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Why It Took More Than 50 Years for U.S.–Cuba Relations to Thaw

As President Obama tours Havana, seeking ways to expand trade, diplomacy, and freedom in the newly reopened avenues between the United States and Cuba, it’s worth recalling how those paths were closed off more than a half-century ago.

It was New Year’s Day 1959 when Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army marched into the Cuban capital, just hours after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled under siege—and in the beginning, relations with Washington were good. At the urgings of the U.S. ambassador and the CIA station chief, who’d both loathed Batista, President Dwight Eisenhower formally recognized Castro’s revolutionary government—making America the second nation, after Venezuela, to do so.

Three months later, in April, an energetic Castro—31, decked in a scruffy beard and green army fatigues—flew to the States and made a wildly good impression. In Washington, he strolled along the National Mall, eating ice cream cones, kissing babies, signing autographs, waving to students on buses, and chatting in heavily accented but fluent English with anyone who approached.

In New York, he lunched with Wall Street bankers, fed a Bengal tiger at the Bronx Zoo, and spoke before 30,000 people at a nighttime rally in Central Park. In Houston, he accepted a blue-blooded quarter horse as a gift and granted oilman Frank Water the rights to make a movie about the revolution. (Water wanted to cast Marlon Brando as Castro and Frank Sinatra as his brother, Raul. The movie never got made.)

In a meeting at the Capitol, with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Castro said, “We have no interest in expropriating U.S. property.” He waved away questions about the Communists in his government, saying, “Their influence is nothing.” Pressed about his Cabinet’s firing squads, which had executed 521 people so far, he insisted that the men shot were “war criminals” and promised that Cuba would soon have a free press and, within four years, free elections. 

A New York Times editorial proclaimed, “This young man is larger than life.” The Timesreporter who covered his visit wrote that even skeptics were “dazed.” Castro, he rhapsodized, had swept into the country “not only out of another world, the world of fierce Latin passion, but also out of another century—the century of Sam Adams and Patrick Henry and Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps,” he went on, “because he stirred memories, long dimmed, of a revolutionary past and recalled a new order once deeply felt. (‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven’) Fidel Castro succeeded in achieving a suspension of disbelief—at least partial and temporary.”  ...

Read entire article at Slate