Cuba is an island nation known for its beautiful tropical beaches, intoxicating musical rhythms, and rich cultural heritage and diversity. Some 90 miles off the coast of Florida Keys and the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is 48,800 square miles, or 110,860 sq km, just a bit smaller than the U.S. state of Louisiana. Along with the main island, Cuba includes the Isla de Juventud and more than 4,195 small coral cays and islets, which makes up approximately 3,715 km. Cuba is a coveted strategic location, which has been fought over throughout its history. Situated at the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea, it is positioned along the most powerful maritime passage in and out of the Caribbean.
Geography and Nature
Approximately one third of the island is made up of forested mountains, including the Sierra Maestra in the Oriente, the Guaniguanco chain in the western province of Pinar del Rio, and the Escambrey to the south in the province of Las Villas. The remainder of the island is made up of plains used for cattle ranching and the growing of sugar cane. In addition, the island includes coastal regions of estuaries, swamps, and marshes, along with offshore islets and keys. Some 6,000 species of plants are on the island, over half of which are endemic. Forests include semideciduous, mangrove, pines, and tropical rain forest. Cuba’s national tree is the royal palm (Reistonea regia) of which there are 20 million in Cuba, reaching up to 40 m tall. Cuba has an abundance of reptiles, including crocodiles, iguanas, lizards, and snakes. The largest indigenous mammal is the tree rat or the jutia, measuring approximately 60 cm long. Also, Cuba is home to some 350 species of birds, including the world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, or zun-zuncito; the males weigh only 2 g, with the female slightly larger.
The capital, Havana, or La Habana, is the largest city in the Caribbean and an important port city, home to some 2.2 million people. Havana is the country’s center of government, education, medicine, trade, tourism, and communication. Many of the houses in the city are in a state of charming disrepair.
The second-largest city is Santiago de Cuba, located in the Oriente province, which also serves as an important political, economic, military, and cultural center of the island.
Demographics and Identity
Presently, Cuba is home to 11 million people. The majority of Cubans speak Spanish exclusively, in a dialect typical of other Caribbean islands. Nearly 51% of the people are considered mulatto (both African and European descent), about 37% are considered White, while 11% are Black. The remaining 1% of the population are the descendents of the Chinese-indentured servants, who replaced the labor lost after the cessation of slavery in 1853. Much of the culture is strongly influenced by West African traditions brought over by slaves during the mid- to late 1800s. Slaves became an important labor resource with the rise of the sugar industry and loss of indigenous labor. The largest population imported to Cuba came from the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
Music and Dance
There are strong expressions everywhere of Afro-Cuban art, religion, music, and dance. To be Cuban means many things to many people, and the idea of “Cubanness” is difficult to define. Cubans are comfortable regarding close bodily space, and physical contact and affection are readily displayed. Socialization and dancing take place in streets and in lines for food, goods, or ice cream. Afro-Cuban cultural forms of music and dance dominate the modern conception of Cuban identity. Cuban music is the island’s most well-known export worldwide. Cuban music is a blending of West African rhythms and ritual dance with the Spanish guitar, further fused with American jazz. The most popular Cuban music today is Son, first created in the Oriente region, combining string instruments, bongos, maracas, and claves. Mambo, bolero, salsa, and cha-cha all contain elements of Cuban Son.
Cuban dance has important links to Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, which combines West African deities, beliefs, and rituals with Catholicism. Catholic saints, especially the Virgin Mary, are associated with Yoruban orishas. In this way, early slaves were able to keep their traditions while ostensibly practicing the Christian faith. The religion consists of male priests, babalawo, who cure the sick, offer advice, and protect their petitioners. Offerings of food, herbs, and blood are presented to stones in which the spirit of the orisha resides, and rituals are performed at religious gatherings.
Columbus first spotted Cuba in 1492, and it was quickly colonized by the Spanish. By 1511, the first permanent settlement was established near Baracoa, on the eastern tip of the island. Pre-Columbian populations numbered 112,000 and comprised mainly Arawaks or Taino and sub-Taino peoples. Earlier populations of Guanahatabey and Siboney are said to have reached the island approximately 5,000 years ago from South America. Their primary subsistence strategies included fishing, hunting, and gathering. The later arrivals of Tainos were horticulturalists, who introduced the cultivation of sweet potatoes and manioc. During this time, the greatest concentration of people was centered around the Bahia de Nipe, on the eastern part of the island. By the time Columbus arrived in the late 15th century, most people who inhabited the island were Taino-speaking Arawaks.
The indigenous population was quickly exterminated or forced into slavery by the Spanish. Those enslaved were made to work in mining and agricultural projects. This system of encomiendas entitled Spanish landowners to the indigenous labor force in the region in return for their Christianization. Prospecting for gold was also an important agenda for the Spaniards, but proved to be inadequate. Those who wished that Cuba would bring them instant wealth were quickly disappointed because the island did not hold large deposits of gold or other minerals. Meanwhile, the unhappy indigenous labor force organized many uprisings against the conquistadors.
Spain referred to Cuba as the “Fortress of the Indies” and the “Key to the New World,” acknowledging the island’s influential position in controlling the development of the New World. The Caribbean was an arena for European rivalries, including England, France, and the Dutch, who went to war to protect their strategic and economic interests. Caribbean islands became the pawns in international conflicts and were captured in times of war and returned at the peace table. In the case of Cuba, this meant disruptions in trade, increased taxation, and great human suffering.
In the late 1800s, the great poet and statesman José Marti, the “father of the Cuban Nation,” who is considered the country’s most famous literary figure, became a national hero for both his liberal ideals and martyr’s death. He represented a great human rights figure, who spoke out against inequality and is sometimes compared to Martin Luther King Jr. Marti worked from the United States, where he was in exile, to form a revolution to remove Spanish occupation from Cuba. The United States supported Cuba’s freedom from Spain only because it wanted the island to be defenseless against an economic invasion by capitalists. Since the late 1400s, when Columbus reported the existence of Cuba, it remained a colony of Spain until the invasion in 1898 by the United States. Consequently, Cuba became a de facto colony of the United States, which had both military and corporate interests there.
The war began in the Oriente in 1895, when the population rebelled against the colonial government. For 3 years, guerilla warfare ensued. However, an explosion that sank the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor incited the United States to declare war on Spain and invade Cuba. In 1898, under the Treaty of Paris, the United States claimed the remaining Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The imminent victory of Cuban freedom fighters was stolen by the colonial power of the United States, and the Cuban people protested to no avail.
The United States agreed to withdraw from Cuba in 1901, keeping a 99-year lease on the Guantânamo naval base in the Oriente, along with other demands drawn up in the Platt Amendment. In the early 1900s a U.S. corporation called the “Cuban Colonizing Company” also sold lands to non-Cubans, much to the dismay of the majority of the inhabitants of the island. In 1924, without U.S. protest, Gerado Machado y Morales made himself dictator of the island and led a corrupt and violent government until 1933. In 1934, and again in 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized power and ruled Cuba under his dictatorship, with the support of the United States. During this time, the United States corporate and military interests dominated Cuban government, corporate expansion, and life until the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959, liberating Cuba for the first time in its history.
The first attempt to overthrow the corrupt government of Batista came on July 26, 1953, at Moncada and was led by Fidel Castro, a brazen man who had organized and trained a guerrilla army after Batista’s coup d’état the previous year. The rebels were defeated, and almost half of the men died in battle, while more were subsequently executed. Despite their defeat, the revolutionaries reorganized and named their movement Movimiento 26 de Julio. In 1955, Castro and his brother Raul organized members, who were set to sail from Mexico to Cuba for another rebellion. It was during this time that Castro met Ernesto Che Guevara, the 27-year-old revolutionary from Argentina, who was trained in medicine and known for his intelligence and his considerable knowledge of Latin American social and political movements. On December 2,1956, the group assembled off the coast of Santiago in a small ship named Grandma. Many of the revolutionaries were captured, but some managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountains in the Oriente, where they were joined by thousands of other Cubans. The rebel army with the support of the local population and knowledge of the terrain launched an attack on the Batista regime. In 1959, the guerrillas and supporters of Castro toppled Batista’s government, and he fled to Miami with more than $300 million (U.S.) of embezzled funds.
Fidel Castro and the Revolution
Before 1959, Cuba was considered a stable Latin American country. It ranked third in life expectancy, fourth in electricity consumption per capita, and fifth in per capita income, $353 (U.S.) in 1958. The people of Cuba owned consumer products, such as televisions and cars, and by economic indicators, it appears that Cubans lived well. However, the distribution of wealth and quality of life was heavily skewed in favor of the rich class. The actual income was $270 and lower per year. Moreover, racial discrimination was rampant and Blacks found it more difficult to earn a living before the revolution. In the rural regions, more than one quarter of the people were landless peasants. Land ownership was held by a few rich families with large land holdings or by North American companies, and 8% of the population held 79% of the arable land. Farmers could work for months on these plantations and still not have enough money to buy food for their starving families. The rural population represented extreme poverty, with 25% of the people unemployed, 45% illiterate, 84% percent without running water, and 54% without indoor plumbing.
From a balcony in Santiago de Cuba, on January 2, 1959, Fidel Castro delivered his first speech. The choice of this city was deliberate and designed to evoke memories of the humiliation inflicted upon Cuba in 1898 by the United States. Castro announced “the Revolution begins now,” and “this time it will not be like in 1898 when the North Americans came and made themselves masters of our country. This time, fortunately, the Revolution will come to power.” It is said that two white doves landed on Castro’s shoulders during this speech, reinforcing the idea for many Cubans that he was divinely guided.
Fidel Castro is considered to be a fascinating figure of his generation; in his youth, he was a successful athlete and a brilliant orator destined for politics. Castro has proven to be one of the most intriguing men of the 20th century. The bearded revolutionary, sporting his signature combat fatigues, went against the most powerful nation in the world and was successful. More than 40 years later, the struggle of power has continued, as the George W. Bush administration tightened U.S. sanctions and Castro rejected the U.S. dollar in an economic countermove. Today, both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are viewed by many Latin American libertines as heroes, who fought against economic imperialism. One has only to scratch the surface of U.S. and Latin American economic policies to understand their emotions.
North-American-owned oil and fruit companies have gone into many regions of Central and South America and taken the natural resources, polluted the soils and rivers, and exploited the people for their labor. Consequently, the populations have been left in far worse economic and social situations than they were before the arrival of the companies. Though the companies made promises, their ultimate aim was to create a large profit despite the adverse affects on the locals. For example, in Ecuador, Texaco ignored safety precautions and polluted enormous portions of the Amazon Basin, leaving the indigenous people disease ridden and unable to continue their subsistence farming because of the contaminated air, water, and soils. In a recent study of health in the Amazon region, the population rated 30% higher than the national average in diseases such as cancer and respiratory infirmities.
There are, however, many people unhappy with Castro’s policies. The majority of those who oppose him were the wealthy business and landowners of Cuba, whose assets were seized and redistributed after the revolution. These people eventually left the island to settle in the United States. Two of the most populated states of exile communities include Florida (Miami) and New Jersey. Of the 1,500,000 Cuban immigrants who live in Cuba, 700,000 of them live in southern Florida. Powerful lobbyists, who strongly influence U.S. policies toward Cuba, these communities hope to return to a “Castro-Free” Cuba one day.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
Since the inauguration of Castro’s Revolution, the U.S. government, along with Cuban exiles, has tried without success to overthrow Castro’s government. For instance, in April of 1961, Cuban exiles with the backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Bahia de Cochinos (named for the wild pigs that roamed the region), on the south side of the island, west of Trinidad. Castro knew that an attack was inevitable after the destruction of a sugar mill in Pinar del Rio and the bombing of a department store in Havana called “El Encanto” by counterrevolutionaries from within the island. It was at this point that Castro leaned toward his Soviet Union alliances and in a speech following the attacks described his government as a “socialist revolution,” defining the nature of the revolution for the first time. Two days later, on April 17, exiles landed on the shores of Playa Giron and Playa Larga. Castro’s militia attacked by air and land in defense of the island and defeated the invaders, leaving 100 exiles dead and 1,200 captured. Cuba lost 160 defenders in the attack. The invasion has become known in U.S. history as a poorly organized major blunder that only reinforced the momentum of Castro’s movement.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Kennedy administration appointed General Edward Landsdale in charge of “Operation Mongoose” to help the exiles bring down the Castro regime, including plotting the assassination of Castro. Castro learned of the conspiracy, and to end the threats to his Revolution, he formed an alliance with the Soviet Union to arm the island against possible U.S. invasion. In October 22, 1962, the United States woke up to the reality of the threat of a nuclear missile attack. For several months, the United States had detected through the surveillance of military spy planes that Cuba was building Soviet-style nuclear arms installations on the island. With the help of Nikita Khrushchev, in what is known as code name “Operation Anadyr,”
Soviet missiles and troops were assembled on the island throughout the summer of 1962, with the nuclear warheads arriving in October. Castro urged Khrushchev to make a public announcement about their plans to let the United States and the world know that they were taking steps to arm themselves and that the two countries had signed a defense treaty. Castro sent Guevara to convince the Soviet leader to go public, but Khrushchev refused, assuring him that everything was on schedule.
On the night of October 22,1962, Kennedy appeared on television to inform U.S. citizens that there was a Soviet buildup of nuclear weapons on Cuba, with warheads capable of striking Washington, D.C., and other cities in the United States. During this “Cuban Missile Crisis,” President Kennedy, along with his brother, Robert, met with defense secretary Robert McNamara to discuss their options of dealing with the situation. McNamara discouraged an operational air strike, citing the possibility of thousands of casualties. Instead, President Kennedy decided to implement a naval blockade and during his television speech stated, “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.” Kennedy concluded by saying: “To the captive people of Cuba, your leaders are no longer Cuban leaders inspired by Cuban ideals, but are puppets and agents of an international conspiracy.” Castro went on television the following evening and responded to Kennedy’s comments:
Our progress, our independence, and our sovereignty have been undercut by the policy of the Yankee government. The Americans had tried everything: diplomatic pressure, economic aggression, and the invasion at Playa Giron. Now they are trying to prevent us from arming ourselves with the assistance of the Soviet camp. The people should know the following: we have the means to which repel a direct attack. We are running risks, which we have but no choice to run. We have the consolation of knowing that in a thermo-nuclear war, the aggressors, those who unleash thermo-nuclear war, will be exterminated. I believe there are no ambiguities of any kind.
Tensions between the two countries’ leaders mounted, and finally on October 26, Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy, stating that he’d sent missiles to Cuba to prevent another exile invasion like the Bay of Pigs. He would withdraw the weapons if Kennedy agreed not to invade. The U.S.-Soviet agreement also stipulated that the United States would remove U.S. missiles in Turkey. By the end of November, Kennedy announced that the crisis was over; the naval blockade was lifted, and “Operation Mongoose” was dismantled.
The Special Period
The fall of the communist states of Eastern Europe put unimaginable strains on the Cuban economy. Prior to the collapse, the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) of the Soviet Union had subsidized the Cuban economy by selling them oil at below-market prices and allowing them to resell for a profit. In addition, the Soviet Union purchased 63% of Cuba’s sugar, 95% of its citrus, and 73% of its nickel, which constituted the three main industries. The economic disaster created when this excessive contribution ended and the country was forced to rely on its own unstable industry was without precedent. Cuba was now forced into the global economy based on cash transactions that did not create allowances for their idealistic policies. Though the island had experienced economic slumps in the past, during the depression of the 1930s, after the revolution, and during the time of economic transformation of the early 1960s, none could compare with the disintegration of the economy in the 1990s. Exiled Cubans living in the United States believed that this was the end of the Castro regime—but not so.
Both fuel and food were in desperately short supply. Agricultural lands were being used for cattle ranching and sugar, and Cuba had relied on imported foods supplied by Eastern Europe. The country now had to seek out immediate ways to grow crops at home and become self-sufficient. Food programs were introduced, along with new means of restarting the economy. Two important industries came out of this transitional period: investing in biotechnology or medical products and the tourist industry.
Industry and Commercial Activity Today
Under the extreme conditions of the Special Period (after 1989), the state found it necessary to decentralize economic activities and encourage private enterprise on a small scale. In the early 1990s, constitutional amendments recognized more than 100 new categories of privatization. Today, commercial activity is a mixture of both private and commercial ownership of the major economic industries. For example, lands are owned in small parcels by individual agriculturalists, but larger farms are operated by the state. The result of this new configuration is a return of social stratification that had been equalized by Castro. With new markets opening, those able to capitalize on them have become a marginally privileged class with access to luxury items.
Though sugar has historically been the mainstay of the economy, tourism has become an important industry. Another impact of the Special Period was the opening of Cuban borders to foreign visitors, as President Castro declared that tourism would become its main source of income. Now it accounts for more than 50% of its hard currency, and more than 2 million foreign vacationers were expected to visit the island in 2004. Cuba has much to offer to foreign travelers in the form of natural resources, and culturally, Cuba is imbued with a combination of West African and Spanish traditions that offer a rich authenticity of music, dance, food, arts and crafts, and unique worldview. All of these resources have been harnessed to promote Cuba as a world traveler’s destination.
The tourist industry gave a much-needed boost to the economy during the Special Period but left gross disparities of earning among Cubans. Where a bellhop or waiter can make between $150 and $1,000 (U.S.) per month, a physician or lawyer is making only $30. These differences in income have caused resentment among Cuban professionals, and today it is not uncommon to see a doctor working for a hotel to earn cash.
Because the local currency, the Cuban peso, is not convertible on the world market, the state adopted the U.S. dollar in 1994. However, 6 days after President George W. Bush was reelected, in 2004, and sanctions were tightened on Cuban trade, Castro converted to a national peso that would be easily exchangeable with the Eurodollar. Previously, though, pesos were sold on the black market, along with other goods, such as agricultural products, for American dollars.
Cuban government structure is based on a Marxist-Leninist theory, combined with a struggle for sovereignty and social justice. José Marti was an integral figure who shaped Cuban history and influenced the great socialist thinkers by writing about the importance of forming national unity by creating the Cuban Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Cubano, or PRC). Martfs observations from living in the United States led him to the conclusion that corrupt capitalist elections were “bought” by large corporations that supported candidates who represented only the elite. His ideas called for a new political party that represented the majority of Cubans. Marti believed the working masses were necessary for change. Castro, in his famous speech, “History Will Absolve Me,” outlined the goals of national independence and social justice, which shaped his more than 40-year revolution.
The Constitution of 1976 created a National Assembly of the People’s Power (Asamblea National del Poder Popular), whose members are elected every 5 years. In 1992, the electoral system was amended to facilitate more efficient popular participation and decision making. Half the candidates are nominated by mass organizations, and the other half of the candidates are chosen by elected municipal delegates. In the past, all candidates were nominated by the Communist Party committees. The National Assembly is the sole body with legislative authority. There is only one candidate for each assembly seat, and a negative vote of 50% is enough to reject a candidate. The National Assembly elects a 31-member Council of State, and the council’s decisions must be ratified by the National Assembly. The Council of the State determines the composition of the Council of Ministry, and both bodies constitute the executive arm and cabinet of government.
Cuba is divided into 169 municipalities, including the Special Municipality of Isla de la Juventud, and 14 provinces. The municipal assemblies are elected every 2Vi years, and these, in turn, elect their own executive committees.
Land Tenure and Property
The society does not value private space as in the United States, because Cubans are accustomed to living in cramped quarters. Few new constructions have been built since 1959, since construction materials are always in short supply. Since 1970, the construction of new homes has been carried out by “microbrigades,” or groups of 30 people who assemble prefabricated high-rise buildings for apartment-complex-style housing. Since 1960, rents were converted into mortgages, and nearly half a million Cubans gained title to homes and lands. The sale of houses is prohibited, but exchange without currency is admissible. In the rural regions, land reforms such as the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 divided lands and redistributed them to 200,000 farm workers without land. In 1975, the National Association of Small Farmers worked at creating cooperatives, and by the mid-1980s, three quarters of private farmers were cooperative members. Membership incentives include goods such as seed, fertilizers, machinery, social security, and tax breaks. In addition, small farmers no longer lived with the threat that they would be kicked off of their lands.
The Future of Cuba
Cuba will remain throughout history as a country of intrigue and fascination. Painted indelibly with a colorful past, dominated by three colonial powers, each of which has left their mark, has influenced the culture and way of life. The Revolution has changed the status of the country by marking it as an independent nation, and today, Cuba has emerged a self-determining country with a unique sense of identity. The world is waiting to see what will happen to Cuba “after Fidel Castro.” Raul is next in line to lead. He is already in charge of the armed services, and has been since 1959. In addition, Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of the People’s Power, has served as Cuba’s political expert in negotiations with the United States. Over the past 15 years, members of the Cuban government have been selected from the younger generations, people in their 30s who follow socialist philosophy. Cuba has already been ruled for many years by a post-Castro government, competent individuals who are capable of successfully running the island. Castro, in the autumn of his life, presides over the government that he has created—still an idealistic man with remarkable conviction.
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