May 12, 2022

Jimmy Carter Visits Cuba

Jimmy Carter Visits Cuba

May 12, 2002. Former President Jimmy Carter goes to Cuba, becoming the first American president to visit the country since Castro's revolution in 1959.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of April 17th, 1961 on the southwestern coast of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs.

Commander Jose Perez San Ramon grabs his rifle as he storms onto the beach. After fleeing Cuba in 1959, San Ramon is back on the island with 1400 other men. They are here to overthrow the country’s socialist leader, Fidel Castro. San Ramon's heart is pounding in his ears.

He shouts to be heard over incoming Cuban planes. He tries to radio his second in command who’s leading an offensive on another beach across the bay.

But the radios are down, damaged by water during the chaotic beach landing. San Ramon looks behind him and sees the boat that dropped him off disappearing into the distance. He understands there’s nowhere to go, but forward.

San Ramon yells at his fighters to get into position…

He sees Cuban tanks and hundreds of pro-Castro militia approaching. San Ramon grips his rifle and shouts at the top of his lungs, “Viva Cuba Libre!”, “Long Live Free Cuba!”. His men join him in the battle cry as they charge forward into a hail of gunfire.

Prior to this invasion, San Ramon and the men of Brigade 2506, as they’re called, spent a year training under the guidance of the American Central Intelligence Agency. With support from the United States, San Ramon, and his fellow mercenaries hoped to spark a revolution across Cuba and take out Fidel Castro, who seized control of the island two years earlier through a violent revolution. But the invasion stalls. The mercenaries manage to hold out on the beach of the Bay of Pigs for three days, but in the end, almost all of the 1400 fighters are captured or killed.

The failed revolution, which will come to be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, is a disaster for the United States, and an international embarrassment for the new administration of President John F. Kennedy.

With the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union still looming, Kennedy, like many in the American government, feared having a communist country so close to U.S. soil. But the failed attack only serves to strengthen Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union, and Castro’s grip on power. As a result, tensions between the United States and Cuba remain strained for years to come. So much so that no US president will step foot on Cuban soil until decades later when former US President Jimmy Carter tries to open a new chapter in US-Cuba relations by visiting the country on May 12th, 2002.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 12th: President Jimmy Carter Visits Cuba.

Act One

It’s March 9th, 1977, almost sixteen years after the Bay of Pigs invasion. US President Jimmy Carter stands at the podium facing the White House press.

After introducing a brand new youth employment program, Carter makes another big announcement.

"CARTER: I've instructed the Secretary of State to remove any travel restrictions on American citizens who want to go to Vietnam, to North Korea, to Cuba, and to Cambodia. And these restrictions will be lifted as of the 18th day of March.”

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union has been raging for decades. During that time, America has been at odds with many communist nations, including Cuba. In the early 1960s, the US instituted a series of punitive measures, including an embargo on trade and travel restrictions for US citizens. But today, Jimmy Carter hopes to ease tensions by opening the door for better relations with many of America’s Cold War adversaries; especially Cuba, which is located just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

But Carter doesn’t want to stop with merely lifting the travel restrictions. Within the year, his administration will take the first step toward reopening an American embassy on the island. Since taking office, Carter has made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He hopes that by normalizing relations with Cuba, he can help advance the cause of human rights and democracy with the Cuban people.

But Carter’s plans have been complicated by a myriad of domestic and international calamities, including in Cuba. By 1980, Cuba’s economy is failing, weakened by the United States’ long-standing trade embargo. Many Cubans are desperate to flee the island and escape Castro’s regime. Because for years, Castro enforced a strict, no-migration policy, forcing his people to remain on the island. But due to growing unrest in the streets, in the spring of 1980, Castro suddenly reverses course.

On April 20th, Castro announces that the port of Mariel is now open to any Cubans wishing to leave. The next day, thousands flee by boat to the United States, setting off a refugee crisis known as the Mariel Boatlift.

In response, President Carter promises that the Cuban migrants will be welcomed to the US “with open arms”. But Castro takes advantage of Carter’s generosity. He sends thousands of prisoners and mentally ill people to the US. And after reaching the states, many of these exiles are placed in refugee camps or held in federal prisons while awaiting deportation hearings.

Over the course of just five months, as many as 125,000 Cubans arrive in Florida. For many Americans, the presence of these migrants raises alarms about the cost of immigration, the readiness of US facilities, and the potential impact on the American economy.

Horrified at the human cost of the crisis, and under immense political pressure, Carter is forced to respond. In October 1980, his administration successfully negotiates with the Cuban government to end the boat lifts. But in the minds of many Americans, their government’s struggle to deal with the sudden influx of migrants adds to the already growing narrative that Carter is unfit for office.

Throughout his first term, Carter has faced a multitude of difficulties, both abroad and at home; including a domestic economic crisis that has left many voters hungry for a change.

On November 4th, 1980, Carter loses his next election in a landslide. His successor, Ronald Reagan, will largely reverse Carter’s policies, including reinstituting travel restrictions to Cuba. But though Carter failed to achieve his human rights goals as president, he will not give up the fight as a private citizen.

Shortly after leaving office, the former president launches the Carter Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing health and human rights around the world. Over the next two decades, the Carter Center will work to support free and fair elections, mediate conflicts, and fund health initiatives in more than 80 countries, including Cuba.

Starting in 1989, the Carter Center begins collaborating with Cuban health officials to fight diseases in poor areas of Africa and South America. In 1994, Carter serves as a go-between for the U.S. and Cuba during another refugee crisis that springs up. And all the while, Carter continues to look for a chance to end the embargo and stop the economic and political oppression on the island.

And Carter will find an opportunity to advance his cause - not in the halls of power - but at a funeral.

Act Two

It’s October 3rd, 2000 at the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal.

Jimmy Carter is in Canada for the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He’s here to pay his respects to his former friend alongside many past and present world leaders, including Cuba’s President, Fidel Castro.

In the two decades since Carter left office, relations between the US and Cuba haven’t improved. Still, before the service, Carter and Castro find themselves standing close near the entrance to the church. They strike up an informal conversation. Castro expresses his admiration for the Carter Center’s humanitarian work. And then he extends a surprise invitation: he asks Carter to come to Cuba for a visit.

Carter knows that such a trip would be unprecedented. No current or former US president has visited the island since Castro rose to power. Carter wants to make the trip, but only under certain conditions. He wants unfettered access to the Cuban people so he can speak to them directly about human rights. And so, over the course of many months, Carter and Castro quietly negotiate until Carter is satisfied that his wishes will be respected.

But Carter can’t just go to Cuba. Even as a former President, he will need special permission. So Carter checks in with the administration of the current US president, George W. Bush. They clear his mission and issue Carter a special license to travel to Cuba. 


On Sunday, May 12th, 2002, Jimmy Carter becomes the first US president to set foot on Cuban soil since 1959. He and his wife Rosalynn ride in a car on the way to a hotel in Cuba. In the vehicle with them is Cuban President, Fidel Castro.

On the drive, Castro and Carter make small talk. They discuss Carter’s life as a peanut farmer. Then even talk about baseball. But, eventually, the conversation turns to the matter at hand.

Castro promises Carter that he will have free reign during his trip and that his upcoming speech will be fully covered by the state-run media. For Carter, this is critically important. He wants to make sure the Cuban people hear his call for human rights.

And two days later, Carter stands at the podium at the University of Havana to address a crowd of Cuban university students, journalists, lawmakers, and of course, Fidel Castro himself.

Carter delivers his entire address in Spanish. He does not want to give Cuban translators an opportunity to distort or censor his words. In his speech, Carter says, "I haven't come here to interfere in Cuba's internal affairs, only to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people and offer a vision for the future of our two countries and for the Americas.”

But as Carter approaches the heart of his talk, he pauses. He is about to share vital information that Castro has long kept a secret from the Cuban people. Carter tells the audience, and everyone listening by radio and television, about the Valera project; an effort led by human rights activists to bring free and fair elections to Cuba. Castro’s state-run media has refused to run any stories on the Valera project. And today, as Carter talks about it, he looks at Castro’s face for a reaction, but Castro just sits there, stoic and silent.

As Carter wraps up his speech, he also calls for a change from his own country. Carter says, "because the United States is the most powerful nation, we are the ones who should make the first step.” Carter argues that the time has come to end the embargo and all travel restrictions. He explains that in his opinion, these measures only hurt the people of both countries and do little to advance democracy. 

When Carter ends his speech, he receives a standing ovation from the crowd. But Carter is unsure how his criticism of Castro’s regime was truly received. As he walks toward Cuba’s president, he braces for a rebuke. But instead, Castro extends his hand.

And then, over the next few days, Carter visits with a variety of Cuban groups. In private, he pushes Castro to open up Cuba economically and politically. But he senses Castro is reluctant.

Back in the United States, President George W. Bush shows similar resistance.

"BUSH: It's important for Americans to understand, without political reform, without economic reform, trade with Cuba will merely enrich Fidel Castro and his cronies."

Carter’s speech has little immediate impact. Still, change is on the horizon. In 2008, Fidel Castro steps down from power due to declining health. And very soon, Cuba’s new leader, Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro signals an openness to reforms. That same year, a young United States Senator from Chicago, Barack Obama, is elected President of the United States. And for the future of US-Cuba relations, these two new leaders represent a new chapter and a new opportunity for change.

Act Three

It’s December 17th, 2014 at the White House.

President Obama is about to make a major announcement to the press, and to the American people.

"OBAMA: Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba, and the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years. We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests. And instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."

In his speech, Obama echoes Carter’s belief that America’s hard-line approach to Cuba has failed:

"OBAMA: I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagements. After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach."

After Obama’s announcement, many in the press turn to former President Jimmy Carter for a comment. Carter says the move is long overdue; that it’s a step he hoped to achieve almost forty years ago. Nonetheless, he says he’s proud of Obama’s political courage to do it now.

In March of 2016, Obama makes history again when he becomes the first sitting President to visit Cuba in 88 years. Some celebrate the milestone, but others criticize Obama’s visit because Cuba is still ruled by a one-party communist system. During his visit, Obama promises to end the United States’ embargo of Cuba. But that promise will not be fulfilled, at least in the short term.

Obama’s successor, Donald J. Trump, is skeptical of progress in Cuba. Trump, like many Americans, believes that an economic relationship between Cuba only benefits the Castro regime and not the Cuban people. And so, Trump reverses much of Obama’s diplomatic reform efforts. And today, under President Biden, the embargo is still in place, as are travel restrictions. The future of relations between the two countries remains an open question.

Still, at 97 years old, Jimmy Carter continues to advocate for human rights and friendlier relations with Cuba. It’s the same message he’s spoken about since his days in the White House, and it’s the message Carter brought with him 20 years ago when he traveled to Cuba on this day, May 12th, 2002.


Next on History Daily. May 13th, 1862. During the American Civil War, a slave absconds with a Confederate ship and flees with his family to freedom. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.