Cuba: A missile crisis, a botched invasion, exploding cigars – a feud rich in iconic moments

The years of estrangement included many ups and downs, and several attempts at reconciliation

Tim Walker
Wednesday 17 December 2014 21:46 GMT
Fidel Castro speaks to supporters after gaining power in 1959
Fidel Castro speaks to supporters after gaining power in 1959 (AP)

It may seem hard to believe, after so many decades of diplomatic rancour, but when Fidel Castro first came to power, he did so with the assistance of the US government. In March 1958, the Eisenhower administration suspended arms shipments to the Havana regime led by General Batista. Within a year, Castro’s rebels had seized control of Cuba.

In 1959, the new Cuban leader was welcomed personally by then-Vice President Richard Nixon on an unofficial visit to the US. Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, took a tour of Yankee Stadium in New York and gave a speech at Harvard University. Yet relations between the two countries, separated by fewer than 100 miles of water, were soon under strain.

In 1960, Cuba began importing Soviet oil. Meanwhile, the Castro government introduced crippling taxes on American imports and nationalised hundreds of private companies, including subsidiaries of US firms. The US responded by imposing an economic embargo. Before leaving the White House in January 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with Havana. But if his plan was to foreshorten Castro’s rule, it didn’t work: the Cuban leader would be in power for decades before handing control to his brother Raul in 2006.

Much of the historical distrust between the two countries stems from the events of John F Kennedy’s presidency. Eisenhower laid plans for an invasion of Cuba by US-backed exiles, but it was the Kennedy administration that carried them out in April 1961, with disastrous results. The ragtag force that landed at the Bay of Pigs did not inspire the hoped-for popular uprising against Castro; instead, they were mostly killed or captured by the Cuban army.

In February 1962, Kennedy issued a permanent economic embargo of Cuba, though not before he had ordered himself 1,200 Cuban cigars. That October, US planes photographed Soviet missile sites under construction in Cuba, setting off the nail-biting nuclear stand-off between the superpowers, now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis finally ended when the Kremlin withdrew its missiles, after securing a promise from Kennedy not to invade Cuba again. Unbeknown to the US people, Kennedy also agreed to mothball secret US missile sites in Turkey.

While the US did not launch another invasion, it continued its covert efforts to assassinate Castro, codenamed Operation Mongoose. In the early 1960s there were several outlandish CIA plots against the Cuban leader, including one infamous plan to kill or maim him with an exploding cigar.

After Nixon was elected president in 1968, the US officially ended its campaign to overthrow the Cuban leader. Nixon’s successors, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, both made attempts to normalise relations with Havana, but those attempts were disrupted when Castro sent Cuban troops to support repressive Marxist regimes in Angola and Ethiopia.

US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade in 1962 (Getty)
US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade in 1962 (Getty) (Getty Images)

In 1980, some 125,000 Cuban refugees fled the island for the US in an episode that became known as the Mariel Boatlift, damaging relations further. Three years later, Cuban and US forces faced each other in combat for the first and only time, when President Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada. The invasion was partly motivated by the construction of a military airstrip in Grenada by Cuban engineers.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost out on Kremlin funding that had been worth as much as £4bn per year. With the country no longer a serious security threat to the US, President Bill Clinton made fresh overtures to Havana. In February 1996, however, Cuba shot down two civilian planes in international airspace, killing one Cuban and three Americans. The US subsequently beefed up its embargo with the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which expanded its scope to countries that traded with Cuba, and stated the embargo would not lift until Castro was replaced following free and fair elections.

In 1999, tensions flared again when a Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, was picked up off the Florida coast after the refugee boat carrying him, his mother and stepfather capsised on its way to the US. Despite a campaign by anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the US to let him remain with relatives in Miami, Gonzalez was eventually returned to his father in Cuba the following year.

In 2001, five Cubans in Miami were convicted of spying for the Castro regime. Two of the “Cuban Five” were released after serving their sentences, the remaining three were released this week as part of the US-Cuban prisoner swap. When Raul Castro took control of the Cuban government in 2006, it appeared to present an opportunity for rapprochement. This week’s agreement was reached after more than a year of secret talks.

Significantly, Raul Castro and President Barack Obama were photographed shaking hands last December at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a moment later celebrated by Fidel Castro in a newspaper editorial. If it was not the moment that started the thaw, the handshake was at least a hairdryer in the icebox.

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