The U.S. government first forbade Americans from visiting Cuba in 1963. President Eisenhower initiated the ban along with a full embargo to isolate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. From the 1960s on, the issue of foreign relations with Cuba has been a thorny domestic political issue in the United States, especially as Cuban exiles in Florida have gained more political power. While successive presidents have differed on the details, the ban has been in effect more or less since.

Early History of U.S.-Cuban Relations

The United States helped overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba in 1898; in return, the U.S. pressured Cuba into accepting the Platt Amendment, which reserved the right for Americans to intervene in Cuban affairs and established the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay. Though the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt repudiated the amendment, the U.S. kept its military base. Instead of using overt coercion, the U.S. turned to a policy of economic pressure, granting Cuba favorable trade agreements for its sugar. Though Cuban sugar producers profited from the agreements, the sugar trade kept Cuba dependent on U.S. dollars. In the 1950s, a military coup put Fulgencia Batista in power. Batista was a corrupt politician interested in lining his own pockets with American dollars. As a result, he neglected the real social problems plaguing Cuba such as widespread poverty and crime. Fidel Castro and his revolutionary party came to power in 1959, promising to redress such problems, after the U.S. government withdrew its support for Batista.

The Embargo on Cuba

The U.S. government recognized Castro as the rightful leader of Cuba initially, but ultimately withdrew support for Castro. After Castro seized land holdings that were over 1000 acres in size, President Eisenhower became convinced that Castro was a hardened communist who threatened U.S. interests and security. In 1961, Eisenhower imposed a full trade embargo on Cuba and cut off diplomatic relations as well. When President John F. Kennedy took office, he followed through on the Eisenhower administration’s plan to support an invasion of Cuba by exiles seeking to overthrow Castro. The resulting invasion, known as Bay of Pigs (1961), was a disaster for the U.S. and encouraged Castro to acquire nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. That same year, Kennedy prohibited all travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

Post-Kennedy Foreign Policy

U.S. presidents after Eisenhower and Kennedy have maintained the travel ban and embargo. Before Nixon left office, his administration show signs of wanting to remove the embargo (similar to the way Nixon had visited China), but Nixon resigned in disgrace before any plans could be solidified. President Jimmy Carter relented somewhat on the travel ban, allowing it to lapse, but Cuban support for Marxist forces in the Angolan civil war and a leak to the media that a brigade of Soviet troops were stationed in Cuba (and had been since 1963) weakened support for lifting the embargo. When Reagan came to office, he was determined to fight what he saw as a communist threat in areas like Central America and Cuba. He reinstated the travel ban, and it has remained in place since.

Obama and the Embargo

Despite the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. has maintained the same policy of isolation toward Cuba. Cuban exiles in Florida have wielded political influence over U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba; historically they have been adamantly opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba because of their desire to see Castro removed from power. More recent Cuban immigrants support removing the embargo and travel ban, and Barack Obama lifted Bush administration restrictions on how often Cuban Americans can visit family in Cuba.

Exceptions to the Travel Ban

Individual U.S. citizens can apply for a license from the state department, granting them the right to visit Cuba. Among the permissible purposes for traveling to Cuba are academic research, humanitarian outreach, official government business and journalism. Thousands of Americans visit Cuba every year; according to Patrick Jude Haney and Walt Vanderbush in “The Cuban Embargo: The Domestic Politics of an American Foreign Policy,” 135,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2002 under State Department licenses. Other Americans circumvent the travel ban by traveling first to Canada or Mexico before proceeding to Cuba.