On 3 January 1961 US president Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the American embassy in Havana and severed diplomatic ties with Castro’s Communist nation. At the height of the Cold War, such a move was ominous, and presaged such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion. The two countries only normalised diplomatic relations in July 2015.
The threat of Communism
Eisenhower’s fear of the Communist regime in Cuba is understandable given the climate of the times. After the USSR’s important role in the Allied victory in World War Two, Communism appeared to be a genuine alternative to Capitalism, particularly to countries in the developing world eager to avoid what was seen as heavy-handed American imperialism.
Throughout 1950s and 60s, the possibility that tension between the US and the Soviet Union could boil over into an apocalyptic nuclear war was very much alive. Given these circumstances, Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba in 1959 was a grave danger to the US, particularly given the island’s nation proximity to US soil.
Castro had landed in Cuba 1956, and while his chances against hard-line dictator Fulgencio Batista initially appeared slim, he shocked the world by winning victory after victory over the next three years.
Inspired by the success of the Soviet Union, Castro set about converting his new nation into a Communist state. Already worried, the American government then had to endure news of Cuba developing ever-closer ties with Khrushchev’s USSR. A contemporary article in TIME magazine described early 1960 as a time where “Cuban-American relations reach a new low each day.”
The start of sanctions
Understanding that their economic heft would prove crucial, the first concrete steps taken by the US government took the form of a trade embargo on Cuba, for which the US represented its dominant export market.
Tensions escalated between the two countries as the Cubans then introduced their own economic sanctions in late October. With the threat of conflict ever-present, rumours began to spread in Cuba that the US was considering landing troops and attempting to oust Castro.
The US embassy in Havana became the focal point of the rising political temperature, as tens of thousands queued outside seeking visas to flee abroad. These scenes were an embarrassment to Castro, and the situation had degenerated to such an extent that TIME reported that “diplomacy between the two nations has become as difficult as commerce.”
By the start of 1961 the embassy queues continued, and Castro was becoming increasingly suspicious. Convinced that the embassy was overstaffed and harbouring spies, Castro opened communications with Eisenhower and demanded that the embassy reduce its staff to 11, the same number as the Cuban embassy in Washington.
In reaction, and with over 50,000 visa applications yet to be processed, the US embassy closed its doors on 3 January. Formal diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring nations would not be renewed for over 50 years, and although global catastrophe was ultimately avoided, the people of Cuba continue to suffer.