The survival of the Castro regime has, from the very beginning, been threatened by active U.S. opposition, which reached its height in 1961 during the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion. The Castro government has also had to deal with a continuous U.S. embargo. The Helms-Burton Act, introduced in March 1996, imposed sanctions on those countries trading with, or investing in, Cuba. Its controversial Title III provision allowed U.S. citizens to prosecute any foreign corporation or investor with business dealings involving property that had been expropriated during the Castro regime. Faced with strong opposition from the European Union, Mexico, and Canada, the U.S. government under President Bill Clinton (term of office 1993–2000) imposed a temporary moratorium on Title III. As of 2003, U.S. president George W. Bush was continuing the suspension. The United States continues to condemn the Cuban government for human rights violations. However in 2002 there was an increase in communication between the United States and Cuba. In May, former president Jimmy Carter traveled to Cuba. Carter was allowed to meet with dissidents and speak freely on television, criticizing Cuba's lack of democracy and calling for free expression and the lifting of the U.S. embargo. Carter became the highest ranking American to visit Cuba since Castro took power.
September of 2002 saw American business men and politicians in Havana for the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition. Representatives of crop producing states and businessmen met to explore the Cuban market.
While the United States continues to enforce many provisions of its trade embargo, in 1999 new regulations were proposed to allow the sale of food, medical equipment, and agricultural supplies to nongovernmental entities in Cuba. Travel bans on American visitors to Cuba have been eased to permit travel with a special license (issued by the U.S. Treasury Department) for journalists, academics, government officials, and those on humanitarian missions. Investment by other nations in joint ventures has been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s. Economic relations with Russia improved significantly with the signing of a trade protocol, under which Cuba will provide Russia with sugar in exchange for petroleum.
The Castro government has tried to break its relative isolation by improving relations with other countries, a policy that has met with some success. In 1988 diplomatic relations were established with the European Community. Cuba signed a number of accords in 1992, establishing diplomatic relations with republics of the former Soviet Union. Full diplomatic ties were resumed with Colombia in 1993 and Chile in 1995. In 1998, Castro welcomed a visit by Pope John Paul II, the country's first-ever papal visit; he also lifted his 1969 ban on the celebration of Christmas. In 1999, for the first time since assuming power, Castro allowed a Protestant open-air religious service to take place. He also welcomed visits by leaders from African nations and Cambodia to explore the improvement of relations and international cooperation.
Cuba remains on the U.S. Department of State's list of State Sponsors to Terrorism, based on Cuban government connections to countries with known terrorist activities, such as Iraq. This designation may cause increased pressure against the Cuban government if those countries are targeted in the War on Terror, an action initiated by President George W. Bush in response to major terrorist attacks in the United States against the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.
In late 2002, Castro surprised most international observers when he announced that he would ask for Cuba to be included in the trade agreement between countries of the EU and the Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) group. The agreement, known as the Cotonou Agreement, was negotiated in 2000 in Benin, and allows the participating countries to share in US $12.6 billion in EU aid and preferential trade treatment over five years. Cuba became an ACP member in December 2000, but declined to participate actively in negotiations with the EU because of the EU's support of the United States in its policy toward Cuba.