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Cuba, largest island of the West Indies, south of Florida of the United States and east of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It forms, with various adjacent islands, the republic of Cuba. Cuba commands the two entrances to the Gulf of Mexico — the Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel. On the east, Cuba is separated from the island of Hispaniola by the Windward Passage, a shipping route between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The United States maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay in the southeast. Havana is Cuba’s capital and largest city.

The island extends about 1225 km (about 760 mi) from Cabo de San Antonio to Cabo Maisi, the western and eastern extremities, respectively. The average width is about 80 km (about 50 mi), with extremes ranging from 35 to 251 km (22 to 160 mi). The total area is 114,524 sq km (44,218 mi) including the area of the Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth (formerly called Isle of Pines) and of other islands of the republic.


About one-fourth of the surface of Cuba is mountainous or hilly, the remainder consisting of flat or rolling terrain. The mountainous areas are scattered throughout the island and do not stem from a central mass. The principal ranges are the Sierra de los Organos, in the west; the Sierra de Trinidad, in the central part of the island; and the Sierra Maestra, in the southeast. The first two ranges are under 914 m (3000 ft) in height; the Sierra Maestra, which includes the Sierra del Cobre and Macaca ranges, is the greatest in altitude, mass, and extent, and contains Pico Turquino (2000 m/ 6561 ft), the highest point in Cuba. Most of the soil of Cuba is relatively fertile.

One of the extraordinary natural features of the island is the large number of subsurface limestone caverns, notably the caves of Cotilla, situated near Havana. Most of the numerous rivers of Cuba are short and unnavigable. The chief stream is the Cauto, located in the southeast. The coast of Cuba is extremely irregular and is indented by numerous gulfs and bays; the total length is about 4025 km (about 2500 mi). The island has a large number of excellent harbors, the majority of which are almost entirely landlocked. Notable harbors are those of Havana, Cardenas, Bahia Honda, Matanzas, and Neuvitas, on the northern coast, and Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, on the southern coast.


The climate of Cuba is semitropical, the mean annual temperature being 25? C (77? F). Extremes of heat and relative humidity, which average 27.2? C (81? F) and 80 percent, respectively, during the summer season, are tempered by the prevailing northeastern trade winds. The annual rainfall averages about 1320 mm (about 52 in). More than 60 percent of the rain falls during the wet season, which extends from May to October. The island lies in a region occasionally traversed by violent tropical hurricanes during August, September, and October.

Natural Resources

The land and climate of Cuba favor agriculture, and the country also has significant mineral reserves. Nickel, chrome, copper, iron, and manganese deposits are the most important. Sulfur, cobalt, pyrites, gypsum, asbestos, petroleum, salt, sand, clay, and limestone reserves are also exploited. All subsurface deposits are the property of the government.

Plants and Animals

Cuba has a wide variety of tropical vegetation. Extensive tracts in the eastern portion of the island are heavily forested. The most predominant species of trees are the palms, of which Cuba has more than 30 types, including the royal palms. Other indigenous flora are mahogany, ebony, lignum vitae, cottonwood, logwood, rosewood, cedar pine, majagua, granadilla, jaguery, tobacco, and citrus trees.

Only two land mammals, the hutia, or cane rat, and the solenodon, a rare insectivore, are known to be indigenous. The island has numerous bats and nearly 300 species of birds, including the vulture, wild turkey, quail, finch, gull, macaw, parakeet, and hummingbird. Among the few reptiles are tortoises, the cayman, and a species of boa that can attain a length of 3.7 m (12 ft). More than 700 species of fish and crustaceans are found in Cuban waters. Notable among these are land crabs, sharks, garfish, robalo, ronco, eel, mangua, and tuna. Numerous species of insects exist, the most harmful of which are the chigoe, a type of flea, and the anopheles mosquito, bearer of the malaria parasite.


The Cuban population is made up mainly of three groups. Approximately 66 percent of the population is white and mainly of Spanish descent; 22 percent is of mixed racial heritage and 12 percent is black. Almost all of the people are native-born. More than 75 percent of the population is classified as urban. The revolutionary government, installed in 1959, has generally destroyed the rigid social stratification inherited from Spanish colonial rule.

Population Characteristics, Religion, and Language

The population of Cuba at the 1981 census was 9,723,605; the estimated population in 1995 is 11,091,000, giving the country a population density of about 97 persons per sq km (about 251 per sq mi). Professed Roman Catholics have declined from more than 70 percent to about 33 percent of the population since 1957. Among Protestants, about 1 percent of Cubans, Pentecostalism is the predominant tradition. About 50 percent of Cubans consider themselves nonreligious. Spanish is the official language of Cuba.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities

Cuba consists of 14 provinces and the special municipality of Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth). The capital, largest city, and chief port of Cuba is Havana (population, 1990 estimate 2,119,059). Marianao (1981 greater city population, 127,563) is a suburb of Havana and a beach resort. Other important cities and towns and their populations include Santiago de Cuba (418,721), a major seaport and industrial center; Camaguey (286,404), an inland transportation junction and commercial center; Holguin (232,770), located in a rich agricultural region; Guantanamo (203,371), a center for the processing of agricultural products; Santa Clara (197,189); Cienfuegos (125,000); and Mantanzas (115,466).


School attendance is compulsory and free for children in Cuba between the ages of 6 and 12. During the late 1960s about 10,000 new classrooms were provided in rural areas, traveling libraries were introduced, and all parochial schools were nationalized. In the early 1990s some 917,889 pupils attended primary schools, about 597,997 students were enrolled in secondary schools, and about 314,168 students attended technical schools, teachers colleges, and other schools. The country’s higher educational institutions enrolled about 242,434 students; the largest university was the University of Havana (1728). The nation’s adult literacy rate exceeds 95 percent.


Cuban culture is a combination of Spanish and African traditions. The blending of the Spanish guitar and the African drum gives Cuban music its most distinctive forms, the rumba and the son. Some of its folk music, however, such as the punto, the zapateo, and the guajira, has been greatly influenced by European music.

Noted Cuban writers include the 19th-century poets Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga and Julian del Casal and the contemporary novelists Alejo Carpentier and Jose Lezama Lima.

The National Library in Havana is the largest in Cuba and contains some 2.2 million volumes. Municipal libraries operate in Havana and the provincial capitals. The National Museum in Havana houses collections of both classical and modern art and relics of native cultures. Other important museums are the Colonial and Anthropological museums in Havana, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum of natural history and art in Santiago, and the Oscar M. de Rojas Museum in Cardenas. All libraries and museums are under the supervision of the national government. In addition, Cuban cities support a variety of cultural activities, such as theater and ballet.


The revolutionary government that gained power in 1959 nationalized about 90 percent of the production industries and some 70 percent of the farmland of Cuba. Formerly about 16 percent of the land was individually owned, while the remainder was held in large estates or by large sugar companies.

Credits and subsidies from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to Cuba totaled some $38 billion between 1961 and 1984 and up to $5 billion annually in the late 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, depriving Cuba of its leading aid donors and trade partners, dealt a crippling blow to the nation’s economy as the 1990s began. In 1993 President Fidel Castro signed a decree allowing some free enterprise in more than 100 trades and services.


Cuba normally ranks among the world leaders in sugar production, and sugarcane is its largest crop by volume and value. In the early 1990s the annual sugarcane harvest was about 58 million metric tons, and raw sugar output was about 8 million metric tons. A reemphasis on sugar production in the late 1960s represented a shift from an earlier policy of rapid industrialization designed to diversify the economy.

A second crop of commercial importance is tobacco, grown especially in Pinar del Rio Province. Production amounted to about 40,000 metric tons annually in the early 1990s; a substantial portion of the crop is manufactured into Havana cigars, an internationally popular product. Among other important agricultural products are coffee, citrus fruit, pineapples, rice, cacao beans, bananas, corn, plantains, cotton, potatoes, tomatoes, and pimentos. Cattle, which numbered about 5 million head in the early 1990s, are valuable livestock, and hogs, horses, poultry, sheep, and goats are also raised in significant numbers.

Mining and Manufacturing

Minerals were among the most valuable exports of Cuba before the revolution of 1959. Mineral production, however, has since declined somewhat. The principal minerals recovered include nickel and copper ores, chromium, salt, cobalt, stone, crude petroleum, natural gas, and manganese.

In the early 1970s, Cuba undertook a program of automation in its important sugar industry. The dairy and cattle industries were also streamlined. Other major manufactures include cement, steel, refined petroleum, rubber and tobacco products, processed food, textiles, clothing, footwear, chemicals, and fertilizer.

Currency and Foreign Trade

The monetary unit of Cuba is the peso (.76 pesos equal U.S.$1; 1994), issued by the National Bank and composed of 100 centavos. All Cuban banks were nationalized in 1960.

Sugar and sugar products make up about 75 percent of annual Cuban exports. Tobacco, nickel and copper ores, foodstuffs, and petroleum products are other important export commodities. Major imports include foodstuffs, fuel, raw industrial materials, motor vehicles, machinery, and consumer goods. Before 1959 most Cuban trade was with the United States. In 1960 the United States declared a complete embargo on trade between the two countries. In the early 1990s Cuba’s chief trade partners were Argentina, Bulgaria, China, and the countries of the former USSR. Cuba’s total imports each year cost approximately $1.7 billion, and its exports earned approximately $1.5 billion. In 1995 Cuba joined in forming the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), a free-trade organization. The ACS comprises the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) as well as 12 other Central American, South American, and Caribbean nations.


Cuba is governed under a constitution adopted in 1976, as subsequently amended. It defines the country as a socialist state in which all power belongs to the working people. The Communist party is Cuba’s only legal political party.

Central Government

The central legislature of Cuba is the National Assembly of People’s Power, whose 510 members are elected to five-year terms by direct universal voting. The National Assembly, which regularly meets twice during the year, elects a Council of State of about 30 members to carry out its functions when it is not in session. The Council of State includes a president, who is the country’s head of state; a first vice president; and five other vice presidents. The National Assembly also chooses a Council of Ministers, which is Cuba’s chief administrative body. The council is headed by the president.

Local Government

Cuba is divided into 169 municipalities and 14 provinces; the Isla de la Juventud municipality is not part of any province, and its affairs are overseen directly by the central government. Each municipality has an assembly composed of delegates elected to terms of two and one-half years. The municipal assemblies choose executive committees, the members of which make up five regional assemblies for each province. These regional bodies also have executive committees, which together form the membership of the provincial assembly (in turn, headed by an executive committee). At each level the executive committee oversees the day-to-day administrative functions of its assembly.


Judicial power is exercised by the People’s Supreme Court on the national level, by courts of justice in cases that are provincial or regional in nature, and by the municipal courts. Revolutionary tribunals are convened to deal with crimes against the state.


The Cuban army is made up of about 145,000 soldiers, and has been largely equipped by the former USSR. The navy, which has a membership of about 13,500 sailors, operates missile boats and various smaller craft. The 15,000-member air force is equipped with Soviet-built aircraft, comprising interceptor, ground-attack, and other first-line craft. Cuba also possesses Soviet-made surface-to-air and antishipping missiles. Cuba maintains an armed civilian militia that includes some 1.3 million men and women. Cuban forces served in several African countries during the 1970s and 1980s.


Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Cuba on October 28, 1492, during his initial westward voyage. In honor of the daughter of Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain, his benefactors, Columbus named it Juana, the first of several names he successively applied to the island. It eventually became known as Cuba, from its aboriginal name, Cubanascnan.

Colonization by Spain

When Columbus first landed on Cuba it was inhabited by the Ciboney, a friendly tribe related to the Arawak. Colonization of the island began in 1511, when the Spanish soldier Diego Velazquez established the town of Baracoa. Velazquez subsequently founded several other settlements, including Santiago de Cuba in 1514 and Havana in 1515. The Spanish transformed Cuba into a supply base for their expeditions to Mexico and Florida. As a result of savage treatment and exploitation, the aborigines became, by the middle of the 16th century, nearly extinct, forcing the colonists to depend on imported black slaves for the operation of the mines and plantations.

Despite frequent raids by buccaneers and naval units of rival and enemy powers, the island prospered throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Restrictions imposed by the Spanish authorities on commercial activities were generally disregarded by the colonists, who resorted to illicit trade with privateers and neighboring colonies. Following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, during which the English captured Havana, the Spanish government liberalized its Cuban policy, encouraging colonization, expansion of commerce, and development of agriculture. Between 1774 and 1817 the population increased from about 161,000 to more than 550,000. The remaining restrictions on trade were officially eliminated in 1818, further promoting material and cultural advancement.

During the 1830s, however, Spanish rule became increasingly repressive, provoking a widespread movement among the colonists for independence. This movement attained particular momentum between 1834 and 1838, during the despotic governorship of the captain general Miguel de Tacon. Revolts and conspiracies against the Spanish regime dominated Cuban political life throughout the remainder of the century. In 1844 an uprising of black slaves was brutally suppressed. A movement during the years 1848 to 1851 for annexation of the island to the United States ended with the capture and execution of its leader, the Spanish-American general Narciso Lopez. Offers by the U.S. government to purchase the island were repeatedly rejected by Spain. In 1868 revolutionaries under the leadership of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes proclaimed Cuban independence. The ensuing Ten Years’ War, a costly struggle to both Spain and Cuba, was terminated in 1878 by a truce granting many important concessions to the Cubans.

In 1886 slavery was abolished. Importation of cheap labor from China was ended by 1871. In 1893 the equal civil status of blacks and whites was proclaimed.


Although certain reforms were inaugurated after the successful revolt, the Spanish government continued to oppress the populace. On February 23, 1895, mounting discontent culminated in a resumption of the Cuban revolution, under the leadership of the writer and patriot Jose Marti and General Maximo Gomez y Baez. The U.S. government intervened on behalf of the revolutionists in April 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War. Intervention was spurred by the sinking of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana of February 15, 1898, for which Spain was blamed. By the terms of the treaty signed December 10, 1898, terminating the conflict, Spain relinquished sovereignty over Cuba. An American military government ruled the island until May 20, 1902, when the Cuban republic was formally instituted, under the presidency of the former postmaster general Tomas Estrada Palma. The Cuban constitution, adopted in 1901, incorporated the provisions of the Platt Amendment, U.S. legislation that established conditions for American intervention in Cuba.

Certain improvements, notably the eradication of yellow fever, had been accomplished in Cuba during the U.S. occupation. Simultaneously, U.S. corporate interests invested heavily in the Cuban economy, acquiring control of many of its resources, especially the sugar-growing industry. Popular dissatisfaction with this state of affairs was aggravated by recurring instances of fraud and corruption in Cuban politics. The first of several serious insurrections against conservative control of the republic occurred in August 1906. In the next month the U.S. government dispatched troops to the island, which remained under U.S. control until 1909. Another uprising took place in 1912 in Oriente Province, resulting again in U.S. intervention. With the election of Mario Garcia Menocal to the presidency later in the same year, the Conservative party returned to power. On April 7, 1917, Cuba entered World War I on the side of the Allies.

The Batista Regime

In March 1952 former president Batista, supported by the army, seized power. Batista suspended the constitution, dissolved the congress, and instituted a provisional government, promising elections the following year. After crushing an uprising in Oriente Province led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953, the regime seemed secure, and when the political situation had been calmed, the Batista government announced that elections would be held in the fall of 1954. Batista’s opponent, Grau San Martin, withdrew from the campaign just before the election, charging that his supporters had been terrorized. Batista was thus reelected without opposition, and on his inauguration February 24, 1955, he restored constitutional rule and granted amnesty to political prisoners, including Castro. The latter chose exile in the United States and later in Mexico.

In the mid-1950s the Batista government instituted an economic development program that, together with a stabilization of the world sugar price, improved the economic and political outlook in Cuba. On December 2, 1956, however, Castro, with some 80 insurgents, invaded. The force was crushed by the army, but Castro escaped into the mountains, where he organized the 26th of July Movement, so called to commemorate the 1953 uprising. For the next year Castro’s forces, using guerrilla tactics, opposed the Batista government and won considerable popular support. On March 17, 1958, Castro called for a general revolt. His forces made steady gains through the remainder of the year, and on January 1, 1959, Batista resigned and fled the country. A provisional government was established. Castro, although he initially renounced office, became premier in mid-February. In the early weeks of the regime military tribunals tried many former Batista associates, and some 550 were executed.

Cuba Under Castro

The Castro regime soon exhibited a leftist tendency that worried U.S. interest in the island. The agrarian reform laws promulgated in its first years mainly affected U.S. sugar interests; the operation of plantations by companies controlled by non-Cuban stockholders was prohibited, and the Castro regime initially de-emphasized sugar production in favor of food crops.

When the Castro government expropriated an estimated $1 billion in U.S.-owned properties in 1960, Washington responded by imposing a trade embargo. A complete break in diplomatic relations occurred in January 1961, and on April 17 of that year U.S.-supported and -trained anti-Castro exiles landed an invasion force in the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba. Ninety of the invaders were killed, and some 1200 were captured (see Bay of Pigs Invasion). The captives were ransomed, with the tacit aid of the U.S. government, in 1962, at a cost of about $53 million in food and medicines.

American-Cuban relations grew still more perilous in the fall of 1962, when the United States discovered Soviet-supplied missile installations in Cuba. U.S. President John F. Kennedy then announced a naval blockade of the island to prevent further Soviet shipments of arms from reaching it. After several days of negotiations during which nuclear war was feared by many to be a possibility, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed, on October 28, to dismantle and remove the weapons, and this was subsequently accomplished. For the rest of the 1960s U.S.-Cuban relations remained hostile, although, through the cooperation of the Swiss embassy in Cuba, the U.S. and Cuban governments in 1965 agreed to permit Cuban nationals who desired to leave the island to emigrate to the United States. More than 260,000 people left before the airlift was officially terminated in April 1973.

Despite several efforts by Cuba in the United Nations to oust the United States from its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, leased in 1903, the base continues to be garrisoned by U.S. Marines.

In 1980, when Castro temporarily lifted exit restrictions, some 125,000 refugees fled to the United States before the outflow was again halted. The U.S. government accused Cuba of aiding leftist rebels in El Salvador; another sore point in U.S.-Cuban relations was the aid given by Cuban advisers to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Several hundred Cuban construction workers and military personnel were forced to leave Grenada as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of that island in October 1983. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Havana in April 1989, when the USSR and Cuba signed a 25-year friendship treaty, but Castro explicitly rejected the applicability of Soviet-style political and economic reforms to his country. In July four army officers were executed and ten others sentenced to prison for smuggling and drug trafficking, in the worst scandal since Castro came to power.

With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Soviet-blockade and trade subsidies to Cuba were ended, and Soviet military forces were gradually withdrawn. After the United States tightened its sanctions against trade with Cuba, the UN General Assembly in November 1992 approved a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. embargo. By 1993, all of the Soviet troops sent to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis had been withdrawn. Cuba’s sugarcane production dropped to a 30-year low in 1993 and worsened in 1994, precipitating an economic emergency. As the effects of this poor yield filtered down through the population, greater numbers of Cubans attempted to flee the country for economic reasons. One such group hijacked a ferry and and attempted to escape, only to be challenged and sunk by the Cuban Coast Guard. The sinking sparked violent anti-government demonstrations to which Castro responded by removing exit restrictions from those who wished to leave for the United States. Already facing an influx of refugees from Haiti, the United States countered by ending automatic asylum to fleeing Cubans because the United States considered that they were fleeing economic rather than political conditions. More than 30,000 people were picked up at sea by the

U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base or to refugee camps in Panama. The crisis came to an end when the United States agreed to issue 20,000 entry visas each year to Cubans wishing to enter the country.

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