It’s quite astonishing to imagine a small island of only 11 million people could elicit such extraordinary images by the mere mention of its name. Cuba, a country synonymous with revolution, resistance, socialism, rum and cigars, is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world.
Despite the recent easing (and not) of tensions with the USA, its archenemy for more than half a century, Cuba remains an enigmatic land, although the mysteries, with blossoming tourism, are fast unravelling.
Pre-Colombian Cuba and the Arrival of Europeans
Complex and confounding, the history of Cuba dates back long before Columbus ever waltzed onto its shores in 1942. Indigenous inhabitants were already thriving on agriculture by the time the Spanish arrived, farming cassava, yams, maize and even tobacco, the latter a product many erroneously believe to have been imported. Local indigenous groups (mostly Taino and Guanahatabey) put up little resistance to the invaders and were decimated primarily by European diseases to which they had no immunity, as was the case all over Latin America.
The first major settlement, the now vibrant and gorgeous Havana, was created in 1511 and major import of African slaves, something which would greatly shape the future of the country’s modern culture, began in earnest in the early 1520s. The blossoming of the sugarcane industry would continue to fuel slavery, in Cuba, for the next 300 years.
The population and culture of Cuba changed swiftly and dramatically. By the mid-1800s, Cuba was made up of 60% black or creole (an offspring of European-native relation) and the rest made up primarily of Spanish immigrants, with the by-now nearly defunct indigenous cultures making a very limited contribution (although the most recent studies hint that indigenous bloodline is prominent in as much as 30% of the modern population). Agriculture thrived in Cuba at this time although the country’s most prominent role, at least as seen by Spain, was that of stop-over port for mineral-laden ships sailing to Spain from South America.
The Sugarcane Revolution Takes Over Cuba
The focus of Spain towards Cuba shifted considerably, by the late 1870s, when a sugarcane revolution took hold of the region, overtaking the farming of tobacco and maize and increasing the overall prosperity of the country. It is perhaps for this reason that Cuba was rather recalcitrant in seeking independence.
Whilst most other neighbouring countries were busy fighting bloody wars in search of independence and better living conditions, Cubans – and prominent creole landowners, particularly – thought better of it and decided to keep a low profile, maintaining their allegiance with Spain. Low-profile notwithstanding, Spain took notice and – fuelled by the loss of many of its New World colonies – promptly increased taxed for exports departing Cuban shores. Just the incentive Cubans needed to oust the invading power? You bet!
The Ten Years War (1868-1878) may have concluded in a stalemate as far as independence was concerned but it did result in the abolishment of slavery, itself a huge move forward. For its next independence attempt, Cuba decided to enlist the help of the US, a northern ally which was already at war with Spain.
The Spanish American War resulted in Cuban independence by 1899 and also sparked one of the most complex political relations the world would ever see.
US-Cuban Relations in the 20th Century
The US helped Cuba rebuild its sugar plantations by sending machinery and technical help and, in return, taking over many of the country’s largest estates. This would be the start of US infiltration into Cuba, a small yet significant island it probably sought to annex if given half the chance.
The first President of the newly independent nation, Tomas Estrada Palma, was a main player in the Spanish American War and the one to secure US help. Although infrastructure and general standard of living in Cuba greatly improved under his tenure, it did so in exchange for greater US dominance over the nation and, for this, Palma has always been greatly criticized in his homeland.
The 1933 revolution would see military leader Fulgencio Batista set up a police state in Cuba, something which greatly decreased the standard of living and freedoms in the country. By the time Fidel Castro and his brother Raul concocted a guerrilla warfare against Batista in 1956, Cubans were desperate for change and freedom, something the Castros and their ally, the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, took full advantage of. Batista went into exile in 1959 and Castro took over as President, with the first order of the day being to silence his opposition. The severing of ties with the US, a long-time ally, occurred in 1961 and Cuba, knowing it would have no defence against such a powerful enemy, immediately aligned with the US’ most well-known enemy, the USSR, fuelling a Cold War to would continue for decades thereafter.
The USSR’ plan to use Cuba as a missile-launching pad led to what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and, at its absolute peak, the Bay of Pigs Crisis in 1963, an attempt at a Castro-overthrow by US President JF Kennedy. The political and economic partnership which helped both countries for so long was now well and truly relegated to the history books. The US imposed a most severe embargo on Cuba who, in turn, aligned with the USSR, its enemy’s most fervent enemy. The Cold War may not have led to a much-feared WWIII yet US-Cuban relations would continue to be strained to breaking point, to say the least, for the next 50 years.
The Fall of Communism and Cuba’s Refocus
The fall of Communism in Europe in 1990 brought about a colossal upheaval in Cuba, a country which relied almost exclusively on aid from the USSR. The economic hardship which followed was catastrophic, with the country literally halving its gross domestic production and seeing both its exports, and imports, reduced by three-thirds. Castro finally opened the country up to free enterprise in order to alleviate poverty and, for the first time, allowed the first foreign tourists to visit.
The US-Cuban Cold War continued well into the start of the 21dst century, with dissident missions and subverting broadcasts becoming common occurrences between the two nations. The decades-long US embargo shaped the economy of the country and caused a love-hate relationship between Cubans: those who stayed and stayed true to revolutionary ideals and those who risked life and limb to leave in search of a better life. Cultivating closer ties with countries more to its liking (such as China and North Korea) Cuba would continue to scorn the US in the first decade of the 21st century.
The Death of Fidel Castro and a Page-Turner for Cuba
A Cuba without Fidel Castro was something that was almost impossible to imagine, for so many years. Castro would go down as one of the most significant historical figures who ever lived and although he had technically been insignificant, in Cuba, for well over a decade, his death sent shockwaves the world over. Cuba looked toward a new dawn, one which looked much brighter with the visit by US President Obama, in 2016, and the subsequent easing of the US embargo and tentative influx of US tourists by the start of 2017.
There’s no doubt that Cuba’s history is currently living one of its most important chapters and although it’s still early days to assess the consequences of current President Trump’s tough stance (restricting travel and business in Cuba , once again) history has shown that once the ‘door to modernity, freedom and cooperation’ is opened, closing it again is but a fleeting affair.
One of the most enticing and rewarding countries in all of Latin America, Cuba is an absolute powerhouse of cultural, historical and natural highlights. Want to know more? Then read all about our top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba, insightful Things to Know Before You Go and 3 Fascinating Facts About Cuba that’ll make you want to pack your bags…muy pronto!
Visit our Cuba tour page for itinerary ideas and inspiration, and contact us to find out more.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”