Cuba and the other major islands of the Antilles became the subject of settlement as early as 4000 BC. The coastal resources were used extensively for a long time, while cultivation and ceramic production were first invested from about 600 AD. The identity of the oldest population is unclear, but Cuba became during the centuries AD populated by Arab-speaking Indians. On Columbus’s arrival in 1492, a large part of Cuba was part of the Taino Indians’ settlement area.
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Columbus landed October 27, 1492 in Cuba, whose name is an abbreviation of the Native American name Cubanacán. The island was then populated by Native Americans (siboney, arawak and taino). The Spanish conquest was initiated in 1511 by Diego Velázquez, and the first cities were established immediately thereafter, i.e. Havana (1515). After a brief rise, the island’s development declined. The gold deposits came to an end quickly, and the Indians were decimated by reckless extraction and by diseases introduced by the Europeans. Other conquests attracted the Spaniards from the island.
In the 1520s, the first black slaves came to the island, a prelude to a massive import of Africans in the last half of the 19th century with the aim of recruiting labor for the cultivation of sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. Livestock management and grain production also became important industries. Havana developed into a major commercial city and became the focal point for the Spanish naval and merchant fleet before departure for the mother country.
There was also extensive smuggling. The plantation economy expanded greatly during the 18th century, especially after the collapse of Hispaniola as a major sugar exporter. By 1789, about 100,000 slaves had been imported into Cuba, a figure that was five-fold over the next sixty years. The events of Hispaniola also affected Cuba in another respect. A constant fear of possible slave uprisings came to characterize the island’s development during the decades when the rest of Spanish America liberated itself.
- Countryaah: Check to see the location of Cuba on the world map. Also covers major mountains, rivers and lakes in Cuba.
The road to independence
Freedom strivings also prevailed in Cuba during the latter half of the 19th century, but the majority of the upper class were still loyal to Spain. The situation became critical in the 1860s, when the Spanish authorities rejected all consensus and reform efforts. In October 1868, Carlos Manuel Céspedes (1819–74) initiated a revolt against Spain. The war lasted for ten years and ended with a compromise, which meant expanded self-government.
In the 1880s, bald José Martí distinguished himself as a freedom fighter, and in 1892 he formed Cuba’s revolutionary party (Partido Revolucionario Cubano). He participated in the start of a new liberation war in 1895 but fell in May the same year. The war grew in size, and Spain sent over 200,000 soldiers to the island. In 1898, the United States became involved in the battle and settled the war in a few months, however, without granting the Cuban freedom fighters the right to rule the island. The United States occupied Cuba until 1902, when the Cuban Republic was established with Tomás Estrada (1835-1908) as its first president.
The independence, however, was not complete, but Cuba was forced to adopt the so-called Platt supplement to the Constitution, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs – the provision was in effect until 1934. The US involvement was an expression of both power political and economic interests. During the latter part of the 19th century, the United States had become Cuba’s most important trading partner, and North American investment had grown in the tobacco and, above all, the sugar industry.
New North American interventions, corruption and abuse of power came to characterize the island’s political life. However, General Gerardo Machado (1871–1939), who dictatorially ruled 1925–33, encountered a new type of opposition, rooted in middle class and working groups. In the uprising that toppled Machado in 1933, Fulgencio Batista, a sergeant who quickly became commander-in-chief and Cuba’s strong man, stood out. Batista ran a populist line, which was sometimes supported by even the Communists. He was elected president in 1940, resigned in 1944 but regained power through a coup in March 1952 after years of growing corruption. Democratic freedom and rights were violated, prompting a radical reaction.
A young lawyer, Fidel Castro, staged a failed attack on July 26, 1953, against the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Many young revolutionaries lost their lives, while Castro, among others, was captured. He turned the lawsuit against him into a lawsuit against the Batista government, banished in 1955, but returned with the pleasure chase Granma to Cuba in December 1956 with some eighty comrades, among them Ernesto “Che” Guevara. (Cuba’s largest daily newspaper was later named after the boat.) Then the guerrilla war began, which, along with a growing popular dissatisfaction, led to Batista’s fall in January 1959. Castro took power and began to change Cuba decisively. A land reform, nationalizations, large wage increases, lower rents, significant wealth investments and summary executions of Batista’s men marked the first period of the revolution.
The increasingly radical profile led to growing confrontation with powerful Cuban and North American interests, but also with liberal supporters of the revolution. The new President Manuel Urrutia (1901–81) resigned in protest in mid-1959, and all power was concentrated on Castro’s militant phalanx. Many Cubans left the country, and the United States decided to curb revolutionary development, including through import stops on Cuban sugar in June 1960. After a series of intermezzo, diplomatic relations were severed in early 1961. A force consisting of US-supported exile Cubans invaded the island with disastrous results April 17 of the same year (see Pig Bay Invasion). The conflict reached its peak in October 1962 with the US strong reaction to the installation of Soviet launching missiles for nuclear-weapon missiles on the island (see also the Cuba crisis).
The leaders of the revolution had already publicly professed the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and the stateization of the Cuban economy had become very extensive. However, the financial results were worrying. The attempt to break the dependence on sugar exports completely failed, the various populist measures cost too much and the commodity shortage spread. Revolutionary enthusiasm helped the Cubans, at least temporarily, to withstand the great financial strain.
The 1961 newly formed Revolutionary Party, which in 1965 changed its name to Cuba’s Communist Party, included both old Communists and Castro supporters. The leader’s charismatic appearance gave rise to a peculiar political style, characterized by large mass meetings, long speeches and hectic mobilization campaigns. Many unsuccessful attempts to spread the revolution to the rest of Latin America were made, and Cuba’s isolation became increasingly evident. The country was excluded from the various US cooperation agencies.
1970 was a turning point in the history of socialist Cuba. Castro invested all his prestige on achieving a record-breaking sugar harvest of 10 million tonnes, but the project failed and eventually led to the adoption of a Soviet-like social model. A new planning economic system was adopted, and Cuba was incorporated into the Socialist Economic Community (SEV). The party held its first congress in 1975, and a new constitution was adopted in 1976. The dependence on the Soviet Union led to a controversial military involvement in African politics. Economically, the country experienced reasonably stable growth, but was heavily dependent on sugar exports and Soviet assistance.
Gradual political reforms
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and developments in Eastern Europe, Cuba suffered a severe economic crisis. The support from the Eastern Bloc was the basis for all production, and when it disappeared, the economy basically collapsed. Food and fuel announcements were introduced at the same time as some private enterprise was allowed to get parts of production up and running again. The so-called market socialism helped avoid a total collapse, and investments in the tourism industry succeeded in attracting people to Cuba’s beaches and providing welcome revenue in US dollars.
A modest economic growth started, but the state continued to control the economy while the US trade block, which was criticized by both the EU and the UN General Assembly, stopped Cuba’s opportunities to increase its international trade. The dissatisfaction caused by the economic crisis created protests that were turned down by the regime, and during a new refugee wave in the mid-1990s, about 30,000 people left Cuba.
Since Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in 1998, close cooperation between the two countries began. In exchange for Cuba sending doctors, teachers, sports coaches and more, Venezuela provided Cuba with oil. The exchange grew and Cuba became Venezuela’s most important partner. Hugo Chavez talked about Fidel Castro as his political mentor and was often in Havana for deliberations. The approximately 100,000 barrels of oil per day that came from Venezuela in combination with a growing tourism industry and income from nickel mines sustained the economy.
Some political ties were made between Cuba and the United States, and the EU sought to start a dialogue on human rights and political reforms. The political opposition in Cuba was able to work a little more openly and in 2002 began to gather names demanding a referendum on the political system, an opportunity that exists in Cuba’s constitution. However, the regime refused to accept the collection and in 2003 most of the initiators were arrested for the so-called Varela project and other regime critics, which led to new sanctions from the US and the EU.
In 2006, the then 80-year-old Fidel Castro suffered from serious illness and was forced into an emergency stomach operation. He handed over power to his younger brother Raúl Castro, then 75, who was vice president and defense minister. Exactly what kind of illness Fidel Castro had remained a state secret, but he never returned to power and in 2008 he formally left all his political posts.
As new head of state and government, Raúl Castro talked about the need for reforms to boost the economy and improve people’s living standards. Some rule changes were made to allow private enterprise in selected sectors and it was allowed for private individuals to acquire mobile phones and computers. In response, the EU lifted some of its sanctions and US newly elected President Barack Obama eased the restrictions in the exchange with Cuba. Following the mediation of Spain, 52 political prisoners were released in 2010, among them several who participated in the Varela project and who have been in prison since 2003. However, the modest economic and political reforms did not change much in the everyday lives of the common man and the state’s total control over the nation’s citizens was intact.
Latin American countries were pushing harder to break Cuba’s international isolation and both the US and the EU opened a dialogue with the regime. The EU resumed several collaborative projects and in December 2014 the US decided to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which was broken in 1961. The historic decision came after secret negotiations that took place with the help of, among others, Pope Francis. 2016 marked another turning point for the relationship between Cuba and the United States when Barack Obama visited the country as the first US president in 88 years.
On November 26, 2016, Fidel Castro passed away announcing nine days of grief.
Since Donald Trump took office as US president, the US’s attitude to Cuba has been sharpened again, including in the form of restrictions on trade opportunities between US and Cuban companies. The requirement that visits to the island must be made in groups and included in cultural exchanges or vocational programs has been reintroduced.
In April 2018, the National Assembly elected new members of the Cabinet, whose chairman is the country’s president. Raúl Castro left office and Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel was appointed new president. Castro so far retained the post of leader of the Communist Party.
Raúl Castro had then implemented some economic reforms that opened up a growing private sector for small businesses, but without the structural reforms, such as the elimination of the dual currency systems, which both he and the party identified as crucial to the country’s economic development.
The new constitution, which was approved in a 2019 referendum, expanded the opportunities for private business. The post of prime minister was established and the role of head of government transferred to this from the president. At the same time, the president’s term of office was limited to a maximum of two five-year terms.