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Castro relationship with U.S. has long been rocky
Castro with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a visit to Moscow in 1963.



United States
Fidel Castro

(CNN) -- Long before Cuban President Fidel Castro's intestinal surgery, his latest foe in the White House was already preparing for the aftermath of his eventual death in the hemisphere's only communist state.

Castro has ruled Cuba since 1959 without winning an election. In that same period, the United States elected eight different leaders without a significant thawing in relations.

The Cuban strongman has provisionally handed over power to his younger brother, Raul, according to a statement read on Cuban television Monday night. (Full story)

Castro's surgery came just weeks after a U.S. government report called for the United States to have assistance in Cuba within weeks of Castro's death to help move the country toward democracy. (Full story)

Castro overthrew another Cuban dictator in 1959 and established a communist state that quickly became allied with the Soviet Union and against its neighbor less than 100 miles to the north. Cuba played a central role at the peak of the Cold War, and over the course of more than four decades, Castro's regime survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, the demise of the Soviet Union and a long-standing U.S. economic embargo.

Castro's relations with the United States were always rocky. A year ago, the White House named a former Republican staffer on the House International Relations Committee as the Bush administration's new point man on regime change in Cuba. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Caleb McCarry to be Cuba transition coordinator as part the Bush administration's policy to "accelerate the demise of Castro's tyranny."

"We will not rest until this hemisphere is the best example of a hemisphere united in freedom and democracy," Rice said.

Tensions arise quickly

Castro's poor relations with the United States go back to New Year's Day in 1959, when his forces overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. More than 500 people were subsequently tried and executed in Cuba, after appearing before revolutionary judges. Thousands fled to exile in the United States. (Read: How Castro's rise heightened Cold War tensions)

But to many Cubans, Castro was a hero.

Under President Eisenhower, the United States formally recognized Cuba's new government six days after Castro took power, though tensions arose quickly as Cuba moved to nationalize factories and plantations, which were primarily owned by American companies.

In April 1959, Castro visited the United States, where he had honeymooned in the 1940s. But just over a year later, Cuba and the Soviet Union established formal diplomatic relations, and ties with the United States weakened.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961 -- less than three weeks before Eisenhower left office. But it was his successor's presidency that would be most defined by relations with Cuba.

Just three months after his inauguration, President Kennedy authorized a group of about 1,300 Cuban exiles -- trained by the CIA under Eisenhower -- to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow Castro.

On April 15, 1961, six U.S. bombers disguised as Cuban aircraft took off from Nicaragua and attacked Cuban airfields -- but caused only minimal damage. The next day, the CIA-trained force of guerrillas arrived at the Bay of Pigs, 125 miles south of Havana. But their plans soon turned into disaster.

Kennedy, faced with international condemnation for the bombing, canceled additional air support for the invasion. Without U.S. air support or supply, the invasion force was quickly outnumbered and outmaneuvered. All of the invaders were captured or dead within 72 hours.

The Bay of Pigs contributed to the Soviet decision the following year to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. After they were spotted by U.S. reconnaissance flights, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, and after six tense days the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, defusing one of the most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear war as it has ever been.

An economic embargo and limits on travel to Cuba imposed by Kennedy remain largely intact.

Thousands emigrate

Under President Johnson, Cuba and the United States signed an agreement allowing 3,000-4,000 Cubans a month to emigrate to the U.S. The airlift lasted eight years, ending in 1973 under President Nixon after allowing 261,000 Cubans to enter the country.

Some 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States in 1980 in an exodus that became known as the Mariel Boatlift.

President Carter re-established limited diplomatic ties with Cuba and ended the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba in 1977. But President Reagan revived the travel ban in 1982, and relations between the two nations remained frozen.

In 1994, President Clinton changed the "open door" policy on Cuban refugees, first established by Johnson in 1966. Under the new policy, often referred to as "wet foot, dry foot," Cubans intercepted at sea were repatriated, but those who reach land were allowed to stay.

In 1996, another crisis ensued when the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes over the Straits of Florida on February 24, killing four members of the Cuban-American exile group Brothers to the Rescue. The incident led to the passage of the Helms-Burton law, which was signed by Clinton.

The law requires an act of Congress to lift any part of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. It also requires mandatory denial of visas to individuals who use or profit from confiscated Cuban property, and it allows Cuban-born Americans to sue those who confiscated property in Cuba.

U.S.-Cuban relations became an issue in the 2000 presidential election after 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in November 1999, the only survivor of a group of 13 Cuban migrants trying to make it to the United States. His mother was among the dead.

His father, back in Cuba, demanded his return, but relatives in Miami refused to release him, touching off a seven-month international custody battle. Eventually, Attorney General Janet Reno decided to send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. The boy was seized in an April 2000 raid that prompted protests by hundreds of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.

Vice President Al Gore broke ranks with the administration, calling for the matter to be settled in Florida's family court system. But Gore was accused of pandering to Florida's Cuban-American voters, because the state was a battleground state in the presidential vote.

Bush blasts 'tyrant'

In 2002, Carter made the first visit to Cuba by a former or current U.S. president since 1928. Carter said the trip was intended to improve relations between the two countries.

In a speech televised live in Cuba, Carter criticized the nation's record on human rights and democracy -- but also offered criticism of the U.S. embargo.

Days later, President Bush denounced Castro as a "tyrant" and "a relic from another era," and said he would not ease U.S. policies toward Cuba until political and economic reforms came to Cuba.

Castro responded by threatening to sever his country's limited diplomatic relations with the United States. He has since accused the Bush administration of plotting to overthrow his government.

In January 2004, nine months after the United States invaded Iraq, Castro said Cuba isn't interested in a conflict with the United States but would be ready if the Bush administration brought one.

"I don't care how I die, but for sure, if they invade us, I will die fighting," he said.

Even before Carter's visit, the Bush administration had already tightened measures against Cuba. It boosted Radio Marti broadcasting into Cuba, curtailed visits by Cuban-Americans to see their families on the island and limited remittances that can be sent to relatives there. The administration also cracked down on Americans who defy U.S. travel restrictions.

While noting that Castro has plans for a successor, the recent commission report said the message that the U.S. would assist a democratic Cuba could bolster democratic forces in the country and create an environment where democracy and economic reforms could thrive.

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