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A Brief History of Cuba

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Relics from Cuban history are on view throughout the island, in the colonial town of Trinidad or the early twentieth century hotels of Havana. Understanding and appreciating the culture and history of Cuba will make any trip there vastly more enjoyable. I recommend you read as much as you can about the history of Cuba before you set off. Following is a brief introduction to Cuban history:

Little is known of the pre-Columbian history of Cuba. Indigenous people lived on the island by about 3,000 BC. The first settlers were followed by migrations of several cultural groups from elsewhere in the Caribbean. The Tainos were the main indigenous group when Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492 (after touching land in the Bahamas).

Spanish landfall was a defining event in the history of Cuba. Concerted Spanish conquest of the island began in 1509, decimating the native population by war, disease, and enslavement. By the 1520s, Spanish landowners were importing slaves from Africa to work their plantations. It is a sad fact of Cuban history that today few Cubans can trace their heritage back to the Tainos, so completely were the indigenous people disposed of their native land.

Colonial Cuba gradually became an important source of wealth for the Spanish Empire. Fueled by a slave economy, Cuba became a major exporter of tobacco and sugar, padding the coffers in Madrid. Despite tensions between Spanish authorities and Cuban landowners and workers, Cuban history resisted the wave of nationalist revolutions that spread through the Spanish New World after the American War of Independence.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Cuba became the region’s major sugar producer, a major trading partner with the United States, and a jewel in the shrunken Spanish Empire. Deplorable conditions in the islands sugar plantations caused many slave rebellions in this period of Cuba history. In 1868, Cuban landowners also began to resist the status quo, launching the first Cuban War of Independence.

Many great Cuban national heroes rose to prominence during this period of Cuba history: Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Maximo Gomez, Antonio Maceo, and Jose Marti. Memorials to these figures from history on Cuba are commonplace.

The Ten Years War against Spain ended in 1878 with the Pact of Zanjon, which granted concessions to the Cuban rebels. Nevertheless, Marti and other revolutionaries continued their resistance to the Spanish authorities, some of them from exile in the United States.

In April 1895, Maceo, Marti, and Gomez landed in Cuba to begin the second War of Independence. In 1898, with the rebels largely in control of the island, the United States used the explosion of the USS Maine in the Havana harbor to begin hostilities against Spain, starting the Spanish-American War.

In December 1898, Spain ceded control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba to the United States. The next sixty years of history on Cuba featured a strong U.S. presence. The U.S. Navy established the base at Guantanamo Bay, American tourists flocked to the casinos, hotels, and brothels of Havana, and U.S. interference in internal Cuban politics was the norm.

In the 1950s, Cuba was ruled by an unpopular military dictatorship led by Fulgencio Batista. A resistance movement led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevera gained increasing support and power. In January 1959, Castro gained control of Cuba and began a revolutionary reordering of Cuban society, instituting land reform, investing in health care, education, and athletics, moving into a close relationship with the Soviet Union, and imprisoning thousands of political opponents. Castro’s policies in this era of Cuba history made relations between the island nation and its superpower neighbor to the north increasingly fraught with tension. A failed invasion by U.S.-trained forces in April 1961 brought Cuba more firmly into the Soviet camp in the worldwide cold war.

When the USSR established nuclear missile bases in Cuba in 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war, a tense 14 days known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. A tragic unfolding of cold war history on Cuba was averted when the USSR agreed to dismantle its nuclear bases in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba or depose Castro.

The next thirty years of Cuban history were marked by a close alliance with the Soviet communist bloc. Soviet imports of Cuban sugar propped up the islands economy. When the USSR collapsed in 1989, Cuba was faced with devastating economic hardship. This “special period” of Cuban history saw the island become increasingly self-sufficient.

Cuba’s economic fortunes were aided by the opening of the island to international tourists in the early 1990s. Today, thousands flock to Cuba to appreciate the unique culture and history of Cuba and enjoy the climate and natural beauty of the historic island.

OVERVIEW for your visit to Cuba:

introduction *  when to go * things to do * events * getting there * getting around * food * history * attractions * music * cities * hotels