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A 50-year-old embargo still influences how Americans think about Cuba and themselves

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. Georg
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.

President John F. Kennedy is remembered for drawing a line in the sand in response to the Soviet Union’s effort to build missile bases in Cuba, an island nation that is about as close to the American mainland as Cuba, Mo., is to St. Louis.

The event marked a loss of innocence for many Americans unaccustomed to thinking about an enemy storing its weapons next door. But Kennedy’s next political move, prohibiting travel to Cuba and making financial and commercial transactions with Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens, turned out to have more long-term impact than the nuclear standoff the year before.

Still a divisive issue to this day, politicians remain afraid of the power of the Cuban voting bloc in south Flordia and decline to push to totally end the embargo. It was one of many developments that made 1963 a seminal year that helped to define a generation.

As we look back in the coming months to the high points in 1963 and connect them to developments over time, we can see how the clash of ideas and events from that year continue to shape who we are today.

1963: In the furor over the discovery that the Soviet Union has been building missile bases in Cuba, the Kennedy administration imposes an embargo on travel to Cuba and prohibits Americans from engaging in financial and commercial transactions with the island nation.

1977: President Jimmy Carter lifts the ban on travel to Cuba and on spending dollars there.

1980: Spurred by an offer from their president, Fidel Castro, thousands of Cubans decide to leave the island. An estimated 125,000, including some convicts, take part in the Mariel boatlift to the United States. 

1982: President Ronald Reagan re-establishes the travel ban and prohibition against financial transactions with Cuba.

1996: Cuba shoots down two unarmed aircraft that are part of Brothers to the Rescue’s humanitarian mission. (According to the International Civil Aviation Organization report, the Cuban Air Force shot down the first plane while all three  were north of the 12 mile limit of Cuban airspace; the second trespassed into Cuban airspace for less than 45 seconds.) That same year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress retaliated by enacting the Helms-Burton Act, making the trade embargo permanent and giving U.S. citizens the right to sue foreign investors who profit from expropriated assets held in Cuba.

1999: A Cuban child, Elian Gonzalez, become the target of a custody dispute after being rescued off the Florida coast after a boat carrying his mother, stepfather and others capsizes. The Supreme Court eventually rules that the boy must be allowed to join his father in Cuba rather than live with relatives in Miami. (A raid in 2000 by federal agents took Elian from Miami relatives.)

2001: For the first time since the Kennedy administration’s embargo, Congress eases some restrictions by permitting the sale of some agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba on humanitarian grounds.

2006: Former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, (shown laughing in the photo) is part of the largest U.S. congressional delegation to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power. She calls for more trade with Cuba, saying the eased restrictions didn’t go far enough and continues to cause Missouri farmers to lose what could be an important a market for their agricultural goods.

2009: President Barack Obama lifts restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba.

2012: Filled with food, medicine and other goods sent by Cuban-Americans, the Ana Cecilia leaves Miami for Cuba, becoming the first officially sanction ship in years to sail from the United States to Cuba.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.