It was the Taíno that Columbus met when he first stepped onto Cuban shores. He spoke of them quite highly, saying that “They are the best people in the world…[they] are gentle and always laughing.” Naturally, it followed that “…They should be good servants.”
Soon more Spanish settlers followed, on a quest for gold in the New World. They set the Taíno to work. Interestingly, the Spanish did not refer to this treatment of the Taíno as slavery. Slavery was technically not allowed, so the conquistadors claimed that the natives were working as serfs as part of a Spanish missionizing effort.
Columbus’ son, Diego Columbus, arrived in Cuba along with four ships full of settlers in 1511. He founded the city of Baracoa first, followed soon by Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad.
100 years after the Spanish arrived, the Taíno and other indigenous people had died out. They were worked to death on the plantations and in the mines, or died from Spanish diseases like smallpox and measles. Many of the Spanish conquistadors took indigenous wives, creating a new population of ethnically mixed Cubans that came to be known as criollos.
Cuba eventually became a hub for Spanish exports. Shortly after the Spanish arrived in Cuba they started trading in the Philippines. On their way to Spain, the Spanish ships would stop in the port city of Havana before sending them Europe. Spanish ships assembled into sizable fleets before making the trip across the ocean, as part of an effort to deter pirated. British pirates – or buccaneers – were encouraged to attack Spanish ships by the British government.
18th-Century Pirate Wars and the Fight for Cuba
In 1537, pirates raided Havana. French pirate Jacques de Sores led the attack, and soon all of Havana was in tatters.
Eventually Holland, France, and England banded together to back the pirates that were attacking Spanish ships. In retribution the Spanish Armada attacked the British Navy off the coast of England. But Queen Elizabeth I’s navy defeated the Spanish Armada, leaving Spain in a politically precarious situation.
England and Spain had numerous conflicts over the 18th century, and as a result control over Cuba was passed back and forth between the two countries.
In 1763 Spain ceded Cuba to England in exchange for control of Florida, as part of the Treaty of Paris. Charles III was king of Spain at the time, and unlike his predecessors he allowed other countries to trade freely with Cuba.
The Rise of Sugar and Monoculture
One of the interested investors was the newly formed United States. During the 1770s American businesses encouraged the growth of Cuban sugar plantations.
In 1791 a rebellion in Haiti brought French planters to Cuba. These planters had more advanced techniques for growing sugar than the Cuban farmers, and sugar production improved. As a result, Cuba became increasingly reliant on sugar as a major part of the economy.
Spain signed agreement with England to abolish their slave trade in 1817. Unfortunately this did not slow down the slave trade, as Cuban officials at the time were easy to bribe. Cuba remained a stopover for slavers into the 19th century.
Throughout the early and 19th century, successive U.S. presidents made bids to purchase Cuba from Spain. After the American Civil War, the U.S. turned its attention to ending the outpost of slave trade that remained in Cuba.
Ten Years’ War: 1868 – 1878
From the beginning of Spanish colonization only native-born Spaniards had rights. Into the 19th century Cubans could not own businesses, hold public office, or travel without permission. During the mid-19th century tensions came to ahead. In 1868 a criollo farmer freed his slaves, inciting the beginning of the war. Generals Antonio Maceo and General Máximo Gómez led the rebellion, two men who Cubans now think of as national heroes.
When all was said and done, 250,000 Cubans had died, along with 80,000 Spaniards. The Ten Years’ war ended with the Pact of Zanjón, which granted the slaves of Cuba their freedom. Cuban criollos, however, did not get the independence they had wanted.
In the wake of the war, North American businesses bought land that had been destroyed by the Spanish at a cheap price.
José Martí and the Seeds of the Revolution
José Martí was a Cuban writer and intellectual. He is best known for his poetry, and once said “A grain of poetry suffices to season a century.” He also spoke out against the Spanish, and supported the abolition of slavery. The Spanish considered him too dangerous to have around, and he lived many of his formative years in exile. He eventually moved to the United States, and from there planned a Cuban rebellion.
In 1892 Martí formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and in 1895 he joined forces with General Máximo Gómez and General Antonio Maceo. Gómez and Maceo had never accepted the terms of the Pact of Zanjón, and agreed to once again fight to liberate Cuba from Spain.
As part of the rebellion, Martí’s supporters burned down fields of sugarcane, Cuba’s main source of money. In retribution, Spanish governor Valeriano Weyler forced Cuban farmers into prison camps.
Martí died in battle with the Spanish, and his rebellion failed to secure Cuban independence from Spain. Today Martí is one of Cuba’s most fondly remembered national heroes, and Fidel Castro champions himself as Martí’s revolutionary successor.
Spanish-American War and the New Colonizers
On February 5, 1898 the U.S.S. Maine exploded while anchored in Havana harbor, killing 258 people. The ship had been sent as protection for Americans living in Cuba, since the threat of war between Spain and the United States had been looming. Historians believe the explosion was an accident, but President McKinley claimed that the Spanish were behind the attack.
The war lasted only ten weeks, and in the end the Spanish agreed to give up control of Cuba (along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines). On January 1, 1899 the U.S. military occupation of Cuba began, and Spain’s colonial power was finally at an end. But America’s difficult relationship with Cuba had only just begun.
In 1906, 1912, and 1917 the U.S. sent marines to Cuba to exert military over a population that threatened to revolt at any moment. General Gerardo Mochado used fraud to win Cuban elections in 1924. He improved Cuba’s infrastructure, but looked out for U.S. interests more than the health and welfare of Cuban citizens.
From 1915 to 1920 Cuba experienced a sugar boom. The U.S. was buying huge quantities of sugar, and much of Cuba’s land went toward growing sugar for export instead of food for Cubans. At this point Cuba was the wealthiest country in the Caribbean, both because of sugar and the influx of tourists from the U.S. Tired of Prohibition, many wealthy Americans vacationed in Cuba so they could tipple in the sunshine. Resorts and casinos became common tourist attractions, and many were owned and operated by the American mafia.
Batista’s Corruption and Castro's Victory
1925 brought the crash of the sugar market. Cubans had invested only in growing sugar, and as a result the economy floundered. The subsequent depression brought a lot of suffering to Cubans.
Fulgencio Batista served as president from 1934 until 1944. After he retired to Florida, gangsters took over. Corruption and assassinations became rampant. In 1954 Batista resumed power in Cuba, at the behest of the U.S. government and the mafia.
Batista and the mafia worked together to build more casinos and hotels, and the mafia gave Batista a cut of the proceeds.
A young politician named Fidel Castro was already campaigning for the presidency when Batista took over in 1954. At that point, Castro decided to take matters into his own hands. On July 26, 1953 Castro attacked Batista’s Moncada Barracks. July 26th is a federal holiday in Cuba and it is considered the first step in Castro’s takeover.
Castro garnered support by broadcasting his story on a radio show. About the controversial attack on the Moncada Barracks Castro famously stated, “History will absolve me.” Many Cubans considered his attack foolhardy – at the time Castro had only a tiny number of men and limited supplies.
Batista’s forces captured Castro and put him in prison. Because of the media attention, Batista released Castro but forced him to leave for exile in Mexico in 1955. There, Castro mustered Mexican support for a guerilla army to invade Cuba. During his time in exile he gave speeches in the United States to raise more support for his cause.
On November 25, 1956 Castro arrived in Cuba on a re-purposed cruise ship called the Granma. Batista’s army was ready, and Castro had to flee into the mountains. Skirmishes continued on and off as peasants in the mountains helped keep the rebel forces safe.
For reasons that remain unknown, the C.I.A. was sending money to Castro during this time. This part of American history is still considered classified information, so it’s unknown to what extent the U.S. was involved in Castro’s rise the power. In the end, it was advisors from Washington D.C. who convinced Batista to relinquish his presidency. Batista’s surrender took place at the Moncada Barracks, the site of Castro’s original attempt at a revolution.
Castro did not initially declare himself Cuba’s leader. Under President Urrutia, Fidel Castro served as Prime Minister. But he had firm control over the government behind the scenes. After Castro took over, pro-Batista Cubans were imprisoned and executed, a process that was overseen by Che Guevara. Only when the international outcry became too much did the executions stop.
In 1959 Castro manipulated Urrutia into resigning as president of Cuba. Castro was now totally in power, and attributed his victory to the will of Cuban people, declaring that they had no need for elections.
At the beginning of his government Castro reduced housing rent by 50 percent. Other changes were not as welcome. Castro’s National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) took over the sugar plantations for redistribution by the government. Seizing these farms inspired the initial wave of wealthy Cubans leaving for Florida.
The 1960s and the Embargo
250,000 Cubans had fled by 1963. This exodus consisted mostly of Cubans from the professional classes who did not want to accept socialized wages. As Castro became more authoritarian, many intellectuals stopped supporting his government.
In 1960 Castro entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union, and Russia started sending Cuba military reinforcements. Castro wanted the Soviet Union to help keep the U.S. from taking over, as they had during the Spanish revolution.
As a final demonstration to American imperialism Castro nationalized American-owned refineries.
President Kennedy retaliated in 1961 by severing diplomatic relations and putting the embargo in place. In the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy had good reason to fear the rise of a socialist country just a short boat ride away from U.S. soil.
On April 17, 1961, the CIA arranged for a band of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. They disembarked on Playa Girón, known in America as the Bay of Pigs. Castro’s army successfully drove them away, and the Bay of Pigs invasion was reviled as a poorly planned disaster. After this landmark moment Castro fully embraced Cuba’s identity as a Communist country. Castro started tightening the grip even more on intellectual freedom, and jailed thousands of dissidents.
Under the Kennedy administration, the CIA planned to assassinate Castro. In response, Castro asked the Soviet Union to send nuclear missiles. This led to the tense period known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted for 13 days. During this time the world worried that a nuclear war was about to begin. Eventually the USSR agreed not to give Cuba nuclear arms on the condition that the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba.
In 1962 rationing began, and so began the rise of Cuba’s now thriving black market.
Castro improved literacy and education in general, and worked to insure all Cubans would have access to healthcare. At the same time his economic mismanagement meant that crops weren’t distributed effectively, and many people went without electricity.
The Special Period
Cuba joined the Soviet economic organization called COMECON in 1976, and became the main supplier of sugar to all of the socialist countries in Europe. Cuba also started supporting Communist revolutions elsewhere in South America.
In 1989 Berlin Wall came down, and in 1992 the Soviet Union had crumbled. At this point Castro could no longer rely on Communist support. Living conditions quickly deteriorated in Cuba, and many Cubans had to live without power. These dark days are referred to as the “Special Period.”
Throughout the 90s, Cubans continued to migrate to the U.S. Tensions between Cuba and U.S. over Cuban immigrants worsened. President Clinton made the embargo between the U.S. and Cuba a permanent law instead of an executive order.
In 2000 the Elián Gonzalez controversy inspired more anti-U.S. sentiment among Cubans. Gonzalez was a young boy whose mother had taken him on a raft headed for Florida. The raft met with disaster and Gonzalez ended up in the custody of relatives in Miami. Castro fought to have Gonzalez returned to Cuba, and he eventually prevailed. Today, Gonzalez is a Cuban military cadet who speaks fondly of Castro.
Tourism helped Cuba’s economy bounce back from the difficulties of the 1990s. Cuba is an especially popular tourist destination for Italians, and it also sees its fair share of Canadians. Castro has developed strong international allies in China and Hugo Chavéz.
Castro became ill in 2008 and handed power over to his brother, Raúl. In 2018 Raúl will step down and the vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is expected to take over.
Raúl has allowed for more economic freedom than his brother. With diplomatic relations re-established between the U.S. and Cuba, there is hope that Cuba’s society will become freer in the near future.