Foreign Relations during Castro's Regime (1959-1969)

Compiled by Laura Barry, Genevieve Beck, Helen Muller, and Kassandra Smith

Cuba's proximity to the United States has complicated its foreign relations for hundreds of years.

In 1959, when Fidel Castro’s regime rose to power, its success was partially dependent on other nations due to the unstable economy. It was apparent that Cuba could not expect any help from the United States, so Castro was forced to turn to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and the United States were not on favorable terms, which led to events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Operation Mongoose, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

United States/Soviet Union Relations

U.S. Embargo on Cuba

Tensions between the United States and Cuba had been increasing since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. In May 1960, Cuba wanted U.S. owned oil refineries to process Soviet crude oil, and when the refineries refused, Cuba nationalized the refineries. President Dwight D. Eisenhower then reduced the amount of sugar the Unites States was importing from Cuba (Balfour 64). Cuba responded to this act by expropriating more U.S. property and companies. In October, the U.S. struck back by placing a partial embargo on Cuba which banned all U.S. exports to Cuba “except nonsubsidized foodstuffs and medicines” (Kalpowitz 40). On January 3, 1961, President Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations between the two countries (Keen and Haynes 439). In February 1962, President John F. Kennedy made the embargo a complete financial and economic embargo (Balfour 64).

One of the United States' methods of controlling Cuba was to place a complete financial and economic embargo on the country.

Before Castro rose to power in Cuba, the economy was very vulnerable. In the mid-1950s over two-thirds of Cuba’s exports went to the U.S. The U.S. purchased so much Cuban sugar that the economy of the nation was dependent on exports. The United States decision on the sugar quota for the year was vital to the Cubans, whose economy “was not only dependent on a single crop but on a single customer.” Also, Cuba imported most of its goods from the United States (Kaplowitz 31). The U.S. was not pleased with the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959, but it was not the definite turning point in relations between the two countries. The trade agreement between Cuba and the Soviet Union in 1960 was more significant. The Soviets agreed to purchase a large portion of Cuba’s sugar, thereby decreasing Cuba’s dependence on the United States. The Soviet-Cuban trade agreement took away the United States’ threat of “economic sanctions,” one of the United States' principal means of controlling the new government. By 1961, over 70 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade was with socialist countries, and that rose to 80 percent by 1962 (Kalpowitz 37).

In January 1962, two of the United States’ goals were to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS) and to have the OAS impose an embargo on the island, but only the first goal was attained (Kalpowitz 59). A month later, the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) voted to exclude Cuba. The U.S. also wanted European countries to take measures against Cuba. In September the U.S. encouraged NATO countries to continue to isolate Cuba
  • by “discouraging the charter of commercial ships to the Soviet Union to carry goods to Cuba”;
  • by prohibiting indirect shipment of U.S. goods to Cuba by stopping in a foreign country;
  • by not exporting goods that would be of economic or military value to Cuba; and
  • by not allowing commercial credits to be extended to Cuba.

The British and Norwegian governments were not enthusiastic about these sanctions, but Turkey and Germany were more compliant (Kalpowitz 60). After attempts to internationalize the embargo failed, the United States resorted to a more restrictive embargo.

On June 3, 1963, the Cuban Assets Control Regulations were issued, which revoked the Cuban Import Regulations. The regulations
  • banned dealings between Cubans and U.S.-based entities;
  • prohibited any individual or group from conducting a foreign exchange of precious metals with Cuba;
  • prohibited anyone subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from entering into commercial or financial transactions of any kind with Cuba;
  • prohibited any travel to Cuba unless a specific license was granted; and
  • banned the import of Cuban goods (Kaplowitz 65).

The embargo was changed again by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in May 1964. The sale of foodstuffs and medicines to Cuba was prohibited. In December, foreign ships were prohibited from coming to U.S. ports to obtain fuel if they had visited a Cuban port or were going to one in the future (Kaplowitz 67).
Between 1965 and 1969, the only changes to the embargo were to close minor loopholes. In the end, the United States failed to achieve its goals of ousting Castro and eliminating the influence of the Soviet Union on Cuba. Castro was still in power and Cuba was still engaged with the Soviet Union.


The Cuban Airlift, 1965-73

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, many Cubans who did not support his government sought refuge in the United States. Between January 1959 and October 1960, ten thousand Cubans wished to leave, most of whom were from wealthy families negatively affected by Castro’s agrarian reform. In 1961, the number of Cubans who wanted to leave increased to 56,000 people, mostly professionals and technicians (Masud-Piloto 58). By the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, 153,534 Cubans had left for the United States. After the Missile Crisis, the numbers leaving sharply decreased to 29,962 (Masud-Piloto 59). In 1964, a CIA assessment of the situation indicated that most Cubans wanted to leave “because of the economic situation and not political repression.” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that these immigrants would be welcomed because they were “escaping from communism.” Johnson then signed the immigration bill allowing the immigrants to come to the United States (Masud-Piloto 60).

During the Cuban Airlift thousands of refugees left Cuba for the United States.

On September 28, 1965, Castro announced that Cubans could leave the country for the United States if they had relatives there who asked them to come. He explained that after the Missile Crisis, the United States cut off access to the country to Cubans trying to leave, causing them to leave in small, unsafe boats, with the result that many refugees drowned. Castro allowed these immigrants to leave because they did not support the revolution (Masud-Piloto 57). When answering questions from the State Department on October 1, 1965, Castro said, “The U.S. State Department's statement that we are trying to make propaganda with this proposal is ridiculous.” Starting October 10, 1965, boats from Miami would be allowed to visit the Cuban port of Camarioca and return to the United States with refugees. Castro showed his determination to implement the proposal by announcing on September 30 that two daily flights would fly from Havana to Miami (Masud-Piloto 58). When answering questions on October 1, Castro said that Cuba “is ready to furnish two planes daily so that the Cuban citizens . . . can go to the United States at no cost to them.” Faced with this opportunity for Cubans to emigrate to the U.S., President Johnson’s administration was alarmed at the possibility of having to settle more than 200,000 refugees. Castro reasoned that the United States accepted his proposal only because “the U.S.A. uses emigration from Cuba as a political weapon” and that welcoming the immigrants might detract from this image (Masud-Piloto 59).

U.S. News and World Report explained that Castro’s three main reasons for allowing the emigration were
  • to open discussions with the United States in order to have a more normal diplomatic relationship;
  • to ease problems within the country by allowing nonproductive citizens to leave: men of military age (14 to 27) were not permitted to leave; and
  • to secure the revolution by allowing those who did not support it to leave.

On November 2, 1966, President Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act exempting Cuban immigrants from regular immigration laws. The act made Cubans who had arrived in the United States after January 1, 1959, eligible for permanent residency within two years. The airlift officially ended on April 6, 1973 (Sierra).

Bay of Pigs

The American government had a long-lasting interest in Cuba economically. Naturally, when Cuba made an alliance with the Soviet Union, the United States became concerned politically as well. In the decades before the Bay of Pigs incident, the issue of Communism became increasingly significant in American politics. In July 1960, when the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, made a statement regarding “figurative” rockets that would offer Cuba protection from the U.S., President Eisenhower responded by stating that the U.S. would not “tolerate the establishment of a regime dominated by international communism in the western hemisphere” (Sierra). From that point, the U.S. asserted that Communism was a significant and dangerous enemy. President John F. Kennedy promised military action against Castro’s government and began to organize a Cuban invasion.

Map of Cuba

Originally, the plan was to land during the day in Trinidad, a city on the southern coast of Cuba near the Escambray mountains. However, Kennedy suggested a nighttime amphibious landing in the Bay of Pigs, where there was a nearby beach airstrip. It was thought that this would give less exposure to the aims of the United States, but it also would be difficult for any citizens to join in the uprising against Castro because it was a nighttime invasion, and the distance between the beach and the Escambray mountains would make escape, if necessary, difficult. Nevertheless, Kennedy ignored all opposition to the plan, although many notes and memos about the hazards of potential problems or legal disputes were recorded.

Just after midnight on Sunday, April 16, fifteen thousand men divided into six battalions landed, with Manuel Artime as the political chief. By three o'clock Monday morning, Castro was aware of the invasion and responded immediately by sinking the U.S. supply ship Houston and command vessel Maropa. The expected air cover from the U.S. Air Force never came. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised Kennedy to cancel the attack.

May 1963 Cover of Life Magazine

A final attempt occurred on April 19, but, with no supplies or backup, the force was defeated. Overall, 200 rebel soldiers died, and 1,197 were captured. U.S. involvement in the Bay of Pigs attack was a direct violation of Article 2, paragraph 4 and Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, as well as Articles 18 and 25 of the Charter of the Organization of American States, and Article 1 of the Rio Treaty, which deems armed attacks illegal except in self-defense (Sierra).

Eventually, President Kennedy assumed full responsibility for the failure, but pointed out the responsibility of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), blaming the lack of communication, misinformation, and poor planning for the defeat of the invasion (Sierra).

The Cuban Missile Crisis

This political cartoon illustrates the struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Operation Mongoose

Operation Mongoose was a secret mission initiated by President John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It was a continuation of undercover operations undertaken by the Eisenhower Administration. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was allegedly the leader of the operation (sometimes referred to as the Cuban Project or the Special Group). In 1962, he said that destroying the Castro Administration was “the top priority of the U.S. government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared” (Daniels).

The main goals of the operation were
  • to destroy power plants and factories in Cuba;
  • to lay mines with the hopes of disrupting the Cuban shipping industry;
  • to destroy Castro’s leadership by turning Cubans against him; and
  • to assassinate Castro.

Cuba’s respect for the long-time leader was to be destroyed by “psychological operations,” led by Air Force Brigadier General Edward Lansdale (Mt. Holyoke). These operations included covertly airing anti-Castro radio programming, handing out flyers charging that Castro was enriching himself rather than restoring Cuba’s economy, and planting U.S. operatives on the island to spread damaging rumors about his administration.
This document was one of many containing information about Operation Mongoose. Click to view full size.
Most elements of Operation Mongoose, however, were more theoretical than practical (especially Castro’s assassination, although the plotters did consider various means for carrying it out, such as injecting botulism toxins into his cigars), and the operation was abandoned when President Johnson took office. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, many United States citizens suspected the conspirators were Cubans, especially after it was discovered that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had attempted to travel to Cuba earlier that year.

In 2001, about 1,500 pages of documents concerning Operation Mongoose were declassified by the Assassination Records Review Board. They contained proposals for plots which ranged from connecting seashells to explosives to attract Castro, an avid diver, to “Operation Good Times,” a plot to create an unflattering photo showing a very fat Castro and an attractive woman on each arm. The photo was to be captioned “My ration is perfect” (Weiner).

Other Countries

Che Guevara's Influence on Cuba and Foreign Nations

Ernesto Che Guevara
Ernesto Guevara de Sema was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. He studied medicine at Buenos Aires University, where he became involved in opposition against Juan Perón. He went to Guatemala in 1953, where he aided Jacabo Arbenz Guzman until he was overthrown by the United States. He was influenced by the writings of Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Gide, and Faulkner, as well as his favorite author Sara de Ibanez. While in Mexico City working in the allergy ward at the General Hospital, Che met Raul Castro while he was in exile for the Moncada attack. Che met Fidel in July 1954, and, after talking for ten hours straight, decided to join the Cuban Revolution (Sierra). Che went on to be the official doctor of the rebel army, a commander, president of the National Bank, the Minister of Industries, and a chief strategist. His many jobs in Cuban government had an enormous influence within the country, but he also served as a global ambassador to meet with other revolutionary leaders and sympathizers in the Soviet Union, China, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Congo, Angola, and other African and South American countries. He also helped develop the Soviet-Cuban trade agreement of 1960.

After visiting the Soviet Union and China in 1960 and returning to Cuba, Che wrote two books, Guerilla Warfare and Reminisces of the Cuban Revolutionary War (Spartacus Educational). On December 9, 1964, Che traveled to New York to speak to the United Nations, and then embarked on a three-month tour of Africa. After delivering his farewell letter to Castro on April 1st of 1965, Che left Cuba for the Congo, where he changed his name to “Tatu” (Swahili for the number two) in order to mask his identity (Sierra). On November 4, 1966, using a fake name and passport, Che arrived in Bolivia. While there, he attempted to persuade the destitute tin miners to join his army. On December 31, 1966, Guevara met with Bolivian Communist Party secretary Mario Manje. They disagreed on the details of their upcoming guerilla expedition. CIA agent David Morales enlisted Felix Rodriguez to train and lead a team designed to capture Che. Rodriguez was the one to interrogate Guevara and order his execution in October 1967. Rodriguez kept Che’s Rolex watch as a trophy (Spartacus Educational).

Cuba's Relationship with Angola

The location of Angola in Africa.

Works Cited

Balfour, Sebastian. Castro. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.

Castro, Fidel. "Castro Answers State Department Questions." Speech. Latin American Network Information Center. Web. 15 Sept. 2009. <>.

Che Guevara: Biography." Spartacus Educational - Home Page. Web. 17 Sept. 2009. <>.

Kaplowitz, Donna Rich.
Anatomy of a Failed Embargo: U.S. Sanctions Against Cuba. Boulder, CO. Lynne Rienner, 1998.

Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. 7th ed. Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959-1995. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 1996.

"Operation Mongoose: the Covert Operation to Remove Castro from Power." Ed. Maria Daniels. Public Broadcasting System, 1 July 2004. Web. 16 Sept. 2009.

Pike, John. "Operation Mongoose." Web. 16 Sept. 2009. <>.

Program Review by the Chief of Operations, Operation Mongoose (Lansdale), 18 January 1962. Rep. US Department of State. Web. <>.

Sierra, Jerry A. "History of Cuba Timetable: 1959 thru [sic] 1979." History of Cuba. Web. 15 Sept. 2009.

Weiner, Tim. "Declassified Papers Show Anti-Castro Ideas Proposed to Kennedy."
The New York Times. 19 Nov. 1997. Web. 16 Sept. 2009. <>.