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President Obama's historic trip to Cuba: How we got here

By Dan Cooney

President Barack Obama heralded a "new day" in the U.S.-Cuba relationship during his historic visit to the island nation.  In an extraordinary joint press conference, Obama prodded Cuban President Raul Castro to answer questions about his country's human rights record and the imprisonment of political dissidents.  Castro responded: "What political prisoners? Give me a name or names." The Cuban leader pushed back with his own blunt criticism of the American embargo and pressed Obama to return the Guantanamo detention center.  

President Obama at Mandela's memorialThe thawing of relations with Cuba began in 2013 when Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  A year later, Obama announced that the two nations would restore full diplomatic relations.  Part of this agreement was a prisoner swap, which brought Alan Gross -- a USAID contractor -- home after five years in Cuban prison. Both countries opened embassies in the other's capital cities last summer.

The economic opportunities in Cuba continue to grow, as the Commerce Department eased regulations to create development and eased travel restrictions.  Several companies have taken advantage of this opportunity. Obama continues to call on Congress to lift the trade embargo that goes back to 1962.  The embargo is a point of contention for Castro, who called it the "most important obstacle to our economic development" in Cuba and said "its removal will be of the essence to normalize bilateral relations."

Here are a few more things to know about the U.S.-Cuba relationship:

The Cuban government limits Internet access to its people according to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. In its 2015 report on Web access across the world, the group found Cuba was making strides in providing more hot spots, but the cost is too high for most citizens. The Castro regime outlaws home Internet connections.

The last official state visit by the leader of Cuba was in December 1948, when Cuban President Carlos Prio Socarras visited Washington, D.C., and New York City.  Ten years later, Fidel Castro, then the leader of Cuba’s provisional government, made an unofficial visit to the U.S..

Both Fidel and his brother Raul Castro have traveled to the U.S. several times to address the United Nations and other groups. President Bill Clinton met briefly with Fidel Castro at the UN in 2000.

Fidel Castro’s actions towards the U.S. -- allying with the Soviet Union, seizing American-owned territory in Cuba and demanding Washington reduce its presence in Havana -- led President Dwight Eisenhower to impose an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba on Oct. 19, 1960.  Eisenhower severed all diplomatic relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.  The discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba led the U.S. to impose a naval blockade around Cuba.  President John F. Kennedy ordered a trade embargo with Cuba in February of 1962. The trade ban continues to this day.

Want to learn more?
Here’s a backgrounder on U.S.-Cuba relations from the Council on Foreign Relations.
NPR has a great explainer on the history between the two countries. 
This is a research paper recently prepared for a member of Congress on issues related to Cuba.