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History of Cuba

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Pre-Columbian Cuba

Cuba was first visited by Europeans when explorer Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Cuba for the first time on October 28, 1492. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar led the Spanish invasion, and became governor of Cuba for Spain.

Cuba before 1492 was populated by at least two distinct indigenous peoples: Taíno and Ciboney (or Siboney). These two groups were prehistoric cultures in a time period during which humans created tools from stone. The Taíno were agriculturalist and the Ciboney were a self-sufficient society, although their evolution was not limited to fishing and hunting, farming and production of wooden structures. Taínos and Ciboney took part in similar customs and beliefs, one being the sacred ritual practiced using tobacco called cohaba, known in English as smoking. The Europeans were shown by the Native Cubans how to nurture. tobacco and consume it in the form of cigars. Approximately 16 to 60 thousand natives from the Taino and Ciboney tribes inhabited Cuba before colonization. The Native Cuban Indian population, including the Ciboney and the Taíno, were forced in to reservations during the Spanish subdual of the Island of Cuba. Many Natives were put in reservations. One famous reservation was known as Guanabacoa, today a suburb of Havana. Many Natives Cuban Indians died due to the brutality of Spanish conquistadores and the diseases they brought with them, such as the measles and smallpox, which were previously unknown to Indians. By 1550, many tribes were eradicated. Many of the Conquistadors intermarried with Native Cuban Indians. Their children were called mestizo, but the Native Cubans called them Guajiro, which translates as "one of us". Today, the descendants are maintaining their heritage.

Conquest of Cuba

Spanish Colonial Cuba

The Spanish established sugar and tobacco as Cuba's primary products. As the native Indian population became mestizied and educated, field labor became scarce. Natives from Florida and Bahama were imported as slaves, and as that population became mixed as well, field labor was harder to come by. African slaves were imported to work the plantations in order to replace the field labor. However, restrictive Spanish trade laws made it difficult for Cubans to keep up with the 17th and 18th century advances in processing sugar cane pioneered in British Barbados and French Saint Domingue. Spain also restricted Cuba's access to the slave trade, which was dominated by the British, French, and Dutch. One important turning point came in the Seven Years War, when the British conquered the port of Havana and introduced thousands of slaves in a ten month period. Another key event was the Haitian Revolution in nearby Saint-Domingue, from 1791 to 1804. Thousands of French refugees, fleeing the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue, brought slaves and expertise in sugar refining and coffee growing into eastern Cuba in the 1790 and early 1800s.

In the 1800s, Cuban sugar plantations became the most important world producer of sugar, thanks to the expansion of slavery and a relently focus on improving the island's sugar technology. Use of modern refining techniques was especially important because the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and after 1815 began forcing other countries to follow suit. Cubans were torn between the profits generated by sugar and a repugnance for slavery, which they saw as morally, politically, and racially dangerous to their society. By the end of the 19th century Slavery was abolished.

However, leading up to the abolition of slavery, Cuba gained great prosperity from their sugar trade. The Spanish had ordered regulations on trade with Cuba, which kept the island from becoming a dominant sugar producer. The Spanish were interested in keeping their trade routes and slave trade routes protected. Nevertheless, Cuba's vast size and abundance of natural resources made it an ideal place for becoming a booming sugar producer. When Spain opened the Cuban trade ports, it quickly became a popular place. New technology allowed a much more effective and efficient means of producing sugar. They began to use water mills, enclosed furnaces, and steam engines to produce a higher quality of sugar at a much more efficient pace than elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The boom in Cuba's sugar industry in the 1800's made it necessary for Cuba to improve its means of transportation. They needed safe and efficient ways to transport the sugar from the plantations to the ports, in order to maximize their returns. Many new roads were built, and old roads were quickly repaired. Cuba even saw railroads pop up, which changed the way that sugar was transported. It was now possible for plantations all over this large island to have their sugar shipped quickly and easily. The prosperity seen from the boom in sugar production is a major reason that Cuba became predominantly Spanish. Many Spaniards immigrated to Cuba, calling it a place of refuge.

Sugar Plantations

Cuba failed to prosper before the 1760s due to Spanish trade regulations. Spain had set up a monopoly in the Caribbean and their primary objective was to protect this. They did not allow the islands to trade with any foreign ships. Spain was primarily interested in the Caribbean for its gold. The crown thought that if the colonies traded with other countries it would itself not benefit from it. This slowed the growth of the Spanish Caribbean. This effect was particularly bad in Cuba because Spain kept a tight grasp on Cuba. It held great strategic importance in the Caribbean. As soon as Spain opened Cuba's ports up to foreign ships a great sugar boom began that lasted until the 1880s. The Island was perfect for growing sugar. It is dominated by rolling plains, with rich soil, and adequate rainfall. It is the only island big enough to build roads, and railroads on, and has the best ports in the area. By 1860 Cuba was devoted to growing sugar. The country had to import all other necessary goods. They were dependent on the United States who bought 82 percent of the sugar. Cubans resented the economic policy Spain implemented in Cuba, which was to help Spain and hurt Cuba. In 1820 Spain abolished the slave trade, hurting the Cuban economy even more and forcing planters to buy more expensive, illegal slaves. Most Cubans began to support annexation from Cuba to join as a slave state to the United States. This movement ended at the end of the American civil war. Cuba had no interest in abolishing slavery. After this Cuba began a revolution called the Ten Year War, which ended in Spain abolishing slavery in Cuba (1884), making it the second to last country in the Western Hempisphere to abolish slavery (Brazil being the last).

Cuba in the Early 20th Century

Fulgencio Batista,  .
Enlarge
Fulgencio Batista, Cuban dictator.

President Gerardo Machado, originally elected by popular vote in 1925, was constitutionally barred from reelection. He decided to stay in power anyway as the head of a military government with some support from the United States. In 1933, a number of liberal Cubans staged an uprising which deposed Machado and led to a series of short-lived governments. As part of the revolutionary process, the Platt Amendment was repealed. Still, American pressure forced Cuba to reaffirm the agreement which was imposed on the country in 1903 which leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States for a nominal sum, under terms which many Cubans at the time found (and some still find) objectionable and colonialistic.

A key figure in the process was Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant, who had led a organized a non-commissioned officer revolt in September 1933. With encouragement from U.S. Ambassador Sumner Welles, he separated the Cuban military from the student-labor component of the new revolutionary government, and as army of chief of staff became the country's de facto leader behind a series of puppet presidents. In 1940, he became the country's official president in an election which many people considered to be rigged. During his tenure, he implemented several progressive policies regarding welfare and unemployment. Batista was voted out of office in 1944.

He was succeeded by Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín, a populist physician who had briefly held the presidency in the 1933 revolutionary process. President Grau passed a number of populist measures favoring workers and also was instrumental in passing the 1940 Constitution, which has been widely regarded as one of the most progressive ever written in terms of worker protection and human rights.

Grau was followed by Carlos Prío Socarrás, also elected democratically, but whose government was tainted by increasing corruption and violent incidents among political factions. Eduardo Chibás was the leader of the Partido Ortodoxo (Orthodox Party), a liberal democratic group, who was widely expected to win in 1952 on an anticorruption platform. Chibás committed suicide before he could run for the presidency, and the opposition was left without its major leader.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Batista, who was running for president in the 1952 elections, but had only a small minority of votes, seized power in a bloodless coup three months before the election was to take place. President Prío did nothing to stop the coup, and therefore was forced to leave the island. Due to the corruption of the past two administrations, the general public reaction to the coup was somewhat accepting at first. However, Batista soon encountered stiff opposition when he suspended the balloting and the constitution, beginning to rule by decree.

The Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro, a young lawyer from a wealthy family, who was running for a seat in the Chamber of Representatives for the Partido Ortodoxo, circulated a petition to depose Batista's government on the grounds that it had illegitimately suspended the electoral process. However, the petition was not acted upon by the courts.

On July 26, 1953 Castro led a historical attack on the Moncada Barracks near Santiago de Cuba, but failed and was jailed until 1955, when amnesty was given to many political prisoners, including the ones that assaulted the Moncada barracks. Castro subsequently went into exile in Mexico. While in Mexico, he organized the 26th of July Movement with the goal of overthrowing Batista. A group of over 80 men sailed to Cuba on board the yacht "Granma", landing in the eastern part of the island in December 1956. Most of Castro's men were promptly killed or taken prisoner by Batista's forces. Castro managed to escape to the Sierra Maestra mountains with only 12 men, from where, aided by urban and rural opposition, he began a guerrilla campaign against the regime. The country was soon driven to chaos, particularly by a very effective sabotage and urban warfare campaign conducted in the cities by supporters of Castro.

Faced with a corrupt and ineffective military, dispirited by a U.S. Government embargo on weapons sales to Cuba and public indignation and revulsion at his brutality toward opponents, Batista fled on January 1, 1959. Within months of taking control, Castro moved to consolidate power by marginalizing other resistance figures and imprisoning or executing opponents. As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.

In July 1961, the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI) was formed by the merger of Fidel Castro's 26th of July Revolutionary Movement, the People's Socialist Party (the old Communist Party) led by Blas Roca and the Revolutionary Directory March 13th led by Faure Chomón. On March 26, 1962 the ORI became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC) which, in turn, became the Communist Party of Cuba on October 3, 1965 with Castro as First Secretary.

See also: Cuban Revolution

Communist Cuba

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban government, in reaction to the U.S refusal to refine Soviet oil in refineries located in Cuba, expropriated U.S. properties, notably those belonging to the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) and the United Fruit Company. This was in line with Castro's anti-USA ideologies used to gain support at home and abroad. In the Castro government's first agrarian reform law on May 17, 1959 it sought to limit the size of land holdings, and to distribute that land to agricultural workers in "Vital Minimum" tracts. In compensation, the Cuban government offered to pay the landholders based on the tax assessment values for the land. Actual payment would be with twenty-year bonds paying 4.5% interest (instead of the then U.S. investment grade corporate bond rate of 3.8%). Landholders from most other countries settled on this basis. The problem was with the tax assessed values. Most of the large landholdings had been acquired in the 1920 period when world sugar prices were depressed, and the land could be bought at bargain-basement prices. In the intervening period, former Cuban governments friendly to these interests had kept these bargain prices as the basis for calculating property taxes, thus insuring that those taxes would be kept low. However, as Castro's control of the island's assets tightened and more nationalization campaigns took place, promises such as these were not honored.

In response to the seizure of American properties and the increased repression carried out by Castro's government on the people, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961 and imposed the U.S. embargo against Cuba on February 3 1962. The embargo is still in effect as of 2005, although some humanitarian trade in food and medicines is now allowed. At first, the embargo didn't extend to other countries and Cuba trades with most European, Asian and Latin American countries and especially Canada. But now the USA pressures other nations and American companies in foreign soil to restrict trade with Cuba. This hinders Castro's historic argument blaming the U.S. for Cuba's grave economic situation. Then again, due to Cuba's location, such trade is hindered by high transportation costs. Also, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 makes it very difficult for companies that do business with Cuba to also do business in the USA, effectively forcing internationals to choose between Cuba and the USA (an easy choice when money talks). Another consideration here is that Cuba already was a very poor country in 1959 and hardly any capitalist poor countries (which constitute the majority in the world) have managed to escape poverty in the 20th century, so political orientation doesn't seem to be the determining factor.

The establishment of a Socialist system in Cuba led to the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles to the U.S. and various other countries since Castro's rise to power. One major exception to the embargo was made on November 6, 1965 when Cuba and the United States formally agreed to start an airlift for Cubans who wanted to go to the United States. By 1971 these so-called Freedom Flights took 250,000 Cubans to the United States. Currently, there is an immigration lottery allowing 20,000 Cubans seeking political asylum to go to the U.S. legally every year.

Bay of Pigs Invasion

Main article: Bay of Pigs Invasion

The United States then sponsored an unsuccessful attack on Cuba, using conservative political groups as the main source of support. The attack began on April 15, 1961, when exiles, flying planes provided by the U.S. bombed several Cuban air force bases. This attack did not succeed in destroying all of Castro's air force. In response, Castro declared Cuba a socialist state in a speech on April 16, 1961.

On April 17, 1961, a force of about 1,500 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, landed in the south at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's assumption was that the invasion would spark a popular rising against Castro. Castro's forces were forewarned of the invasion and had arrested thousands of suspected subversives before the invasion landed. There was no popular uprising. In hindsight it seems unlikely that one would have occurred even had Castro not conducted the arrests. What part of the invasion force that made it ashore was quickly defeated as President Kennedy was unwilling to offer overt US military support, the only possibility to make the invasion successful for the USA. Many believe that the invasion, instead of weakening Castro, actually helped him consolidate his grip on power.

For the next 30 years, Castro pursued closer relations with the Soviet Union until the demise of the USSR in 1991.

The Organization of American States, under pressure from the US suspended Cuba's membership in the body on January 22, 1962 and the United States Government banned all US-related Cuban imports and exports a couple of weeks later on February 7. The Kennedy administration extended this on February 8, 1963 making travel, financial and commercial transactions by US citizens to Cuba illegal.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Main article: Cuban missile crisis

Tensions between the two governments peaked again during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. blockaded Cuba to force the USSR to withdraw their newly-installed MRBMs from the country. The USSR agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an agreement that the United States would not invade Cuba. The U.S. has honored this agreement, although the CIA continued to support anti-Castro groups by mounting an extensive international campaign and several botched assassination attempts throughout the 1960s.

Castro's military provided support to revolutionary regimes in Angola and Nigeria and to guerrilla groups in South America. During one such campaign, Ernesto Che Guevara, who has become a symbol of revolution in the world, was captured by U.S.-trained commandos in Bolivia in 1967 and then executed.

Cuba after the Soviet Union

When the USSR's support was lost, Cuba's economy was essentially paralyzed, and living conditions in Cuba worsened. This led Castro to open the country to tourism from Europe and Asia, and to enter into several joint ventures with foreign companies for hotel, agricultural and industrial projects. As a result, the use of U.S. dollars was legalized in the late 1990s, with special stores being opened which only sell in dollars. Thus, there were now two separate economies, the dollar-economy and the peso-economy, creating a social split in the island because those in the dollar-economy made much more money (such as in the tourist-industry). However, in October 2004 the Cuban government announced an end to this policy: from November dollars would no longer be legal tender in Cuba, but would instead be exchanged for pesos, with a 10% commission payable to the state.

Another byproduct of the cutoff of Soviet subsidies were extreme shortages of food and other goods as well as electrical blackouts. This led to a brief period of unrest, including numerous anti-government protests and widespread increases in crime. In response the Cuban Communist party government formed hundreds of “rapid-action brigades” to confront and attack anyone protesting against the government. According to the Communist Party daily, Granma, "delinquents and anti-social elements who try to create disorder and an atmosphere of mistrust and impunity in our society will receive a crushing reply from the people,".

Some non-violent initiatives have been launched by Cubans in the island, aiming at political reform. In 1997, a group led by Vladimiro Roca, a decorated veteran of the Angolan war and the son of the founder of the Cuban Communist Party, sent a petition, entitled La Patria es de Todos ("the homeland belongs to all") to the Cuban general assembly requesting democratic and human rights reforms. As a result, Roca and his three associates were sentenced to jail, from which they were eventually released.

In 2001, a group backed by the powerful Catholic church collected thousands of signatures for the Varela Project, a petition requesting a referendum on the island's political system. The process was openly supported by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter during his historic 2002 visit to Cuba. A plebiscite then was made in which it was formally proclaimed that Castro's brand of socialism would be perpetual.

In 2003 seventy-five anti-government activists were arrested and summarily sentenced to heavy jail terms. Cuban officials described it as a response to provocative actions by the head of the US interests section in Cuba, who had been travelling around the country holding publicized meetings and press conferences with the dissidents. Castro's action was widely criticised by mainstream human rights organizations and even by American leftists generally sympathetic to his government.

In an unrelated matter six men were sentenced to death for hijacking a ferry with guns and knives, steering it into international waters where it ran out of fuel, and threatening to kill the passengers. Some accounts confused the two and accused Castro of sentencing dissidents to death, something which did not happen. A second ferry was hijacked, several days later and this time the hijackers were apprehended and executed within 24 hours of capture.

See also: Cuba, Spanish colonization of the Americas

External links

  • CubaFacts.com - History (http://www.cubafacts.com/History/hisover.htm) of Cuba from Hatuey to Castro (Slight anti-Castro bias)

es:Historia de Cuba fr:Histoire de Cuba

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