President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba – the first by an American president in 88 years – has opened a new chapter in US engagement with the island's Communist government after decades of hostility. For more than 50 years, Cuba was an unimaginable destination for a US president as well as most American citizens. The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution sparked fears of communism spreading to the Western Hemisphere. In this gallery, IBTimes UK looks back at key events in the life of Fidel Castro and the relationship between the former Cold War foes.
The son of a wealthy sugar planter, Fidel Castro won international infamy by leading a guerrilla campaign that, with popular support, ousted right-wing dictator General Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959. Castro launched a political, social and economic revolution that transformed the Caribbean island. He was aided in creating the first communist administration in the Western Hemisphere by his close friend, revolutionary icon and Argentine native, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
Castro's belligerently anti-US stance made him the target of a series of attempts by Washington to remove him. These included an abortive invasion attempt at Cuba's southern Bay of Pigs in 1961 by more than 1,000 Cuban exiles trained and financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Havana and Moscow signed a pact agreeing to secretly install Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. The world was brought to the brink of nuclear war when Washington discovered their existence. The tension did not subside until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites.
Castro continued to foster close relations with Moscow that were to last for three decades. During the 1980s, after years of economic struggle, Cuba began to enjoy reasonable prosperity, largely due to trade agreements with the Soviet Bloc. By the end of the decade, however, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was moving Soviet republics towards a market economy, and in 1989 he visited Havana in an attempt to persuade Castro to accept change. Castro insisted Cuba should follow old-style communist doctrine and isolated himself from the bloodless revolution that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With the loss of his old trading partners and the continuance of US trade embargo, Cuba's economy almost immediately went into a steep decline. Food and consumer-goods shortages became acute, and rationing of food and fuel was introduced during what was to become known as the 'Special Period'. In the summer of 1994, when Cuba was suffering its worst post-Soviet economic crisis, more than 30,000 Cubans took to the sea in boats and rickety rafts heading for the southern tip of Florida. Most were picked up by the US Coast Guard and ended up in the US, but many lost their lives in the shark-infested waters.
In June 2000, a bitter seven-month custody battle ended with six-year-old Elian Gonzalez returning home to Cuba. Elian was rescued at sea off the US coast after surviving a boat wreck that killed his mother and 10 other would-be migrants from Cuba. Elian's return was seen as a major political victory for Castro, who blamed US immigration legislation for encouraging Cuban migrants.
Castro continued to be a global icon for leftist leaders, and kept close ties with his protégé, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Yet health continued to plague Castro in the new millennium as he fainted during speeches and finally began to accept a transfer of power. Castro's health finally gave out in June 2006, when a serious intestinal ailment forced him to hand provisional power over to his younger brother, Raúl Castro.
The younger Castro has proven more welcoming towards America than his brother. Obama's trip may help chip away at barriers to US-Cuba trade and travel. Since rapprochement, the two sides have restored diplomatic ties and signed commercial deals on telecommunications and scheduled airline service.