demonstrations, to which Castro responded by removing exit restrictions from those who wished to leave for the United States. Already facing an influx of refugees from Haiti, the United States countered by ending automatic asylum to fleeing Cubans because the United States considered that they were fleeing economic rather than political conditions. More than 30,000 people were picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base or to refugee camps in Panama. The crisis came to an end when the United States agreed to issue 20,000 entry visas each year to Cubans wishing to enter the country.
In February 1996 Cuban authorities arrested or detained at least 150 dissidents, marking the most widespread crackdown on opposition groups in the country since the early 1960s. Many were members of the Concilio Cubano, a fledgling coalition of more than 100 organizations dedicated to political reform.
Later that month, Cuban jet fighters shot down two civilian planes that Cuba claimed had violated Cuban airspace. The planes belonged to Brothers to the Rescue, a U.S.-based group headed by Cuban exiles dedicated to helping Cuban refugees. The group used small planes to spot refugees fleeing the island nation and then reported their positions to the U.S. Coast Guard. The United States condemned the shootings as a flagrant violation of international law; the United Nations also criticized the downing of the planes. Cuba said that planes from the same group had previously flown into Cuban airspace and dropped antigovernment leaflets, but Cuba’s repeated diplomatic complaints to the United States about the incidents had gone unheeded. Castro said he did not directly order the shootings, but acknowledged that in the weeks prior to the incident he had given the Cuban Air Force the authorization to shoot down civilian planes violating Cuba’s airspace.
As a result of this incident, U.S. President Bill Clinton abandoned his previous resistance to stricter sanctions against Cuba and in March 1996 signed into law the Helms-Burton Act. The legislation aimed to tighten the U.S. embargo by making it more difficult for foreign investors and businesses to operate in Cuba. It made permanent the economic embargo, which previously had to be renewed each year, and threatened foreign companies with lawsuits if they were deemed to be “deriving benefit” from property worth more than $50,000 that had been confiscated from U.S. citizens during the Cuban revolution. Canada, Mexico, and the European Union complained about the U.S. law, claiming that the United States was trying to export its laws and principles to other countries.
Later that month, the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party held a rare full session and endorsed a harder stance against dissidents, as well as against Cuban businesses that had been allowed to engage in free-market joint ventures with foreign companies. The committee had met only five times since Communists took over the Cuban government in 1959. Cuban officials said that dissidents, self-employed workers, and Cuban intellectuals were being manipulated by Cuba’s foreign enemies to undermine the authority of the Communist Party. Castro vowed to step up the government’s efforts to silence opposition groups and enforce compliance with the party’s economic and ideological beliefs.
About Fidel Castro
Dr. Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, commonly known as Fidel Castro, (born August 13, 1926) has ruled Cuba since 1959, when he overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista and turned his country into the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere. He held the title of premier until 1976, when he became president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. He has been the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba since its inception in 1965. His brother Raúl, is the number two official in the country. As of October, 2004, Fidel Castro stated that Raúl would assume authority over Cuba should he become ill.
Early life and rise to power
Born in Birán, near Mayarí, in the modern-day province of Holguín (then a part of the now-defunct Oriente province), Fidel spent his early years with his wealthy farming family. The son of Ángel Castro y Argiz, an immigrant from Galicia, Spain, and his cook Lina Ruz González, Castro was educated at Jesuit schools, including the preparatory school Colegio Belén in Havana. In 1945, he went to the University of Havana to study law, from where he graduated in 1950.
Castro practiced law in a small partnership between 1950 and 1952. He intended to stand for parliament in 1952 for the “Orthodox Party” but a coup d’état led by General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government of Carlos Prío Socarrás, after which the elections were cancelled. Castro charged Batista with violating the constitution in court, but his petition was refused. In response, Castro organized a disastrous armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province on July 26, 1953. Over eighty of the attackers were killed, and Castro was taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. (Castro used the closing arguments in the case to deliver “History Will Absolve Me”, a passionate speech defending his actions and explaining his political views.) He was released in a general amnesty in May 1955 and went into exile in Mexico and the United States.
He returned to Cuba with a number of other exiles, clandestinely sailing from Mexico to Cuba on the 60-ft pleasure yacht Granma. They were called the 26th of July Movement. At this point, Castro described himself and his movement as believing in “Jeffersonian philosophy” and adhering to the “Lincoln formula” of cooperation between capital and labor. As late as 1959, Castro told U.S. News and World Report that he had “no intention of nationalizing any industries.” Many people (both critics and supporters of Castro) contend that the revolution never had anything to do with Jeffersonian philosophy, and that Castro was concealing his true aims.
The 26th of July Movement’s first action was in Oriente province on December 2, 1956. Only twelve of the original eighty men survived to retreat into the Sierra Maestra Mountains and from there wage a guerrilla war against the Batista government. The survivors included Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Castro’s movement gained popular support and grew to over 800 men. On May 24, 1958, Batista launched seventeen battalions against Castro in Operación Verano. Despite being outnumbered, Castro’s forces scored a series of stunning victories, aided by massive desertion and surrenders from Batista’s army. On New Year’s Day 1959 Batista and president-elect Carlos Rivero Aguero fled the country, and Castro’s forces took Havana.
Castro is an atheist and has not been a practicing Catholic since his childhood. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro on January 3, 1962. This was consistent with a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting communist governments. For Castro, who had previously renounced his Roman Catholicism, this was an event of very little consequence, nor was it expected to be. It was aimed at undermining support for Castro among Catholics; however, there is little evidence that it did.
His relations with Pope John Paul II have been somewhat better. In the early 1990s Castro agreed to loosen restrictions on religion and even permitted church going Catholics to join the Cuban Communist Party. In 1998, Castro hosted the pope on his visit to Cuba, the first by a ruling pontiff to the island. Pope John Paul II was extremely critical of both the Castro regime and the US embargo.
Criticisms of the United States
Castro remains a vocal critic of United States policies, speaking against the continuing economic embargo and U.S. attempts to topple his government. He has also condemned what he sees as exploitation of developing countries by U.S. corporations and even the state of public health care in the United States. Recently, he has harshly condemned the migration policies of the United States, which severely limit travel of Cuban-Americans to their families in Cuba. Castro also opposes the policies of developed world vis-à-vis the developing countries, including growing costs of servicing foreign debt.
The accusations against the United States are many.
Castro claims that, during the Cold War, the United States engaged in a variety of covert, and often deadly attacks against Cuba in order to weaken the entire country as a way of weakening Castro’s government. He points out the alleged infection of Cuban pigs by anti-Castro organisations supported by the CIA in 1971 with African swine fever, a disease of pigs not previously reported in the Americas. This started an epidemic which forced the Cubans to destroy half of all the pigs on the island in order to get it under control.
He also claims that, in 1981 the CIA started a Dengue fever epidemic that killed 158 people.2. Between 1956 and 1958 the US Army tested whether mosquitos of the type Aedes Aegypti – which are carriers of Dengue fever could be used as weapons of biological warfare. 3 During a trial in New York in 1984 a Cuban exile said that in the late 1980s a ship travelled to Cuba “with a mission to carry some germs to introduce them in Cuba to be used against the Soviets and against the Cuban economy … which later on produced results that were not what we had expected … and it was used against our own people, and with that we did not agree”.
There may have been CIA efforts at sabotaging crops using pathogens. Fidel Castro has definitely been the target of several CIA-sponsored attempts at his life, but none have occurred since the early 1960’s.
Castro consolidated control of the nation by nationalizing industry, expropriating property owned by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, collectivizing agriculture, and enacting policies which he claimed would benefit the population. Many Cubans fled the country, many to Miami, Florida, where activists established a large anti-Castro community. Because of the embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba then became increasingly dependent on Soviet and eastern block subsidies, worth up to one quarter of the island’s gross domestic product, to finance improvements to Cuba’s economic conditions. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had severe repercussions on the Cuban economy.
The U.S. economic sanctions, which include a general travel ban for American tourists to Cuba, has been cited by Castro supporters as a major factor in Cuba’s economic troubles. Supporters of the embargo reply that the United States is the only nation which has an embargo on Cuba, and that Cuba is still free to trade with all other nations. At the same time the United States attempts to forbid foreign subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba, imposes sanctions on foreign companies that would benefit from properties which the United States alleges were taken without compensation, and restricts its own trade with smaller nations that would trade with Cuba.
Cuba is the second most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean (behind the Dominican Republic), providing it with much needed foreign currency. Cubans also receive large amounts of currency (with an estimated value of $850 million annually) from Cuban-Americans who send money back to their relatives or friends. Cuba also receives most of its energy needs in oil from Venezuela, partly in exchange for Cuban medical personnel, replacing the previous long supply lines from Eastern Europe over a decade after these subsidies were cut.
In recent years, Castro has invested in biotechnology to support the Cuban economy and to find substitutes for foreign imports of medical supplies. Cuban developments in this area have stirred concern and fears around the potential for biological weapons. Thus in 2002 one of the goals of a visit by former US President, Jimmy Carter, was to inspect Cuban genetic engineering sites. Since then, the Cuban economy has benefited from both the export of medical technology and from “health tourism”.
On October 25, 2004, Castro announced that USD currency in Cuba would be banned in Cuban stores as of November 8, after which US dollars could be exchanged for pesos with a 10% commission. The dollar was legalized in Cuba in 1993 following the fall of the Soviet Union, which had deprived the country of its primary source of economic aid and resulted in a general decline of living standards. Castro announced that the tax on US dollars is a response to economic pressure from the US, which has instituted restrictions on the transfer of US dollars to Cuba. Other foreign currencies, such as Canadian dollars and euro, will not be taxed.
Recently, rumors have grown about the state of Castro’s health. In January 2004, Luis Eduardo Garzón, the mayor of Bogotá, said that Castro “seemed very sick to me” following a meeting with him during a vacation in Cuba. In May 2004, Castro’s physician denied that his health was failing, and speculated that he would live to be 140 years old. Dr. Eugenio Selman Housein said that the “press is always speculating about something, that he had a heart attack once, that he had cancer, some neurological problem,” but maintained that Castro was in good health.
On October 20, 2004, Castro fell off a stage following a speech he gave at a rally. The fall fractured his knee and arm. He underwent three hours of surgery to repair his kneecap.
Following his fall, Castro wrote a letter that was read on Cuban television and published in newspapers. In it, he assured the public that he was fine and would “not lose contact with you.”
Asked if he wished Castro a speedy recovery, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded “No,” and urged for a change in Cuban leadership.
An apparent cult of personality around Castro has arisen despite his personal attempts to discourage it. In contrast to many of the world’s modern strongmen, Castro has only twice been personally featured on a Cuban stamp. In 1974 he appeared on a stamp to commemorate the visit of Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1999 he appeared on a stamp commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. There has been a much stronger tendency to encourage reverence for Cuban independence hero José Martí and the “martyrs” of the Cuban revolution such as Camilo Cienfuegos. He rarely appears in public without his military fatigues. Castro himself is famous for his long and detailed speeches which often last several hours and contain lots of data and historical references.
On October 20, 2004, Castro fractured his knee and an arm when he tripped and fell at the end of a televised public speech in Santa Clara. A government statement added: “His general health is good, and spirits excellent.” There has been speculation about his health since he apparently fainted during a lengthy speech in June, 2001.