At Odds with America: Castro’s Revolution

Lavish and large palace with Spanish-influenced architecture photographed against a cloudy sky  

View looking upwards of an old building, once regal, now in disrepair, with clotheslines and clothes blowing in the breeze

Photo portrait of a young Castro looking pensive, wearing military clothing, leaning back on a chair, his hand at his mouth
Fidel Castro, 1971
Photo: Yousef Karsh/National Gallery of Australia

Che Guevara wearing a beret, his hair wild, his look intense
Che Guevara, 1960
Photo: Alberto Korda

Army tank with large gun pointed upward: three soldiers atop and one soldier crouching to jump off the side
The Bay of Pigs invasion, 1961

Sitting in two chairs in a hotel room: Khrushchev, an older man, on the left, Kennedy on the right: Kennedy is in animated conversation as Krushchev listens
President Kennedy confers with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961
Photo: National Park Service

The 1950s

Before Castro rose to power, Cuba was governed by General Fulgencio Batista, who had overthrown the Cuban government in 1952 in a bloodless coup. (It was the second time Batista had done this; the first was in 1933.) The United States had an economic interest in maintaining the Batista government and status quo in Cuba. By 1957, American firms were making large profits from their Cuban investments: American capital controlled 90 percent of Cuban mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production and 25 percent of its bank deposits. Obviously, a lot was at stake for U.S. business.

Castro’s offensive began in earnest in 1956 when he and others, including Che Guevara and Castro’s brother Raul, began assembling an army to incite revolution. The rebel army had their first major battle success in May 1957, when they defeated Batista’s soldiers, who had incidentally been trained and armed by the United States. Batista continued to receive help from the U.S., including $1 million in aid in 1958—plus arms, planes, tanks and other military supplies—to defeat the rebel army. Yet, by the end of the year, Castro’s troops had been winning many critical battles, and on January 1, 1959, the rebels seized control of Havana. With his government overthrown, Batista fled the country with his family.

The 1960s

Cuba established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1960 and began importing Soviet oil. Under orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. oil companies Texaco, Esso and Shell refused to refine the Soviet oil. In response, Cuba seized and nationalized the refineries. In a subsequent series of tit-for-tat political maneuvers, the U.S. cut Cuba’s sugar quotas, started trade embargos and pressured other countries to cut trade with the island nation. Meanwhile, Cuba thumbed its nose at U.S. threats and seized and took control of American businesses, banks and commercial property.

By January 1961, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba had ended. In April, President John F. Kennedy approved a CIA covert plan, originally proposed by Richard Nixon and planned by Eisenhower, to overthrow the Castro government. The plan called for an army of 1,200 Cuban exiles to land on Cuba's southeast coast, the Bay of Pigs, take over the city of Trinidad, and call on Cubans to rise up against Castro. The plan failed miserably, and it was an embarrassment to Kennedy.

After the Bay of Pigs, the political situation was pushed to the brink of nuclear war in the fall of 1962 after two Russian ships containing medium-range ballistic missiles docked off the coast of Cuba. After U.S reconnaissance photos captured Soviet construction of missile sites in Cuba, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were in an 11-day political deadlock and on the verge of war in what is popularly called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eventually, the Soviet Union agreed to remove their missiles in exchange for U.S. assurance that it would not invade Cuba and would agree to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

In February 1963, President Kennedy prohibited travel to Cuba and made financial and commercial activity between the island and U.S. citizens illegal. Yet, in a conciliatory action, Kennedy stated on November 17 that he was ready to negotiate normal relations with Cuba and drop the embargo. According to Kennedy’s press secretary Pierre Salinger, the president was concerned that the Soviet Union’s role in Cuba was becoming too influential in Latin America. But Kennedy never began his negotiations; he was assassinated just five days later.

The 1970s

It took more than a decade before the U.S. again made diplomatic overtures to Cuba. In September 1974, two senators visited the island, and in February 1975 Senator Edward Kennedy began pressing for normalized relations between the two countries. By August of that year, the U.S. had announced that it would allow foreign subsidiaries of U.S. countries to sell products in Cuba and it would no longer penalize other countries for doing so. Yet, just four months later in December, President Gerald Ford said that full diplomatic relations could not be restored because of Cuba’s military involvement in a revolutionary uprising in the African state of Angola. Once again, Cuba was at odds with the political interests of the United States, and would remain ostracized.

The on-again/off-again cycle of U.S-Cuban diplomatic relations continued. President Jimmy Carter dropped the travel ban to Cuba in 1977, but it was reinstated, along with a ban on trade, when Ronald Reagan assumed the U.S. presidency.

President George W. Bush speaks from a podium in a large room filled with seated people, some standing in back along the wall
George W. Bush announces an “initiative for a new Cuba” on the 100th anniversary of Cuban independence, 2002
White House photo

Top photos, L-R:
President's Palace in Havana, mid 1920s
Photo: Library of Congress

Formerly the Pearl of Cuba Hotel, now a residence
Photo: USDA/Peter Manzelli (2002)


By the new millennium, many in the U.S. Congress were once again trying to restore relations with Cuba. But in 2004, President George W. Bush instead tightened the trade embargo and limited family visits to Cuba to once every three years. Cuba, for its part, announced a ban on U.S. dollars later that year, and Castro urged Cuban relatives to send money in a different foreign currency.

The cycle will likely continue for the near term, but as Castro, age 79, enters the last phase of his life, there is speculation about what will happen after his death. Some suggest that his brother Raul will take control of Cuba and the country’s politics will remain relatively unchanged. Others suggest that Castro’s death would cause a new kind of revolution that would bring Cuba closer to U.S.-style democracy. For families like the de Saá sisters in MIRROR DANCE, there is a constant wait to see if they will be truly reunited with their family across the border, or if the political chess game of the two governments will continue.

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