Beyond the Sugar Curtain: Tracing Cuba-U.S. Connections (1959-Present)

Jennifer Lambe

[Leer en español.]

“Sugar curtain”: the term’s provenance is something of a mystery. It is hard to discern if anyone really coined it; no one quite owns it. Yet the euphemism has persisted for decades, glossing the antagonism that has characterized Cuba-U.S. relations since Cuba’s 1959 Revolution and the human impact of that divide.

In the 1960s, the sugar curtain was forged through the escalation of hostilities between the United States and the Caribbean revolution that, in its very being, seemed to defy the Cold War geopolitical order. Politically, the process of estrangement is easy to chart, from secret U.S. government plots to overthrow Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs, the rupture of diplomatic relations, and the installation of an economic embargo; or, on the Cuban side, from an increasingly radicalized agrarian reform to the nationalization of many U.S.-owned businesses and the declaration of the socialist character of the Revolution in April 1961. In retrospect, the break between the two nations may even seem overdetermined.

Yet it also flew in the face of a century of cultural, political, and economic codependence between the two nations, what President William McKinley would refer to in 1899 as “ties of singular intimacy.” Undoubtedly, this formulation was euphemistic in large part, for Cuba had been forcibly brought under the imperial oversight of the United States in 1898 following its successful struggle for independence from Spain. The assertion of U.S. hegemony had persisted long thereafter, even surviving the abrogation of the notorious Platt Amendment in 1934. But political dominance also came accompanied by a deep - if by no means uncontested - process of cultural interconnection, as ordinary Cubans and Americans alike found much that inspired and attracted them on the other side of the Florida Straits: music, sport, fashion, and so much more.

After 1959, there would be some on both sides who would delight in the political theater of Cold War one-upmanship, with Cuba staging its heroic defiance of U.S. dominance and the United States punishing the revolutionary island for the same. Yet, on a human level, many experienced this schism as traumatic, culturally and personally impoverishing. Over the course of the early 1960s, obstacles to travel would accumulate; everyday communication (phone and mail) would slow to a halt. And so the ties of singular intimacy would become the shackles of exceptional enmity, condemning many to imaginative voyages beyond the sugar curtain.


The so-called “sugar curtain” was far from the only such metaphorical device to shape international relations in the age of the Cold War. It was rather the inevitable Caribbean outgrowth of the enduring “iron curtain,” a term plagued by its own debates over authorship. Nonetheless, most agree that the “iron curtain” was popularized, but not invented, by Winston Churchill to condemn the post-WWII expansion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. But its roots can be found in a longer symbolic tradition stretching back to at least the nineteenth century and revived in the twentieth to demarcate the incipient and finally intractable divide between the Soviet Union and the West.

The term’s origins in (proto)-Cold War geopolitical tensions would prove to be significant. In the decades to come, diplomatic curtains would, appropriately, proliferate: throughout the 1960s and 70s, one finds references to a “bamboo curtain” in China, the persistent “iron curtain,” and, of course, Cuba’s own curtain of sugar. But the “telón de azúcar” was not merely a U.S. semantic imposition. Cubans would also take up the phrase to encapsulate the challenges and difficulties attending their own lived reality of diplomatic isolation.

Even so, it represents a curious metaphor; curtains separate, they demarcate, but they do not necessarily barricade. Yet this was precisely the sentiment that often animated the term: to imply a division breached, an obstacle overcome, most commonly by a Western interloper seeking out secrets behind enemy lines. Inevitably, then, curtains imply less borders than voyeurs.

In defiance of - but also in seeming accord with - the prohibitions and taboos bound up in the symbolic fall of the “sugar curtain,” more than a few North Americans, along with many others, have sought to peer into the revolutionarily different world they imagined on the other side of the Florida Straits. But this was a curtain that cut both ways. Cuban officials were as loathe as their U.S. analogues to allow access to the antagonistic capitalist world they had worked to eradicate. So, much as curious U.S. visitors have long overcome hurdles of many kinds to experience revolutionary Cuba, their Cuban counterparts have sought out evidence of life on the other side. Though their mobility was much more limited than that of U.S. visitors to the island, they engaged with the United States through cultural and subterranean connections of all kinds. Even where political intransigence closed doors to reciprocal connection, the complicated dream and promise of the “other” remained alive.

Recently, some of the political and economic architecture of the sugar curtain has begun to chip away with the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. “Beyond the Sugar Curtain: Tracing Cuba-U.S. Connections (1959-Present)” seeks to contribute to a new if fragile age of diplomatic normalization by exploring the past and present of transnational travel and encounter. Pushing beyond depictions of a “sugar curtain” or “emotional embargo,” this project features spaces and moments of connection in the post-1959 period, including but not limited to those between the United States and Cuba. From students to activists, family members and journalists, human ties have long defied political obstacles, bridging the material and affective barriers wrought by diplomatic isolation. Even in the most unpropitious circumstances, citizens of both countries have thus found room for mutual inspiration, productive disagreement, and even friendship and love.