History of U.S.-Cuba Relations

Despite its status as a relatively small island nation island, Cuba has had an outsized impact on world history. Arguably, one could study a history of US foreign policy by looking solely at Cuba. The island has been invaded and occupied by the US, was under strong colonial influence from it, was given favored trade status, and has been subject to economic sanctions and policies of regime change. In short, US-Cuban relations are complex and have changed over time, especially after the Cuban Revolution, when Cuba became an important player in the Cold War. Learn about US-Cuban relations before and after the revolution in this summary.

The US and Cuba - History Before 1898

The connections between the US and Cuba's history begin almost from the birth of the US.

In 1823, then US Secretary of State and later President John Quincy Adams used the metaphor of a ripe apple falling from a tree to refer to Cuba. He considered it natural that Cuba would become part of the United States when it broke from Spain.

There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom." John Quincy Adams

Adams's statement reflected similar thoughts that led to the issuing of the Monroe Doctrine later the same year, which designated the Western Hemisphere as a sphere of influence for the US.

Before the US Civil War, some politicians in the slave-holding states of the south argued for the annexation of Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean to expand the number of slave states. Cuba had become the world's leading producer of sugar after the Haitian Revolution, and the island had a large slave population. In fact, fears of insurrection and Afro-Cuban rule had contributed to the failure of independence movements.

Cuban Wars for Independence

There were three major wars for Cuban Independence. The first was known as the Ten Years War and lasted from 1868 to 1878. The war was characterized by the large-scale participation of runaway enslaved people and people of mixed-race ancestry in the revolutionary armies, which often targeted sugar plantations. Fear of them led many in the European descended elite to fear independence and the potential loss of their privileged status.

This war ended with some limited reforms, including the gradual abolition of slavery. However, some revolutionaries continued to fight in what became known as the Guerra Chiquita, or "little war", from 1878-79. In 1895, Cuban independence leaders, led by poet and philosopher José Martí launched a third war for independence. The war was again marked by the targeting of sugar plantations by the revolutionaries, but also by particularly brutal repression by the Spanish colonial forces. The Spanish commander, General Weyler, forcibly resettled much of the rural population and earned the nickname of "the butcher" in the US press. In the era of Yellow Journalism, US newspapers highlighted atrocities in Cuba. Much of the US public also supported Cuban independence, and there were growing calls for intervention.

Cuba and American Imperialism

US citizens had purchased a significant number of sugar plantations and sugar mills in Cuba from Spaniards leaving the island after the first war of Cuban Independence ended in 1878. Much of the sugar produced in Cuba was also sold to the United States.

When the final war for Cuban Independence began in 1895, the US therefore sought to protect its interests. Many politicians and military officials in this period also adhered to the idea that the US would benefit from the establishment of naval and coaling stations in the Caribbean. Ideas of Social Darwinism, white superiority, and the idea that Cubans could not successfully govern themselves combined with these motivations to lead to intervention on the island.

"Remember the Maine" - The Spanish-American War

In early 1898, the battleship the USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbor. It was officially on a mission to protect American lives, property, and interests on the island. On February 15, the ship blew up and sank.

Although subsequent investigations have found that the most likely cause of the explosion was an engine problem, the initial investigation blamed a Spanish mine. The press, already in favor of intervention, whipped up public opinion in favor of war with calls to "remember the Maine."

The US declared war on Spain, and quickly defeated them. In the peace that followed, the US gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. There was considerable debate within the US about what should be done with these islands. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were kept under US control, but the US had justified its intervention in Cuba, at least in part, by saying they supported its independence.

Did You Know

The cocktail known as the Cuba Libre originated during the Spanish-American War when US soldiers mixed Coca-Cola with rum, calling it the Spanish words for "Free Cuba" in honor of their mission to liberate Cuba from Spanish control.

Mediated Sovereignty and the Platt Amendment

Therefore, it was decided that Cuba would be given independence after a period of military occupation. Upon its independence in May 1902, Cuba was required to include the Platt Amendment as part of its constitution. This document contained a number of clauses that hindered Cuba's sovereignty, including:

  • Limitations on Cuba's ability to make treaties with other countries
  • Cuba was prohibited from taking on government debt
  • The US had a right to intervene on the island
  • All actions carried out by the occupation government would be accepted and continued
  • The US would have the right to lease land for the construction of naval bases

The Platt Amendment therefore created a neocolonialist relationship between the US and Cuba. In addition to building and maintaining the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, the US intervened on the island several times in the early 20th century, sending soldiers in 1906, 1912, and 1917.


Literally meaning "new" colonialism, neocolonialism refers to forms of indirect control over foreign territories not through the establishment of formal colonies but through strong economic, political, and/or cultural influence. It became the predominant form of imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

[T]he Americans were indeed guests who the local elites had no desire to see leave; these were liberators to be indulged and befriended, for they represented the only salvation left to the socio-economic order threatened by the forces of Cuba Libre…In more than symbolic terms, the responsibility of protecting the existing colonial order had passed from the Spanish army to the American army." Louis Perez. Cuba between empires

Sugar and Trade Reciprocity

The US occupation and subsequent governments also maintained Cuba's status as a major sugar producer as well as maintaining the socio-economic social structure. While this was profitable for the plantation and mill owners, failure to diversify limited opportunities for Cuba's large rural working class. Sugar also meant the island was dependent on the US as a market and could be subject to booms and busts in the price of sugar.

After the Platt Amendment was ended in 1934 as part of Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, trade agreements over sugar maintained the strong influence and indirect control by the US over Cuba. In what was known as the sugar quota, the US promised to buy large amounts of Cuban sugar at prearranged prices every year, and in exchange, Cuba reduced import taxes on manufactured goods from the US.


The Cuban Revolution

In 1952, just before the presidential elections, former president and general Fulgencio Batista launched a coup and took control of the government. Following this coup, a little-known lawyer turned revolutionary named Fidel Castro launched an attack on the Moncada military barracks on July 26, 1953. This attack failed, but Castro's trial turned him into a well-known opposition figure.

Batista's regime was extremely repressive but generally enjoyed the US's support. After being released from prison, Castro went into exile in Mexico, before returning in November 1956 to lead a guerilla war in Cuba's mountains. Although outnumbered and fighting a force armed with US weapons, these guerrilla forces managed to escape destruction. By late 1958, they had expanded their base of operations and Batista's position had deteriorated. The US had also cut off arms supplies to Cuba in May 1958.

Seeing his position as untenable, Batista fled shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve. Over the next week, Castro's rebel forces occupied the major cities and set to work to create a new government.

Relationship Between the US and Cuba in the 1960s

By 1961, the new government led by Castro had engineered a complete break with the US. All trade between the countries stopped, and they engaged in antagonism that has continued into the 21st century.

Was Castro a Communist?

Upon taking power, Castro was seen as a wildcard. He and his rebel forces with their long beards had inspired public support in the US and were featured in the New York Times during the revolutionary war.

US policymakers were unsure of Castro's politics, though. He was clearly a radical nationalist and expressed calls for more complete independence and social and economic reforms, but at least up to his taking of power in 1959, had not declared himself a communist. However, two of his closest lieutenants, his brother Raul and Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara, were communists.

Over the course of 1959 and 1960, the Cuban communist party, the Partido Socialista Popular or Popular Socialist Partyalso became more involved in Castro's government. It also began negotiations with the Soviet Union on trade, and even the purchase of weapons.

The Break with the US

An Agrarian Reform Law, one of the revolutionary government's signature policies and passed in mid-1959, set off tensions between the US and Cuba. This law limited and redistributed large landholdings and inspired protest from the US, since many US citizens owned large sugar plantations.

In mid-1960, US owned oil refineries in Cuba refused to refine oil Cuba had purchased from the Soviet Union. Castro responded by nationalizing them. The US responded by canceling the sugar quota for the rest of the year, which the Soviet Union then promised to buy. In September 1960, Castro visited the United Nations, where he spoke for over 4 hours and was highly critical of the US.

We had to choose between making the agrarian reform and not making it. If we chose not to make it, the dreadful economic situation of our country would have continued indefinitely. If we decided to make it, we exposed ourselves to the hatred of the government of the powerful neighbor to the north.” Fidel Castro, Sep 1960

Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis

By 1960, President Eisenhower had green lit CIA covert operations against the Castro government. These plans culminated in the arming and training of a force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro in what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The invasion, which took place from April 17-20, 1961, was quickly defeated by the Cubans. It was on the eve of the invasion that Castro declared the Cuban Revolution socialist in nature, likely due in part to a desire for more help from the Soviet Union.

Preventing a further invasion of Cuba by the US was one of the motivating factors in the Soviet decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, an action which sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The US came to the brink of launching airstrikes and a possible full-scale invasion of the island, which may have led to a nuclear war with the USSR, before the USSR agreed to remove the missiles.

This is what they can’t forgive, the fact that we are here right under their noses, and that we have brought about a socialist revolution right under the noses of the United States!" Louis Perez. Fear and loathing of Fidel Castro

Relationship Between the US and Cuba since the 1960s

US and Cuban relations remained antagonistic throughout the Cold War period and beyond. The start of the 21st century has seen some movement towards normalization.

Continued Hostility

After the missile crisis, an embargo on Cuban goods, referred to as a blockade by the Cuban government, was put in place in an effort to apply economic pressure in the hopes the Castro government would fall. There were numerous other covert operations carried out against Cuba, including sabotage of Cuban industry and numerous attempts to assassinate Castro.

Immigration Policies

US policy also encouraged Cubans to leave the island, as Cubans were granted special immigration status as political refugees. Some have contended that this policy helped eliminate the moderate opposition to Castro, strengthening rather than hurting his rule. It did lead to large-scale immigration to the US, especially to Florida, where Cubans constitute a significant and politically influential minority. The Cuban American National Foundation is an influential anti-Castro interest group that continues to influence US policy today.

US Cuba Relations and Guantánamo Bay

Under the terms of the Platt Amendment, the US had built and maintained a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, near the eastern tip of Cuba. Since the Cuban Revolution, the base and presence of US military personnel there has been a source of continual tension between the Castro government and the US.

The Cuban government called for it to be closed after the Missile Crisis and has refused to accept the lease payments. However, the US has refused to abandon the base. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the start of the US War on Terror, the base became the site of a prison holding terrorist suspects. The controversial nature of the prison and accusations of mistreatment of prisoners and denial of due process has only further aggravated tensions over the base's presence on Cuban soil.

Relations After the End of the Cold War

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a period of economic crisis in the 1990s, known as the Special Period. In hopes the regime would collapse, the US tightened the embargo with the 1992 Torricelli Act that prevents any ship that docks in Cuba from docking in the US and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act tried to prevent foreign companies from investing in Cuba.

If it is difficult to underestimate the incomprehension with which Washington viewed Cuban domestic policies, it is nearly impossible to overstate the horror with which it reacted to Cuban foreign policy, specifically the expanding ties with the Soviet Union. Officials would later use the word ‘ shock ’ to describe their reaction to developments in Cuba...Fidel Castro expanded into a brooding preoccupation in the United States. He cast a dark shadow over the country’s sense of well-being, a bad dream that would not go away. His presence was unacceptable but his removal was unobtainable." Louis Perez. Fear and loathing of Fidel Castro

Towards Normalization?

Despite this tightening of the screws, the Castro regime survived the Special Period. In the early 21st century, both governments pursued moves towards normalization of relations. In 2015, full formal diplomatic relations were reestablished after being broken since 1961. President Barack Obama visited Cuba the following year. Restrictions on US citizens travel to Cuba were loosened in efforts to promote better relations between the countries' peoples.

However, a more aggressive posture towards Cuba adopted by President Donald Trump, the death of Fidel Castro, and incidents of US embassy personnel suffering mysterious headaches that some officials believe are the result of psychological operation attacks have halted and cast doubt on the full normalization of relations between the two countries.

US Cuban Relations - Key Takeaways

  • Before the Cuban Revolution, the US had a keen interest in Cuba, establishing an imperialist relationship with it after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

  • Although Cuba was made independent in 1902, the Platt Amendment and dependence on sugar ensured it remained under the strong influence and control of the US.
  • After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he adopted policies that were against US interests and pursued a relationship with the Soviet Union, leading to hostile US-Cuban relations that resulted in the Bay of Pigs Invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • US-Cuban relations remained hostile throughout the Cold War and into the early 21st century, although there have been some steps towards normalization recently.


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