For the first time since severing diplomatic relations in 1961, Cuba and the United States enter into direct negotiations when the two nations discuss fishing rights. The talks marked a dramatic, but short-lived, change in relations between the two Cold War enemies.
Fidel Castro had led Cuba farther away from the U.S. orbit and closer to the Soviet bloc since coming to power in 1959. Throughout the 1960s, the United States and Cuba maintained hostility toward one another. By the mid-1970s, the deteriorating state of U.S.-Latin America relations suggested that perhaps the time had come to ease tensions with Castro. Though the Cuban dictator was feared by many in Latin America, he was also a hero to many others for his success in remaining independent from the “colossus of the North”—the United States.
When Carter took office in 1977, he indicated to Cuba that the United States was prepared to enter into direct diplomatic negotiations on a number of issues, including fishing rights. On March 24, 1977, negotiators from the United States and Cuba met in New York City to discuss the fishing issue. It was the first time since 1961 that U.S. and Cuban officials had talked face to face on any issue. In the months that followed, other breakthroughs occurred. The two nations agreed to establish “interest sections” in the other’s country that would operate as de facto embassies pending the restoration of full diplomatic relations. Castro freed some political prisoners and Carter eased travel restrictions to Cuba.
These were encouraging signs, but many factors worked together to prevent any progress toward normalized relations. The strong and vocal Cuban-American community in the United States pressured congressmen and the president to back away from closer relations with Castro. Officials within Carter’s administration cautioned the president about appearing too “soft” with the communist dictator. When Carter suffered a series of diplomatic setbacks in 1979, such as the fall of the pro-American leaders of Nicaragua and Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he began to toughen his stance with Cuba. He criticized Cuba for its role in the Angolan civil war, and warned Castro about allowing Soviet troops into Cuba. Castro responded to these new attacks in a novel manner. In early 1980 he encouraged tens of thousand of Cubans, some from jails and asylums, to immigrate to the United States. Over 100,000 Cubans flooded into the United States, causing some serious problems, particularly in south Florida. By the end of 1980, U.S.-Cuban relations were as acrimonious as ever.