Cuba: Past, Present & Future



With U.S. policy toward Cuba currently at a potential inflection point, join Active Minds for a past, present, and future look at our communist neighbor to the south. We will cover the Spanish colonial period, Castro’s revolution, and the difficulties of a planned economy. We will also explore Cuba’s relationship with the U.S., including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Guantánamo Bay and current implications of the change in U.S. policy.

Key Lecture Points

  • Cuba was settled by the Spanish Empire in the early 1500s, and the Spanish ruled until 1898.  US interest and involvement in Cuba dates back to the early 19th century, when pro-slavery Southern groups in the US saw the annexation of Cuba as a way to increase their own power.  US President James Polk offered Spain $100 million in 1848 for Cuba, but Spain declined.  Later, the US intervened in the Cuban war for independence in 1898, after the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor.  The resulting Spanish-American War ended with Spain withdrawing from Cuba and direct US rule over the island until 1901.  Thereafter, and indeed up until the time of the Cuban Revolution, US influence in Cuba remained strong, especially in diplomatic and financial matters.
  • US-Cuban relations have been strained since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 which ousted the government of Fulgencio Batista, replacing it with a government led by Fidel Castro.  Cuba’s alliance with the USSR during the Cold War was solidified by billions of dollars in aid flowing from Moscow to Havana.  The alliance also meant that relations between the US and Cuba were hostile, as evidenced by the Bay of Pigs Affair in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
  • Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has missed the annual subsidies provided by the Soviets that played a large role in propping up the Castro regime’s economic situation.  Cuba has sought to solidify its economy via closer relations with other Latin American governments, most notably that of Venezuela, which provides subsidized oil to Cuba.  With Venezuela’s current economic crisis, these subsidies have been significantly reduced, causing power outages and transportation shortages for the Cuban people.
  • In 2006 Fidel Castro stepped down due to illness.  His brother Raul, as vice president, took control of the government, officially taking the role of President in 2008. In 2010 Raul Castro announced a series of economic reforms that included, for the first time since 1959, the ability of Cubans to buy and sell cars and houses and travel abroad without permission. This indicated a movement to a variation on the Chinese model of market socialism.  Raul Castro stepped down in 2018.  He was succeeded as president by Miguel Diaz-Carnel.  Raul continues as head of the Communist Party.  In his late 50s, Diaz-Carnel would be the first leader of Cuba since 1959 that is not a Castro and did not fight in the Revolution. 
  • Even after the end of the Cold War, relations between the US and Cuba remained tense, despite a softening of relations between Cuba and Europe.  In his first term, President Obama took a number of initiatives to signal a desire to open a dialogue with Cuba.  Then, in December 2014, Obama announced he would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Although the embargo remains in effect, the US now has an embassy in Havana and flights arrive in Cuba from the US daily. 
  • President Trump took a harder line towards Cuba, partly rolling back Obama’s détente with Cuba by placing tighter restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and US businesses wanting to do business in Cuba.  Trump’s tougher stance provided an opportunity for Russia and China to increase their influence in the region.
  • The incoming Biden administration has indicated a potential return to the Obama era policies toward Cuba, but time will tell whether the relationship can be further repaired.
  • Very soon after Diaz-Canel took office, the government announced new regulations that recognize the necessity of the private sector while at the same time put new restrictions and taxes on these private enterprises.

Exploration Questions

  • How has the US embargo impacted Cuba politically and economically? How has it impacted the US?
  • How did Cuba change under Raul?
  • How have the Cuban exiles impacted American politics and culture?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you remember the freedom flights and the Mariel boat people? What did you think about these waves of Cuban immigrants at the time?
  • Have you ever been to Cuba? Little Havana in Miami? What were your impressions?
  • What do you think will happen under Diaz?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Guerra-Vilaboy, Serio and Oscar Loyola-Vega. Cuba: A History. Ocean Press, 2010. 120 pages. Introduction to Cuban history.
    Click here to order
  • Kushner, Rachel. Telex from Cuba. Scribner, 2009. 336 pages. This novel describes life in American enclave in Cuba before the Revolution.
    Click here to order
  • Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. W.W. Norton and Co, 1999. 185 pages. This is a first-hand, behind-the-scenes recounting of the Cuban Missile Crisis, told by President Kennedy’s brother and advisor, the late Senator Robert Kennedy.
    Click here to order
  • Cooke, Julia. The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.  Seal Press, 2014. 248 pages. Gives insights into life in today’s Cuba, from buying food on the black market to what young Cubans think about their government.
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  • Ramonet, Ignacio, Fidel Castro.  Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography.  Scribner, 2009. 736 pages.  Drawing on interviews with Fidel, this book tells in his own words the story of Castro’s life, Cuban politics and his thoughts on 10 US presidents from Eisenhower to Bush.
    Click here to order
  • Sanchez, Juan Reinaldo, Axel Glyden, Catherine Spencer (translator). The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo.  St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 288 pages.  Sanchez talks about his years as Fidel Castro’s personal bodyguard.  This “tell-all” expose shows a previously hidden side of Fidel’s life and gives a new perspective on the Cuban story.
    Click here to order
  • Cushion, Stephen.  A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution.   Monthly Review Press, 2016.  336 pages.  The author uses primary documents such as pamphlets, leaflets and clandestine newspapers as well as personal interviews to describe the importance of the working class to the success of the Cuban Revolution.
    Click here to order