Recent events

A spate of bombings targeted at the tourist industry caused alarm in 1997. The first was in April at the hotels
Meliá Cohiba
in Havana, followed by one in July at the
and another at the
. The
Meliá Cohiba
was hit again in August, while in September three hotels on the seafront were bombed and an Italian was killed by flying glass. In an extraordinarily successful piece of detective work, it only took about a week for the Interior Ministry to announce it was holding a former paratrooper from El Salvador, Raúl Ernesto Cruz León, who confessed publicly on TV to working as a mercenary and planting six bombs. He did not say who he was working for, but it was assumed in Cuba that the
Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was behind the bombings. Two
Salvadorians were sentenced to death in 1999 for their part in the 1997 bombing campaign.

1997 was the 30th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia, whose remains were returned to Cuba in July. The country held a week of official mourning for Che and his comrades in arms. Vast numbers filed past their remains in Havana and Santa Clara, where they were laid to rest on 17 October. In December 1998 the remains of the 10 more guerrillas killed in Bolivia in 1967 were also interred in the Che Guevara memorial in Santa Clara . They included Haydée Tamara Bunke, known as Tania, who was believed to be Che's lover.

In January 1998, the Pope visited Cuba for the first time. During his four-day visit he held open-air masses around the country, attended by thousands of fascinated Cubans encouraged to attend by Castro. The world's press was represented in large numbers to record the Pope's preaching against Cuba's record on human rights and abortion while also condemning the US trade embargo preventing food and medicines reaching the needy. The visit was a public relations success for both Castro and the Pope. Shortly afterwards, 200 prisoners were pardoned and released.

In November 1999 a six-year-old boy, Elián González, was rescued from the sea off Florida, the only survivor from a boatload of illegal migrants which included his mother and her boyfriend. He was looked after by distant relatives in Miami and quickly became the centrepiece of a new row between Cuban émigrés, supported by right-wing Republicans, and Cuba. The US Attorney General, Janet Reno, supported the decision, by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on 5 January 2000, that the boy should be repatriated and reunited with his father in Cuba by 14 January, but she postponed the deadline indefinitely to allow for legal challenges. Mass demonstrations were held in Havana in support of Elián's return but legal manoeuvres by US politicians stalled any progress and caused further disputes. Amid enormous controversy, the US authorities seized Elián on 22 April and reunited him with his father, who had travelled to the USA earlier in the month with his second wife and baby. The family finally took him home, amid celebrations in Cuba, where the boy had become a symbol of resistance to the USA.

The election of George W Bush to the US presidency was bad news for any prospects of a thaw in relations with the USA. A crackdown on spies was ordered and in June 2001, five Cubans (arrested in 1998) were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder in a US Federal Court in Miami. Castro referred to them as 'heroes', who he said had not been putting the USA in danger but had been infiltrating Cuban-American anti-Castro groups and defending Cuba. Their faces are on billboards across Cuba and their case is still part of the propaganda war between Cuba and the USA. The prisoners known as the 'Miami Five' are being held in separate prisons across the USA and are being denied access to their families because their wives have been denied US visas.

However, 2001 saw the first commercial export of food from the USA to Cuba, with a shipment of corn from Louisiana to Alimport, Cuba's food-buying agency. The debate on the lifting of sanctions was fuelled by the visit of former US President Jimmy Carter in 2002 and an ever-increasing number of Americans travelled to the island, legally or illegally. However, the thaw came to a grinding halt in 2003 when Castro had three ferry hijackers executed and imprisoned 75 journalists, rights activists and dissidents, many of whom had allegedly been encouraged by the head of the US Interests Section in Havana. Amid universal condemnation, the EU announced a review of its relations with Cuba and curtailed high-level governmental visits. In 2002, Osvaldo Paya, leader of the dissident Varela project (Félix Varela was an independence hero), delivered a petition with 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly demanding sweeping political reforms, but it was dismissed. Undeterred, Paya submitted a second petition in October 2003 with 14,384 signatures, calling for a referendum on freedom of speech and assembly and amnesty for political prisoners. At the same time, the US administration announced a clampdown on its citizens travelling to the island. Immigration and Customs officers were ordered to carry out the letter of the law, with thousands of baggage searches and the first prosecutions were announced. In January 2004, the USA cancelled semi-annual migration talks as relations deteriorated. With 2004 being another presidential election year in the USA, Cuba knew it was in for a rocky ride, but this time Bush hit out at ordinary Cubans as well as their government. Remittances were sharply curtailed and Cuban Americans were limited in their travel to the island, with only one trip permitted every three years to see a close relative, even if they were dying.

In August 2006 Fidel Castro had his 80th birthday. The occasion was to have been marked by national celebrations, parades and speeches, but shortly beforehand Castro made the surprise announcement that he was about to undergo major abdominal surgery and that he was handing over the reins of power temporarily to his brother, Raúl. The nature of his illness, operation and subsequent condition was shrouded in secrecy, with rumours of terminal illness and even his death circulating in Cuba and in Miami. Coinciding with Fidel dropping out of the limelight, in the USA the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress and there were moves towards closer relations. Raúl made conciliatory noises to the USA, which the Bush administration rebuffed. By mid-2007, Fidel was well enough to receive foreign dignitaries and write articles on world issues. Nevertheless, he was still not seen in public and in 2008 the temporary handover of power became permanent. Raúl initially made attempts to liberalize the economy, allowing certain materialistic freedoms for Cubans with access to foreign exchange (permission to own laptops, stay in hotels. etc) and introduced bonuses for workers who exceed their targets, but was stymied by the arrival of three devastating hurricanes, which between them caused US$10 bn in damage. This, together with the world financial crisis and a dramatic fall in the price of nickel, completely stalled the economy and seriously hampered the government's room for manoeuvre. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution on 1 January 2009 was a low-key, no-frills, low- budget affair. Many factories had to close or cut output, energy was rationed, transport restricted and imports and budgets slashed as further austerity was required.

The succession to the Castro regime had long been thought to lie with the group of protegées groomed by Fidel, but in 2009 Raúl took Cuba and the world by surprise by replacing ten members of the Council of Ministers and other key personnel. Fidelista loyalists were removed while army and communist party officials were promoted to run the economy. Hopes were raised when US President Obama took office and lifted travel restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting the island. However, he kept the US trade embargo in place to press Cuba to improve human rights and political freedoms. Castro agreed to talks on migration and other issues, but refused to make concessions.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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