On July 20, a flag raising ceremony drew hundreds of spectators and marked the reopening of the Cuban embassy in the United States. The short ceremony paled in comparison to the monumental shift in US foreign policy that the embassy opening represents. After years of estrangement, Cuba and the United States officially normalized diplomatic relations, ending a generation long stand-off.
Animosity between the two neighbors grew in the 1950s, just as the Cold War was kicking up. Cuba’s pivot towards the Soviet Union and seizure of US property on the island inflamed relations between the United States and Cuba. In retaliation, the US quickly imposed economic sanctions, creating a tit for tat mentality that ultimately destroyed the two countries’ relationship. In 1961, US-Cuban ties were formally severed and the United States explored covert paths to oust the Castro regime and install a more favorable government.
The early 1960s were a tumultuous time for the already broken US-Cuban relationship. In 1961, the CIA backed a failed attempt to overtake Cuba through the support of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs operation, ultimately leading to a secret agreement between the USSR and Cuba to base nuclear weapons on the island-nation. The establishment of a Soviet missile base so close to the United States led President Kennedy to order a complete embargo of Cuba, disallowing any ships from reaching the country. The standoff was resolved through diplomatic channels, resulting in the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and American missiles from Turkey. The US also gave assurances that it would not invade in retaliation.
Diplomatic and economic relations did not recover after the removal of missiles from Cuba or even the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years later. Congress continued through the 1990s to strengthen the embargo on Cuba, demanding free and fair elections to be held prior to the lifting of economic restrictions.
The first decade of the 21st century saw little change in the status quo. But, after 18 months of secret negotiations, President Obama ordered the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States on December 17, 2014. The announcement came on the heels of the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba for plotting to “destroy the revolution.” Gross’s release was the result of international efforts and included assistance from both Pope Francis and the Canadian government.
In August, John Kerry will become the first US Secretary of State to travel to Cuba in nearly 60 years. His trip will coincide with the raising of the US flag at the embassy in Havana. The reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations is just one step towards the normalization of US-Cuban relations. The continued embargo of Cuba remains the primary hurdle that must be overcome through Congress. While the President has the authority to ease some economic sanctions, it will ultimately come down to the legislative branch to lift restrictions that have been codified into US law. For the positive trajectory in relations to continue, the economic relationship between the two countries needs to be allowed to prosper.