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U.S. and Cuba: Cold War enemies for half a century

The U.S. and Cuba are only about 150 kilometres apart, but few countries have had as distant a relationship over the last 50 years.

Landmark announcement of normalization talks follows more than 50 years of enmity

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      The U.S. and Cuba are only about 150 kilometres apart, but few countries have had as distant a relationship over the last 50 years.

      The announcement that the long-time foes would begin talks to normalize their relations is a major shift for two countries whose interaction has been defined since the 1960s by an economic embargo and political isolation.

      The diplomatic standoff between them began shortly after the Cuban Revolution, which triumphed on the first day of 1959. 

      The U.S. recognized the new government at the time, but relations began to sour as Americans criticized summary trials and executions of people loyal to ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had been backed by the U.S. 

      Fidel Castro’s socialist government soon nationalized U.S.-owned businesses without compensation and raised import taxes. Within the year, Cuba and the Soviet Union began developing close ties.

      U.S. presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy each enacted their own economic punishments. Eisenhower signed off on a plan to place embargoes on guns, oil and sugar, which eventually led to a complete economic embargo, including travel restrictions, under Kennedy.

      By January of 1961, the U.S. had closed its embassy in Havana and ended its recognition of the Cuban government.

      Bay of Pigs invasion

      In April of the same year, the U.S. launched the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed attempt to overthrow the Castro government. A force of 1,400 Cuban exiles, trained in Central America by the CIA, tried to land in southern Cuba and suffered a humiliating defeat within only three days.  

      But even the failed invasion, which only intensified the Cold War struggle, was not the low point of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. 

      In 1962, U.S. spy plane photographs showed evidence of Russian missile sites in Cuba, leading to a two-week standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For 13 days in October, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

      The crisis ended with an agreement that the U.S. would not invade Cuba while Russia agreed to remove its missiles from the country. In a secret concession not revealed until 1989, the U.S. also agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey. 

      Frozen in time

      Since the missile crisis, the relationship between the two countries had been essentially frozen, even as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War came to an end.

      U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried to normalize relations shortly after taking office in 1977, by re-establishing diplomatic missions and negotiating the release of thousands of prisoners.

      But conflicts over Cuba's military mission in Africa, tension caused by a flood of Cuban refugees in 1980 and and the election of Ronald Reagan ended the rapprochement.

      The U.S. enacted laws tightening its embargo several times, including the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which punished foreign companies, including Canadian ones, that did business with Cuba.

      The U.S.-Cuba relationship softened slightly at the end of the Clinton administration — for example, with restrictions eased on sales of medicines to humanitarian organizations. But President George W. Bush kept a course of isolation through his two terms.

      In 2008, the two leaders who made the landmark normalization announcement Wednesday came to power: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro, who formally took over from his long-ailing brother, Fidel.

      Even before the announcement, both men had shown signs the relationship might change. 

      During his first term, Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba and on how much money Cuban-Americans could send to relatives there.

      Castro, meanwhile, made moves toward the free market, allowing real-estate sales and more access to consumer goods. He also made travelling outside the country easier.

      The two shook hands publicly at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in 2013 — at the time, an almost unprecedented moment between two deeply opposed neighbours.

      With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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