History of Cuba

Travel Guide Caribbean Cuba History of Cuba


The first settlers of Cuba were the Guanajatabey people who came to the island from the mainland sometime between 5300 BC to 1000 BC. When the Spanish arrived there population was around 100,000 and practiced a mixture of hunting, gathers and farming. Among crops they grew the main one was tobacco, which the islands economy depended on. These immigrants are also credited with killing Cuba's unique megafuana, which included condors, giant owls and even ground sloths. They were eventually pushed to the western part of Cuba by later migration of Taino and Ciboney people.

The Taino and Ciboney people, also called the Arawak, came from the Orinoco delta in Venezuela. They slowly jumped islands coming up the Caribbean until they reached Cuba. They also lived a stone age life style, although they did have the skill to work gold and copper. Their population was around 200,000 when the Spanish arrived and they grew yucca, cotton, tobacco, maize and sweet potatoes. The early Spanish thought they these people lived a very healthy life in balance with their surroundings.

Spanish Colonialism

Although discovered by Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492 and islands coastal area was not fully mapped until 1509. In 1511 Diego Velazquez de Cuellar set out with three ships and 300 soldiers from Hispaniola to found the first Spanish settlement of Baracoa. The Spanish colonizers met stiff resistance from the natives, although they were brutally conquered by 1514. Remaining natives were either enslaved or forced to live on reservations.

Cuba faced a major labor shortage during its founding years. The native population would flee to the interior or refuse to work. Natives from other islands were brought in but they would just also flee to the mountains. Slowly the native population started to interbreed with the mainly male Spanish population and their culture slowly died.

In order to solve the labor problem African slaves were brought in to cultivate the islands main resources of sugar and tobacco. Interestingly the sugar trade did not explode until the 19th century after Spain reduced its trade regulations allowing advance agriculture technology to finally be brought in. This boom lasted until the 1880s. Also throughout the 19th the ideas of freedom and independence started to grow in Cuba

War of 1895

With the assistance of people in the USA Cuban freedom fighters, earlier expelled from Cuba, returned with three ships heavily loaded with soldiers and weapons. The war raged for three years until the USA Battleship Maine was destroyed while docked in the Havana harbour. To this day no one knows the cause. The destruction of the ship rocked the USA population and the USA government decided to back the rebels. Within a few months the USA took over Cuba along with the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. Although do to restrictions the USA did not annex Cuba.

US Rule

The USA pretty much just replaced the Spanish with themselves although did appoint locals to many positions of power. The economy quickly grew with the introduction of more USA capital and the USA Army led massive public health programs to fight diseases and also set up an education system. The first elections were held in 1900, although very few people got to vote. In 1901 the Platt Amendment was passed which defined USA-Cuban relations until 1934. This amendment placed many unfair restrictions on Cuba even after independence in 1902, keeping Cuba a de-facto colony of the USA. Presidents changed quickly in Cuba until the military coup of Batista in 1933.

Encouraged by the Americans, Batista took over the government and controlled a series of puppet presidents. He was elected in a very shady election in 1940 to only be ousted in 1944. Several progressive presidents were elected in after Batista, but he returned again in a coup in 1952. After this coup the revolutionary Fidel Castro started an uprising, which failed causing him to flee the country. In 1956 Castro returns, landing with a boat (the Granma) to start an revolutionary force in the mountains. This time his patience is rewarded in 1959, when his 26th of July Movement overturns the government of Batista with a coup on January 1.


While Castro acted as prime-minister, he has appointed other leaders as president of Cuba, while taking firm leadership of the country himself. Castro founds a communist state on the island, making Cuba an instant enemy of the USA. In 1960 the communists started to nationalize many factories and private property. All papers were closed, and radio and television were under total control of the state by the end of 1960. A year later a group of Cubans exiles, that was backed by the USA, tried to overthrow Castro's regime by invading the country at the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban army defeated the invaders in just three days. The already bad relationship between Cuba and the USA, led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the US demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet missiles placed on Cuba. Backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba moved to a more and more Soviet type of communism in the 60's.

On an economical level Cuba was not doing well, something even Fidel Castro needed to admit in the early 70's. In the middle of the 70's economical reforms were carried out. Due to the cold war with the United States, the Cuban economy suffered greatly during the 1990's after the fall of the USSR, leading to the slow dilapidation of some historic sites. However, the faltering economy also forced the Cuban government to refocus its energy on tourism, as well as changing policies which had previously limited the potential for development. It now became possible for Cubans to own their own guesthouses, known as Casas Particulares. At the same time, Cuba promoted foreign investment, leading to the emergence of dozens new joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign investors from Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany, France and Mexico. The changing policies saw a massive turnaround in the Cuban economy. For the first time during its existence, tourism surpassed sugar as Cuba's main industry.

Thanks to international partnerships the total of hotel rooms has reached 30,000, mostly located on keys (cayos) such as Largo, Santa Maria, Coco and Guillermo with a handful of other major joint ventures in the offing.

Modern Times

In July 2012, Cuba received its first American goods shipment in over 50 years, following the partial relaxation of the U.S. embargo to permit humanitarian shipments. In October 2012, Cuba announced the abolition of its much-disliked exit permit system, allowing its citizens more freedom to travel abroad. In February 2013, after his reelection as President, Raúl Castro stated that he would retire from government in 2018 as part of a broader leadership transition. In July 2013, Cuba became embroiled in a diplomatic scandal after a North Korean ship illegally carrying Cuban weapons was impounded by Panama.

Cuba and Venezuela maintained their alliance after Hugo Chávez's death in March 2013, but the severe economic strife suffered by Venezuela in the mid-2010s lessened its ability to support Cuba, and may ultimately have contributed to the thawing of Cuban-American relations. In December 2014, after a highly publicized exchange of political prisoners between the United States and Cuba, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after over five decades of severance. He stated that the U.S. government intended to establish an embassy in Havana and improve economic ties with the country. Obama's proposal received both strong criticism and praise from different elements of the Cuban American community. In April 2015, the U.S. government announced that Cuba would be removed from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, on which it had been included since 1982. The U.S. embassy in Havana was formally reopened in August 2015.

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