Be an expert in the history of Cuba

General overview on the history of Cuba

For such a small country (11 million people), Cuba certainly gets a lot of attention. It has produced some of the most popular music in the Americas, including rumba, chachacha, and son, which was the basis for salsa.

Oh yeah, it’s also the only Communist country in the Americas.

The First inhabitants of the history of Cuba

The accepted belief is that people first came to Cuba around 3500 B.C., from South America rather than the much closer North American mainland at Florida or Mexico.

These first Cubans, called the Ciboney or Guanahabibe, came from the coast of what is today Venezuela, settling in various Caribbean islands before finally landing on Cuba. They were hunters and fishers.

Around AD 900, the Taino people, an Arawak culture from what is today Colombia, arrived. They slowly pushed the Ciboney to the western third of Cuba (where Havana now stands).

Another wave of Tainos came to Cuba from the neighboring island of Hispanolia (today, Haiti and the Dominican Republic), in the early 1400s—less than a century before the first arrival of Europeans.

The Taino fished, and lived off collective gardens that grew corn, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes, yucca, tomatoes, and pineapples—in short, some of the important foods of Cuba’s traditional cuisine even today. They also grew tobacco for use in religious ceremonies.

The Tainos were governed by caciques, essentially tribal chiefs.

The creation of a “modern” Cuba

The arrival of the Spaniards

It is estimated that at the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492, there were a total of 112,000 people in Cuba: 92,000 of the original Tainos, 10,000 of the second-wave Tainos, and 10,000 Ciboney.

In 1511, Diego Velazquez landed an expedition of 300 soldiers near Guantanamo in southeastern Cuba. They were seeking to conquer the island to provide a place to accept the overpopulation from neighboring Hispanolia. They were also seeking people to enslave.

Hatuey, a cacique who had escaped Hispaniola, had come to Cuba first. He organized resistance to the Spanish invasion, but in only three months he was defeated and executed. It is said that he refused baptism before death, explaining that he did not want to see another Spaniard, even if that meant never going to heaven.

More Spanish expeditions followed, massacring armies and civilians alike in their wake, and forcing the survivors to convert to Catholicism. They also founded some of Cuba’s oldest towns, including the two largest cities today, Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and also important colonial cities such as Baracoa, Trinidad, Puerto Principe, Sancti Spirtitus, and Bayamo.

The first consequences of the arrival of the Spaniards: a bloody period in the history of Cuba

The Spanish king and queen gave permission to the conquerors to divide Cuba into large estates, called encomiendas, and to force the surviving natives to work them, as well as pay taxes.

The natives started unsuccessful rebellions in Puerto Principe, Bayamo, and Baracoa. Many killed themselves and their own children rather than fall under the Spanish whip. Many died from disease, malnutrition, and overwork.

By 1555 the total indigenous population was 3,000. Today, Cuba is relatively unique among the countries of the Americas for having almost no noticeable indigenous or mestizo (of mixed indigenous-European heritage) population.

Yet when the Aztec empire was conquered in 1521, many Spanish colonists left for Mexico. By 1550, there were only 700 Spaniards left, leaving the population of the entire island at less than 4,000 the worst figure in the history of Cuba.

Economy of Cuba during the colonial time

Over the next few centuries, Cuba returned to relative importance within the empire as an important trading center. Ships from all over the Americas stopped in Cuba to exchange cargoes with each other and with ships from Spain.

Increasingly, Cuba was also the center of a highly profitable illegal trade with other nations, especially France, Great Britain, and later, the United States.

Meanwhile, Cuba developed its two great domestic products: tobacco and sugar.

The Spanish Crown tried to turn tobacco farming into a monopoly whose profits would go straight to Spain. But the small tobacco farmers rebelled, preserving their livelihood and establishing a bastion of independence in Cuba.

The Crown did succeed in turning sugar into a government-controlled monopoly. Thousands of slaves were brought from Africa, and a handful of local and Spanish sugar barons reaped what little profits remained in Cuba before being taken from the country.

Slavery in the history of Cuba

African slavery had an enormous impact on the history of Cuba. Today, at least a fifth of all Cubans are of predominantly African descent, and when Cubans of mixed African and European descent are considered, “white” Cubans might well be in the minority, especially with the departure of many “European-Cubans” in the early 1960s.

Africans brought their tribal affiliations with them. Though African languages eventually died away, African religious practices descended from the West African Lucumí religion survived. Over time, Lucumí became fused with Catholicism to produce Santeria. In Santeria, various Catholic saints are identified with African deities.

Slavery in Cuba was a strange mix of extraordinarily inhuman and extraordinarily humane conditions. Sugar plantation slaves were treated like machines, worked for an average of eight years before they simply died of overwork and were replaced. However, and this is a special feature in the history of Cuba, other slaves, were allowed to earn money and buy their freedom, so that a significant proportion of black Cubans were free.

In the nineteenth century, while slavery was declining elsewhere in the Americas, it was still growing in Cuba. Fearful of a slave revolt, Cuban elites, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, did not push for a War for Independence.

The first steps towards independence

Some high-ranking Cubans, however, wanted Cuba to join the United States , especially to avoid the liberation of slaves that was taking place elsewhere in the Americas. Annexationist Cubans got the United States (which will be a major actor in the history of Cuba) to offer to buy the country from Spain for $100 million in 1848 and $130 million in 1854. Both offers were rejected.

Meanwhile, some Cubans, called autonomists, wanted to make the country an autonomous unit within the Spanish empires. The separationists wanted to make Cuba a completely independent country.

Nonetheless, the United States was rapidly becoming Cuba’s most important trading partner.

In 1868, a Cuban revolt called the Ten Years’ War began, the first serious movement in the history of Cuba because the revolt soon became a revolution as numerous blacks swelled the ranks, seeking to end slavery as well as remove Spain from the country.
Though they were defeated, more revolts followed. The important Ten Years’ War also established an important link between Cuban patriotism, and the idea of equality without regard to race, social distinctions, and class.

Once the war ended, the Spanish enacted the patronato a system by which slave owners had to gradually free slaves. In the final year of slavery, 1886, there were only 30,000 slaves, compared with 500,000 at the start of the Ten Years’ War.

But as Spain reasserted its control on the history of Cuba, the economy collapsed. Many Cuban professionals and intellectuals fled to the United States, where they plotted the removal of Spain from Cuba. Chief among them was Jose Marti, who wrote passionately about independence.
In the history of Cuba, he is considered the symbol of Cuban patriotism. Busts of Marti can be found in almost every public place, in addition to the domestic Cuban peso.

Marti and the other exiles formed the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC) , which in turn organized revolutionary groups in Cuba. On February 24, 1895, the PRC began the final war for independence.

Despite the greatest Spanish counter-revolution ever, numbering more than 200,000 troops, the rebels achieved one of the most memorable fact in the history of Cuba as they won control of every part of Cuba with the exception of the major ports, all in only three years.

The United States invades

The war against Spain

The yellow press in the United States played up the Cubans’ war for independence, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans. Paradoxically, even as the Cubans themselves were winning independence, Americans were pushing their own government to take intervene and take charge of kicking Spain out of Cuba.

When the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in February 15, 1898, the yellow press declared it a Spanish act of aggression. The generally accepted view in the US historical community today is that the explosion was an accident. Many Cuban and other international historians believe the US deliberately blew up its own ship, with hundreds of men (but only two officers) on board, to goad the US public into supporting a war with Spain.Anyway, this event was a turning point in the modern history of Cuba since it left its mark on the intervention of the USA in the island.

After enormous debates in the United States, including the initial opposition of President McKinley, the United States went to war with Spain in 1898. The war lasted only 14 weeks.

The United States easily drove the Spaniards from their remaining strongholds of Havana and Santiago, and then marched on the country, co-opting the independence the Cuban revolutionaries had won.

The real war was in the Philippines. The US Navy defeated Spain’s Navy at Manila Bay, then settled in for a long war against the Filipinos, which resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians. As in Cuba, local freedom fighters had already pushed Spaniards out of most of their positions of power, and were not keen to be re-colonized by the United States.

The history of Cuba under the US “Protectorate”

Once in control of Cuba, the US forces refused to establish the racial equality that the revolution had fought for, especially insisting that blacks be kept out of the government. The US occupation forces did, however, make an aggressive push to expand public education and healthcare, and also to wipe out malaria.

Before the US would leave, it insisted that it should be given the Guantanamo Naval Base, which it still has today keeping its influence on the history of Cuba. It also insisted that the new Cuban constitution give the US complete control over Cuba’s international affairs, and would allow the US military to invade when US leaders thought the country unstable.

The US would invade a number of times over the next few decades, usually to suppress uprisings against fraudulent local governments, and uprisings by black Cubans looking for racial equality.

By the 1920s, foreign investors from the US, Spain, and elsewhere owned most of the land and economy in Cuba. Declining living standards for Cubans increasingly radicalized the population.

The first steps in the history of Cuba towards an independent nation

In the face of this unrest, the Machado presidency became the first authoritarian and then outright dictatorship in the history of Cuba. It was forced to resign in 1933. Grau, a new president installed by student protesters, instituted sweeping reforms, but could not hold onto public support.

With US encouragement, Batista led a coup that overthrew Grau, who continued to function as an important politician in Cuba. Grau pushed for a new constitution that would incorporate his reforms. Batista supported this new constitution, even defeating Grau to become the first president elected under it.

Batista resigned peacefully at the end of his four-year term. The governments that followed were the most corrupt in the history of Cuba up to that point, and cemented Cuba’s reputation as a mafia playground.

In 1953, Batista led another coup. Opposition exploded around the country. Batista responded with brutal violence.

The Cuban Revolution

The rise of the national hero who will leave his mark on the history of Cuba

Fidel Castro was briefly imprisoned and forced into exile in Mexico. There, he trained a small guerilla army. Eighty guerillas on the yacht Granma launched a botched invasion of Cuba. The handful of guerillas that escaped capture started a guerilla war in the Sierra Maestra, mountains in the southeast.

Popular opposition, as well as Castro’s ragtag guerillas, eventually forced Batista to leave the country on New Year’s morning, 1959.

For the first time in the history of Cuba, the civilians ran the new government at first, but Castro quickly undermined them and became prime minister by the end of 1959.

Castro’s new government won popular support with the Urban Reform Law, which nationalized the properties of some large property owners and established rent control. The Agrarian Reform Law redistributed land in the countryside.

The US intervention

These reforms turned the United States government against the Castro, since US companies owned most of the property that had been nationalized. The US cut off trade, and Cuba nationalized almost all US assets.

The US attacked Cuba in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs Invasion (called the invasion of Playa Jiron in Cuba)is certainly the most famous event in the history of Cuba. US-trained Cuban exiles bombed the country in planes badly disguised as the Cuban Air Force, in an attempt to make the invasion look like a military coup. Both the land and air forces were turned back in less than 48 hours.

Castro’s glory time

The 1961 US attack gave Castro the justification to establish a quasi-dictatorial regime that continues to this day.

With the defeat of the world’s most powerful country, Castro became enormously popular at home and abroad. Castro used the opportunity to clamp down on dissent, imprisoning tens of thousands and intimidating many others. He also announced that the 1940 constitution would not be reinstated. Independent political organizations were absorbed into the government.

On December 2, 1961, Castro announced that the regime would be socialist for the first time in the history of Cuba, and sought aid from the Soviet Union, which became the country’s greatest trading partner. The USSR also sent nuclear weapons, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US demanded the weapons be removed.

Life for ordinary Cubans generally improved, though the economy stagnated and political and cultural life became stiff and undemocratic in the 1970s.

Cuba invaded Angola in the 1970s in an attempt to help freedom fighters there. The Cubans did not leave until the late 1980s.

The recent history of Cuba

In 1980, when the US offered asylum to Cuban defectors, 120,000 people (out of a population of 8 or 9 million) immediately left their homes and sometimes their families.

The government tried to improve the economic and political situation in Cuba, but largely failed.

In early 1989, the government executed General Ochoa, considered the most popular man in Cuba after Castro. The government accused Ochoa of drug smuggling, but it seemed clear his real crime was being popular.

That same year, the Soviet bloc began its collapse, taking with it almost 80% of Cuba’s foreign trade. As the Cuban government’s savings were depleted, average Cubans went hungry.

In 1993, Cuba made it legal for Cubans to buy and sell products in US dollars, essentially legalizing the black market. Tourism helped to put the economy on more solid ground, even reaching almost 2 million visitors in 2000.

But most people’s wages crumbled. For the first time since the Revolution, sharp socioeconomic distinctions, including prostitution, became widespread.

People fled Cuba on rafts, only to be turned back by the US Coast Guard.

Today, most Cubans survive on a diet based on rice, beans, sugar, and whatever fruits, vegetables, and scant meat and dairy products can be found. Material life is bleak; few can afford toilet paper. Crime has skyrocketed, though hard statistics are not available.

Still, and it is so rare in the history of Cuba not to be mentionned, the civilians enjoy a relatively long life expectancy, better education and less crime compared with much of Latin America. Most Cubans and international observers blame the continuing US economic sanctions at least in part for the economic trouble, and seek salvation in a more humane US administration.


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