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History of Cuba
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 Vel?zquez established the town of Baracoa. Vel?zquez
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 Tac?n. 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 L?pez. 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 C?spedes 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
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 Jos? Mart? and General M?ximo G?mez y
B?ez. 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 Tom?s 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 Garc?a
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
Mounting economic difficulties, caused by complete U.S. domination of Cuban
finance, agriculture, and industry, marked the period following World War I. In
an atmosphere of crisis, the Liberal Party leader, Gerardo Machado y Morales,
campaigned on a reform platform and was elected president in November 1924.
Economic conditions deteriorated rapidly during his administration, the chief
accomplishment of which, an ambitious public-works program, was achieved by
floating huge loans abroad. Before the end of his second term, he succeeded in
acquiring dictatorial control of the government. All opposition was brutally
suppressed during his administration, which lasted until a general uprising in
August 1933, supported by the Cuban army, forced him into exile. A protracted
period of violence and unrest followed Machado’s overthrow, with frequent
changes of government. During this period the United States instituted various
measures, including abrogation of the Platt Amendment, in an effort to quiet
popular unrest on the island. A degree of stability was accomplished following
the impeachment in 1936 of President Miguel Mariano G?mez by the senate,
which was controlled by Fulgencio Batista Zald?var. With the support of Batista,
the head of the Cuban army and unofficial dictator of Cuba, the new president,
the former political leader and soldier Federico Laredo Br?, put into operation a
program of social and economic reform. Batista won the presidential contest of
1940, defeating Ram?n Grau San Martin, the opposition candidate. The
promulgation in 1940 of a new constitution contributed further to the lessening of
In December 1941 the Cuban government declared war on Germany, Japan,
and Italy; consequently it became a charter member of the United Nations (UN)
in 1945. The presidential election of 1944 resulted in victory for Grau San
Martin, the candidate of a broad coalition of parties. The first year of his
administration was one of recurring crises caused by various factors, including
widespread food shortages, but he regained popularity the following year by
obtaining an agreement with the U.S. government for an increase in the price of
sugar. In 1948 Cuba joined the Organization of American States (OAS).
Fluctuations in world sugar prices and a continuing inflationary spiral kept the
political situation unstable in the postwar era. Carlos Prio Socarr?s, a member of
the Aut?ntico Party and a cabinet minister under Grau San Martin, was elected
president in June 1948. Shortly after his inauguration a 10 percent reduction in
retail prices was decreed in an attempt to offset inflation. Living costs continued
to rise, however, leading to unrest and political violence.
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 insituted 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.
Break with the United States
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 Guant?namo Bay, leased in 1903, the base continues to
be garrisoned by U.S. Marines.
Period of Isolation
Many of Castro’s policies alienated Cuba from the rest of Latin America. The
country was expelled from the OAS in 1962, and through most of the 1960s it
was persistently accused of attempting to foment rebellions in Venezuela,
Guatemala, and Bolivia. In fact, Che Guevara, a key Castro aide, was captured
and summarily executed while leading a guerrilla group in Bolivia in 1967.
Meanwhile, Cuba continued to depend heavily on economic aid from the Soviet
Union and Soviet-bloc countries. In 1972 it signed several pacts with the USSR
covering financial aid, trade, and deferment of Cuban debt payments, and also
became a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).
The first congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in late 1975. The
following year a new national constitution was adopted. Among other provisions,
it increased the number of provinces from 6 to 14 and created an indirectly
elected National Assembly. The assembly held its first session in December
1976 and chose Castro as head of state and of government.
In the mid-1970s Cuba emerged from diplomatic isolation. At a meeting in San
Jos?, Costa Rica, in July 1975, the OAS passed a “freedom of action” resolution
that in effect lifted the trade embargo and other sanctions imposed by the
organization against Cuba in 1964. Relations with the United States also began
to improve; U.S. travel restrictions were lifted, and in September 1977 the two
nations opened offices in each other’s capitals. The United States, however,
warned Cuba that relations could not be normalized until U.S. claims for
nationalized property had been settled and Cuba reduced or terminated its
activites in Africa.
Cuban presence in Africa had begun inconspicuously in the mid-1960s, when
Castro provided personal guards to such figures as President Alphonse
Massamba-D?bat of the Congo. It was not until 1975, however, that Cuban
combat forces were actively engaged on the continent, fighting for the Marxist
faction in Angola. Cuban troops later shored up the Marxist regime in Ethiopia,
providing the winning edge in its war with Somalia over the Ogaden region. By
1980 Cuban activities had expanded into the Middle East (Southern Yemen). In
both regions the Cuban presence was generally seen by the West as the
spearhead of a growing Soviet thrust. In return, the Cuban economy continued
to be supplemented by some $3 million in daily Soviet aid. Despite its
relationship with the USSR, Cuba in 1979 played host to a meeting of the
so-called nonaligned nations, at which Castro was chosen the group’s leader for
the following three years.
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-bloc aid 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 antigovernment 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 Guant?namo 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.
In February 1996 Cuban authorities arrested or detained at least 150 dissidents,
marking the most widespread crackdown on opposition groups in the country
since the early 1960s. Many were members of the Concilio Cubano, a fledgling
coalition of more than 100 organizations dedicated to political reform.
Later that month, Cuban jet fighters shot down two civilian planes that Cuba
claimed had violated Cuban airspace. The planes belonged to Brothers to the
Rescue, a U.S.-based group headed by Cuban exiles dedicated to helping
Cuban refugees. The group used small planes to spot refugees fleeing the
island nation and then reported their positions to the U.S. Coast Guard. The
United States condemned the shootings as a flagrant violation of international
law; the United Nations also criticized the downing of the planes. Cuba said that
planes from the same group had previously flown into Cuban airspace and
dropped antigovernment leaflets, but Cuba’s repeated diplomatic complaints to
the United States about the incidents had gone unheeded. Castro said he did
not directly order the shootings, but acknowledged that in the weeks prior to the
incident he had given the Cuban Air Force the authorization to shoot down
civilian planes violating Cuba’s airspace.
As a result of this incident, U.S. President Bill Clinton abandoned his previous
resistance to stricter sanctions against Cuba and in March 1996 signed into law
the Helms-Burton Act. The legislation aimed to tighten the U.S. embargo by
making it more difficult for foreign investors and businesses to operate in Cuba.
It made permanent the economic embargo, which previously had to be renewed
each year, and threatened foreign companies with lawsuits if they were deemed
to be “deriving benefit” from property worth more than $50,000 that had been
confiscated from U.S. citizens during the Cuban revolution. Canada, Mexico, and
the European Union complained about the U.S. law, claiming that the United
States was trying to export its laws and principles to other countries.
Later that month, the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party held a rare
full session and endorsed a harder stance against dissidents, as well as against
Cuban businesses that had been allowed to engage in free-market joint ventures
with foreign companies. The committee had met only five times since
Communists took over the Cuban government in 1959. Cuban officials said that
dissidents, self-employed workers, and Cuban intellectuals were being
manipulated by Cuba’s foreign enemies to undermine the authority of the
Communist Party. Castro vowed to step up the government’s efforts to silence
opposition groups and enforce compliance with the party’s economic and
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