40 years of Communist rule under Fidel Castro
Tensions ease between the U.S. and Cuba
U.S. Cuba Policy Page From the U.S. State Department Website.
Timeline of the History of Cuba from the Close-up Foundation's Website.
Cuban Government Site Designed for tourists and businessmen.
Afro Cuba Web An interesting site by and for African-Cubans.
You don't have to be Elian Gonzalez to know that the U.S. and Cuba don't see eye-to-eye. As the hearing over custody of the 6-year-old Cuban boy starts in Atlanta, lots of people are expecting a tense, emotional drama to unfold.
Why has this story had such an impact? And why are some Americans so emotional about Cuba?
Cuba is just 90 miles from U.S. shores (a direct flight from Florida would take less than half an hour) but relations between these close neighbors have been rocky for a long time.
An island of revolutions
Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on his first voyage in 1492 and claimed the islands for Spain. The Spanish wanted Cuba's minerals and valuable crops, like sugar cane. The Spanish conquerors overpowered the native people and brought slaves from Africa to work the fields. By the 1860's Cuba was producing one-third of the world's sugar.
In 1895, José Martí led a rebellion of native people against the Spanish government. It was a brutal and bloody war with gruesome killings by both sides. Most Americans felt sympathetic toward the Cuban rebels. On February 15, 1898, the battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in the Havana harbor. The U.S. blamed Spain and declared war. Eight months later, the U.S. had won what became known as the Spanish-American War.
For the next four years, the U.S. military occupied Cuba. Even after the American occupation officially ended, U.S. leaders controlled the Cuban government for decades from behind the scenes.
For the most part Cubans resented this. A strong sense of Cuban nationalism and anti-American feelings started to grow.
Castro enters the scene
In 1955, a young Cuban man named Fidel Castro went to Mexico with some friends to plan an overthrow of the Cuban government. He and his group, which included the Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara of Argentina, returned to Cuba in 1956 to lead a revolution. Their plan was to lead the poor in an uprising against Cuba's rich and powerful elite.
Castro's band of fighters was almost wiped out during their first battle, but the survivors fought a guerrilla campaign, and eventually won. When Castro took control on Jan. 1, 1959, his followers numbered fewer than 1,000.
Castro was popular with poor peasants, urban workers, young people, and idealistic thinkers of all groups. Under Castro, the Communist Party of Cuba (which dates back to 1925) took the lead and Cuba became the first socialist state in the Americas.
From bad to worse
Relations between Cuba and the U.S. were strained- but what happened next made things even worse: Cuba became good friends with Russia.
Cuba needed financial support from Russia, and Russia wanted to have a military presence in the Americas. Suddenly, a friend of the United States' biggest enemy was right on its doorstep.
In 1961, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with the island. Cuban exiles living in the U.S. started to plan an invasion of Cuba to topple Castro's regime. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. intelligence backed the plan. But the fighters were defeated at a place called the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The plan to oust Castro failed.
Not long afterwards, the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union had set up medium-range missiles on the island that were pointed at the U.S. The U.S. imposed a naval blockade on Cuba. The two superpowers came dangerously close to nuclear war until the Russians backed down and agreed to remove their missiles. This tense incident became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Since then, the U.S. has tried to cut Cuba off economically. In 1962, the U.S. declared an economic embargo - a ban on trade and investment between Americans and Cubans. Until very recently, American planes could not fly directly to Cuba, and Cuban planes were not allowed to land on U.S. soil.
But still many Cubans tried to get to the United States. In 1980, over 120,000 Cubans illegally journeyed to Florida. Most left from the Cuban port of Mariel, which gave the operation its name: The Mariel Boatlift. Although Castro had previously prohibited most Cubans from leaving the country, it's thought that he allowed prisoners and other "undesirables" to leave Cuba during that time.
In 1996 the U.S. Congress voted to continue to put economic pressure on Cuba until Castro is replaced as leader of the country and democratic elections are held.
Cubans have been sneaking out of Cuba ever since Castro came to power 40 years ago.
Some American politicians and Cuban-American exiles say this continuing exodus is due to political repression in Cuba. Cuba is a Communist country, and Fidel Castro is a dictator. They say that those who flee want to live in free society. Some people say Cuban immigrants to the U.S. simply want to escape poverty and take advantage of opportunities they wouldn't have in Cuba
Most make the dangerous voyage in small, homemade boats and rafts. Some people die on the way, like most of the 12 people who were on the boat with Elian. Those who survive the trip arrive in Florida and most settle there. There are about 700,000 Cuban Americans living in and around Miami.
For a long time, the U.S. allowed those who made it America to stay. But in 1995 the U.S. began sending back any Cubans who were caught trying to sneak into the U.S. Here's the rule: if you make it to U.S. soil, you can stay. But if you're floating in the water, you have to go back. Those who have a "well-founded fear of persecution if returned" are not brought into the U.S., but are resettled in other countries.
Life in Cuba
Many Americans have seen pictures from Elian's hometown, Cardenas, on TV. Many Americans were surprised to see what appear to be basic conditions but not hopeless poverty.
Castro has initiated a reform program and his government has been aggressively seeking investment, especially in the tourism industry. According to American reporters, some of the new wealth is clearly starting to trickle down to ordinary people. There are discos and fast food chains. Cubans eat hot dogs and pizza and drink Cokes.
Some people say life in Cuba isn't so bad. Statistics show people in Cuba are about as healthy as people in the United States. Men in Cuba even live a little longer than men in the U.S. The average life expectancy in Cuba is 74 for men and 79 for women. In the U.S., it's 72 for men and 79 for women.
Ninety-eight percent of Cubans can read and write and almost no one is homeless. Cuba still has more doctors and teachers per capita than almost any other country in the world. In a population of 11 million, more than half a million Cubans hold university degrees.
But dissenters in Cuba and almost all Cubans in the U.S. say that the real problem is that Cuba is not a democracy. They say Cubans are repressed and that people who don't like Castro get punished for expressing their opinions. Castro stays in power by force, not by being elected.
Many American politicians consider Castro more of an irritant than a threat. But removing him from power and making Cuba a democracy are still top priorities for U.S. foreign policy makers. But they disagree on the best course of action. While some say the economic embargo has proved ineffective and inhumane, others say the embargo is the best way to get rid of Castro.
Ironically, some say Castro uses the embargo to his advantage. He points to it as an example of U.S. intervention, and helps stir up anti-American feelings among Cubans. Some people say the embargo may actually help Castro stay in power.
Our major trading partners don't like the embargo either. And they don't like American laws that punish them for trading with Cuba.
Just as Cuban-Americans and others want the pressure on Castro to continue-- there are others calling for the U.S. to normalize relations with Cuba and lift the embargo.
And so here we are. Elian may end up going back to Cuba with his father. Or he might end up staying in the U.S. It will take months of court hearings to settle that question. But it will probably take even longer to settle the lingering conflicts between Cuba and U.S.
What do you think? Should we continue to ban trade and investment in Cuba? Or should we try to have stronger relations with our southern neighbor?
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