A brief history of America and Cuba
150 years of tension may be coming to an end.
Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba (Spanish: About this sound República de Cuba (help·info), is a unitary sovereign state comprising the island of Cuba as well as Isla de la Juventud and several minor archipelagos. Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean where the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean meet. It is south of both the U.S. state of Florida and the Bahamas, west of Haiti, and north of Jamaica. Havana is the largest city and capital; other major cities include Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, with an area of 109,884 square kilometres (42,426 sq mi), and the second-most populous after Hispaniola, with over 11 million inhabitants.
Prior to Spanish colonization in the late 15th century, Cuba was inhabited by Amerindian tribes. It remained a colony of Spain until the Spanish–American War of 1898, which led to nominal independence as a de facto United States protectorate in 1902. As a fragile republic, Cuba attempted to strengthen its democratic system, but mounting political radicalization and social strife culminated in the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1952. Further unrest and instability led to Batista’s ousting in January 1959 by the July 26 Movement, which afterwards established a government under the leadership of Fidel Castro. Since 1965, the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. A point of contention during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, a nuclear war nearly broke out during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Culturally, Cuba is considered part of Latin America. It is a multiethnic country whose people, culture and customs derive from diverse origins, including the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples, the long period of Spanish colonialism, the introduction of African slaves, and a close relationship with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Cuba is a Marxist–Leninist one-party republic, where the role of the vanguard Communist Party is enshrined in the Constitution. Independent observers have accused the Cuban government of numerous human rights abuses, including arbitrary imprisonment and torture. Cuba is a developing country with a planned economy that is dominated by the exports of sugar, tobacco, coffee and skilled labor. It ranks highly in some metrics of national performance, including health care and education.
The name Cuba comes from the Taíno language. The exact meaning of the name is unclear but it may be translated either as ‘where fertile land is abundant’ (cubao), or ‘great place’ (coabana). Authors who believe that Christopher Columbus was Portuguese state that Cuba was named by Columbus for the town of Cuba in the district of Beja in Portugal.
Monument of Hatuey, an early Taíno chief of Cuba
Before the arrival of the Spanish, Cuba was inhabited by three distinct tribes of American Indian people. The Taíno (an Arawak people), the Guanajatabey, and the Ciboney people.
The ancestors of the Ciboney migrated from the mainland of South America, with the earliest sites dated to 5,000 BP.
The Taíno arrived from Hispanola sometime in the 3rd century A.D. When Columbus arrived they were the dominant culture in Cuba, having an estimated population of 150,000.
The name “Cuba” comes from the native Taíno language. It is derived from either coabana meaning “great place,” or from cubao meaning “where fertile land is abundant.”
The Taíno were farmers, while the Ciboney were farmers as well as fishers and hunter-gatherers.
Spanish colonization and rule (1492–1898)
Captaincy General of Cuba
After first landing on an island then called Guanahani, Bahamas on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus commanded his three ships: La Pinta, La Niña and the Santa María, to land on Cuba’s northeastern coast on October 28, 1492. (This was near what is now Bariay, Holguin province.) Columbus claimed the island for the new Kingdom of Spain and named it Isla Juana after Juan, Prince of Asturias.
Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conquistador of Cuba
In 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa. Other towns soon followed, including San Cristobal de la Habana, founded in 1515, which later became the capital. The native Taíno were forced to work under the encomienda system, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. Within a century the indigenous people were virtually wiped out due to multiple factors, primarily Eurasian infectious diseases, to which they had no natural resistance (immunity), aggravated by harsh conditions of the repressive colonial subjugation. In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed two-thirds of those few natives who had previously survived smallpox.
On May 18, 1539, Conquistador Hernando De Soto departed from Havana, Cuba at the head of some 600 followers into a vast expedition through the Southeastern United States, starting at La Florida, in search of gold, treasure, fame and power. On September 1, 1548, Dr. Gonzalo Perez de Angulo was appointed governor of Cuba. He arrived in Santiago, Cuba on November 4, 1549 and immediately declared the liberty of all natives. He became Cuba’s first permanent governor to reside in Havana instead of Santiago, and he built Havana’s first church made of masonry. After the French took Havana in 1555, the governor’s son, Francisco de Angulo, went to Mexico.
Cuba developed slowly and, unlike the plantation islands of the Caribbean, had a diversified agriculture. But what was most important was that the colony developed as an urbanized society that primarily supported the Spanish colonial empire. By the mid-18th century, its colonists held 50,000 slaves, compared to 60,000 in Barbados; 300,000 in Virginia, both British colonies; and 450,000 in French Saint-Domingue, which had large-scale sugar cane plantations.
Map of Cuba by Cornelius van Wytfliet in 1597 (National Library of Sweden)
The Seven Years’ War, which erupted in 1754 across three continents, eventually arrived in the Spanish Caribbean. Spain’s alliance with the French pitched them into direct conflict with the British, and in 1762 a British expedition of five warships and 4,000 troops set out from Portsmouth to capture Cuba. The British arrived on June 6, and by August had Havana under siege. When Havana surrendered, the admiral of the British fleet, George Keppel, the 3rd Earl of Albemarle, entered the city as a conquering new governor and took control of the whole western part of the island. The British immediately opened up trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies, causing a rapid transformation of Cuban society. They imported food, horses and other goods into the city, as well as thousands of slaves from West Africa to work on the under developed sugar plantations.
The British invasion and occupation of Havana in 1762
Though Havana, which had become the third-largest city in the Americas, was to enter an era of sustained development and increasing ties with North America during this period, the British occupation of the city proved short-lived. Pressure from London sugar merchants, fearing a decline in sugar prices, forced negotiations with the Spanish over colonial territories. Less than a year after Britain seized Havana, it signed the Peace of Paris together with France and Spain, ending the Seven Years’ War. The treaty gave Britain Florida in exchange for Cuba. The French had recommended this to Spain, advising that declining to give up Florida could result in Spain instead losing Mexico and much of the South American mainland to the British. Many in Britain were disappointed, believing that Florida was a poor return for Cuba and Britain’s other gains in the war.
Coat of Arms
The real engine for the growth of Cuba’s commerce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the Haitian Revolution. When the enslaved peoples of what had been the Caribbean’s richest colony freed themselves through violent revolt, Cuban planters perceived the region’s changing circumstances with both a sense of fear and opportunity. They were afraid because of the prospect that slaves might revolt in Cuba, too, and numerous prohibitions during the 1790’s on the sale of slaves in Cuba that had previously been slaves in French colonies underscored this anxiety. The planters saw opportunity, however, because they thought that they could exploit the situation by transforming Cuba into the slave society and sugar-producing “pearl of the Antilles” that Haiti had been before the revolution. As the historian Ada Ferrer has written, “At a basic level, liberation in Saint-Domingue helped entrench its denial in Cuba. As slavery and colonialism collapsed in the French colony, the Spanish island underwent transformations that were almost the mirror image of Haiti’s.” Estimates suggest that between 1790 and 1820 some 325,000 Africans were imported to Cuba as slaves, which was four times the amount that had arrived between 1760 and 1790.