After a Six-Decade Standoff With Cuba, There's Still No End in Sight

By Manuel Cuéllar
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Many Cubans saw the election of President Joe Biden as a chance to reset the two countries’ rocky relationship. After all, Biden had promised to reverse Trump-era efforts to strengthen the trade embargo that has helped to strangle the Cuban economy in the more than 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. But in its first two years, the Biden administration has pushed only a handful of small measures and recently opposed a U.N. resolution calling for an end to the economic embargo.

That’s frustrating to some Cubans, like Dr. Tomás Diez Acosta, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Cuban military and historian who has written books on the Cuban missile crisis, or as it’s called in Cuba, the October Crisis.

“The United States has good relations with Vietnam, where 55,000 Americans died in that war,” he said in an interview with Retro Report. “Cuba is a small country. Why is Cuba so dangerous?”

One reason is the complicated history set off by Fidel Castro, who led a 1959 revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator. Castro ruled Cuba through the 1962 missile crisis when Soviet warheads were placed a stone’s throw from Florida. Many Americans viewed the episode as Cold War brinkmanship — a Soviet provocation that brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. But Cubans like Acosta view these events differently, as part of a struggle for independence that the United States seemed bent on preventing.

Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Havana, Acosta said the Cuban revolution seemed like a moment of promise. “I wanted to change the situation and participate in the cultural movements happening at the time,” he said. “I joined the armed forces when I was 15 years old.”

From the beginning, there was fear the revolution would be short-lived. On April 17, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles trained by the C.I.A. attempted a landing at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southern coast. The invasion failed, strengthening the position of Castro’s administration.

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OCT. 23, 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed the Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba. (Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Acosta recalled a funeral of a soldier where people raised their arms in solidarity. “The country had regained national sovereignty and no one was going to allow them to take away our freedom,” he said.

Although the covert operation was an embarrassment to the United States, to many Cubans it was a wake-up call, said Professor Philip Brenner, who specializes in U.S.-Cuba relations at American University. “Cuban leadership believed that the United States was intent on overthrowing the Cuban government,” Brenner said. “That was made manifest in the U.S. support of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs…and Castro didn’t think that would stop Kennedy from future efforts.”

The missile crisis was defused in 1962, after President John F. Kennedy pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba, and secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. But although the Soviet missiles were removed, the agreement did not solve the problems that led to the missile crisis, Acosta said, and Cuba remained a front line of the Cold War.

According to Human Rights Watch, during his nearly five decades of rule in Cuba, Castro built a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent. More recently, Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel has signaled openness to a “strategic partnership” with Russia. But there is also a sense from Cubans that the United States won’t let their country escape its past, Brenner said. “The United States is increasingly viewing the world as it did during the Cold War, which is a zero-sum game,” he said. “You’re either with us or against us. It’s again dividing the world into two.”

MANUEL CUÉLLAR, a Retro Report intern, is a Brooklyn-based freelance filmmaker and journalist whose multidisciplinary work captures character-driven stories in the U.S. and across the Americas. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.