Exploring a Shared History: The U.S. and Cuba

President Barack Obama’s December 2014 statement that the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba has many people wondering: How did the U.S. and Cuba get along before the embargo? How has their relationship changed over time?

The United States and Cuba, with their close proximity and shared history as European colonies, have been intertwined for centuries. However, after roughly two generations of U.S. embargoes against Cuba, few can remember a time when Americans and Cubans could travel back and forth freely and easily to explore their shared connections. InsightCuba has been bridging that gap for fifteen years, helping U.S. citizens travel to Cuba on people-to-people tours.

As neighbors, the U.S and Cuba once enjoyed a close relationship, Both participated in trans-Atlantic trade before and after the American Revolution. As early as 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Cuba would be “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.” Although this didn’t come about during his lifetime, more formal ties between the two countries were established in 1898, after the U.S. defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War. Spain ceded the U.S. all of its territories outside of Africa, including the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Cuba. Cuba became a United States territory for the next four years. In 1902, the island officially gained its independence, although the Platt Amendment gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Tomás Estrada Palma, who was born in Cuba, but had lived in the United States during the Spanish-American War and even became a U.S. citizen, became president of the new republic. In 1934, the U.S. officially relinquished its right to intervene in Cuban affairs and even made changes to its own economic policy to favor trade with Cuba above other countries. [OR “…to give more of its sugar trade to Cuba than other countries” depending on meaning] Cuba became a popular destination for American tourists, who poured into the country on PanAm flights, enjoyed spectacular productions at the Tropicana, and tried their luck at the island’s many casinos. By the mid-1950s, corruption in Fulgencio Batista’s government, which had come into power in 1933, had sparked a strong movement against the dictator. The resulting revolution became the defining element in relations between the two countries for the latter half of the 20th century.

Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 strained relations with the U.S. In 1960, American businesses and properties were nationalized by Cuba without compensation. In 1961, Cuban exiles, supported by the United States, invaded the Bay of Pigs, but failed to overthrow Castro, who subsequently aligned himself with the USSR. 

After diplomatic relations failed in 1960, Americans followed subsequent developments on the national news: Cuban immigrants flooded into the U.S. in 1980; Elián González tugged collective heartstrings in 1999; the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 strengthened the US embargo against Cuba. In 2006, Fidel Castro handed the reins of power to his brother, Raul. By 2009, President Obama had lifted restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island, beginning a thaw between the countries. In December of 2014, he announced that the U.S. would begin to reestablish diplomatic relations.

Throughout our sometimes-tumultuous history, each country’s people have continued to forge connections. Long before the Cuban Revolution, some of Cuba’s and the U.S.’s greatest thinkers considered both countries close to their hearts. José Martí, hero of the Cuban fight for independence from Spain in the late 19th century, traveled to the U.S. often and even stayed in New York for a time, writing and engaging in political discourse. Famed American author Ernest Hemingway owned a residence in Cuba. His experiences there inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea.  Even after formal diplomatic ties were severed in 1960, cultural and individual connections between the countries have remained.

InsightCuba has sent more than 10,000 travelers to Cuba since 2000. Many have returned with us. We know and appreciate Cuba’s culture, geography, history and people better than anyone outside the island.  !Vamonos! (Let’s go!)


Text by Emily DeVoie



Historical information from:

"Timeline: US-Cuba Relations." BBC News. BBC, 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. "World Policy Journal - Spring 2005." World Policy Journal - Spring 2005. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Nadeau, Barbie Latza. "The Pope's Diplomatic Miracle: Ending the U.S.-Cuba Cold War." The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 17 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.