It's thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500 BC. Primarily fishers and hunter-gatherers, these original inhabitants were later joined by the agriculturalist Taino, a branch of the Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus sighted Cuba on 27 October 1492, and by 1514, Diego VelÃ¡zquez de CuÃ©llar had conquered the island for the Spanish crown and founded seven settlements. When captured Taino chief and resistance fighter Hatuey was condemned to die at the stake, he refused baptism, saying that he never wanted to see another Spaniard again, not even in heaven.
Cattle ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island under the encomienda system, enslaving the Indians under the pretext of offering instruction in Christianity. By 1542, when the system was abolished, only around 5000 Indians (of an estimated 100,000 half a century before) survived. Undaunted, the Spanish imported African slaves as replacements. Unlike in the North American slave trade, Cuba's African slaves retained their tribal groupings, and certain aspects of their culture endure.
By the 17th century, other European powers were beginning to challenge Spain's grip on the Caribbean: The British took Jamaica in 1655 and Haiti fell to the French in 1697. British troops invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. In 1817, Spain's long-standing monopoly on tobacco ended, which raised prices, encouraging the crop's expansion. Tobacco quickly became one of the islands most imoprtant products. Sugar had also become a major industry, as American independence in 1783 created new markets, and the 1791 slave uprising in Haiti eliminated Cuba's biggest sugar-producing competitor. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer.
After the great liberator, SimÃ³n BolivÃ¡r, led Mexico and South America to independence, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining Spanish holdings in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish loyalists fled the former colonies and arrived in Cuba in droves. Even they, however, began demanding home rule for the island, albeit under the Spanish flag.
In October 1868, planter Carlos Manuel de CÃ©spedes launched Cuba's First War of Independence. After 10 years and 200,000 deaths, the rebels were spent and a pact was signed granting them amnesty. Meanwhile, a group of Cuban rebels exiled to the USA began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government. Among their ranks was JosÃ© MartÃ, a respected journalist and critic of US policy, as well as an important poet and the author of the best-known Cuban song of all time, Guajira guantanamera. MartÃ and his military commander, General MÃ¡ximo GÃ³mez, landed on eastern Cuba in 1895; within days MartÃ, conspicuous on his white horse, was shot and killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers. His martyrdom earned him the permanent position of Cuba's national hero.
GÃ³mez and rebel leader Antonio Maceo pushed westward, burning everything in their path. Spain came down hard, forcing civilians into reconcentraciÃ³n camps and publicly executing rebel sympathizers. These methods effectively reestablished Spanish control, but Cuba's agriculture-based economy was in ruins. The Spaniards adopted a more conciliatory approach, offering Cuba home rule, but the embittered populace would agree to nothing short of full independence.
JosÃ© MartÃ had long warned of US interest in Cuba, and in 1898 he was proved right. After years of reading lurid (and often inaccurate) tabloids tales about Cuba's Second War for Independence, the American public was fascinated with the island. Although everything was quiet, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst told his illustrator not to come home just yet: 'You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.' In January 1898 the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbor, exploded mysteriously. All but two of its officers were off the ship at the time. The Spanish-American war had begun.
Spain, weakened by conflict elsewhere, limped to battle, trying to preserve some dignity in the Caribbean. They nearly beat future US president Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (though they'd had to leave their horses on the mainland) in the Battle of San Juan Hill. The USA's vastly superior forces eventually prevailed, however, and on December 12, 1898, a peace treaty ending the war was signed. The Cubans, including General Calixto GarcÃa, whose largely black army had inflicted dozens of defeats on the Spanish, were not invited.
The USA, hobbled by a law requiring its own government to respect Cuban self-determination, could not annex Cuba outright, as it did Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Instead, they installed a governor, General John Brooke, and began a series of public works projects, building schools and improving public health, that further tied Cuba to the USA. US leaders did retain the legal right to intervene militarily in Cuba's domestic affairs: In 1903, the USA built a naval base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay that is still in operation today.
By the 1920s US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland, imposing tariffs that crippled Cuba's own manufacturing industries. Discrimination against blacks was institutionalized. Tourism based on drinking, gambling and prostitution flourished. The hardships of the Great Depression led to civil unrest, which was violently quelled by President Gerado Machado y Morales. In 1933 Morales was overthrown in a coup, and army sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized power. Over the next 20 years Cuba crumbled, and its assets were increasingly placed into foreign hands. On January 1, 1959, Batista's dictatorship was overthrown after a three-year guerilla campaign led by young lawyer Fidel Castro. Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic, taking with him US$40 million of government funds.
Castro was named prime minister and began reforming the nation's economy, cutting rents and nationalizing landholdings larger than 400 hectares. Relations with the USA, already shaky, deteriorated when he nationalized US-owned petroleum refineries that had refused to process Venezuelan oil. The Americans retaliated by cutting Cuban sugar imports, crippling the Cuban economy, and the CIA began plotting devious ways to overthrow the revolutionary government. Desperate for cash, Castro turned to the Soviet Union, which promptly paid top dollar for Cuba's sugar surplus.
In 1961, 1400 CIA-trained Cuban expats, mainly upper-middle-class Batista supporters who had fled to Miami after the revolution, attacked the island at the Bay of Pigs. They were promptly captured and ransomed back to the US for medical supplies. The following week, Castro announced the 'socialist nature' of the revolutionary government, something he'd always denied. The Soviet Union, always eager to help a struggling socialist nation (particularly one so strategically located) sent much-needed food, technical support and, of course, nuclear weapons. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is said to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear conflict.
The missiles were shipped back to the USSR, and the USA declared an embargo on Cuba. Castro and his Minister of Economics, Che Guevara, began actively supporting guerilla groups in South America and Africa, sending troops and advisers to assist socialist insurgencies in Zaire, Angola, Mozambique, Bolivia (where Guevara was killed) and Ethiopia. The US response was to support dictators in many of those countries. By the 1970s, Cuba had limited itself to sending doctors and technicians abroad; there were problems enough at home. Despite massive Soviet aid, the Cuban command economy was in ruins, and the country's plight worsened in 1989 when Russia withdrew its aid as Eastern Europe collapsed.
In December 1991, the Cuban Constitution was amended to remove all references to Marxism-Leninism, and economic reforms began. In 1993, laws passed allowing Cubans to own and use US dollars, be self-employed and open farmers' markets. Taxes on dollar incomes and profits were levied in 1994, and in September 1996 foreign companies were allowed to wholly own and operate businesses and purchase real estate. These measures gradually brought the economy out of its post-Soviet tailspin. The US responded by stiffening its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act, ironically solidifying Castro's position as defender of Cuba against the evil empire.
The Cuban government has long been criticized for its human rights record; at least 500 people are 'prisoners of conscience' for criticizing Cuba's present leadership or for attempting to organize political opposition. When Pope John Paul II visited the island in January 1998, he condemned both the Cuban government's heavy hand and the US government's embargo. Each year, hundreds of Cubans brave the shark-infested waters separating Cuba from the USA, hoping to make a landfall that guarantees US citizenship and support from the wealthy Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida.
In November 1999, six-year-old EliÃ¡n GonzÃ¡lez, whose mother died during that dangerous trip, made it to Miami by clinging to an innertube. This prompted an unusual custody battle between the boy's great uncle, a Cuban exile living in the US, and EliÃ¡n's father, a Communist Party member who wanted his son returned to Cuba. Surprisingly, US officials enforced a court order returning EliÃ¡n to his father. In addition, bills that would relax the embargo, particularly food and medicine, as well as travel restrictions between the countries have a great deal of support in the US congress. While no one expects US-Cuba relations to normalize anytime soon, these events may well be a step toward reconciliation, something that might make the day-to-day life of the average Cuban a little bit easier.
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