After 55 years, diplomatic relations have been re-established between the United States and Cuba. An exchange of prisoners sealed the deal, as if out of the Cold War, which of course it was. It may indeed be the very last front of the Cold War, cooled down so much it might finally be described as over. Except for the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, only Congress can change that.
Martin Sherwin and Peter Winn reviewed the intimate and tangled history of the U.S.-Cuban relationship from the American side in The Wilson Quarterly, beginning with a quote from John Quincy Adams in 1823. Adams was hardly the first in thinking Cuba was a natural and inevitable addition to the “North American Union.” Manifest Destiny, which Sherwin and Winn define as the “power, the right, and indeed the responsibility to define the economic and political order throughout the Hemisphere,” was centered on Cuba, which was close to the U.S. and strategically the gate of the Caribbean.
More than 800,000 Cubans entered the U.S. after the Cuban Revolution. Most got in “outside ordinary immigration channels and were afforded special status as de facto or officially recognized refugees,” write John Scanlan and Gilburt Loescher in their analysis of U.S. policy towards Cuba and its effects on refugee flow. The first to come in 1959-1960 were considered temporary exiles, supposedly soon to return with the overthrow of Castro. A second wave started in 1965, as the U.S. heightened its efforts to isolate Cuba. People leaving Cuba, according the U.S., proved the point of the failures of the Soviet-supported Castro regime.
But the influx of 1980 was different, catching the U.S. off-guard. During the Mariel “boatlift,” Castro allowed both political and non-political prisoners, some of them common criminals, to leave the country; the latter were described by a White House staffer as “bullets aimed at this country.” Three children of Cuban immigrants grew up to serve in the U.S. Senate. The three—two Republicans and one Democrat—all condemned the news of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.