A Short History of Cuba

It is believed the earliest inhabitants of what we now call Cuba were the Guanahatabey, some 3000 years ago. They probaby originated from South America and were hunter/gatherers and farmers. One of the crops they cultivated was cohiba (tobacco), a crop that future generations of Cuba would come to rely on. Over time more people arrived from South America, notably the Arawak people.

Spanish Rule
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 the Guanahatabey became extinct and many Arawak died from diseases brought by sailors and settlers. The Spanish established settlements using Havanas natural harbour as a key transit point between the Americas and Spain.
Havana was briefly occupied by Great Britain in 1792, before being returned to Spain in exchange for Florida.
Cuba’s sugarcane industry boomed in the early 1800s, requiring massive numbers of slaves. An independence movement turned into civil war from 1867 to 1878 leading to the abolishment of slavery in 1886 and eventually independence from Spain in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. The US took control of Cuba and within just a few years the majority of Cubas sugar and tobacco industries were under US control with a large % of land now owned by US investors.

US Rule
Popular demand for full independence continued and eventually in 1900 the US organised a series of elections, to elect a Constituent Assembly finishing with a presidential election that they promised would see sovereignty handed to Cubans. Restrictions set by the US governor meant only men could vote and then only a select group of men. The poor and uneducated were all excluded. A number of political parties were set up and despite the restrictions pro-independence candidates won an over whelming majority of votes.[learn_more caption=”read more…”] In 1901 the US agreed to Cuba’s independence with the following preconditions that Cuba’s Constituent Assembly and President had to agree to for the hand over of power to be formalised. This was called the Platt Amendment and required;

  • Cuba would not transfer Cuban land to any power other than the United States.
  • Cuba would contract no foreign debt without guarantees that the interest could be served from ordinary revenues.
  • The right to US intervention in Cuban affairs and military occupation when the US authorities considered that the life, properties and rights of US citizens were in danger
  • Cuba was prohibited from negotiating treaties with any country other than the United States “which will impair or to impair the independence of Cuba”.
  • Cuba was prohibited to “permit any foreign power or powers to obtain lodgement in or control over any portion” of Cuba.
  • The Isle of Pines (now called Isla de la Juventud) was deemed outside the boundaries of Cuba until a separate treaty was put in place governing it.
  • The sale or lease to the United States of “lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon.” This isclude the US navel base at Guantánamo Bay.

Faced with no alternative the amendment was approved, by a margin of 4 votes. In the presidential elections that followed, Tomás Estrada Palma, a US citizen still living in the US, was the only candidate. His adversary, Bartolomé Masó withdrew his candidacy in protest claiming the US were manipulating the elections. Palma was elected to be the Republic of Cubas first President. He only returned to Cuba four months after the election and officially took office on 20 May 1902.
[/learn_more] Early Cuban Independence
For the following thirty years Cuba was governed by a series of elected presidents supported by the US until in 1933, when President Gerardo Machado refused to step down at the end of his term. A coalition of radical activists, students, middle-class intellectuals and disgruntled lower-rank soldiers started a revolution that overthrew Machado. The group formed a provisional government, lead by university professor, Dr Ramón Grau San Martín and promised a ‘new Cuba’ with social justice for all classes.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

The autumn of 1933 saw a dramatic series of reforms. The Platt Amendment was abolished, women obtained the right to vote and a minimum wage was established. The government created a ‘Ministry of Labour’ and passed laws stating 50% of all workers in agriculture, commerce and industry had to be Cuban citizens. Cuban peasants were promised legal title to their own land. For the first time Cuba was governed by people that did not agree or negotiate terms of political power with an outside state.
The provisional government survived until January 1934 when it was ousted in a military coup supported by the US and lead by Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar.

Batista appointed himself chief of the armed forces with the rank of colonel, and effectively controlled the five-member Presidency. He maintained this control through a string of puppet presidents until 1940, when he was himself elected President of Cuba. He instated the 1940 ‘Constitution of Cuba’ and served as president until 1944. After finishing his term he lived in the US, returning to Cuba to run for president in 1952. Facing certain electoral defeat, he led a military coup that preempted the election.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

Back in power, Batista suspended the 1940 Constitution and revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. He aligned with the wealthiest landowners who owned the largest sugar plantations and presided over a stagnating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor. His increasingly corrupt and repressive regime then began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba’s commercial interests. He nurtured lucrative relationships with the American mafia, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in Havana and with large multinational American corporations that had invested considerable amounts of money in Cuba.

Growing ever more discontent the Cuban people showed their discontent through demonstrations and student riots. This only to even tighter censorship of the media and more leeway for the secret police to carry out wide-scale violence, torture and public executions. It is estimated up to 20,000 Cuban civilians were killed.

The resistance movement grew in strength and fortitude with Fidel Castro becoming a prominent leader of an urban and rural-based guerrilla uprising against Batista’s regime. From his camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro, his brother Raul and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, an Argentine physician and revolutionary, took the fight to Batista, supported by much of the population.

Realising Batista would eventually lose the war and fearing Castro would displace US interests with socialist reforms, the US government decided to support Batista’s removal in support of a military junta lead by General Cantillo, commander of most of the country’s armed forces. After being approached with this proposal, Cantillo secretly met with Castro and agreed to call a ceasefire, following which Batista would be apprehended and tried as a war criminal.
Double crossing Castro, Cantillo warned Batista of the revolutionary’s intentions. Wishing to avoid a tribunal, Batista resigned on 31 December 1958, informing the armed forces that they were now under Cantillo’s control. Batista fled with his family and closest advisers and an estimated $300 million to the Dominican Republic where he was given sanctuary by dictator Rafael Trujillo. He eventually found political asylum in Portugal where he lived until dying of a heart attack in 1973.

Cantillo entered Havana’s Presidential Palace, proclaimed the Supreme Court judge Carlos Piedra to be the new President and began appointing new members of the government. Furious with Cantillos berayal, Castro went on the offensive culminating in the defeat of the military at the Battle of Santa Clara on New Year’s Day 1959, lead by Che Guevara.
With widespread celebrations as news of Batista’s downfall spread across Cuba on 1 January 1959, Castro ordered the revolutionary movement to take responsibility for policing the country, in order to prevent widespread looting and vandalism. As Ché Guevara tok cntrol of Havana Castro entered Santiago, accepting the surrender of the Moncada Barracks and giving a speech where he spoke out against the Cantillo-Piedra junta, called for justice against human rights abusers and proclaimed a better era for women’s rights. He then headed for Havana and was greeted by cheering crowds at every town, giving press conferences and interviews. Foreign journalists commented on the unprecedented level of public adulation.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

Castro announced that the lawyer Manuel Urrutia Lleó should become president and lead a provisional civilian government. Politically moderate, Urrutia had previously defended the revolutionaries in court. Castro believed Urrutia would make a good leader, being both established yet sympathetic to the revolution. Following the junta’s collapse, Urrutia was proclaimed provisional president with a cabinet mostly made up of members of the revolutonary forces. Castro announced Urrutia had been selected by “popular election”.
On 8th January 1959 Castro’s entered Havana proclaiming himself Representative of the Rebel Armed Forces of the Presidency. Along with close aides and family members he set up home and office in the penthouse of the Havana Hilton Hotel meeting with journalists, foreign visitors and government ministers.
Officially having no role in the provisional government, Castro exercised a great deal of influence, largely because of his overwhelming popularity and control of the rebel army. Ensuring the government implemented policies to cut corruption and fight illiteracy, he did not initially force through any radical proposals. Attempting to rid Cuba’s government of ‘Batistanos’, the Congress elected under Batista was abolished and all those elected in the rigged elections of 1954 and 1958 were banned from politics. The government now ruling by decree, Castro pushed the president to issue a temporary ban on all political parties, but repeatedly claimed that they would get around to organizing multiparty elections, which ultimately it never did. He began meeting members of the Popular Socialist Party, believing they had the intellectual capacity to form a socialist government, but repeatedly denied being a communist.

Popular uproar across Cuba demanded that those involved in the widespread torture and killing of civilians during Batistas rule be brought to justice. Castro helped set-up trials of many Batistanos, resulting in hundreds of executions. The first Havana trial to take place before a mass audience of 17,000 at the Sports Palace stadium accused a number of the airforce of bombing a village. When they were found not guilty, Castro ordered a retrial in which they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Although widely popular domestically, critics in particular from the US press, argued that many of the trials were unfair and condemned Cuba’s government as being more interested in vengeance than justice. Castro retaliated, proclaiming that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction… we are not executing innocent people or political opponents. We are executing murderers and they deserve it.”

Castro travelled to Venezuela meeting President-elect Rómulo Betancourt and proposed greater relations between the two nations. On returning home, a furious Castro discovered the government had banned the National Lottery and closed down the casinos and brothels, leaving thousands of waiters, croupiers and prostitutes unemployed. As a result, Prime Minister José Miró Cardona resigned, going into exile in the US. On February 16, 1959, Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba, accepting the position on the condition that the Prime Minister’s powers be increased.

Between 15th and 26th April Castro visited the US with a delegation of representatives, hiring a public relations firm for a charm offensive and presenting himself as a “man of the people”. He continued on to Canada, Trinidad, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, attending an economic conference in Buenos Aires and unsuccessfully proposing a $30 billion US funded recovry program for Latin America, similar to the Marshall Plan that had been set up at the end of the second world war to help rebuild Europe.

In May 1959 Castro appointed himself president of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform instigated laws to limit land ownership and forbidding further foreign land-ownership. Large land holdings were broken up and redistributed and an estimated 200,000 peasants received title deeds. Whilst generating huge support from the poor and working classes, it alienated many middle-class supporters. Castro then appointed himself president of the National Tourist Industry, introducing unsuccessful measures to encourage African-American tourists to visit, advertising it as a tropical paradise free of racial discrimination.

In further reforms judges and politicians had their pay reduced while low-level civil servants saw theirs raised. Castro ordered rents for those who earned less than $100 a month to be halved, with measures implemented to increase the Cuban people’s purchasing powers. This resulted in a drop in productivity and the country’s financial reserves were drained within two years.

Although refusing to categorize his regime as socialist and denying being a communist, Castro appointed Marxists to senior government and military positions, most notably Che Guevara became Governor of the Central Bank and then Minister of Industries. Appalled, Air Force commander Pedro Luis Díaz Lanz defected to the US. President Urrutia denounced the defection but publicly expressed concern with the rising influence of Marxism. Angered, Castro announced his resignation as Prime Minister, blaming Urrutia for complicating government with his “fevered anti-Communism”. Over 500,000 Castro-supporters surrounded the Presidential Palace demanding Urrutia’s resignation. On 23rd 23 1959, Castro resumed his Premiership and appointed the Marxist Osvaldo Dorticós as the new President.

Castro used radio and television to develop a “dialogue with the people” remaining popular with workers, peasants and students, who constituted the majority of the country’s population, while opposition came primarily from the middle class. Thousands of doctors, engineers and other professionals emigrated to Florida causing an economic brain drain.
These exiles, the CIA and Trujillo’s Dominican government, funded anti-Castro groups who took up arms and set up guerrilla bases in Cuba’s mountain regions, leading to the six-year Escambray Rebellion. With superior numbers the government won executing those who surrendered. They then cracked down on the opposition movement, arresting hundreds of counter-revolutionaries. Although rejecting the methods of physical torture employed by Batista’s regime, Castro’s government sanctioned the use of psychological torture, subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement, rough treatment, and threatening behavior. In January 1960 after editors and journalists had expressed hostility towards the government, Castro announced that each newspaper would be obliged to publish a “clarification” written by the pro-Castro printers union at the end of any articles critical of the government, the beginning of press censorship.

The Cold War
As the Cold War between the US and USSR intensified Castro publically condemned the US and solidified reations with the USSR, sharing much of their ideoligical views. n early 1960 Castro met with Soviet leaders and struck a deal to supply sugar, fruit and other goods in return for oil, fertilizers, industrial goods and a $100 million loan. Castro ordered oil refineries owned by US companies including Shell and ESSO to process the oil and when they refused, Castro re-nationalised the refineries. In retaliation, the US significantly reduced the amount of sugar imported from Cuba, a major blow to the Cuban economy. Castro then started to re-nationalise US owned assets on the island.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

Then in March 1960 a French ship carrying weapons to Cuba purchased from Belgium blew up in Havana harbour. Castro publically blamed the US government although no proof of their involvement was discovered. US President Eisenhower decided enough was enough and authorised the CIA to overthrow Castro’s government. This included allowing the CIA to work with the Mafia, who had lost a fortune after the 1959 revolution when the new Cuban government shut down their businesses in Cuba, to achieve their goal. In October 1960 the US initiated an economic embargo prohibiting the majority of exports to Cuba. This only served to spur Castro on to further re-nationalise more US owned businesses. The US finally ended all sugar imports.

In September 1960 Castro flew to New York to represent Cuba at the United Nations General Assembly. Staying in a run hotel in Harlem rather than the luxury hotel available to him, Castro met with journalists, anti-establishment figures and the Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Whilst Castro still denyed being a socialist or a communist, the relationshop betwee the two leaders was strong.[/learn_more]

Social Reform
Back in Cuba Castro feared a US backed coup and increased spending on weapons to bolster his armed forces doubling its size. He also created a ‘Peoples Militia’ to arm loyal civilians, training at least 50,000 supporters in combat techniques. In September 1960 ‘Committees for the Defense of the Revolution’ were formed. A kind of neighbourhood watch body with the objective of spotting ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ and to support the army if needs be. The committees went on to provide a point of contact for the general public to handle complaints and issues and also organised health and education campaigns across communities. It’s estimated 80% of the Cuban population were involved with a committee at some point.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

Castro proclaimed the new administration was a ‘direct democracy’, in which the Cuban population to communicate directly with government and expres their will and as a result elections were no longer necessary. The US covernment publically condemned the radical chnages happening within Cuba stating that in actual fact powers and freedom were being taken awat=y from the people of Cuba and that it ws clear that Castro was adopting the Soviet model of communist rule – a one-party state, government control of trade unions, suppression of civil liberties, no freedom of speech and a state controlled media.

Castro launched major social programs across Cuba building new schools, colleges, hospitals and health centres and setting up a ‘work-study’ program where half of the students time was spent in a classroom and the other half taking part in a productive activity. Health care was completely nationaised and free medical aid was made available to everyone, including in rural communities that had never had it before. Universal vaccination against childhood diseases was implemented dramatically reducing the infant mortality rate. Castro spent hundreds of millions building new roads, homes and sanitation and whilst the changes won the hearts and minds of the people, financially the economy struggled.[/learn_more]

The Bay of Pigs
In January 1961 diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US finally ended. Castro ordered US embassy staff to leave the country and the US government increased its funding to the CIA to bring down the Cuban government. Cuban dissidents inside Cuba attacked ships trading with Cuba and started a bombing campaign across the country. The CIA funded a private army of Cuban dissidents living outside of Cuba and put an invasion plan in place. The idea was to land a small well trained and heavily armed force at the Bay of Pigs on the south of the island. They would target Castro directly, the belief being that with him out of the way, the rest of the country would quickly submit.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

In April 1961 US air force bombers attacked Cuban military airfields and at night a 1,400 strong force, sailig from Guatemala, landed on beaches in the Bay of Pigs area. They overwhelmed the local militia but soon found them selves up against the full force of the Cuban army leader by Castro himself. Heavily out numbered they surrendered after three days of fighting.

In an effort to discredit the attack and embarrass the US government, Castro ordered the captured soldiers to be interrogated by journalists on live television. The US government denied being involved in the attack stating the air force bombers had been stolen by Cuban dissidents and that the soldiers had not come from America. The idea that US bombers could be stolen and then simply returned a few hours later coupled with testimony from the captured soldiers disproved US claims. A small number of the dissident soldiers went on trial for crimes committed in Cuba previously and the rest were returned to the US in exchange for medical supplies and food.

Whilst Castro’s victory was seen as a great success by Cubans and across Latin America, the attack only served to intensify his fears that a full US invasion was coming. Mass arrests of suspected dissidents and counter-revolutionaries followed with tens of thousands Cuban civilians questioned and many imprisoned. This increased internal opposition in particular amongst the middle classes and many more left for Florida. Castro publically proclaimed ‘What the imperialists cannot forgive us, is that we have made a Socialist revolution under their noses’, the first time he acknowledged his government was socialist.[/learn_more]

Cuban Communism
Castro consolidated socialist groups across Cuba into one single governing party, strengthening relations with the Soviet Union. In December 1961 Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist called on Latin America to rise up in revolution. Cuba was immediately expelled from the ‘Organization of American States’ and whilst Soviet leaders urged cation, Chinese leaders publicly praised Castro. Despite close ties to Chinese ideology, Cuba strengthened its relationship with the USSR and limited its relations with China, needing the Soviet economic and military aid. This gave the Soviets a much greater direct influence on the Cuban governments tactics and behaviour. Political opponents, homosexuals and prostitutes were persecuted, something Castro would later apologise for.

With the economy in decline caused by the social reforms and the US embargo, shortages led to the rationing of food and consumer goods leading to public anger and rioting. Public perception that hard line communism was the cause of their woes lead Castro to shake up his party, removing the hard liners.

The Cuban Missile Crisis
US nuclear weapons in European bases gave the US a clear military advantage over the USSR. In an attempt to level the playing field the Soviets came up with the idea of installing Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba. Believing it would guarantee Cuba’s security, Castro agreed. The plan to secretly ship and install medium range ballistic missiles capable of destroying US cities within minutes of being launched was kept top secret within Cuba with only a few people aware. However on 15th October 1962 US reconnaissance planes discovered the construction of the missile installations, before the missiles had arrived. The US publicly announced its discovery on 22nd October and implemented and island-wide quarantine, stopping and searching all vessels headed to Cuba.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

Castro publicly criticised the US stating Cuba had every right to self-defense and the US had no right to decide what weapons another country help. He privately encouraged Khrushchev to threaten the US should they attack Cuba and with no one willing to back down and Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles well on their way to Cuba, global tensions reached a peak as the world held its collective breath. Never had the prospect of nuclear war been so close.

Neither US President Kennedy or Soviet Premier Khruschev wanted a nuclear war, knowing the devastation it would bring all sides and negotiated terms to end the terrifying stand off. Khruschev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US commitment not to invade Cuba and an understanding that the US would remove their missiles from Turkey and Italy. A furious Castro was left out of the negotiations. He presented a five point plan to the Secretary-General of the United Nations demanding;

  • The US end its embargo
  • The US cease supporting dissidents
  • The US stop violating Cuban air space
  • The US stop violating Cuban territorial waters
  • The US withdraw from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

The US completely ignored the demands and Castro refused to allow UN inspectors into Cuba.

Cuba Isolation
In 1963 whilst visiting Moscow Castro was recognised by Khrushchev and awarded the ‘Order of Lenin’, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union and the first time it had been given to a foreigner. On his return ne continued with his reforms, merging multiple newspapers into one and spending huge amounts of money on sport. He listed restrictions on emigration allowing anyone other than men aged between 15 and 26 to leave the coutry if they wished. It was a simple and clever way to get rid of opponents.[learn_more caption=”read more…”] In 1965 his ‘Integrated Revolutionary Organizations’ was renamed the ‘Cuban Communist Party’ and he increased his efforts to spread an agenda of global revolution funding militant groups across South America and Africa. He allowed revolutionary soldiers from across the globe to come to Cuba for training and sent troops and aid to Algeria to support the socialist regime in their war with French backed Morocco.

Castros increasing role on the work stage, in particular in South America and Africa strained his relationship with the new Soviet Premier Brezhnev. Castro refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, declaring it a US – Soviet plot to dominate the Third World.

In 1968 Castro proclaimed a ‘Great Revolutionary Offensive’, closing all remaining privately owned shops and businesses, denouncing their owners as capitalist counter-revolutionaries.[/learn_more]

Cuba In Decline
For the next 20 years Castros social reforms and hard line rule kept Cuba isolated form the rest of the world, seeing the population struggle and the global community become more and more critical of his regime.
In the 1980s desparate Cubans demanded change and begged other nations to grant them asylum. Castro agreed to allow those that wantd to leave to go the result of which was a mass exodus of over 120,000 people. The US said it would accept 3,500 refugees and sent a flotilla of boats to pick people up. Castro took advantage of the situation by unloading criminals and the mentally ill onto the boats destined for Florida.[learn_more caption=”read more…”]

When Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 he initiated reforms designed to increase freedom for his citizens and at teh same time reduced his support fr Cuba, eventually ending all subsidies in 1989.

In the 1990’s with the economy flat lining shortages worse tn a ever before petrol rations were dramatically reduced, bicycles were imported from China to replace cars and no essential factories wee shut. Oxen began to replace tractors and firewood began being used for cooking following cuts in electricity lasting 16 hours a day.

In December 2001 the Soviet Union was officially dismantled and the new leader Boris Yeltsin, no friend of Castro, developed links with anti Castro groups in the US. Throughout the decade Cuba’s economy declined further but then in the early 21st century Venezuela offered a much need economic lifeline. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a democratic socialist, re-nationalised the vast Venezuelan oil industry and agreed trade deals with Cuba that gave a real boost.[/learn_more]

Whilst the economy is much stronger than during the 80s and 90s, Cuba is a relatively poor country with regards to the money spent on its infrastructure. Whilst it is still a one party state its reluctance to accept and embrace relations with nations that have a different political persuasion has reduced.

Tourism has flourished in the last decade with restrictions on the parts of the island that tourists are allowed to stay being removed. Tourism is now the largest industry in Cuba and dropping restrictions on international investment has meant an increase in property and businesses that and privately owned. Tourism has brought jobs and more security for the Cuban people and offers an interaction with people from other countries that was gone for so long.

Throughout Cuba’s turbulent history and despite the struggles they have endured, Cubans have remained a proud and passionate people with a love of life and a welcoming nature. The future of Cuba is bright and the freedoms that people are starting to enjoy will only help develop the country further.

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