Cuba - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Cuba: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Cuba, largest and westernmost island of the West Indies. It forms, with various adjacent islands, the Republic of Cuba. Cuba occupies a central location between North and South America and lies on the lanes of sea travel to all countries bounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. For most of its history, Cuba’s fertile soil and abundant sugar and tobacco production made it the wealthiest island of the Caribbean.

The Republic of Cuba is an archipelago, or group of islands, consisting of the main island (named Cuba); Isla de la Juventud, the second largest island; and numerous other islands. Havana is the capital city with a population of 2,168,255 in 2007. In 2009 the nation’s population was estimated to be 11,451,652.

Cuba’s proximity to Haiti, the United States, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and Jamaica has allowed people to migrate easily onto and off of the island. This movement contributed to the rich mixture of people and customs in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean area. Although agriculturally rich, Cuba exports only a few products, such as sugar, tobacco, citrus fruits, and several manufactured products.

Cuba’s rich soil, abundant harbors, and mineral reserves enticed foreign powers such as Spain, the United States, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to use Cuba for their own interests for many years. For 400 years Cuba was a colony of Spain. Spain’s conquistadores (Spanish for “conquerors”) launched their invasion of Mexico and South America from the island. In the mid-19th century, the Cuban people formed an independence movement, decades after most of Spain’s other colonies had become independent. By 1868 Cubans began to fight the first of three wars of independence. In 1898 the United States entered the war against Spain and declared Cuba independent but under the protection of the United States.

In 1902 Cubans began to rule themselves, although U.S. influence remained strong on the island. The United States still operates a naval base at Guantánamo Bay on Cuban territory under agreements dating back to 1903. Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, the Cuban government functioned under a series of corrupt presidents and dictators. Beginning in 1934 army officer Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar governed either directly or indirectly as a military strong man, a civilian president, and a military dictator. By the mid-1950s many Cubans opposed the corruption and political repression that developed under Batista’s dictatorship. Opposition to Batista developed into a revolt known as the Cuban Revolution.

In 1959 Fidel Castro and a number of other revolutionaries, including his brother Raúl Castro, overthrew the Batista government. From that time until 2008, Fidel Castro was the head of state and the ultimate authority on all policy decisions. In the 1960s Castro split with the United States and became an ally of the USSR, then the world’s leading Communist nation. In 1961 Castro formally embraced Marxism-Leninism, the political philosophy that forms the basis for communism.

Cuba adopted the form of Marxism that had been practiced up to that time in the USSR, where a highly organized Communist Party controlled the government. Cuba has since been governed according to socialist economic and political principles, with a centralized economy and a government under the control of the Cuban Communist Party. Under socialism, individual freedoms were sacrificed for the social advancement of all Cubans. In addition, religion was discouraged, although not forbidden, so that the allegiance of citizens would belong solely to the state. However, Cuban socialism could not and did not directly mimic the Soviet model because Cuban history and culture were entirely different from that of Eastern European nations. Governing offices and agencies were similar, but in Cuba, Castro personally retained ultimate control over the Communist Party, all governing bodies, and the military until he resigned as president of Cuba in 2008 and was succeeded by his brother Raúl. Although no longer president, Fidel remained the head of the Cuban Communist Party.


The main island of Cuba covers 105,006 sq km (40,543 sq mi). It is 1,199 km (745 mi) long and 200 km (124 mi) across its widest and 35 km (22 mi) across its narrowest points. Isla de la Juventud, or the Isle of Youth (formerly known as Isla de los Pinos or the Isle of Pines), off Cuba’s southwest shore, covers 3,056 sq km (1,180 sq mi). Four sets of smaller archipelagos—the Sabana, the Colorados, the Jardines de la Reina, and the Canarreos—and numerous other islands make up the rest of the republic.

Three-quarters of Cuba’s land area is fertile, rolling country consisting of plains and basins with sufficient naturally occurring water to allow for intensive cultivation. The soil mostly consists of red clay with some sand and limestone hills. Cuba is unique among the Caribbean islands because so much of its land area is arable and accessible to harbors. The access to harbors enables Cubans to transport agricultural products easily for shipment to foreign markets.

Cuba has three major mountain ranges. In the west the Sierra de los Órganos range rises to the height of 800 m (2,500 ft) above sea level. In the south central region, the Sierra de Trinidad, or the Escambray mountains, tower 1,150 m (3,800 ft) above sea level and overlook the colonial city of Trinidad. In the east, Cuba’s tallest mountains are in the Sierra Maestra, topped by Real de Turquino peak at 2,005 m (6,578 ft) above sea level. The Sierra Maestra soar near the Caribbean’s Windward Passage, a strip of water that separates Cuba and Haiti.

Cuba has several other prominent mountains and hills. Lying north of the Sierra Maestra are the Baracoa Highlands, which climb to 1,230 m (4,050 ft) above sea level. In the far western end of the island are large, haystack-shaped eruptions called mogotes in Spanish. These unique hills form the Sierra de los Órganos, which rise steeply from flat, lush valleys to heights of more than 300 m (1,000 ft).

Cuba’s 3,735-km (2,321-mi) coastline has deep harbors, coral islands, and white, sandy beaches to the north. On the southern shore are coral islands, reefs, and swamps. The largest harbors are Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Nuevitas, Guantánamo, and Santiago de Cuba. Since the arrival of European explorers in 1492, Cuba’s harbors have served transatlantic fleets in trade, ship repair, and naval defense.

Rivers and Lakes in Cuba

Of Cuba’s 200 rivers, only 2 are navigable. The Cauto, located in the southeast and 343 km (213 mi) long, provides only 120 km (75 mi) of transport waterway. The Sagua la Grande, in central Cuba, is large enough to provide hydroelectric power and is navigable for short stretches. Several waterfalls throughout the island provide small amounts of hydroelectric power. The rest of the rivers are small and shallow, but several are internationally known for their trophy-sized fish.

Plant and Animal Life in Cuba

Cuba has a wide variety of tropical vegetation. Cuba’s varied habitats enable more than 3,000 species of tropical fruits and flowers to grow on the island. Extensive tracts of land in the eastern portion of the island are densely forested. The predominant species of trees are palms, of which Cuba has more than 30 types, including royal palms. Other indigenous plants are mahogany, ebony, lignum vitae, cottonwood, logwood, rosewood, cedar pine, majagua (a member of the hibiscus family), granadilla, jagüey, tobacco, papaya trees, and the ceiba, which is the national tree.

Only two land mammals, the hutia, or cane rat, and the solenodon, a rare insectivore that resembles a rat, are known to be indigenous. The island has numerous bats and nearly 300 kinds of birds, including vultures, wild turkeys, quail, finches, gulls, macaws, parakeets, and hummingbirds. The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world. Among the few reptiles are tortoises, caimans, the Cuban crocodile, 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 (see Halfbeak), robalo, ronco, eel, mangua, and tuna. Numerous species of insects exist. Of these, the most harmful are the chigoe, a type of flea, and the Anopheles mosquito, bearer of the malaria parasite.

Natural Resources of Cuba

The land and climate of Cuba favor agriculture, and some 28 percent of the land is cultivated. Only about one-fifth of the island is still forested. The country also has significant mineral reserves. The nickel mines located in northeastern Cuba are the most important reserves, along with deposits of chromium, copper, iron, and manganese. Reserves of sulfur, cobalt, pyrites, gypsum, asbestos, petroleum, salt, sand, clay, and limestone are also exploited. All subsurface deposits are the property of the government.

Climate in Cuba

Cuba’s geographical expanse and the varieties of mountain ranges, savannas, caves, swamps, beaches, and tropical rain forests produce microclimates, small regions that exhibit differing temperatures, rainfalls, soil conditions, wildlife, and vegetation. The climate of Cuba is semitropical, the mean annual temperature being 25°C (77°F). The temperature ranges from an average of 23°C (73°F) in January to an average of 28°C (82°F) in August. The heat and high relative humidity (80 percent) of the summer season are tempered by the prevailing northeasterly trade winds. The annual rainfall averages 1,320 mm (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 traversed occasionally by violent tropical hurricanes during August, September, and October.

Environmental Issues in Cuba

Some of Cuba’s indigenous plants and animals are threatened. Over the years, sugar has been Cuba’s main export, and native plants have been cleared for sugarcane. For example, more than 30 different kinds of bananas grew on the island before 1959, but most of the banana trees have been replaced by sugarcane. Pests and diseases introduced from abroad, particularly the blue mold fungus and swine flu, have affected the island’s crops and animals. Coastal pollution and excessive hunting also present severe threats to wildlife populations. Cuba experiences little air pollution because sea breezes move airborne pollution off the island.

Although Cuba was once almost entirely forested, by the late 1950s only 14 percent of the country remained under forest cover. As a result of reforestation efforts, this figure had risen to 24.5 percent by 2005. Reforestation efforts are still under way. Deforestation and agriculture contribute to soil erosion, another environmental challenge in Cuba. Agriculture is vital to Cuba’s economy. Cuba’s integrated pest management program, an alternative to pesticide use, has made environmental gains while maintaining agricultural output and reducing costs.


The Cuban population has grown slowly and consistently, from 7,027,210 people in 1960 to 11,451,652 in 2009. However, population growth was affected by emigration, especially between 1959 and 1964 when about 1 million Cubans left following the Cuban Revolution. The early flood of emigrants belonged largely to the professional classes. As a result, the revolutionary government was left with the task of filling their positions with recent graduates from socialist schools and with foreign advisers. Subsequent waves of emigrants belonged to all levels of professions, from the least powerful to high-ranking officers. In 1980 the government allowed another 120,000 Cubans to depart. Since 1994 the U.S. State Department and Cuba’s Foreign Ministry have agreed to allow 20,000 Cubans to emigrate to the United States per year.

Since 1959 Cuba’s birth rate has slowed, partially due to the availability of contraceptives (see Birth Control) and abortion. The death rate has also declined due to improved health facilities and their distribution throughout the island. In 2005, 76 percent of the population was urban, concentrating in the capital, Havana (2,168,255 people, 2007 estimate), and in Santiago de Cuba (494,430 people, 2007 estimate).

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Cuba

The Spanish conquest eliminated the indigenous people in Cuba but introduced enslaved Africans from the Congo, Guinea, and Nigeria. In the 19th century, Chinese laborers joined the working class. In the 20th century immigrants from the United States, Spain, and the USSR added to the ethnic mix. In 2000, mulattoes (people of mixed white and black ancestry) made up 51 percent of the population, whites 37 percent, and blacks 11 percent. Almost all of the inhabitants of Cuba were born there. Since 1959 racial distinctions have blurred as the Castro government has worked to eliminate race and class prejudices.

The official language of Cuba is Spanish, but immigration has left pockets of Haitians and Jamaicans in Cuba who speak French-based and English-based creoles (hybrid languages created by the mixture of European and African languages). Both English and Russian are spoken and understood in major cities.

Social Structure of Cuba

Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba had sharp class divisions. The largest class was made up of peasants, who could barely support their families on the small plots of land they farmed. At the opposite end of the social scale was a handful of sugar mill owners, who enjoyed all the advantages of great wealth. Unlike most other Latin American countries, however, Cuba had a substantial middle class of lawyers, doctors, social workers, and other professionals. Industrial workers organized into very active unions, and they had a higher living standard than many workers in other Latin American countries. There was also a large group of fairly prosperous colonos, sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who grew sugarcane for the large mills under government protection. While Cuba’s social hierarchy allowed for some racial fluidity, the vast number of the poor and uneducated were people of color. The poorest were women of color.

Under the government of Fidel Castro, class divisions and social differentiations, such as elite education and membership in country clubs, disappeared. More equitable salaries, guaranteed housing, nationalized medicine and education, and employment for all leveled the social and economic hierarchy formed between 1902 and 1958. In protest, middle- and upper-class professionals left Cuba in large numbers between 1959 and 1962, which hastened the advent of a more socially level society. The income gap between peasants and urban workers narrowed as the government controlled wages and prices, and rationed commodities. After 1959, the highest-paid professionals, such as physicians who both practiced medicine and taught in universities, earned around 750 pesos per month, while unskilled laborers earned around 100 pesos per month. Prior to the revolution, successful sugar and tobacco growers were millionaires, while workers in their fields barely earned 160 pesos per month, and female domestic servants earned under half that amount.

However, the Cuban revolution did not eradicate all forms of privilege. Under the Castro government, people involved in the government, military, and the Communist Party formed a new privileged group. Although their salaries were maintained at a moderate level, they had access to better hospitals, homes, cars, and commodities.

Cuba’s success in creating a more even distribution of wealth became skewed when the government briefly loosened economic restrictions during the late 1970s. The government loosened restrictions again in the 1990s when it reintroduced small private enterprises and allowed Cubans to possess and spend U.S. dollars, which previously had been illegal in Cuba. Differences in wealth then became more noticeable, as some Cubans could purchase a wide variety of goods at special stores that accepted only dollars. Luxury items were also more accessible to citizens with dollars.

Religion in Cuba

It is difficult to accurately assess religious affiliation and political ideology in Cuba. Before the revolution, Cuba was a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, although a fairly sizeable proportion of the people were Roman Catholic in name alone and no longer practiced their religion regularly. The revolutionary government has wavered on religion’s official position in Cuba. Beginning in the 1960s, the government harshly condemned and deported many Catholic officials. The government rarely gave attractive career appointments or promotions to Catholics who continued attending church. In addition, the government often imprisoned and imposed social sanctions on those Catholics who actively opposed government policy on religious matters.

During the 1980s, however, the government’s position changed somewhat, allowing the faithful to worship without penalty. In 1998, at the invitation of Castro, Pope John Paul II paid a four-day visit to Cuba. During his trip, the Pope encouraged the spread of Christianity. He challenged Marxist ideology as the dominant belief system in Cuba by encouraging people to put their faith in Catholicism and not in secular ideology.

A significant portion of the population, including some who profess Catholicism and others who are high officials of the government, practice Santería, a mixture of Catholicism and African religions. The Castro government has attempted to accommodate this religion, allowing Santería priests, known as babalaos, to hold parades and sell their predictions to foreigners in designated temples. Many Cubans see no conflict in being a Catholic, a believer in Santería, and a Marxist. About 30 percent of the population professes no religious faith, officially classifying themselves as Marxists.

Education in Cuba

The government controls the educational system and provides education for essentially all Cuban children. School attendance is compulsory for children ages 6 through 14, and Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, claiming 100 percent adult literacy, compared to only 54 percent in 1952. Estimates are that virtually all eligible children attend the first six years of school.

Castro’s government attempted to narrow the gap between the educated and uneducated by allowing all children to attend school free of charge and by sending literacy brigades throughout the country during the early 1960s. These brigades, composed of teachers and trained students, taught reading and writing to Cubans in remote regions of the country that previously had no schools. As a result of their work, Cuba’s literacy rate increased dramatically.

Adults may attend basic education courses. High-level courses are offered to college graduates in specialty majors such as business, medicine, nursing, and technical engineering. Membership in the Young Communist League or the Cuban Communist Party is an important determinant of student enrollment in one of the three universities and the dozens of polytechnic schools. The University of Havana is the preeminent university, but the University of Santa Clara and the University of Santiago de Cuba are also highly regarded.

The curriculum in primary and secondary schools is based upon Marxist-Leninist principles that honor collective work and that identify capitalism as an opposing world organization. Instruction on public health, elementary education, cooking, moral standards, and revolutionary loyalty are transmitted through television and radio. These programs are strictly controlled by the Cuban Communist Party and are used to communicate national, international, and political information.

Health and Social Services in Cuba

The quality of Cuban medical services was highly esteemed before 1959, but health services for the majority of the population were limited. Since 1959 the government has extended health services throughout the island, using neighborhood polyclinics for minor ailments and hospitals for treatment of serious injuries and illnesses. Health education is communicated in school and through the media. Sophisticated medical procedures are not available to everyone, leaving those who know important officials in better positions to receive advanced care than those without such connections. In addition, the trade embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba since the early 1960s has made it difficult for the country to receive medicines. The social security system provides for retirement, work disabilities, unemployment compensation, maternity care, and child-care centers.

Way of Life in Cuba

Prior to 1959 Cuba had a weak democratic political system, a capitalist economy dependent on trade with the United States, and a nominally Catholic society. The revolution replaced those traditions with socialist values, including a strong central government with indirect citizen participation in policy decisions, a centrally controlled economy, and a secular society that discouraged the practice of religion.

Since 1959 families have been both aided and hindered by revolutionary provisions and demands. In 1975 the Family Code described the roles of each family member, maintaining that parents are obliged to support their children, whether the parents were married or not. No child in Cuba is considered illegitimate. Men and women are mutually responsible for the maintenance of the home. Gender and racial discrimination is illegal, although individual prejudices continue, and male dominance remains a tradition that has been hard to change.

For the first 30 years after the revolution, all Cubans who wanted to work were able to do so. Women who remained at home with families were not considered as revolutionary as those who worked, since making an extra effort to produce commodities for economic development in addition to maintaining a home and caring for a family was seen as evidence of revolutionary loyalty. Children of working couples could attend day-care centers of generally high quality. Women were guaranteed a living wage whether they worked or not, so they did not have to remain married out of financial considerations.

After 1990, when Soviet aid sharply declined, shortages of fuel and consumer goods altered daily work patterns. Transportation was difficult at best and at times impossible. The black market, in which items are sold illegally to bypass government controls, provided necessary subsistence products no longer available through government rationing or in the local stores. Often one member of a family devoted his or her time to resolving problems of food, clothing, and extremely scarce luxury items.

The government made some policy changes in an attempt to relieve economic hardships. Since 1994 food shortages have been resolved by permitting paladares, in-house restaurants, to serve the paying public. Farmers’ markets, in which people with small farms sold food for profit, opened to bring scarce produce into the cities. The government also allowed small private businesses, such as bicycle repair shops, beauty salons, and car repair garages. However, it was reluctant to allow the widespread development of private businesses. To cut down on the explosion of private enterprises, the government began a harsh taxation system, and it required that every business produce bills of sale for all items acquired to run the business. As a result, most of these businesses have closed or opted to operate illegally.

Cuba attempted to address a number of its needs through minibrigades of citizens offering voluntary labor. Volunteer construction teams erected public buildings and took care of the sanitation system when regular workers were overburdened. People from all sectors of society—managers as well as common laborers—shared in the heavy physical work required to build and maintain the industrial and agricultural infrastructure. Voluntary work was intended both to construct more buildings and to elicit respect in the population for all manners of work, including manual labor. However, these minibrigades were not enough. For example, they were unable to construct enough residential buildings in urban and rural areas to meet the housing demands that emerged throughout the revolutionary period.

Public entertainment is open to everyone except when it is reserved for foreigners in special areas set aside for tourism. Cubans are avid sports enthusiasts, especially for baseball, track-and-field events, volleyball, basketball, and swimming. Athletic fields are open to everyone, but few Cubans have the equipment required for play. Children often play baseball with sticks and rocks. Musical groups of all quality levels travel the island playing for people in urban and rural settings.


The Cuban people began articulating nationalist ideas in literature, art, and music during the 19th century. European colonists in Cuba did not develop an independent culture earlier because the island was only a shipping and military outpost and not a great administrative or mining center while part of the Spanish Empire. Early Cuban authors of importance, such as 19th century writers María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, better known as La Condesa de Merlín, and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, lived and wrote in Spain rather than in their homeland. The influences of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the American Revolution (1775-1783) awoke Cubans to the possibilities of social and economic change, and stimulated intellectuals to become involved in nationalist and independence movements.

Romanticism, an artistic and literary movement stressing freedom of expression and a reliance on imagination, first appeared in Cuba in the early 19th century with the early poetry of José María de Heredia. Cuban romanticism was the genesis of national patriotism, but Spain’s repression of free speech and artistic expression forced nationalistic romanticism to focus on the beauty of nature and the spirituality of the people rather than on political freedoms. Later in his career Heredia joined the Parnassian school, a reaction against romanticism. Artists of this school focused on technical perfection and an impersonal attitude in their art. Heredia’s poetry straddled these two literary movements. Many artists and thinkers of the romantic period were influenced by Father Felix Varela y Morales, a professor at the Seminary of San Carlos in Havana. Originally a supporter of Spain’s constitutional monarchy and limited self-government in the colonies, he later became an advocate of complete independence from Spain.

Submovements within romanticism were introduced by writers such as Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (known as Plácido) and Juan Francisco Manzano, a former slave. They illustrated the unique facets of Cuban national characteristics through submovements within romanticism such as costumbrismo, an art form that satirized social types within Cuban society, particularly the mulattoes. Other social types were portrayed in criollismo and siboneyismo, which dealt with the daily lives of Creoles and Native Americans, respectively.

In the last half of the 19th century, a second period of romanticism began as artists were seized by the idea of Cuban independence from Spain. Writing moved from caricatures of Cuban society, nature, and regional language styles to elegant writing and literary imaging. Cuban romanticism differed from European romanticism in several important aspects. It emphasized racial complexity rather than the exaltation of upper-class individualism. Cuban romanticism expressed a positive attitude toward life, whereas European romanticism often exhibited heavy undertones of melancholy and a fascination with self-destructive tendencies. While contemporary European artists often dealt with the subject of nature and the simplicity of rural life, the hope of national sovereignty remained the central theme running through Cuba’s romantic movement.

Modernism coincided with romanticism at the end of the 19th century and ultimately replaced it in the 20th century. Modernism is an artistic movement characterized by a concentration on art for art’s sake, or by emphasis on the beauty of structure in language and art. Cuban modernism was short-lived and pertained to only a few artists, including writer and revolutionary José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, and poet Julian del Casal. Cuban modernism gained influence at the same time that U.S. citizens were investing in Cuba, which opened Cuban writers to increased contact with foreign literature. This was a period when calls for political, economic, and cultural change appeared in all literary genres. This era gave way to postmodernism within the first decade of independence.

Postmodernism emerged in 1909, just after the first democratically elected presidential term ended with U.S. military occupation. Corruption, economic ineffectiveness, and full dependence upon the United States undermined the ability of any government to control state matters peacefully. People of different political persuasions agreed that the renovation of past ideas about independence and sovereignty was necessary. Many postmodernists advocated specific political resolutions to Cuba’s postindependence confusion, and some sought authentic cultural expression in a blend of African and Spanish language and visual design.

In 1923 leftist activists began organizing against government corruption. Broader democratic participation and social justice for all Cubans were demanded by protest groups, such as the University Student Union, the First National Congress of Students, the First National Women’s Congress, the Protest of the Thirteen, the Grupo Minorista, and the Universidad Popular José Martí. The Grupo Minorista, an informal association of writers and artists, was the forerunner of the literary vanguard movement that unified between 1927 and 1933 against President Gerardo Machado’s illegitimate government. As a movement, Cuban vanguardism brushed aside established styles through disruptive or unconventional techniques. Vanguardists were characterized by a mixture of modern artistic movements. The political nature of their movement was, however, the tool of their destruction. Between 1934 and 1958, vanguardism dissolved into various political factions as former allies became bitter enemies over a variety of political issues affecting Cuba’s future.

Following the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s artistic freedom came to an end. The new government selected writers and artists to publish and create as long as they did not obviously criticize the government. Government efforts to control artistic expression isolated Cuban artists and thinkers from the bold, antiestablishment artistic movements in the United States and Europe. People such as writer Juan Marinello spent their energies running literary organizations supportive of socialist ideals rather than creating. A number of Cuba’s liberals and progressives, such as painter Jorge Camacho, went into exile in protest. Camacho and other Cuban painters went to France in 1959 on a grant from the Cuban government. Camacho became disillusioned with the Cuban Revolution when Castro supported the Soviet Union’s crackdown on Czechoslovakia in 1968 following Czechoslovakia’s Communist government’s experimentation with reforms (Prague Spring). Even Communist novelist Alejo Carpentier published his prorevolutionary pieces from Paris. Occasional purges of artists occurred, the most famous case being that of Heberto Padilla, a poet who won a prize in 1968 for his collected poetry entitled Fuera del juego. He was forced to leave Cuba in 1969 for the suggestions in those poems that the revolution limited human freedom. Entire colonies of Cuban artists live in exile, particularly in Mexico, Spain, and the United States, because their work criticized the revolution.

New generations of Cuban artists born after 1959 began to present mature works in the 1980s. After 1975 some leniency allowed artists and writers to take up nonrevolutionary themes, as long as the government did not come under criticism. Young writers and artists did not showcase overt political critiques, but looked inward to describe the psychological anguish of a revolution in crisis. The Novísimos, as the writers of the 1990s were known, distanced themselves from the revolution and often parodied communist lifestyles.

Only a few intrepid intellectuals have dared to direct their accusations at the government. Exile was the only alternative for dissenters, and some people chose to leave Cuba rather than limit the expression of their frustration. Poet María Elena Cruz Varela, who pointed out that Castro’s restrictions made Cubans all the more vulnerable to capitalist influences, was forced to eat the paper upon which her poems were written in a public act of repudiation. She was also imprisoned for two years for sedition between 1992 and 1994.

Literature in Cuba

In the last decades of the 19th century, two great romantic poets, Manuel de Zequeira y Arango and Manuel Justo Rubalcava, explored Cuba’s natural beauty. Romanticism stimulated thinking about national independence. Writers such as José María Heredia, José Jacinto Milanes, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Cirilo Villaverde, Joaquín Lorenzo Luaces, Juan Clemente Zenea, and José Antonio Saco lived in exile because of their militancy in favor of independence. All created visions of an independent nation and sovereign people in their works, although each came from different perspectives. Both Heredia and Avellaneda attacked the institution of slavery and proposed that the success of an independent Cuba rested on educating women and former slaves. Villaverde depicted the vanity and social climbing intentions of the mulatto population. Saco insisted that Afro-Cubans had to be held at the base of the social ladder because he believed they were not capable of governing or participating in the functions of an ordered society.

From 1880 to 1910 the modernist movement was led by writers José Martí, Julian del Casal, Juana Borrero, and José Manuel Poveda. Originally a romantic poet, Martí is said to have initiated modernism in Cuba with his 1882 collection of poetry entitled Ismaelillo. His work, like that of his romantic contemporaries, presented nationalist ideals, but it surpassed their arguments with the power of its sentiment expressed through artistic reference to colors, the physical senses, and emotion. Besides his poetry, Martí was a journalist who wrote for Latin American newspapers. He was also one of the most articulate organizers for Cuban independence from Spain.

Particularly dynamic were writers from eastern Cuba who were completely disenchanted with Havana’s mediocre political society and uninspiring, self-serving writers. In 1913 a group of writers in Oriente province issued a manifesto announcing their determination to bring life to the nationalist spirit that represented the passion of the Cuban people and their rejection of the sterile, formal, and dogmatic sentimentality they felt characterized Havana’s literary leadership. Most notable among the Oriente dissenters were José Manuel Poveda, Regino E. Boti, Agustín Acosta, Medardo Vitier, Hilarión Cabrisas, and Miguel Carrión.

The avant-garde movement began in 1923 with the formation of El Grupo Minorista, a group of young intellectuals who published their ideas in the magazine La Revista de Avance, first published in 1927. In 1944 the poet José Lezama Lima founded Orígenes, one of the most important literary and artistic magazines in Cuba and the Americas. It presented developing art in Europe and the Americas, and it conducted a dialogue among artists about artistic expression. Orígenes placed Cuban artists among the world’s most renowned writers, painters, philosophers, and composers. It also drew Cuban attention away from its own situation and struck a connection with the rest of the art world.

After the 1959 revolution, the Lunes de Revolución was the main publication for emerging writers. Criticizing previous generations for their middle- and upper-class affiliations, it invited writers and artists to introduce new themes, such as race and class divisions. The publication presented art and literature that reflected the social, economic, and political realities of life. At the same time, the editors rejected any suggestion that they were socialists or political activists of any bent.

After 1961 the revolution’s leadership was more secure, but the test of whether Castro could implement profound reforms was in question. Censorship curtailed artistic expression and supported prorevolutionary works. Writers who remained in Cuba faced government intolerance of any nonrevolutionary or counterrevolutionary ideas in literature. Nicolás Guillén, a well-known black poet, channeled his talents toward promoting greater revolutionary ideals such as racial and social integration.

Many leading writers in Cuba left for exile so that they could develop their thoughts freely. Among those who left were novelist, film critic, and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who went to London in 1965 and consistently published works critical of the revolution. Reinaldo Arenas worked at Cuba’s José Martí National Library and the Casa de las Américas, the nation’s most recognized publishing house, while he wrote poetry and novels. In 1980 he left Cuba and settled in New York City. His last book, Antes que anochezca (1993, translation Before Night Falls, 1993) is an autobiography that unmasks the revolution’s treatment of homosexuals and critical intellectuals. Cuban writers who chose exile had to overcome the difficulties of expressing themselves in foreign cultures and languages. Latin American Literature.

Art in Cuba

Cuban painting began in earnest in the 18th century with such artists as José Nicolás de la Escalera and Vicente Escobar. Late 18th- and early 19th-century artists were influenced by newly developed European and American printing techniques in lithography, a process that reproduced paintings cheaply. Suddenly the middle class was able to afford art, and artists created works for a new audience. Costumbrismo, an art form that satirized social types within Cuban society, was particularly popular beginning in the 1840s and 1850s. Victor Patricio de Landaluze, a painter and cartoonist, is the most recognized artist of this type. His oil paintings and watercolors stereotype the farmer, landowner, slave, and Afro-Cuban santeros (religious practitioners). Romantic landscape painting also characterized this period and idealized nationalism not in political terms but in an attachment to the island’s natural habitat.

With the introduction of European avant-garde styles in the 1920s and 1930s, a new generation of painters, such as Victor Manuel, Eduardo Abela, and Carlos Enríquez, concerned themselves with black and mulatto components of Cuban society. Their interests complemented anthropologist Fernando Ortíz’s argument that Afro-Cuban culture formed the distinguishing aspect of Cuban identity. Other painters, such as Fidelio Ponce de Leon or Aristides Fernández, followed a different path by depicting certain dramatic or religious aspects of the human condition. Post-1930s painters such as Amelia Pelaez, Rene Portocarrero, and Mariano Rodríguez were linked to the literary group of Origenes and depicted modern, abstract variations of typically Cuban architecture features, such as domestic interiors, stained glass windows, and church facades.

During the 1950s a new group of painters, known as El Grupo de los 11, challenged the aesthetics of the former masters by introducing the abstract tendency with emphasis on geometric form and color rather than realism. Wifredo Lam worked most of his life in Paris and was influenced by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, but he returned to Cuba in 1966 after the revolution to become a master teacher. His works incorporated surrealism while often featuring Afro-Cuban images.

After the 1959 revolution a number of painters left Cuba and established themselves mainly in Madrid and Paris. However, younger generations of artists both in Cuba and in exile introduced new and exciting dimensions to Cuban art. Between 1960 and 1980 much of Cuban art, particularly poster art, portrayed positive images of the revolution. Artists used simple materials to compose images of heroic sacrifice and military battles that brought socialism to the Americas and the world.

In the 1980s, as the problems of the revolutionary experiment became increasingly clear to most Cubans, a generation of artists in the island produced blatant criticism of the government. Their works derided incompetence, corruption, and hopelessness, and they even depicted scenes of torture, escape, and suicide. Many of these artists eventually chose exile over remaining in Cuba. More recently Cuban art often reflected individual responses to isolation and frustration as well as the difficulties of daily life, which was a less theoretical, but no less serious, denunciation of the government.

Architecture in Cuba

Cuba has an architectural tradition dating back to colonial days. Some of Cuba’s most important buildings were constructed as early as the 16th century. The fortresses of El Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1560) and the famous Morro de la Habana (1590, known in English as Morro Castle) introduced the baroque style prevalent in Spain at that time, characterized by massive structures and large windows accented with iron filigree.

Moreover, major cities such as Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas, and Trinidad were built following the 1573 Ordinances of Philip II. These regulations, issued by the Spanish king, required a cathedral, the administrative office buildings, and a governor’s palace to occupy the four sides of a city’s central plaza. Cities were laid out in a grid that expanded as the urban population grew. Homes, churches, and some public buildings added the stained glass windows of Arabic origin that gave Cuban architecture its specific character.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the cities grew, giving rise to the fortress of El Morro de Santiago de Cuba (1633), the Cathedral of Havana (1787-1811), Santa Clara and San Agustín convents in Havana (17th century), Santa María Rosario church (1779), and The Plaza de Armas of Havana (1772). The romantic buildings of the 19th century followed the same traditions established in the early colonial period. In the mid-20th century, Cuban architecture took on the daring attributes of several new internationalist styles, particularly that of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, whose works blended neo-gothic, art nouveau, and surrealist influences. Residences in Havana’s Miramar and Siboney neighborhoods exhibit these traits while retaining an open air, tropical ambiance.

After the revolution, architecture followed a single, utilitarian path, with new buildings constructed to be practical and economical. Most architectural structures built after 1959 were apartment cities in suburban areas and in the countryside intended to house the poor and professionals who did not have homes. The architecture rarely varied from the prescribed Soviet styles. An apartment building in the Soviet style, usually three stories high, consists of units with up to three bedrooms and one bath, a tiny kitchen, and a laundry balcony. These rectangular apartment buildings were built with concrete blocks, and pressed marble was used for the floors. Revolutionary-era school buildings also followed the heavy, utilitarian, Soviet model that makes a distinctive landmark among the more tropical and colonial buildings that were built before 1959.

Music and Dance in Cuba

Cuba has been recognized by the international community for the richness and variety of its popular music. Spanish Andalusian, French, and African music have created a special blend of rhythms and melodies that constitute the Cuban trademark in such musical forms as the contradanzas, danzón, son, chachachá, rumba/guaguanco, and salsa.

Church music was the first composed music native to Cuba. Seventeenth-century composer Esteban de Salas, a choirmaster in Santiago de Cuba, used European styles for his motets, masses, and psalms.

In the 19th century, composers Nicolás de Espadero, Ignacio Cervantes, and Manuel Saumell had their works performed in the Teatro de Tacón, a theater usually reserved for the elite Spanish society. Two black violinists, José White (also an important composer) and Brindis de Salas, played in almost every important concert hall in the world.

The 20th century witnessed a renewal of classical compositions with strong African strains. During the 1920s Amadeo Roldán was the first modern composer to insert Afro-Cuban percussion instruments into symphonic music. Cuba’s foremost conservatory, the Conservatorio Municipal Amadeo Roldán, founded in 1935, bore his name. Roldán and García Cartula were two composers of the Grupo Renovación that in the 1920s through the 1930s introduced African melodies into symphonic music. At about the same time, composer Alejandro García Caturla also experimented with Afro-Cuban instruments and added Cuban country music into some of his works. A generation later Juan Blanco and Leo Brower were recognized as Cuba’s leading composers.

Cuba is one of the most influential sources of Caribbean popular music. Its infectious African drumming and rhythms overlaid with Hispanic lyrical melodies and instrumentations have inspired dance and song such as the danzón, son, and chachachá since the 1880s. Between the 1930s and 1950s numerous performers and orchestras began to popularize Cuban music throughout the world. Some composers and performers of Cuba’s classical popular music include singer and dancer Rita Montaner, pianists Bola de Nieve and Ernesto Lecuona, and Moisés Simon, Benny Moré, Osvaldo Farres, all three of whom were pianists and composers. From the 1950s to the present the Cuban salsa has brought people all over the world to their feet in joyful dancing. Singer and entertainer Celia Cruz introduced the salsa in the early 1950s. Cuban jazz is legendary and best known in the United States through performances by Benny Moré’s dance bands.

In the late 20th century Cuba’s numerous educational institutes helped create new generations of musicians and composers who have adapted the best of Cuban musical tradition into more innovative forms. One innovative musical movement, the Nueva Trova, emerged in the 1960s. It imitated the troubadour style of the Middle Ages (500-1500) in that performers and songwriters incorporated popular and political messages into music as a means of communicating information to the population. The most recognized performers of this popular Cuban song form are the musical group Grupo Moncada, and performers and composers such as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, and Sara González. The best-known groups in the 1990s included Irakere, los Van Van, and los Muñequitos de Matanzas. The Buena Vista Social Club, a collection of veteran musicians who recorded an album with American guitarist Ry Cooder in 1997, also gained international fame at this time.

The Cuban National Ballet, under the direction of choreographer Alicia Alonso, has helped train ballet performers who are recognized throughout the world. It has offered new styles to modern ballet in the form of Afro-Cuban folkloric depictions, rhythms, and movement.

Theater and Film in Cuba

Havana’s Teatro Principal, where Cuban audiences viewed European classical works, was inaugurated on October 12, 1776. Theatrical life developed throughout the island, and soon the so-called teatro bufo, or farcical theater, began to depict the different ethnic groups in Cuban society. Later, playwrights such as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and José Jacinto Milanés made important contributions to a romantic theater focused upon nationalism.

After independence, Cuban theater lay dormant, but by the end of the 1940s and into the revolutionary period, many small theaters emerged. Playwrights of this period include Virgilio Piñera, Anton Arrufat, Abelardo Estorino, and José Triana. All of these dramatists occupied posts in Casa de las Américas, Cuba’s most prestigious publishing house, and in the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. Since the revolution, Cuban theater has languished as popular street theater replaced the formal settings. Street theater took the message of revolution to people throughout the island and often involved them in theatrical productions in order to make them feel a part of Cuba’s new society.

Motion-picture making began with silent films such as La Virgen de la Caridad (The Virgin of Charity, 1930), a film about Cuba’s patron saint, who was a symbol of Cuban independence. Movies of this period glorified independence and celebrated Cuban heroism and sacrifice. During the 1920s and 1930s, Cuban movie houses featured U.S. films, and U.S. movie stars appeared in all the popular magazines. Many aspects of modernization and changing social attitudes were transmitted to Cuba through American films.

Not until the 1950s did Cuban film production compete well with the international film industry. This effort was led by motion-picture director Guillermo Cabrera Infante, founder of the Cuban Film Association, the Cuban Film Society, and after the revolution, the director of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). Cabrera Infante went into exile in 1961 and was replaced at ICAIC by motion-picture director Alfredo Guevara. The movie industry continued to flourish with Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968), Lucía (1969), and Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa, 1979), all of which contained messages that both praised and criticized the revolution. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea directed several award-winning films, including Los Sobrevivientes (The Survivors, 1979), Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993), and Guantanamera (1994). Cinematographer Nestor Almendros received numerous awards, including the Academy Award in 1979 for his work as a motion-picture photographer on Days of Heaven (1978).

Libraries and Museums in Cuba

The largest library in Cuba is the José Martí National Library in Havana, containing some 2.2 million volumes. It is the major repository for 20th-century literature, periodicals, monographs, maps, and reference books. The National Museum of Havana houses collections of both classical and modern art along with relics of native cultures. The Revolutionary Museum retains the memorabilia of the 1959 revolution as well as some relics of the wars of independence and the Batista era. The National Archives contain all primary documents from the colonial period to the present.

The History Institute contains primary documents, many of a sensitive nature, on the Cuban Communist Party and other radical groups from the 1950s to the present. It also is the repository for the artifacts and documents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and specific events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba caused a tense standoff between the United States and the USSR. Other important museums are the Colonial and Anthropological museums in Havana, located in restored homes of Spanish officials, which depict the colonial past. The Museum of the City of Havana, also in a colonial palace, houses the papers of Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, a journalist who became the city historian of Havana in 1933.

The Morro Castle is a fortress with excellent views of Havana’s harbor and skyline. It now houses a maritime museum. The Guanabacoa Museum, near Morro Castle, provides information about Santería and, occasionally, performances of rituals are given here. The Emilio Bacardi Moreau Museum of natural history and art in Santiago de Cuba displays the natural wildlife and plants of the island and is located in an old rum factory. A museum and monument to the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion stands at Playa Girón, where Cuban troops turned back a force of Cuban exiles which, with the support of the United States, attempted to overthrow the Castro government.


With a colonial economy based primarily on sugarcane, Cuba grew into a rich producer and exporter of sugar during the 19th century. Foreign investors, especially from the United States, invested in Cuba to take part in the lucrative sugar market. This investment resulted in much of Cuba’s sugar revenue leaving the country, making foreign investors and a small Cuban elite wealthy. However, large segments of the Cuban people did not benefit economically from Cuba’s sugar market.

After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the government of Fidel Castro promised to address perceived economic inequities within the country and between Cuba and the United States. Castro nationalized large agricultural estates, sugar refineries, foreign industrial and mining firms, and privately owned urban properties. These policies were not well received by U.S. government officials, and in 1960 U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Also in 1960, Eisenhower issued an executive order implementing a partial trade embargo to prohibit the importation of Cuban goods. The Congress of the United States institutionalized the embargo in 1961 with the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act. In return, Castro nationalized an estimated $8 billion in U.S. assets. U.S. hostility toward the Castro government encouraged an economic alliance between Cuba and the USSR, the world’s leading Communist nation. The USSR offered Cuba generous subsidies and trade agreements that provided agricultural machinery, crude oil, and technological instruction in exchange for Cuban sugar. Cuba became one of the USSR’s closest allies.

Despite its alliance with the USSR, Cuba suffered economic mismanagement, and it relied too heavily on sugar. Its economic problems became even more serious after 1989, when Communist governments began to collapse in Eastern Europe and the USSR reduced its aid to Cuba as well as its trade with the island. Cuba’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell at least 35 percent from 1983 to 1993, with the steepest decline between 1990 and 1993. From 1989 to 1992, imports fell from $8 billion to $2.2 billion.

By the mid-1990s the Cuban economy began to recover from its free fall, and the government focused its fiscal policies on increasing productivity and cutting costs. It also turned to foreign investment to help the country upgrade its aging infrastructure and develop new industries. These efforts helped reduce public-sector spending and the deficit. The economy also began to move away from its reliance on sugar as the government decreased sugar production. As the 21st century began, Cuba’s economy had become less dependent on agriculture and instead began to rely more heavily on tourism and biotechnology.

Labor in Cuba

Since the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban government has employed a large percentage of the workforce. Prior to the economic collapse of the late 1980s, the state employed more than 90 percent of the labor force. By the beginning of the 21st century, the figure had dropped to about 75 percent as a result of the government’s efforts to decentralize the economy and encourage private enterprise.

In 1990, 18 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 30 percent worked in industry; and 51 percent worked in the services. By 2004 agriculture, forestry, and fishing accounted for 21 percent of the labor force; industry, 19 percent; and services, 59 percent. The decline in the percentage working in industry reflects Cuba’s efforts to make its industrial sector more profitable by streamlining operations.

No official figures are available that show how the economic crisis beginning in the late 1980s affected labor, but in the mid-1990s unemployment in Cuba was estimated at about 25 percent. This compares with no unemployment between 1965 and 1980, an 18 percent unemployment rate in 1952, and more than 30 percent unemployment in 1933. At the beginning of the 21st century, unemployment had declined to about 5.5 percent according to the Cuban government.

However, economic figures do not capture the full picture of labor activity in Cuba. Many Cubans have chosen to leave their jobs in order to freelance in independent businesses. Their economic activities are not recorded in official labor census data, but they may have income in dollars as freelance entrepreneurs.

In addition, the government does not count the amount of work done by forced “voluntary” labor. The government requires every adult capable of work to volunteer for 150 hours per year. Their duties take them into entirely different occupations from their own, and they usually work in construction, agricultural fields, urban sanitation, and fumigation. The government tracks attendance, and delinquent citizens can be fined or made to work extended hours. Additionally, people are required to do guard duty at their work places and in neighborhoods, and some belong to the militia.

Workers in the state sector represent themselves through the Cuban Confederation of Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba, Spanish acronym CTC), which has minimal power to influence labor practices and salary levels. Within work establishments, local boards of the CTC arbitrate labor disputes. Workers participate in these discussions and decisions.

Agriculture of Cuba

More than three-quarters of the Cuban population live in cities, yet the economy remains largely agricultural. Sugar has long been an important part of Cuba’s economy. In the early 1990s, however, the sugar industry was plagued by inefficiency and low world prices. In 2002 the government restructured the industry by shutting about half of its sugar mills and reducing the amount of land used for growing sugar. The goal was to make the industry more profitable and to open up land for food production. Sugar production in 1990 was 8 million metric tons; in 2006 Cuba produced 1.5 million metric tons. Sugar production fell from 65 percent of Cuba’s export earnings at the beginning of the economic crisisto 27 percent in 2000.

Coffee is another important agricultural product. However, coffee production declined as the rural population increasingly moved to the cities. In response, the government had modest success in a program that offered incentives for people to move from cities to the Sierra Maestra mountains to harvest coffee. Most coffee is exported, leaving little for domestic consumption. Tobacco production in Cuba has remained about the same since the late 1990s. Cuban cigars are much in demand worldwide and almost all are exported.

Three types of farms emerged following the revolution. Farms seized from large landholders became state farms. State farms were huge estates completely owned and operated by the government and worked by state employees. Smaller farms were organized into collectives that allowed farmers who owned parcels of land making up the collective to have access to seed, fertilizers, and equipment. They had to give a designated percentage of their crops to the government. Small farms, never entirely eliminated by the socialist government, remained under private ownership. They received no state aid and sold their produce directly to the government.

Between 1975 and 1985, Cuba experimented with limited free-market reforms (Free-Market Economy) in order to boost food production. During this time the government allowed farmers to keep a small percentage of their crops to sell in markets. However, Castro ended the experiment in 1985 after deciding that allowing some farmers to grow wealthier than their neighbors created social inequities.

Domestic agricultural production has dropped precipitously in recent years. To increase production, the government again allowed farmers to sell excess produce for a profit in farmers’ markets and began to divide state farms into collectives, which had proven to be far more productive. Thus, in 1998 the government directly owned only about 30 percent of Cuba’s farmland, down from over 75 percent at the beginning of the 1990s. During the 1990s Cuba also transitioned to organic farming due to the lack of petroleum-based pesticides that had been provided by the former USSR.

Tourism of Cuba

Tourism is the only economic sector that has grown significantly in Cuba since the late 1980s. The government depends on the profits of tourism to bring in valuable foreign currency. In 1990 tourists spent $243 million in Cuba; in 2007 that figure had increased to $2.1 billion. The number of people vacationing in Cuba grew from only 3,000 in 1973 to 326,000 in 1989, and to 2.1 million in 2007.

Yet tourism has intensified dissatisfaction with the government’s solutions to economic scarcity. Foreigners dine at well-stocked restaurants and shop in luxury stores, while Cubans not only do without luxury goods but many also go without subsistence items. The best hotels and beaches bar access to Cubans, who have been repeatedly told since the revolution that each citizen has the right to a share of all national goods. In order to gain access to dollars, many Cubans have left their traditional jobs to drive taxis and provide services in tourism. Prostitution, which was practically eliminated in the years following the revolution, has surpassed prerevolutionary levels. Often, the prostitutes are women and men with high levels of education, all of whom are anxious to have access to tourist dollars.

Mining in Cuba

Cuba’s most abundant and profitable mineral export is nickel. Located in the eastern province of Holguín, Cuba’s nickel reserves are thought to be among the largest in the world. Prior to 1959, U.S. investors owned almost all the nickel mines. For this reason, the U.S. embargo specifically prohibited businesses that trade in Cuban nickel from trading with the United States. Even so, Canada defied U.S. orders to stop nickel investments and entered into joint ventures with Cuba. As a result of these joint ventures, the production of nickel almost doubled from 1995 to 2001. Cuba is also one of the world’s largest producers of cobalt. Other important minerals are copper, chromium, salt, stone, and natural gas.

Cuba’s petroleum deposits are scarce and yield high sulfur residues that corrode rigs and refineries. Few foreign investors have been willing to produce crude oil in Cuba. Nevertheless, production increased to 20.1 million barrels of oil and 350 million cu m (12.4 billion cu ft) of natural gas by 2003. The oil and gas help meet energy demand in Cuba’s thermal power plants as well as the energy needed to produce cement and asphalt. Cuba has obtained some energy aid from friendly countries. The Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez has provided petroleum, and China recently pledged to aid Cuba in exploring for offshore oil.

Biotechnology in Cuba

After the U.S. embargo shut down medical supplies, Castro invested $150 million in the construction of the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center. This state-of-the-art research lab has invented cholesterol-lowering drugs, detection tests for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a meningitis vaccine, remedies for hepatitis B, and other pharmaceuticals. Industrial manufacture of these medicines has exceeded domestic demand. Cuba has partnered with other nations to develop and export its pharmaceuticals.

Forestry and Fishing in Cuba

Cuban forests were indiscriminately cut and reduced from more than 40 percent of the total land area in 1945 to less than 10 percent in 1960. The government undertook a reforestation program in the mid-1960s, and in 2005 forests covered 24 percent of the island. Almost all of the timber harvest is made up of hardwoods. Forested lands are located in western and eastern Cuba.

The fishing industry traditionally comprised small independent operators banded into cooperatives. The government, however, has developed a large deep-sea fleet. In the 1980s the government streamlined its administration of the industry and insisted that the fishing fleet support its own operations with money raised by the overseas sale of their catch. Cuba exports shrimp, red snapper, and tuna, and shellfish is one of Cuba’s most lucrative export items.

Manufacturing in Cuba

Manufacturing has never played a major role in Cuba’s economy, largely because most financiers opted to invest their money in the lucrative sugar industry. Sporadically throughout the 20th century, Cubans tried to diversify the economy in order to create new avenues for income and additional opportunities for employment and technology. However, Cuba hindered efforts to diversify with poor planning and management. In addition, the U.S. economic blockade hurt these efforts.

In the early 1970s, Cuba undertook a program to automate its 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.

Energy in Cuba

From 1990 to 2000 Cuba greatly increased its production of crude petroleum. As a result, Cuba’s petroleum imports dropped significantly. Cuba also boosted its production of natural gas from 32.3 million cu m (1.14 billion cu ft) in 1990 to 350 million cu m (12.4 billion cu ft) in 2003. Most residential dwellings have working electricity, but blackouts caused by old equipment and scarce fuel supplies occur with some frequency.

Transportation and Communications in Cuba

After 1991 public transportation decreased due to shortages in gasoline and the lack of spare replacement parts for buses. Private chauffeurs with access to gasoline began black market taxi services. Crowded and uncomfortable camellos (Spanish for “camels”), bus bodies welded together and pulled by diesel cabs, ran intermittently and provided transportation in the cities. More expensive small buses carried people who could pay five times the fare of the camellos. The most common mode of travel has been bicycles, introduced in mass numbers in 1988. Cuba’s national airline is Cubana de Aviación, which has both domestic and international flights. The nation’s chief ports are Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba.

Communication services have improved due to new contract terms between the United States and Cuba over international telephone calls. New cables link the two nations, although all expenses must be born by U.S. callers.

Mass communication through television and radio are well developed, although state censorship controls the content of all programs. The print media conveys newsworthy information as well as government propaganda. Granma is the major newspaper. Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores, newspapers for youth and workers, respectively, are also distributed throughout the island. Mujeres and Muchachas are journals published by the Federation for Cuban Women and inform on issues such as fashion, housekeeping, women in the military and in foreign service, health, and political propaganda. Verde Olivo is a journal for members of the military.

Foreign Trade in Cuba

The number of Cuba’s economic partners increased after 1990 due to the loss of the Soviet-bloc trade and in spite of the U.S. embargo. The nation’s main trading partners for imports are Spain, Italy, France, China, and Mexico, and its main trading partners for exports are The Netherlands, Russia, Canada, Spain, and China. The value of Cuba’s imports exceeds the value of its exports largely because of the high cost of oil imports and the nation’s dependence on imported food. Along with oil and food, Cuba’s main imports are machinery, transport equipment, and chemicals, while its main exports are sugar, tobacco products, nickel, seafood, medical products, and coffee.

The U.S. embargo has barred Cuba from development loans offered from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Interamerican Development Bank, which provides funds to help economic development in nations of the Western Hemisphere. Other sources of long-term loans have not been forthcoming. Cuba stopped paying installments on its debts in 1986, and lenders have been reluctant to extend further loans. Cuba’s foreign debt is estimated to be more than $10 billion.

Since the collapse of the COMECON trade association, Cuba has struggled to adjust to capitalist markets. Cuba belongs to no trade association, but leaders are looking toward Latin America, the European Union, and Canada for opportunities to expand commerce.

Currency and Banking of Cuba

The Cuban peso is the national currency and has had an official conversion value of 1 peso to the U.S. dollar. The black market is a better indicator of the real value of the peso. In 1989 the black-market value was 5 pesos for 1 dollar, and in 1994 it fell to 120 pesos to 1 dollar. In 1997 that rate was 30 pesos per dollar. As the Cuban economy stabilized in the early 21st century, the black-market rate for pesos declined. After its legalization in 1993, the U.S. dollar became the preferred currency in Cuba, and some items were bought and sold only for dollars. However, the Cuban government imposed new restrictions on use of the U.S. dollar in October 2004, requiring conversion to the peso for business transactions. The Central Bank of Cuba regulates fiscal policies and currency valuation.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba was an independent nation under U.S. protection. After the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States occupied Cuba, and Cuba established a government that met the approval of the United States. In 1902 the nation entered a period of unstable democratic government punctuated by two periods with dictators. After 1959 a socialist revolutionary regime emerged.

The Cuban Revolution brought down the republic on January 1, 1959, and by 1961 the government had been centralized under the Partido Comunista Cubano (PCC; Cuban Communist Party) and its prime minister, Fidel Castro. Until the 1970s, Cuba’s revolutionary government ran on informal legal agreements that ignored the provisions of the 1940 constitution. The executive branch initiated decree laws, which were laws drawn up and passed by the executive branch. They were implemented and enforced unless the legislative branch rejected them, which never happened.

In 1976 the Cuban government instituted a new constitution that formalized a communist system of government. Under the constitution, numerous committees, councils, and ministries control political sectors such as the Federation of Cuban Women, the Association of Small Farmers, the University Student Association, and the Labor Union. These political sectors provide citizens with input into government decisions and allow the government to quickly distribute information on official policies to the people. All units are answerable to the PCC and ultimately to Fidel Castro.

The revolution professed centralized democracy, meaning that popular participation occurs within designated mass organizations established and controlled by the state. The Communist leadership believes that traditional democracies in Latin America often become military dictatorships or become subject to government corruption, which renders their democratic institutions meaningless. In theory, the Cuban government avoids dictatorship and corruption by creating a strong, centralized political structure that makes every effort to incorporate the opinions of the people when making policy decisions. This, to their way of thinking, qualifies Cuba as a democracy and not a totalitarian government. However, Castro makes all major decisions, without popular referendums.

Political organization outside the government structure is strictly forbidden. The PCC and Fidel Castro control the press and discourage independent political gatherings. The degree of repression is difficult to ascertain because Cuba restricts outside access to prisons. Political executions occur but are rare. Cubans suppress their opinions because they fear that their dissenting views might be reported to the government. Without freedom of speech, Cubans have no opportunity to reach political consensus on issues or to choose opposition leaders. Only spontaneous eruptions of frustration display the tension within the Cuban population.

Executive of Cuba

Under the 1976 constitution, the president is the head of state. The president’s tenure in office is confirmed every five years by a vote of the National Assembly of People’s Power. The president is advised by a Council of Ministers composed of the executive officers of all the official government ministries; an Executive Council, made up of the president, first vice president, and five vice presidents; and the Council of State, made up of 30 members of the Cuban Communist Party. The Council of State has legislative powers when the National Assembly is in recess.

The Cuban Communist Party

The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is the ideological guide of the revolution. Its influence is felt in all political institutions, work units, and neighborhoods through its various agencies, such as the Labor Confederation, the Federation of Cuban Women, and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—neighborhood committees designed to coordinate public projects and ensure political conformity. High officials as well as common laborers may be members of the PCC. Young people can start as members of the Young Communist League and later advance into the PCC if they are selected and if they agree to join.

Fidel Castro holds the ultimate deciding power within the PCC, but the PCC contains an inner circle of members responsible for shaping and implementing government actions. The Politburo presides over the party and the Central Committee. The Politburo measures major policy decisions against Communist ideals and advises Castro, his ministers, and the legislative delegates about the ideological purity of their policies. The party’s Central Committee decides policy and collects information to make political decisions. Party members, chosen for their allegiance, hold other government offices, often as the presidents or directors of government agencies.

Every five years the PCC holds a congress at which the common people have the right to present their views. A tenet of Cuban justice is that the law is determined by popular consensus. Although a number of civil laws and the 1976 constitution were debated at local levels and ratified by referendum, in reality the central government makes the basic decisions on laws and policies.

Legislature of Cuba

The 1976 constitution instituted a concept known as the People’s Power construct, a structure designed to allow Cuban citizens greater participation in government policy-making decisions. The People’s Power consists of assemblies that administer government and pass laws. These assemblies exist at municipal, provincial, and national levels. Delegates are nominated and elected first at the municipal level. They need not be members of the PCC. However, the party must approve all candidates, and individuals may not run on a political platform. Instead, voters select their delegate from brief biographies and from personal acquaintance with the person. The 169 municipal assemblies allocate funds for maintenance of municipal facilities and hear cases involving household disputes and petty crime. Smaller communities with populations of 30,000 or more elect delegates to people’s councils. Members of the municipal assemblies and the people’s councils elect representatives to their provincial assemblies from their membership.

Each of Cuba’s 14 provinces has its own assembly. Provincial assemblies oversee transportation and communication systems throughout the island and recommend legislation regarding interstate crime and allocations of resources for development. From their own membership, provincial delegates nominate and elect representatives to the 601-member National Assembly of People’s Power. In 1992 the public approved a referendum calling for assembly members to be elected directly by the people. Only candidates belonging to the PCC are allowed to run.

The National Assembly votes on legislation presented by the PCC, and every four years it elects the president of the country. It occasionally debates the wisdom of legislation, but it has never failed to approve the central government’s proposals. When the National Assembly is in recess, which is most of the year, the Council of State has legislative powers.

Legislation can originate in various governmental branches. The president may decree laws that are in effect until they are accepted or rejected by the National Assembly. The Politburo and Central Committee can write legislation that is submitted to the National Assembly. And the courts can suggest legal reforms and interpretations to be enacted by the assembly.

Mass Organizations in Cuba

The Cuban political structure depends upon popular organizations that are not officially controlled by the PCC but are closely linked to it. Every citizen may belong to several of these organizations, which correspond to major social and economic sectors. For example, the Federation of Cuban Women seeks the membership of all eligible women over the age of 16 and deals with issues in the areas of health, child care, family relations, education, and loyalty to the revolution. Farmers may join the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), which introduces agricultural technology to farmers. It also tries to resolve problems relating to transporting produce to markets from cooperatives and private farms that are not a part of the state-run system.

Workers’ issues are represented to the government by the Confederation of Cuban Laborers (CTC), and the CTC conveys government decisions to workers. It oversees labor disputes between management and workers, as the right to strike was rescinded in the 1960s. The CTC works on behalf of the government by trying to maintain high levels of production. The Young Communist League indoctrinates Cuban youth with the ideals of Communism. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are neighborhood groups that call meetings to review the meaning of Fidel Castro’s speeches, provide neighborhood watch groups against crime, inform the neighborhood of civil and political activities, and report suspicious political behavior by local residents.

Within all of these groups, people can express their opinions and criticisms, although their views must follow revolutionary principles. Opinions are transmitted to central authorities who consider them as they make administrative decisions. One important legislative document brought before the public before its formal passage was the Family Code of 1975, which described the role of each member of a family. Massive public debate occurred and opinions were polled before the code became law. The numerous mass organizations also function as an official means of communication between the government and the people as they convey public policies to the citizenry.

Judiciary in Cuba

The Council of State and the Ministry of Justice administer the court system. Municipal and provincial courts and the national People’s Supreme Court hear cases and interpret the law. Cuban citizens receive legal counsel from law collectives that are organized from the municipal to the national levels.

Immediately following the revolution, some jurists predicted that the need for laws and courts would disappear as Cuba more nearly approached a perfect communist state. They envisioned that the state would dissolve and people would live together harmoniously, working for the good of the whole. Norms of social behavior, not laws, would govern their actions. By 1963 jurists abandoned this reasoning because they understood that the utopian state was a long time off. By 1970 new generations of lawyers were trained to serve as counsels for national and international agencies and as civil and criminal attorneys. Between 1970 and 1971, Cuba’s legal codes were restructured to reflect its socialist government. The government issued a number of law codes to formally institutionalize the economic, social, and legal changes Castro had made by decree following the revolution.

The courts at all levels employ formally trained judges, who have attended law school, and lay judges. Lay judges do not have formal instruction from law schools, but they do receive training before assuming their responsibilities. Lay judges compose 95 percent of all sitting judges in the country. They are elected to their posts and serve for a specified period. Lay judges must demonstrate enthusiasm for their work, and they must respect the seriousness of their responsibilities, have adequate education levels, and show evidence of good moral character. They are intended to bring a nontechnical view to court considerations, where they can note mitigating circumstances that lawyer judges might not consider. The lay judges represent community values, and their contribution to deciding cases is a means of democratizing the legal system.

Military tribunals sit on cases involving infractions by military personnel. These courts, as well as civil and criminal courts, are theoretically independent from political interference and guided by military and national laws, respectively.

Political prisoners are still in Cuban jails, and it is difficult to ascertain their offenses or to gain access to the legal decisions surrounding their cases. The government occasionally releases prisoners as part of international negotiations or when the prisoners have completed their sentences. Some former political prisoners remain in Cuba, where they are reabsorbed into daily life after serving their sentences. Others may be permitted to emigrate to another country at the end of their jail time. Arrests and releases may occur for purely ideological motives. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and America’s Watch have criticized the Castro government for obstructing investigations into allegations of political arrests, mistreatment, and violations of international human rights agreements.

Defense of Cuba

The Cuban Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR) has its roots in the revolutionary guerrilla troops who fought under Castro during the revolution in the late 1950s. When Castro came to power in 1959, he amassed the largest standing army in Latin America. He also created a militarized society in which all citizens were on alert against U.S. aggression. All social movements, such as the literacy brigades, were organized and led as though they were military offensives. The FAR, which draws recruits from throughout the population, is intended to fight invasions and wars in foreign lands. It may also be used to suppress insurrection. In peacetime, the FAR serves in national emergencies, such as cleanups after hurricanes and in harvesting the sugar fields when a crop is in danger.

The military is organized under the Ministerio de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or MINFAR) and commanded by the president and vice president. The FAR and the PCC are linked through FAR membership in Communist Party organizations. Military officials hold office in the Central Committee and the Politburo, and they sit in the Council of Ministers. The military defends the country, trains young people for war and peace, helps Cubans develop useful skills and work habits, and maintains domestic security.

At home, the FAR defended Cuba in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion, when U.S.-backed Cuban exiles unsuccessfully attempted to invade the island and topple the Castro government. The military also fought abroad for socialist and nationalist causes, and it supported nations who were trying to resist U.S. influence in their internal affairs. From 1960 to 1990 the FAR participated in international revolutionary campaigns in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, most notably in Angola from 1973 to 1990.

The government severely restricted military expenditures beginning in the 1990s and Cuba’s involvement in foreign wars ended. The government also allocated a smaller budget for the military, which fell from $2.2 billion in 1988 to $1,200 million in 2003. It also reduced the size of the military from 180,500 men and women to 49,000 in 2006.

Despite these military reductions, Cuba has worked to ensure a strong national defense. The government maintains constant preparedness for the People’s War, the government’s term since 1980 for an all-out military conflict between Cuba and the United States in which the people will bear arms in the defense of Cuba. Preparedness involves readiness not only in the regular army, but also among reservists, retired officers, and a 1.3-million-person militia. All of these military resources practice war games and train for war on a regular basis.

The Ministerio del Interior (known as MININT) is Cuba’s state agency responsible for internal security. Within MININT are a number of paramilitary, military, and intelligence branches: the Border Guard Troops; the National Revolutionary Police; the Special Troops, which are under Fidel Castro’s direct command; the Department of State Security Force, which conducts domestic intelligence; and the Department of General Intelligence, which operates international espionage. The MININT is responsible for top security and intelligence operations, and its members are assumed to be absolutely loyal to the revolutionary government. Only high-ranking officers are assigned to handle the secretive work characteristic of the MININT.

International Relations in Cuba

Since the revolution, Cuba has tried to export the ideals of the revolution throughout the world as a means of bringing down capitalism and opposing the U.S. model of constitutional government. United States policy has been directed toward ousting Communist control and bringing Cuba back under U.S. influence. The two nations have clashed in nearly every continent of the world, and Cuba’s survival often relied heavily on the support of the USSR. After the USSR collapsed and a Cuban economic crisis began, active Cuban support for international revolutionary causes ceased. Cuba’s leadership turned its attention to redesigning socialism to include some capitalist activity and trade with capitalist nations. To this end, Cuba formed new alliances with Latin American countries with which it previously had no relations. Trade agreements resulted with capitalist nations, such as Canada, France, Spain, Italy, and the Russian Federation.

The United States has continued to oppose Cuba, regardless of the changes in Cuba’s foreign policy over the past 25 years. In the late 1970s the United States refused to establish diplomatic relations unless Cuba withdrew its military from foreign countries, specifically Angola, released political prisoners, and paid compensation to former owners of nationalized properties. Cuba not only did not leave the foreign countries in which it was involved, but Castro committed troops in Nicaragua, where rebels were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. This action brought an end to secret peace talks between Cuba and the United States. During the 1980s, U.S. president Ronald Reagan viewed Cuba as the source of Communist influence in the Western Hemisphere.

After 1991 the Cuban government offered compensation for seized property, released political prisoners, permitted U.S. news bureaus in Cuba, and stopped trying to export the ideals of the revolution. However, the United States has not reestablished relations with Cuba despite these concessions. The Congress of the United States, first through the Torricelli Law of 1991 and then in the Helms-Burton Law of 1996, demanded elections in Cuba similar to those in the United States and the removal of Castro and his associates. In 1996 U.S.-Cuban relations once again grew hostile after Cuban fighter planes shot down two civilian aircraft piloted by U.S.-based Cuban exiles, which convinced U.S. president Bill Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Law.

In 1998, however, President Clinton responded to international condemnation of the U.S. economic blockade by relaxing restrictions on the admittance of food and medicine, and on money sent to Cuban citizens from individuals in the United States. Sports also served as the medium for cultural exchange when an arrangement worked out in 1998 through informal diplomatic channels allowed the Baltimore Orioles, a professional U.S. baseball team, and the Cuban All-Stars baseball team to play games in Baltimore, Maryland, and Havana.

Although relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments periodically thaw, citizens of both countries have experienced prohibitions against traveling to, communicating with, and knowing about the other country. But despite each government’s attempts to ignore or vilify the other, their diplomatic policies remained focused on one another as they battle for international approval.

Despite strained relations between the United States and Cuba, the United States maintains a naval base at Guantánamo Bay on Cuban territory. The United States obtained the base under a 1903 agreement between the two countries after the Spanish-American War. A 1934 treaty reaffirmed the U.S. right to lease the site from Cuba. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he stopped cashing annual lease payments after the first check and declared the 1934 lease agreement illegal. The Guantánamo Bay base became a detention center for captured terrorist suspects and other prisoners following the September 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent war on terror. See also Guantánamo Scandal.

International Organizations in Cuba

Cuba is currently a member of the United Nations and the Nonaligned Movement.


Cuba’s location has determined the island’s political, social, and economic history. No other political entity in the Western Hemisphere has been as contested as Cuba has, and no other society has passed from colonial status, to a republic, to a socialist state in less than 100 years. The largest and most western island of the Antilles archipelago, Cuba is centrally located between North and South America, and guards access to the Caribbean Sea. For hundreds of years, its strategic position and its rich soil, abundant harbors, and mineral reserves have attracted foreign powers, first Spain, then the United States, and then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Pre-Columbian Society

Cuba’s first inhabitants were indigenous people who arrived by sea, following the trade winds westward from the coast of Venezuela along the islands of the Caribbean. Little evidence remains of the first indigenous people, the Ciboney (or Guanahacabibe), who began settling the island about 1000 BC. The Ciboney lived along the coast and survived by fishing, hunting, and gathering plant foods. They lived in small, seminomadic clans and left no written record of their society, religions, or languages.

A more warlike group of the Arawakan (see Arawak) language family reached Cuba in two waves, beginning with the sub-Taínos, who arrived about AD 900, gradually pushing the Ciboney to the western third of the island. Members of the Arawakan language family lived in thatched houses and were governed by caciques (tribal chiefs). They survived by fishing and collectively working gardens, where they grew cassava, maize (corn), beans, sweet potatoes, yucca, tomatoes, and pineapples. They also grew tobacco, which they used for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. A second migratory wave, the Taínos, swept into the eastern coastal area of Cuba from the neighboring island of Hispaniola in the 15th century, just before the Spanish conquest.

When explorer Christopher Columbus reached the island on October 27, 1492, Cuba’s indigenous population numbered approximately 112,000, with 92,000 sub-Taínos, 10,000 Taínos, and 10,000 Ciboney. Columbus claimed the island for Spain, the nation that had sponsored his voyage.

Spanish Rule


On his first visit, Columbus optimistically assessed the island’s natural beauty and the abundance of wildlife, noting the variation of coastal harbors, high mountains, tropical rain forests, and rolling savannas. On his second voyage in 1494, Columbus charted Cuba’s southern coast, mistakenly declaring the territory a peninsula of Asia’s mainland. In 1508 Sebastian de Ocampo mapped the entire coastline and determined that Cuba was an island.

Cuba attracted little interest from Spanish settlers until the Spanish colony on Hispaniola became overcrowded and indigenous laborers grew scarce. In 1511 Diego Velázquez, a Spanish colonist from Hispaniola, landed ships carrying 300 soldiers on Cuba’s southeastern shore near Guantánamo. He encountered native resistance led by Hatuey, a chief who had escaped from Hispaniola and who knew the ways of the European conquerors. It took three months to defeat and execute Hatuey.

Also in 1511 Spanish soldier Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from Jamaica along the southern coast of Cuba. He forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism and to accept the Spanish monarch as their leader. In 1515 Velázquez and Narváez were joined by an overland army, which marched east across Cuba as far as what is today Havana. The Spaniards massacred both warriors and civilians as a means of breaking their will to resist. These conquerors founded many of Cuba’s oldest towns. Many of these settlements, such as Baracoa, Trinidad, Puerto Príncipe, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba, were located on harbors, but two, Sancti Spíritus and Bayamo, were interior towns.

The Spanish monarchs rewarded the conquerors and their soldiers with encomiendas, jurisdiction over geographical areas. This jurisdiction included the right to tax Native Americans and force them to work for the benefit of the encomendero who had the right to the tribute and labor of the Native Americans. The Spanish put native Cubans to work in mines, on agricultural estates, as household servants, and as soldiers in armies bound for the American mainland. Wrenched from their ecological and social communities and subjugated to overwork, malnutrition, and new diseases, the Arawaks and Ciboney were nearly exterminated by 1542. Yet during the first half of the 16th century, native Cuban rebellions occurred against the Spanish populations in Puerto Príncipe, Bayamo, and Baracoa. Rather than become Spanish slaves or starve, many of Cuba’s original inhabitants killed their own children and committed suicide. Conquest, mistreatment, overwork, malnutrition, disease, and suicide reduced the native population to 3,000 by 1555.

Cuba’s prominence as a new colony was brief. The discovery of gold on the American mainland and the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 enticed Spanish settlers to leave Cuba. To avoid depopulation, the Spanish authorities offered encomiendas to single men and penalized people who departed Cuba unauthorized. Still, by 1550 Cuba’s Spanish population had fallen to an estimated 700.

Prosperity and Plunder

Cuba’s strategic location in the Caribbean made it an important port and military base. The Spanish organized a shipping system that transported European goods to the Americas and returned American wealth and resources to Spain. Cuba was an important part of this system. It guarded the sea channels through which the treasure ships passed twice a year. Havana harbor served as a base for refitting the treasure fleets before the return voyage to Spain.

This concentration of Spanish treasure drew the attention of other European powers. The French attacked Havana in 1555, only two years after it had been named the new capital of Cuba. King Charles I of Spain immediately established a naval base. He built several imposing fortresses to guard the mouth of Havana’s harbor and stationed between 400 and 1,000 soldiers to defend Cuba’s coasts. Suddenly Cuba began attracting settlers who served as military personnel, built ships, provided food, and constructed buildings. However, little of the riches that passed through Havana Harbor reached the Cuban population, who remained poor, with very little economic security.

The Spanish military presence was focused around Havana in the west, leaving eastern Cuba open to French and English raids. Eastern Cuba also emerged as a center of illegal trade in Cuban tobacco, cattle, and sugar. Many Spanish colonists regularly broke the law to trade with foreign merchants because they disliked the official Spanish policy. This policy decreed that only Spanish merchants could trade with the colony, keeping import prices high and reducing profits on Cuban exports.

In the 17th century Cuba began importing Africans to work as slaves (see Atlantic Slave Trade). The slaves replaced the rapidly disappearing indigenous people as laborers in copper mines and on sugar plantations. By 1650 African slaves numbered 5,000, compared to an indigenous population of 2,000. Under Cuban law slaves could buy their freedom, and eventually the Cuban population contained a high number of free blacks and mulattoes.

The arrival of slaves resulted in one of the most notable characteristics of Cuba’s heritage: a racially mixed population. During the first two centuries of Spanish settlement, few European women settled in Cuba. Spanish men married or had relationships with indigenous and African women. Cuba’s classes and races blended, producing a mixture of religions, music, language, foods, and customs that combined three cultures into a new Cuban culture.

In the early 18th century, Spain introduced a series of administrative reforms in its colonies designed to modernize colonial institutions. The first reform focused on the tobacco trade, creating a tobacco monopoly in Cuba that set prices, regulated production, and sold products abroad. The monopoly kept most of the profits for itself, and its policies provoked three armed rebellions among Cuban tobacco growers between 1717 and 1723. The last uprising resulted in a compromise, which allowed Cuban growers to sell two-thirds of their crops outside the monopoly.

Another attempt at reform centered on sugar production. The royal company established in 1740 made high profits from the sugar trade. However, its wealth created inflation within Cuba, driving small farmers and people not involved in sugar to near ruin. Sugar output expanded, and by 1760 those with influence in the sugar monopoly became Cuba’s new elite.

During the 18th century, Cuba began developing its own cultural and social institutions. Cubans built seminaries—schools for training priests—and founded other schools, including the University of Havana, established in 1728. Access to higher learning and the arts was not restricted to the elite class. Slaves who had purchased their freedom began forming associations that paid for education and medical treatment for their members. Some blacks were able to advance into the middle class as well, but the owners of large sugar plantations continued to dominate the economy, and most wealth went to Spaniards and white Creoles (people of Spanish ancestry born in Cuba).

Some of the Spanish policies that had hampered Creole hopes for economic advancement ended abruptly as a result of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which pitted France and Spain against the British. In 1762 Havana was attacked and held by the British. Though the British occupation lasted only ten months, it opened Cuba’s economy to free trade with Britain and her colonies. When the British pulled out of Cuba at the end of the war, Spain relaxed its trade policy and permitted Spanish colonies to trade among themselves. This increased Havana’s importance to both Spain and the other Spanish colonies.

Sugar and Slaves

The sugar industry received a major boost when a slave rebellion broke out in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791. The slaves massacred many of their French masters and drove the remaining French planters from the colony. Prior to the revolt, Saint-Domingue had a booming coffee and sugar industry that depended on African slaves. After 1791 Haiti’s sugar production never matched its former output, and Cuba emerged as the world’s major sugar producer.

Enterprising Cuban landowners bought new land, built additional sugar refineries, and imported unprecedented numbers of African slaves. Between 1780 and 1788, more than 18,000 slaves were brought to Cuba. That number increased to over 125,000 between 1789 and 1810. Between 1811 and 1820, the decade of the greatest African slave trade, over 161,000 human beings were carried against their wills from Africa to Cuba. For the next 40 years, over 200,000 new slaves labored on plantations. Creole plantation owners flourished, slave traders bought land and built plantations with the profits they made from selling slaves, and Spanish moneylenders filled their pockets with the interest from loan payments for land purchases. Cuba’s economy became a monoculture, an economy based on one product. The economy boomed in years when world sugar prices were good and went bust when prices were down.

Sugar production rested on slave labor, and the life of a slave in Cuba was often harsh. Most Cuban slaves were males who worked long, hard hours clearing land and cutting cane on the sugar plantations. Once a slave began work in a sugar field, his or her future life expectancy shrank to eight years. Plantation owners tended to work slaves hard until they died and then replaced them with new slaves. The sugar harvest required backbreaking work. From November to May, slaves worked shifts of 16 to 19 hours daily. During the slow months from June through October, owners could not work their slaves more than 9 hours a day by law. Women could be field slaves, and when they were, they worked the same hours and at the same jobs as men.

Generally slaves were well fed. They lived in shelters that were usually kept neat by older women, who also looked after the children. Sundays and holidays were reserved for planting gardens for the slaves’ subsistence, and the Africans could hold their own religious ceremonies during this time. Santería, a mixture of beliefs from Catholicism and the African Lucumí religion emerged. By the end of the 19th century blacks and whites alike practiced this religion.

Treatment of slaves varied according to the whims of masters, even though laws offered theoretical protection. Overseers carried whips, which they used to move people along or to punish them. Not all slaves accepted their conditions. Some runaway slaves made it into interior mountains, where they lived in organized communities called palenques (runaway communities) that the police and the Spanish army tried to destroy.

Just as sugar drove the economy and the importation of slaves, it also shaped the makeup of the Cuban population, changing the proportion of whites to blacks and mulattoes, and of free people to slaves. Liberal policies allowed slaves to obtain their freedom. These policies distinguished Cuba from many other nations with slavery; they also meant that Cuba’s population contained a significant number of free people of color. According to the official census of 1774, the Cuban population was 56.4 percent white, 19.9 percent free blacks or mulattoes, and 23.7 percent black slaves. This sizeable population of free blacks worked as artisans, independent farmers, stevedores, small entrepreneurs, and professionals. At first the Spanish believed that free blacks made positive contributions to colonial society, but they soon became concerned that black intellectuals would support emancipation and slave revolts.


Growth of the Independence Movement

By 1826 most Spanish colonies in Latin America had achieved independence from Spain (see Latin American Independence). These independence movements were led by Creole elites seeking to gain control over their political and economic destinies. In Cuba, however, high-ranking Creoles had been frightened by the Haitian Slave Revolt and did not support a revolution against Spanish rule.

Throughout the 19th century, slavery was fundamental to sugar production in Cuba, where the largest amount of sugar in the world was grown and refined. At a time when national plantation economies were gradually emancipating slaves, Cuba was importing them from Africa and breeding them in Cuba. To preserve slavery, some Cubans advocated annexing Cuba to the United States, where the institution was still legal in the southern states. In 1848 at the request of annexationists and U.S. planters, U.S. president James K. Polk offered Spain $100 million for Cuba, an offer that Spain turned down. In 1854 the United States again proposed to buy Cuba, this time for $130 million, but this offer was also rejected. The annexationists made up a faction of the independence fighters by 1868.

Cuba’s ties with the United States had been growing throughout the 19th century. The United States provided a large market for Cuban sugar and supplied food, machinery, household goods, financing, and technology to the island. Cuba conducted far more trade with the United States than with Spain, which helped convince many Cubans that they had little need for Spanish colonial control.

However, not all members of Cuba’s elite classes supported annexation. A number of intellectuals objected to joining the United States because of the cultural and historical differences between Cubans and Americans. Some reformers, called autonomists, wanted Cuba to be able to control its internal affairs while remaining a part of the Spanish Empire. Others, the separationists, sought complete independence from Spain and the United States.

The Ten Years’ War

On October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a Creole planter from eastern Cuba, launched a revolt that would become known as the Ten Years’ War. The rebels initially were not seeking independence, but merely social reforms, including effective representation, freedom of association and speech, tax reform, racial equality, and Cuban participation in the island’s administration. After realizing that Spain was unwilling to make concessions, the rebels became committed to full independence from Spain.

The Cuban patriots had few weapons, no army, and no government. They fought an improvised guerrilla war against well-provisioned, highly trained Spanish troops. The patriots fought mainly with machetes, the long knives used to harvest sugarcane. Most of their actions involved hit-and-run attacks in which they raided the estates of pro-Spanish planters and set fire to sugar fields in an attempt to eliminate revenue that would support the Spanish army. The rebels linked Cuban national identity with social reform. They pledged to make Cuba a country in which black and white citizens would have the same legal rights. Consequently, blacks and mulattoes of all classes made up a huge proportion of the independence army.

De Céspedes and fellow insurrectionists called a Constituent Assembly at Guaímaro in 1869 to solidify rebel objectives and form a revolutionary government. The insurgent leaders soon encountered difficulties in uniting the Cubans. Most rebels came from eastern Cuba. The majority of people in western Cuba continued to support Spain, mainly because wealthy planters in the west opposed freedom for slaves.

The Spanish responded to the rebels by bringing in tens of thousands of soldiers. They destroyed plantations whose owners were suspected of supporting independence and built a series of north-south trenches across the island to protect the west from the insurgents in the east. By 1878 the patriots were exhausted and had lost the will to continue the struggle. The Spanish proposed a treaty that granted a general amnesty and a pardon for all rebels. While most rebels agreed to the treaty, General Antonio Maceo, a free black and a strong supporter of emancipation, rejected it. He fled to the United States and joined other Cuban exiles in New York. They planned a second revolt, and in the summer of 1879 General Calixto García Iñiguez led rebel troops in the Guerra Chiquita (The Little War), which lasted about nine months before it collapsed.

Despite the rebels’ losses to the Spanish, the uprisings did much to create a strong sense of nationalism among Cubans. At first the rebels preferred reforms rather than an outright break with Spain. By the end of the Ten Years’ War, they were committed to full independence. As whites and blacks fought together during the conflict, many of the old racial and social divisions that characterized Cuba’s colonial social structure began to dissolve. Many supporters of independence saw the future struggle for independence as inseparable from the struggle for racial and class equality in Cuba.

The Inter-War Period

With the war over, the Spanish brought Cuba in line with slave emancipation throughout the rest of the Americas. They enacted the patronato, a law that required slave owners to prepare their slaves for freedom. When slavery did end in 1886, only 30,000 slaves remained, down substantially from the estimated 500,000 at the onset of the Ten Years’ War.

Between 1878 and 1895, Cuba faced a period of financial and social disintegration. The Spanish levied punishing taxes and tariffs to pay for war damages and costs. A radical change in the sugar market compounded this financial burden. Increased cultivation of sugar beets in the United States drove the price of sugar down from 11 to 8 cents a pound. Meanwhile, the shift from unpaid slaves to paid laborers increased the cost of sugar production. By the mid-1880s Cuba was in a deep economic depression. Massive unemployment resulted, and workers migrated in large numbers from the countryside to urban centers where a new underclass of beggars and prostitutes developed. Tens of thousands of professionals left the country to find employment. Many of them vowed to return to free Cuba and provide it with a vital economy and just government.

During these years, pro-Spanish forces began to organize to protect their interests. Conservative Creole planters founded the Liberal Party (Autonomists). The Spanish elite formed the Constitutional Union Party. Both parties worked to maintain Cuba’s ties to Spain and rejected armed revolution as a means of changing government.

The independence forces in exile continued to organize as well. Cuban writer José Martí soon emerged as the leader of the renewed independence movement. Martí had traveled throughout the Americas before settling in New York City in 1881. From New York he wrote numerous influential newspaper articles on Latin American culture and became a leading advocate of Cuba’s independence. Martí formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party (Spanish acronym PRC) in an attempt to unite the various revolutionary factions and to fuse white and black Cubans into a single army of citizens. By April 1892, all the revolutionary clubs had joined the PRC. Between 1892 and 1895, the PRC solicited funds, purchased weapons, and trained troops in Cuba and in the United States. Officially, the United States remained neutral, but sympathy grew for the independence cause.

The War of 1895 and the Spanish-American War

The PRC set February 24, 1895, as the date to begin the final war of independence. PRC leaders arrived in Cuba, and small rebellions broke out in the east and moved into central Cuba. At first it seemed the PRC would lose, especially when on May 19, 1895, José Martí was killed in the battle of Dos Ríos in Cuba’s southeastern mountains. Moreover, the United States honored a previous commitment to Spain and intercepted rebel arms shipments.

Spain sent a massive army of 200,000 troops, the largest ever sent to the Americas, under the command of General Valeriano Weyler, a veteran of the Ten Years’ War. To eliminate potential support for the rebels, Weyler removed tens of thousands of Cubans to concentration camps. In the camps, thousands of people died of starvation, disease, and exposure.

The American popular press devoted a great deal of space to covering Spain’s alleged atrocities. By 1896 U.S. popular opinion clamored for intervention, and American investors were increasingly worried about their property. In 1896 U.S. president William McKinley told the Spanish government to win the war, issue reforms, or expect U.S. involvement. In the fall of 1897, Madrid agreed to reforms, withdrew General Weyler from Cuba, and appointed a Cuban assembly to govern the island’s internal affairs. The insurgents, however, refused to recognize the assembly members, who were Autonomists, and the war continued.

The McKinley administration prepared for intervention in the name of peace and uninterrupted trade. In the United States the public demand for intervention increased following an explosion that sank the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Most Americans blamed Spanish sabotage for the explosion. (A U.S. Navy study published in 1976 suggested that spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunker caused the explosion.) In April 1898, Congress declared war on Spain, but a congressional resolution limited U.S. action in Cuba to liberating the island and granting sovereignty to the new nation of Cuba.

The Spanish-American War itself lasted only fourteen weeks. The real battle was in Spain’s Asian colony of the Philippines, where the U.S. Navy defeated the Spanish navy at Manila Bay. In Cuba, the war consisted of a naval blockade of Havana’s harbor and an attack and siege of Santiago de Cuba in the east. The U.S. naval blockade cut off Spain’s supply lines and broke Spanish control of Cuba.

United States intervention altered the Cuban war of independence from a popular insurrection by Cubans to a victory by the United States. Prior to the U.S. intervention, Cuban revolutionaries controlled all Cuban territory except the major ports; by the end of 1898 the U.S. Army controlled the entire country.

United States control denied some of the social changes that the revolutionaries had hoped to put into effect, including efforts to establish racial and social equality. Many American political leaders opposed an independent Cuba with a racially diverse government. This prejudice was reinforced when the U.S. and Cuban armies met in Santiago de Cuba. The U.S. soldiers were appalled by the ragged and impoverished condition of their allies, many of whom were poor blacks. After the war, the United States occupied Cuba, and the U.S. Army disbanded the patriot army and excluded from power many of the Cuban patriots who had fought 30 years for liberation.

United States Occupation

In 1898 the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Spanish-American War. The United States and Spain negotiated the treaty with no Cuban representative present. The treaty left the United States firmly in control of newly independent Cuba. The United States assumed formal military possession of Cuba on January 1, 1899, and maintained a military occupation until May 20, 1902. Under U.S. tutelage, public schools were built and staffed throughout the island. Cuban teachers took educational courses at Harvard University and taught in their nation’s public elementary and secondary schools. Protestant missionaries flooded the country. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built bridges, roads, and sanitation systems. American army surgeon Walter Reed and Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay discovered the mosquito that carried yellow fever, and the army corps helped control the pest.

Although the United States kept its commitment to give Cuba self-rule, the U.S. government required an “Americanization” of Cuba’s leaders before ending the occupation. The U.S. government insisted that Cubans learn democratic principals before they were allowed to rule themselves. United States officials’ sense of democracy meant that only Spanish and Cuban elites should form the constitutional assembly that would write Cuba’s new constitution, since these elites were more inclined to favor U.S. influence in Cuba.

Despite U.S. attempts to control the direction of Cuba’s new government, in 1900 Cuban separatists won a majority of seats in the constitutional assembly. To ensure that the assembly did not reject U.S. influence, the U.S. government insisted that the new constitution include a number of conditions defining the relationship between the two nations.

These conditions—known as the Platt Amendment after its author, U.S. senator Orville Platt—prohibited Cuba from making treaties and alliances with other foreign countries, granted military bases on the island to the United States, and allowed U.S. intervention on the island whenever instability threatened. It also limited Cuba’s ability to accept foreign loans and mandated public health measures to suppress disease and malnutrition. The United States insisted that the military occupation would not end until Cubans accepted the Platt Amendment as part of their new constitution.

Most Cubans were strongly opposed to the Platt Amendment. Assembly members spoke out against it and citizens protested. At first the assembly voted down the amendment. However, when a number of nationalist members left the Assembly in protest, the remaining members passed the amendment by a one-vote margin. Most Cubans viewed the Platt Amendment as an intrusion on Cuban sovereignty and as an attempt by the United States to maintain control. Consequently, Cuban national identity developed a strong anti-American feeling.

The Search for Stability

Early Independence

The constitution adopted in 1901 provided for democratic selection of local, provincial, and national leaders. A president could succeed himself for a second term. A congress with two houses, modeled after the Congress of the United States, approved laws. The judicial system was separate from the executive and legislative branches. Tomás Estrada Palma, who had assumed the leadership of the Cuban Revolutionary Party following the death of José Martí, won election in 1901 as Cuba’s first president. He and his supporters had the task of repairing the damage of war and binding the wounds of disagreement between factions within Cuba.

Following the war, foreigners—largely Americans and Spaniards—bought land cheaply, and economic and political power began to concentrate in their hands. This created economic hardships for most Cubans. Cuban elites lost their lands and the poor lost their jobs as foreign laborers from Haiti and Jamaica, who worked for low wages, took the place of Cuban workers. Estrada Palma sought measures to stimulate the Cuban economy. The most lucrative opportunities lay with guaranteed purchases of Cuban sugar. In 1903 Cuba and the United States signed the Treaty of Reciprocity, which promised Cuban sugar growers 20 percent of the U.S. market without paying U.S. import taxes. In exchange, Cuba dropped taxes designed to protect its industries from U.S. imports. The Cuban market was opened to well over 400 American products that had previously been so heavily taxed that they were not affordable for most Cubans. As a result, the Cuban economy became dependent on the United States.

To counter growing opposition to his commitment to the United States, Estrada Palma organized the Moderate Party, which used local political organizations to control blocs of voters during the 1905 election. Although Estrada Palma won the election, opposition parties interpreted the use of these political organizations as election fraud and an abuse of presidential power. Rebellions broke out against his administration.

Estrada Palma and his cabinet resigned in 1906 and asked the United States to intervene to protect the Cuban treasury. A small corps of U.S. Marines landed in 1906. A provisional governor, U.S. bureaucrat Charles E. Magoon, assumed the task of restoring order and safeguarding American financial interests. Governor Magoon insisted that opposing parties disarm and agree to an election. He assured each side that the election would be fair. Magoon returned political control to a Cuban administration in 1908.

However, national trust in Cuban politicians had eroded as a result of the failure of Cuba’s first attempt at self-rule. Between 1909 and 1925, political parties became little more than a staging ground for gaining power and money. Opportunistic presidents curried favor in Washington and did little to build Cuba for Cubans. Holding political office often required payoffs to friends and foes alike, and the national treasury was at the disposal of dishonest officials.

Amidst political plunder and electoral opportunism, voices for social justice clamored to be heard. Between 1908 and 1912 a number of black political groups, such as the Independent Colored Association and the Independent Colored Party, organized to fight against racial discrimination in Cuban politics. Fearful that race would become a national issue, the Cuban Congress passed the Morúa law, which prohibited political organization along racial lines. The Independent Colored Party responded with an armed revolt in 1912, and the U.S. government landed Marines at Guantánamo, Havana, and Manzanillo. Cuban president José Miguel Gómez repressed the rebels ruthlessly to demonstrate that his administration could avert civil unrest. The government executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black activists and sympathizers, putting an end to political organizations based on race.

Over the next decade, the United States continued to intervene directly in Cuba’s internal affairs. In 1917 the Liberal Party revolted after the Conservative Party candidate, Mario C. Menocal, assumed the presidency through electoral fraud. The United States sent Marines to Cuba’s largest ports, and the U.S. ambassador notified the rebels that the United States would not recognize leadership that came to power through unconstitutional means. With that, the rebellion subsided, and it became clear to all that Cubans did not control their political destiny.

The Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to revise the electoral code in order to deter voting fraud. They invited U.S. supervision of the 1920 elections, and U.S. general Enoch H. Crowder came to Havana. He oversaw the election of Conservative Party candidate Alfredo Zayas, which was relatively free of fraud. But after the Zayas administration took office, graft and corruption reached new heights. Crowder, who remained in Cuba as a special representative of the United States, tried to pressure Zayas into ending government corruption. Crowder succeeded in forcing budgetary, commercial, municipal, and electoral reforms on the Cuban government. He persuaded the government to pass laws eliminating fraudulent election practices and convinced Zayas to appoint an “honest cabinet,” which included a number of highly respected Cubans. This cabinet cut government spending, reduced the bureaucracy, and revoked several public works contracts that would have enriched government employees. At first Zayas cooperated with Crowder, but later he played to Cuban sympathy for sovereignty and won wide support among Cubans. He eventually succeeded in rolling back the reforms that Crowder had put in place.

Zayas presided over a period of economic boom and bust. Sugar had always been Cuba’s major export, but the years between 1909 and 1920 were ones of exaggerated growth. The price of a pound of sugar was 1.93 cents per pound in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I. By 1920 it was worth 22.5 cents per pound. The rapid rise of sugar prices led Cubans to invest in land and equipment to produce more sugar, mortgaging all they had for future profits. This vigorous investment came to a sudden halt in December 1920 when the sugar market collapsed. Prices plummeted to 3.58 cents per pound.

The sugar bust devastated Cubans of all classes. United States banks and individuals bought sugar estates for a fraction of their original purchase price when their Cuban owners could not keep up mortgage payments. By 1925, U.S. citizens owned half of all Cuban sugar lands and refineries, many of which were consolidated into even larger estates. The colonos (smaller sugar growers) could not compete with these large holdings. Most colonos were forced to sell their land. Some became tenant farmers on property they had once owned. Others moved into cities to seek work there or became day laborers working in the sugar fields. Formerly, peasants had owned or inhabited small parcels of land and sustained themselves with subsistence farming. As the sugar plantations expanded, many peasants lost their land and took jobs working for the sugar companies. Salaries for peasants were minimal and likely to remain that way because Cubans and laborers from other Caribbean islands vied for work in the sugar mills.

The Machado Years

By 1920 political corruption, economic collapse, and financial desperation caused many groups to form new political organizations. Agricultural and industrial workers formed trade unions, which organized as the National Workers’ Federation of Cuba. Other workers formed the Radical Socialist Party. Women, determined to win legal and social rights, formed women’s rights organizations. In 1925 Communist associations united to form the Cuban Communist Party. Intellectuals who opposed the government formed the Grupo Minorista, which argued for cultural renewal and political reform. A new generation of Cubans proclaimed an idealistic nationalism aimed at social justice in Cuba. Suddenly the hopelessness of the previous 14 years changed to indignation, and citizens made clear that they expected more from their government than corruption and compliance with foreign economic interests.

As the 1924 elections approached, Zayas’ Conservative Party, too long associated with corruption and cooperation with the United States, had little chance of victory. The opposition parties, however, agreed on only one thing: the Platt Amendment had to go. Beyond that, political positions were deeply divided. Moderate nationalists sought compromise with the United States and modest reforms that would benefit the laboring classes. Radical activists demanded a reduction in U.S. economic holdings and socialist solutions to relieve economic hardship and promote economic equality.

The Liberal Party nominated Gerardo Machado, a former general, as their presidential candidate. Machado promised to cut back on government bureaucracy, limit the presidency to one term, revise the Platt Amendment, provide more public services, and pay public debts. Machado won by a landslide. For the first three years of his presidency, Machado was extremely popular. He put laborers to work on major construction projects, controlled sugar production to keep prices high, taxed imported products to protect Cuban industries from foreign competition, and invested in agricultural diversification to reduce Cuba’s reliance on sugar. The Liberal, Conservative, and newly formed Popular parties pledged their support to the president and his policies.

World economics, not domestic disagreement, first shook Machado’s hold on power. Beginning in 1926, sugar prices fell. The government held down sugar production by 10 percent to support sagging prices. Thousands of laborers were out of work and tens of thousands faced chronic underemployment. Disgruntled laborers began work stoppages and slowdowns, and Machado met their actions with police repression. Still, the majority of Cubans continued to support Machado. In 1927 the Liberal, Conservative, and Popular parties suggested that Machado seek another term of office. With Machado’s approval, a Constituent Assembly amended the constitution to create a six-year presidential term. This would allow Machado to hold office until 1935.

With this act, Machado alienated many moderate nationalists who had supported him. Rumblings of protests began in 1928 when Machado ran unopposed for a six-year presidential term. A leftist group, the University Student Federation, staged violent protests in the streets of Havana. The government responded by closing the university indefinitely. The members of the Federation then dissolved the group and formed the more radical Student Directorate. They fanned out over the island, organizing workers, intellectuals, and women to seek a return of democracy and social justice.

The Great Depression of 1929, not dissent from the Left, finally destabilized the Machado regime. Cuba was hit especially hard. Sugar prices, already low in 1928 at $2.18 per pound, dropped to $1.72 per pound in 1929. By 1933 a pound of sugar sold for $0.57 per pound. The government and businesses laid off employees and reduced pay for the remaining workers. Poor peasants migrated to cities and slept in parks, on streets, or in flophouses, and people starved to death throughout the country.

Demonstrations demanding jobs, decent wages, and the right of workers to unionize and strike increased in frequency. In 1930 Machado decreed spontaneous demonstrations illegal and authorized police to break up political meetings. Moderate and radical groups unified in opposition to Machado. Feminists, students, workers, teachers, agricultural workers, and small farmers took to the streets and sabotaged government installations. In response Machado became even more brutal. He established the Porra, a special police force trained to arrest, imprison, torture, and execute dissidents. As moderates watched the repression, discontent grew against Machado’s government, even in aristocratic circles. In 1932, as civil order deteriorated, Machado suspended the constitution.

In April 1933, Sumner Welles, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, arrived with instructions to mediate talks between Machado and his opposition. Machado refused to make any concessions to the opposition, which was divided. The moderates favored a return to the 1901 constitution and Machado’s resignation, while the radicals demanded deep social, economic, and political reforms.

When the talks failed, Welles became convinced that Machado had to resign. Two unrelated events sealed Machado’s fate. A strike by bus and streetcar workers evolved into a general strike demanding Machado’s resignation. At the same time, an anti-Machado faction took command of the military. Faced with public unrest and a loss of military support, Machado resigned in September 1933.

Grau’s Revolutionary Government

Without consulting the Cuban opposition, Sumner Welles appointed his close friend, diplomat Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, as the interim president. Céspedes stepped into a difficult situation. Outbursts of pent-up bitterness continued against Machado, and indignation grew over U.S. handling of the situation. Another coup within the army weakened Céspedes’ ability to govern. The coup was led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, who seized control of the armed forces in September 1933. The Student Directorate rushed to support Batista and turned the mutiny into a demand that Céspedes step down, which he promptly did after serving only 23 days in office.

The unlikely alliance of military officers and students introduced a dynamic period of national reform. The Student Directorate installed Ramón Grau San Martín, a physician and a professor at the University of Havana Law School, as the new president. Grau moved quickly to put in place a program of radical measures. He nullified the Platt Amendment, gave women the vote, established an eight-hour work day, dissolved the political parties that had cooperated with Machado, approved a land redistribution program, and tried to extract fair taxation from U.S. sugar companies.

Grau’s administration quickly attracted enemies from both sides of the political spectrum. On the Left, the Communists urged the Student Directorate to seize U.S. businesses and the estates of wealthy Cubans. Frightened moderates and conservatives feared that Grau’s reform policy would erode their own power and wealth and also foresaw conflict with the United States. Both sides undercut Grau’s support. Confronted with growing opposition, the Student Directorate shocked everyone when it voted to dissolve itself, leaving Grau at the mercy of his adversaries. As Grau’s power base disintegrated, political instability returned and his economic reforms faltered.

Batista’s First Regime

In January 1934, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, Batista led a coup that ousted Grau. Over the next few years, a number of politicians served as president. However, as head of the military, Batista held the real power, governing from behind the scenes from 1934 to 1940. His will to sustain order was tested at first by radicals who ran clandestine operations and organized strikes in an effort to dislodge his government. But within a year, the military had repressed the radicals, arresting and executing many of their leaders. These actions brought peace and stability to the middle and upper classes.

Economic conditions in Cuba improved between 1933 and 1940. The United States increased Cuba’s sugar quota (the amount of sugar Cuba was allowed to import into the United States each year), and the price of sugar rose from 25 cents per pound in 1933 to 31.4 cents per pound in 1937. Improvements in the sugar industry reinvigorated the Cuban economy. To prevent a repeat of the speculation that had ruined Cuban growers in the past, the government passed the Sugar Coordination Law in 1937. This law allowed the state to control all lands used for sugar cultivation, apportion acreage to producers, and regulate prices and wages.

Cubans also turned their attention to unresolved constitutional questions. Since Grau had not been elected according to the provisions of Cuba’s constitution, his reforms were of dubious legality. Cubans had also grown to resent the 1901 constitution essentially written by the U.S. occupation government. To ratify Grau’s reforms and write their own constitution, Cubans called a Constitutional Assembly. Throughout 1939 political associations and trade unions met to decide their positions on issues and to nominate their delegates to the assembly. In November 1939, Cubans elected 81 delegates, 44 of whom belonged to the Auténtico Party, which Grau had formed to preserve the reforms instituted during his presidency. The delegates adopted many of Grau’s reforms, such as universal suffrage, equal rights, fair elections, free political organization, agrarian reform, labor safety codes, minimum wages and maximum work hours, retirement pensions, national insurance guarantees, and the right to strike.

During the late 1930s, Batista developed a broad base of political support, building close relationships with political groups ranging from conservatives to Communists. In 1940 Batista felt confident enough to enter politics as a civilian candidate for president. He ran against Grau and won in a relatively fair election. During his four-year term, he supported the reforms of the new constitution. Batista’s term ended quietly in 1944, and he retired to the United States after his handpicked successor lost the election.

The Auténtico Presidents

Two Auténtico politicians held the presidency for the next eight years: Grau was president from 1944 to 1948 and Carlos Prío Socarrás from 1948 to 1952. As president, each oversaw a period of corruption unsurpassed by all previous presidents. The optimism and zeal for reform of Grau’s earlier administration had faded among many Auténtico politicians. After spending most of their political lives excluded from the spoils of the political system, the Auténticos now controlled a government that for years had functioned on the basis of greed and corruption. They took full advantage of the system. Uncertain over whether Auténtico rule would continue for long, government officials moved quickly to grab as much as they could from the public treasury. Governmental jobs supported thousands of Auténtico allies. Organized crime controlled tourism, gambling, drugs, and prostitution. Politicians anxious to receive the spoils of office fought gang wars against one another, turning the streets into a violent political forum.

The economy was strong during the 1940s, mainly due to an increase in trade during and directly after World War II (1939-1945). Between 1945 and 1948 sugar production rose 40 percent. Sugar producers’ profits increased by hundreds of millions of dollars. The resulting increase in demand led to higher prices for many products, causing severe hardship for the poor. The most devastating effect of this boom was the mismanagement of the windfall earnings. The boom years brought increased capital into the sugar aristocracy’s bank accounts and into the national treasury as tax revenues increased. Neither the sugar barons nor the government invested in diversifying industry or manufacturing. Instead, sugar barons added to their estates and updated equipment for their plantations. Corruption skimmed off most of the government funds. Most of the money generated by the boom went into the pockets of wealthy individuals, and the distribution of wealth was skewed in favor of the wealthy.

In response to political violence and economic inequities, political reformers, led by Eddy Chibás, a former member of the Auténtico Party, established the Orthodoxo Party in 1947. Chibás brought into the new party students, professionals, workers, and peasants. A passionate speaker, Chibás rekindled ideals of political integrity, democracy, and social reform. In frequent radio broadcasts, he accused the government of corruption and eroded Auténtico authority.

On August 5, 1951, Chibás shot himself during a radio broadcast after he was accused of making false statements about an Auténtico cabinet member. His death ten days later left the Orthodoxos without their center. His style and some of his principles influenced an Orthodoxo Party member, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer and political activist who was at Chibás’ bedside as he was dying.

The Batista Dictatorship

In 1952 Batista returned from the United States to run for president. When it became apparent that he did not have strong support among voters, Batista organized a bloodless military takeover and became dictator. Batista, however, found that the situation was very different than it had been at the time of his earlier coup in 1934, when he had considerable popular support and was able to build a successful coalition of political groups. In 1952 he faced Cuban citizens who respected their constitution. Organizations opposed to Batista seemed to appear everywhere. Most of these groups had one goal: the removal of Batista. Only university students, the Communists, and Fidel Castro articulated programs for a post-Batista government.

In 1953 Castro attracted a following of young people who shared his desire to topple Batista and reinstate the constitution. On July 26, Castro and 150 armed followers entered the Moncada Military Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Guards set off an alarm and quickly captured the attackers. Castro and several dozen men escaped, but were later arrested. The army brutally tortured and killed 68 insurgents, an act that made heroes and martyrs of Castro’s group.

Castro defended his action in a court hearing, arguing that the government, not his movement, was in violation of constitutional law because it took power illegally and because it had committed atrocities against defenseless prisoners. In a courtroom speech, he promised to lead a revolution that would oversee land reform, industrialization, housing construction, greater employment opportunities, and expanded health and welfare services. After a brief deliberation, a tribunal sentenced Castro to 15 years in prison.

Other revolutionary groups contested Batista’s dictatorship. The Federation of University Students organized rallies and called for Batista’s removal. Most of the students came from the middle class, and although they sympathized with the problems of workers, they did not formulate policies to assist them. In 1955 some of these students concluded that radical action was needed to remove Batista from office. They founded the Revolutionary Directorate to carry out bloody clashes with the army and to attempt to assassinate Batista.

In 1954 Batista won the presidential election, running unopposed after other parties refused to participate. The following year he felt confident enough to free all political prisoners, including Castro. Castro soon left for Mexico with a small number of followers to plan a revolutionary movement they would call the 26th of July Movement (M-26) after the date of the Moncada Barracks assault.

Cuban Revolution

Unrest continued in Cuba. In mid-1956 Batista faced dissension within the military as several officers conspired to overthrow him and reinstate liberal, democratic politicians. The leaders were court-martialed and jailed. On March 13, 1957, the Revolutionary Directorate attacked the presidential palace, intending to assassinate Batista. The president barely escaped as the rebels shot their way onto the grounds. José Antonio Echeverría, the directorate’s leader, was gunned down and the rest of his men were captured, killed, or forced into hiding.

Meanwhile Castro had been raising funds, acquiring weapons, and training a small band of guerrillas in Mexico. On November 29, 1956, Castro and about 80 men crammed themselves into a small yacht, the Granma, and set out to invade Cuba. All did not go as planned, however. Bad weather delayed their arrival, and the rebels landed 30 miles south of the point where weapons and reinforcements awaited them. As they waded ashore, Batista’s army ambushed them, and only a handful of men escaped. They formed a small guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, the mountains of southeast Cuba.

From his base in the mountains, Castro organized raids on military installations to acquire weapons and worked closely with the rural population to build a base of support. He invited Herbert Matthews, a New York Times correspondent, to the Sierra Maestra to report on the 26th of July Movement. Matthews’ reports brought international attention to Castro’s movement. New recruits joined him, and urban guerrilla groups, such as the Civic Resistance group, founded in 1957, became auxiliaries of the 26th of July Movement.

Well into 1958, U.S. State Department officials misread the Cuban population’s profound dissatisfaction with Batista, as U.S. diplomatic dispatches from Havana indicated that Batista had the opposition under control. Eventually, as Batista’s dictatorial tendencies grew and the extent of opposition to his regime became apparent, the alliance between the United States and Batista weakened. The United States discussed with Batista the possibility of working with the moderate opposition and scheduling free elections. Batista refused. The United States considered an armed intervention, but instead decided to force Batista to resign by withholding arms shipments. Meanwhile, the opposition was unifying around Castro. In March 1958, 45 civic organizations signed an open letter supporting Castro’s guerrillas.

Conditions deteriorated for Batista during the following months. On April 9, 1958, a general strike to protest the Batista government did not paralyze the country, but it did throw doubt on Batista’s ability to govern. In April and May Batista failed to suppress two major rebel offensives. In May Batista began an assault on Castro’s stronghold in the Sierra Maestra. In July more than 10,000 government soldiers failed to dislodge Castro’s men during the Battle of Jigue. In late August the rebel army moved out of its mountain sanctuary onto the plains.

The rebels made steady advances throughout the remainder of the year. In November government troops lost control of the central highway into Santiago. In December rebel forces won a bloody battle for control of Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba. Batista understood that his downfall was imminent. After his annual New Year’s Eve party, he and his closest advisers secretly boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic.

Cuba Under Castro

Implementing the Revolution

Fidel Castro demanded that all opposition groups lay down their arms and consolidate power under his leadership. These groups complied since their objective had been to remove Batista; they had no plans to govern. Castro led a jubilant procession from eastern Cuba to Havana, and his bearded, youthful revolutionaries became uncontested national leaders.

When Castro entered Havana on January 9, 1959, he had support from the political left and the majority of the population. Most people agreed with Castro’s earlier promises to hold elections in one year, to recognize individual rights as stated in the 1940 constitution, and to guarantee political freedom. At first Castro did not assume a political office. He appointed moderate politicians to serve in the new government. However, Castro continued serving as head of the armed forces, and he remained the major force in determining the policies of the new government. Moderate politicians quickly became disenchanted with Castro’s policies and began leaving the government. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Miró Cardona in February 1959, Castro became prime minister.

His first order of business was purging Batista supporters from the government. The government created special tribunals, which quickly passed judgment on Batista associates. Sentences ranged from death before firing squads to prison terms lasting from 2 to 30 years. Officially the number of people executed was less than 700, though Castro’s opponents claim that many times that number died.

Castro’s second objective was to centralize control of the economy. In March 1959 the cabinet passed the Urban Reform Law, designed to reduce or eliminate the large profits made by wealthy individuals who had amassed extensive real estate holdings in the cities. Batista’s strongest supporters—those who had promoted violence to suppress anti-Batista dissent—lost their properties immediately. Large property owners lost some of their estates. The law restricted the profits of other landlords by reducing rents to a fraction of the pre-1959 levels. Other economic reforms were passed, and wage and price controls standardized wages and reduced the cost of living. Wealth was quickly redistributed. In May the Agrarian Reform Law limited private landholdings to 402 hectares (993 acres) per family. Limits were set at 1,350 hectares (3,336 acres) in the case of farms producing sugar, rice, and livestock. The government confiscated the largest estates, converting them into state cooperatives upon which individual workers could hold parcels of 26 hectares (65 acres).

The government also implemented a number of social programs designed to improve living conditions for poor and working-class citizens. A major literacy program taught almost all Cubans to read and write, and the government built hospitals in rural areas where healthcare had never been available. The laboring classes benefited significantly from these changes and their support for the revolutionary government was unequivocal.

Liberals and moderates, however, harbored doubts that Castro would return Cuba to democracy. Between 1959 and 1962, more than 200,000 people, many wealthy property owners and middle-class professionals, left the island. The government viewed them as traitors and prohibited them from taking any transportable wealth with them.

Break with the United States

The United States had a great deal to lose as a result of Castro’s reforms. At the end of 1958, U.S. businesses owned 75 percent of Cuba’s fertile land, 90 percent of its public services, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. Castro’s policy of seizing businesses and confiscating the property of the wealthy raised concerns in the United States about Communist influence. Castro had no record of Communist affiliation, and he had made a point of emphasizing that his revolution was not based on Communism. Nonetheless, U.S. officials were wary of his programs and decided that Castro had to be removed from power.

The U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an intelligence-gathering organization under the command of the president of the United States, plotted two approaches to overturning Castro’s government: economic pressure and military intervention. The U.S. government tried economic pressure first. On July 3, 1960, the Congress of the United States decreased the Cuban sugar quota. This action reduced the amount of sugar that Cuba could legally import into the United States and caused a serious reduction in Cuba’s income from foreign trade. The United States cut the quota after Cuba seized installations belonging to U.S. oil companies that had refused to refine crude oil imported from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the world’s leading Communist nation. At the time, the USSR was involved in an ongoing struggle with the United States known as the Cold War. In retaliation, the Cuban government appropriated U.S. sugar property. On October 19 the U.S. Treasury Department declared a trade embargo, which stopped all commerce with Cuba except for food and medicine. On October 24 Castro struck back by nationalizing all U.S. holdings. The attempt to bring Castro to heel through economic pressure only widened the gap between the United States and Cuba. The two countries formally severed diplomatic relations in January 1961.

Next the United States tried military action. In March 1960 the CIA had begun training Cuban exiles for an invasion. The newly inaugurated U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, approved the invasion plans. The plans called for an air strike by anti-Castro Cuban pilots based in the United States. Following this attack, amphibious forces would land at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba and start a guerrilla campaign. Launched on April 17, 1961, the attack was a complete failure. Castro, who knew about the plan, scattered his air force to save it from destruction, and Cuba’s military overwhelmed the invading land forces within 48 hours.

The Bay of Pigs consolidated Castro’s power. Throngs of Cubans rejoiced in defeating the strongest military power in the world. Castro’s popularity soared at home and abroad. Those who had disagreed with Castro’s government kept silent, as approximately 100,000 people suspected of subversive activities were imprisoned or detained. In May 1961 the government canceled promised elections and declared the 1940 constitution outdated. Social and political associations were absorbed into official government organizations. On December 2 Castro announced that he was a Communist and would implement socialist policies in Cuba.

To deter further U.S. plans to invade or destabilize Cuba, Castro sought economic and military assistance from the USSR. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to secretly send missiles armed with nuclear weapons that were capable of hitting targets within the United States. In September 1962 U.S. spy planes identified the missile sites. On October 22 Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island and informed Khrushchev that any Soviet ship crossing the blockade line risked starting a nuclear war. At the last minute, the two leaders resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis before it erupted in hostilities. Khrushchev recalled the ships and agreed to dismantle the missile sites. In return the United States agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles from sites in Turkey. Cuban leaders were left out of the negotiations, which infuriated Castro and briefly chilled relations between the USSR and Cuba.

Building a New Economy

With most Cubans united behind his government, Castro completed the transformation of Cuba’s economy. The government centralized and coordinated all economic decisions. It provided every Cuban with work and set salaries that distributed wealth more equitably among workers. To inspire the population, revolutionary leader Che Guevara, a close associate of Castro, introduced the New Man Theory. This doctrine proposed that people would work not for their own material advancement, but to benefit the community. Castro and Guevara attempted to use the New Man Theory to motivate Cubans to work harder for the revolution. It did not prove successful. Although working-class and poor Cubans supported the goals of the revolution, many were not willing to work long hours without increased financial compensation.

In 1962 the economy collapsed due to poor government planning and a decline in trade with the United States resulting from the embargo. The amount of goods available, especially food and clothing, declined sharply. Inflation followed, since Cubans had money but little to buy. The government imposed price and wage freezes and rationed food, clothing, and gasoline. The black market offered scarce items at high prices.

Despite the shortages in goods during the 1960s, the government successfully redistributed wealth more equitably and provided a better quality of life for most Cubans. The government provided schools, medical clinics, retirement pensions, and public transportation. It also reduced rents and utility charges, lowering the cost of living. The poorest 40 percent of the population saw their per capita income rise, despite the faltering economy and the scarcity of many goods.

By the end of the 1960s, stabilizing the economy had become the government’s first priority. The reforms of the revolution and Castro’s ability to implement independent policies depended upon Cuba building an economy that could support extensive social reforms. To this end, Castro pledged that Cuba would produce 10 million tons of sugar in the 1970 harvest. As early as 1968, resources, both human and material, were being mobilized for sugar production. Cubans were pressured into “volunteering” their time to perform unpaid work in the sugar fields. Approximately 1.2 million workers from all sectors of the economy joined 100,000 members of the army and 300,000 sugar workers in the fields. In the end, the effort failed. On July 26, 1970, Castro informed the Cuban people that the nation had produced only 8.5 million tons. The consequences of the failure were harsh. All sectors of the economy declined sharply because labor and resources had been diverted to the harvest.

Political and Economic Changes in the 1970s

The political ramifications of the harvest failure were just as sobering. The USSR agreed to provide financial assistance to Cuba, but it insisted that Castro create a Soviet-style bureaucracy that limited his personal influence on policy. The Communist Party assumed more authority and pushed for efficient economic practices. In 1972 Cuba became a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the trade association of Communist nations. By the mid-1980s, the USSR purchased 64 percent of Cuba’s exports and provided 62 percent of its imports.

Many experts predicted that the reforms demanded by the USSR would diminish Castro’s authority. Contrary to expectations, however, the new bureaucracy left Castro free to deal with political issues and international affairs. In 1976 Castro introduced a new constitution for Cuba, which allowed people a greater voice in choosing their leaders and approving legislation. Citizens elected representatives to local, provincial, and national assemblies. Representatives to the National Assembly selected a president, who had authority over the ministers who ran government departments. The assembly chose Castro as president.

The new constitution encouraged popular participation through large government-approved organizations. The Federation of Cuban Women, the Confederation of Cuban Workers, the Small Farmers’ National Organization, and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution drew members from every occupational and social sector. These organizations were designed to allow the people to recommend policies to the central government. Conversely, the central government implemented policies by sending directives to citizens through these organizations. The government decided domestic issues regarding family law, education policies, and child care after taking into consideration dialogues among people and between people and the government.

International Relations

Following the rupture of Cuban-U.S. relations in the early 1960s, the United States pressured Latin American countries to break ties with Cuba. At U.S. insistence, the Organization of American States (OAS), an organization that coordinates economic, social, and security issues among the nations of the Western Hemisphere, expelled Cuba. As a result, Cuba sought diplomatic relations with the Communist nations of Eastern Europe and developing countries in Africa.

Cuba also encouraged revolutionary movements in Latin America. In 1967 Che Guevara was captured and executed while trying to start an insurrection in the mountains of Bolivia. Cuba’s commitment to exporting revolution caused a serious disagreement with the USSR in the mid-1960s. The Cubans showed little patience with the world’s traditional Communist parties, which in the 1950s and early 1960s tried to win power through democratic methods, rather than by armed revolt. However, the rift between Cuba and the USSR narrowed significantly after the USSR showed its displeasure by reducing shipments of oil to Cuba and withdrawing its technical advisors.

In 1973 relations between the USSR and the United States improved, and Cuba benefited from a reduction in international tensions. The OAS voted to allow its members to determine their own relations with Cuba. Under U.S. president Gerald R. Ford secret meetings with Cuban authorities dealt with diplomatic and economic openings with Cuba. This changed abruptly in 1975 when Cuba sent military forces into the African nation of Angola, which had just won its independence from Portugal. Cuban troops aided leftist forces fighting for control of the newly independent nation. From 1975 to 1989 Cuba committed 250,000 troops to Angola before a peace settlement was eventually reached.

Under the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Cuba and the United States each established a diplomatic office in the other country. In 1977 Americans were allowed to visit Cuba as tourists. But attempts to improve Cuban/U.S. relations foundered on a buildup of Soviet technicians and advisers in Cuba and on Cuba’s commitment to the Sandinista rebels. The Sandinistas ousted Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in September 1979 following a bitter struggle known as the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Cuba’s prestige as an international leader peaked in 1979 when Castro became the head of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of nations that sought to remain neutral during the Cold War. Although Cuba was an ally of the USSR, members of the movement supported Castro’s leadership to demonstrate their disapproval of the 19-year-old U.S. embargo. Cuba also became the host country for international humanitarian meetings, such as the International Youth Conference in 1980.

Dissent and Economic Decline

Despite increased national debate as a result of the political reforms of 1976, the government of Cuba did not tolerate criticism of its programs. Officials and experts who could have predicted policy failures were censored and even punished. With no outlet for frustration and no legally permitted dissent, tensions increased at the end of the late 1970s despite improved economic conditions.

In 1980 a small number of Cubans broke into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana asking for asylum. Several thousand more followed until they overflowed the embassy grounds. When U.S. president Jimmy Carter offered to take the people who wanted to leave, Castro opened the doors. Both presidents were shocked when over 120,000 people spontaneously left homes and families to seek political asylum in the United States in an incident dubbed the Mariel boat lift.

The exodus demonstrated that Cuba had serious problems deriving from the lack of personal freedom and chronic economic austerity. Castro moved quickly to ease the difficulties of daily life. Between 1980 and 1985, the government allowed farmers’ markets to provide food to urban areas where rationed products had been inadequate.

But in 1986 Castro reversed this process, declaring that farmers were earning unreasonably large sums in the open markets. A new policy known as the Rectification Process gave priority to the production of exportable goods over goods made for consumption within Cuba. The government also tried to replace imported goods with domestically produced goods to prevent cash from flowing out of the country. Increasing efficient production and bureaucracy downsizing became paramount. Finally, the government increased the amount of “voluntary work” that it required from Cuban citizens and preached against the evils of a material world.

Post-Cold War Era

In 1989 two events shook the foundations of Cuban society. The first involved a political scandal. The government charged General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, a decorated hero and the architect of Cuban victories in Angola, with drug smuggling. Ochoa had been an advocate for Cuban troops returning from overseas, helping them find employment. His efforts had made him popular among Cuban troops and the second most important person in Cuba. Many Cubans suspected that Ochoa’s crime was his popularity and his potential to challenge Castro for power. After a brief trial, Ochoa was executed.

The second event was more far-reaching. It began in the USSR when political and economic reforms were implemented in the late 1980s. These reforms decreased centralized control of the Soviet economy and increased citizens’ ability to participate in government. The idea that socialism could exist with a less regulated economy and a more participatory government appealed to younger Cubans. In 1989 the USSR disintegrated into a number of smaller republics. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev visited Cuba in early 1990 to warn the government that economic reforms were forthcoming and not to count on the $5.5 billion yearly subsidies that the USSR had previously provided Cuba. The news was devastating in Cuba, since 86 percent of foreign financial and economic relations were with the USSR and its allies.

The Cuban economy faltered during the mid-1980s and declined precipitously into 1993. Beginning in 1991, Cuba had to import sugar from Brazil and other Caribbean countries to fulfill its foreign trade commitments with the Eastern European countries. As a result, Cuba borrowed money from capitalist countries and amassed a significant debt, which it has not yet repaid. Like other debtor nations, Cuba has imposed severe austerity programs on the populace and diverted money from social programs to pay for the debt. In addition, the price of Cuba’s imports rose from 16 to 40 percent from 1989 to 1992, while the price of Cuba’s exports, namely sugar and nickel, dropped by 20 and 28 percent, respectively.

As U.S. president Bill Clinton took office in 1992, Castro sent word to Clinton through diplomatic channels that there was a potential to improve relations. Cuba, however, was not a high priority for Clinton, who announced that the United States would not normalize relations with any country that had abandoned democracy. In 1992 U.S. senator Robert Torricelli authored the Cuba Democracy Act, which extended the trade embargo beyond U.S. companies. The act penalized foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies trading with Cuba, as well as other nations that engaged in commerce with the island. His intention was to topple Castro in a matter of months by extending the 30-year-old embargo to cut off all trade with the island.

The economic situation in Cuba became grave. Inflation spiraled as the Cuban peso lost ground against foreign currency. The even distribution of wealth, so fundamental to the revolution’s ideology, was dismantled when Castro allowed Cubans to possess and spend dollars in 1993. People employed in the tourism industry and those who received money from relatives living abroad greatly increased their buying power compared with those with Cuban pesos.

Social unrest rumbled under the surface of daily life. Blackouts caused by deficient oil supplies left families without electricity, sometimes for days at a time. Food shortages were common. Transportation difficulties added hours to short trips. Cuba’s public health system, which had been the best in Latin America for decades following the revolution, ran short of medicine, sheets for hospital beds, and food for patients.

“Special Period in a Time of Peace”

The government instituted economic austerity measures, which Castro characterized as the “special period in a time of peace.” In September 1993 the government announced that large state-farms would be broken into workers’ cooperatives. A year later the government again allowed free agricultural markets in order to supply food for a malnourished population. The government also invited industrialists from foreign countries, principally Mexico, France, Canada, Britain, and Spain, to establish businesses in partnership with the government in tourism, medicine, and exports of food.

Discontent continued, however, as evidenced by the number of people trying to escape Cuba on the high seas. In 1993 and 1994 record numbers of people left Cuba on rafts and asked for asylum in the United States. On August 5, 1994, a crowd in Havana’s old city rioted. Castro made a personal appearance and convinced the crowd to disband. He then publicly announced that anyone wishing to leave Cuba could. Almost immediately the beaches of Havana province were full of people in makeshift boats setting out for Miami. More than 6,000 rafters reached the United States by mid-August and an unknown number perished at sea.

The United States found the exodus impossible to control, and on August 18, 1994, ended a 28-year-old policy of automatically granting asylum to Cubans. Efforts to negotiate an orderly exodus failed when the United States denied a Cuban request to end the trade embargo. When negotiations failed, the Cuban government closed its borders.

Conservative U.S. legislators stepped up efforts to tighten the trade embargo by passing the Helms-Burton law, which penalized any nation or individual that traded with Cuba and leveled sanctions against U.S. citizens who traveled to the island. Under the law, U.S. citizens caught traveling to Cuba without government permission can be fined $200,000 and sentenced to up to six months in jail. At first Clinton delayed signing the bill. On February 24, 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two airplanes owned by the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro Cuban exile organization. Controversy arose about whether the aircraft were in Cuban airspace when the shooting occurred. Following the incident, Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill into law.

As 1997 drew to a close, the greatest hope for Cubans seemed to be a spiritual one. Pope John Paul II had planned a visit to Cuba, and the aging Castro permitted him to come. Interest in the visit grew, even though most Cubans did not practice a religion. Of 11 million Cubans, only about 1 million were practicing Catholics, and about 4.5 million participated in Santería, a blending of African and Catholic rituals. For the first time in decades, churches filled with worshipers, and people openly wore crucifixes and religious medals. Castro invited the pope to demonstrate that his revolution shared much in common with Christian teachings of charity and community love. He also hoped that the pope’s strong condemnation of the U.S. embargo would add weight to world pressure against U.S. policy.

In 1999 a five-year-old Cuban boy, Elián González, was rescued by American fishermen after surviving a shipwreck while trying to reach the United States with his mother. Backed by some U.S. lawmakers, relatives of the boy in Miami sought to keep Elián in the United States, despite calls from his father to return him to Cuba. Castro called the incident a “kidnapping.” The incident energized support for Castro in Cuba, with thousands of people participating in anti-U.S. rallies in Havana. In June 2000 Elián returned to Cuba with his father, after the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal from his relatives to keep Elián in the country.

In 2003 Cuba again made international news when it cracked down on political dissidents. The Cuban government arrested about 80 journalists, activists, and opposition party leaders for supposedly plotting to undermine the government and threaten national security. During closed trials, the dissidents were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths up to 28 years. This incident represented Cuba’s largest crackdown in many years, and the international community reacted strongly. Many people called on Castro to free the dissidents, who wanted to foster democracy in Cuba and pressure Cuba to open its society and improve its human rights record.

In 2006 Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother Raúl Castro as he underwent and then recovered from intestinal surgery. In February 2008 Fidel announced his permanent resignation as president, saying that he could no longer perform the duties of the office. However, he remained the head of the Cuban Communist Party. The National Assembly selected Raúl as the new president of Cuba. Raúl turned over his duties as defense minister to General Julio Casas Reguiero.

The Beginnings of a Thaw?

During the first decade of the 21st century, Cuba’s isolation within Latin America appeared to be drawing to a close. Democratic elections brought to power left and left-of-center governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela, all of which embraced close diplomatic relations with Cuba and opposed the U.S. embargo. Venezuela, headed by the socialist Hugo Chávez, advocated for Cuba to become part of the Organization of American States (OAS) and supplied Cuba with badly needed petroleum. Cuba, in return, sent medical personnel to help staff health clinics in poor and working-class areas of Venezuela.

Although the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush remained hostile to Cuba for the first eight years of the decade, the election of Democrat Barack Obama seemed likely to bring changes in U.S.-Cuban relations. One of the first acts of the Obama administration was to lift restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on the ability of Cuban Americans living in the United States to send remittances back to family members in Cuba. The Obama administration also lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans living in the United States. At an April 2009 Summit of the Americas, which drew the heads of state of North and South American nations, Obama called for a “new beginning with Cuba.” In return, Cuba’s Raúl Castro indicated that Cuba was willing to discuss any issue, a position that had reportedly never been offered prior to previous negotiations between Cuba and the United States. However, many observers believed it was unlikely that the United States would soon end its embargo due to political opposition from key U.S. senators.

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