Cuba’s history begins with the European colonization in the 16th century. Prior to this, Cuba was populated by several different groups of American peoples.
Three groups of indigenous people lived in Cuba when Kristoffer Columbus arrived in the island in 1492 – siboney, arawak and taino. The Caribbean island was then colonized by Spain and the indigenous peoples near extinction. Most of today’s Cubans are descendants of Spanish immigrants and African slaves who were coerced. Cuba experienced great economic development from the mid-18th century, especially related to sugar production which soon became the world leader.
Cuba was one of the last countries to break away from the Spanish colonial world after the United States intervened during the events known as the Second Liberation War (1895–1898). See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Cuba. Except for two periods of occupation of the United States (1898-1902 and 1906-1909), Cuba was a protectorate under its northern neighbor until 1934, with limited autonomy.
In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution that would lead the country into open conflict with the United States and a close relationship with the Soviet Union. Cuba has been known as the first socialist country in Latin America since 1961.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Provides latest population data about Cuba. Lists by Year from 1950 to 2020. Also includes major cities by population.
The oldest known settlements in Cuba date from around 2000 BCE. The population probably came from South America and is referred to as Guayabo Blanco (a Siboney people) after the area on Cuba’s southern coast where the first traces were found. They lived in caves and lived by hunting and sinking.
Another population group, which also belongs to the Siboney family, dominated the island from around 800 BCE. This so-called Cayo Redondo culture mastered stone grinding for more advanced implements, and they used canoes. Around 850 CE. Immigrated arawak- people to the island and brought with them the potter skills. The Arawak population had a widespread collective form of society in larger villages.
Shortly before the first Spaniards arrived, Tainos immigrated from Haiti.
The colonization of Cuba
Kristoffer Columbus came to Cuba’s coast on October 27, 1492 and named the island Juana after the Spanish prince Don Juan. The natives, on the other hand, called the interior of the island Cubanacán. The conquest of Cuba began in 1510 and became short-lived as the population expressed little resistance. The Spaniards built cities and created a feudal society based on forced labor.
Slaves were abducted from Africa as early as the 16th century. The Spaniards used Cuba as a base for several expeditions, including to Mexico. In Havana (founded in 1515), large fortifications were built to protect the riches after the plunder in the colonies against attacks by French and British pirates. At the same time, the Spaniards began growing sugar cane.
The indigenous population became almost extinct during this century.
The changing power relations in Europe in the 18th century led the Spanish aristocracy in Cuba to develop independence from the Spanish crown. The Cuban aristocracy adopted the Spanish centralization model and developed a power system based on militarization.
In 1762, the British occupied parts of Cuba’s northern coast, which through a barter in 1763 was again handed over to Spain in favor of Florida. The period that followed was characterized by some increased autonomy for Cuba and a cautious liberalization of trade, even though the Spanish trade monopoly existed.
However, Cuba did not achieve independence, even when the other Spanish colonies became independent around 1820. The Cuban aristocracy feared a rebellion on the island that would be worse than Spanish rule. Independence would mean liberation for the slaves, which had become very numerous as a result of multiplying imports after 1763. The slaves were the basis of the wealth of the most powerful families in Cuba.
During the 19th century various forms of reformist currents emerged, and the island experienced several slave revolts. Both the US and Mexico were pushing to annex Cuba. During the 1860s and 1870s, opposition to Spain grew. A turning point in the independence process happened in 1868 when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes abolished slavery at his own sugar mill, an event that triggered a revolt across the island demanding independence and ending slavery.
In 1892 José Martí created the Cuban Revolutionary Party and emerged as the foremost theoretical leader of a free Cuba. José Martí, Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez arrived in Cuba in April 1895 to start the liberation war. The liberation army gained so much control over the island that Spain was forced to give Cuba extensive autonomy in 1897. Both Martí and Maceo had fallen in the fighting.
In the political crisis that escalated, the United States sought to gain greater control. US naval armored ships made sure that sugar exports, of which 95 percent went to the United States, were not hindered. When one of the ships – the USS Maine – was blown up at Havana on February 15, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. The United States occupied Cuba, and the war ended with Spain surrendering the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba to the United States in 1899.
In 1902, Cuba gained the status of its own republic, but the so-called Platt annex to the Constitution guaranteed the United States the right to intervene when its interests were threatened. So did the country on several occasions over the coming decades. Sugar production was completely organized for the US market. In 1906, the US Navy again intervened to strike down new signs of rebellion, and this time it held Cuba occupied until 1909.
Gerardo Machado ruled from 1925 to 1928 as elected leader and from 1928 to 1933 as dictator. Cuba evolved under him into a regime of violence to meet the rising unrest among workers and students. The turmoil, besides the murder of student leader Julio Antonio Mella, who many believed Machado was behind, the extreme fall in sugar prices as a result of the stock market crash in 1929.
A general strike in 1933 put an end to Machado’s power, events also known as the Revolution of 1933. The most prolonged of several short-lived governments that followed, the “hundred-day government,” carried out a series of radical reforms (nationalization of the telecommunications company, university autonomy, price controls and regulations on labor immigration). and convened a constitutional assembly. However, with the help of the Cuban army and the US embassy, the development was stopped.
Sergeant, and eventually self-appointed colonel, Fulgencio Batista, took a leading role. Batista was in fact Cuba’s strong man in the decades that followed. From 1940 to 1944 he was also the country’s elected president. During his reign, a new constitution was introduced, considered one of Latin America’s most modern. At the same time, he had close ties to the US embassy and safeguarded US political and economic interests.
In the years that followed, Havana became a place of amusement for wealthy Americans, a relationship that was in stark contrast to the social reality that characterized Cuba.
Batista regained power in a military coup in 1952. He then repealed the constitution introduced during his term as president, and pursued a particularly oppressive policy. This helped the active resistance start to accelerate. Lawyer Fidel Castro was one of the chiefs in the planning and execution of the attack on the Moncada Fort in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. The attack failed, but inspired a growing revolutionary movement under the name of the July 26 movement.
After nearly two years in prison, the leaders of the Moncada attack were released by amnesty, after which they traveled in exile to Mexico to prepare new military actions against the Batista dictatorship. With 81 combatants, Castro arrived in Cuba in 1956, but the attack was fought back by the army. A small core of Castro’s men settled in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in southern Cuba, where they, with increased support, developed into a guerrilla army that garnered much international attention.
Argentine physician Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had joined the fight on Castro’s side, became a symbol of “a common Latin American revolution”. Alongside Castro and Che, Camilo Cienfuegos was one of the foremost heroes when Batista’s army was defeated, and the revolutionary forces moved into Havana without significant resistance on New Year’s Day in 1959. The new government with Castro as prime minister embarked on rapid reforms and literacy campaigns.
The United States was expecting, although the land reform proclaimed in May 1959 led to the nationalization of several American properties and Raúl Castro (Fidel Castro’s brother) gradually trying to give Cuba’s Communist Party greater influence over the revolution. The oil refineries were nationalized in 1960 on the grounds that they refused to process Soviet oil. The United States responded by stopping imports of Cuban sugar, the lifeblood of the island’s economy. The nationalization of sugar production was a significant radicalization of the revolution, and when Cuba was sold on its sugar in the Soviet Union, relations with the United States tightened further.
The Kennedy administration actively supported the unsuccessful invasion of exile Cubans in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 (see Cuba crisis). During the run-up to the invasion, Castro proclaimed Cuba as a socialist republic. Later the same year, the July 26 movement, the rebel movement Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo, and the Communist Party Partido Socialista Popular (which had initially been skeptical of Fidel Castro) joined in one organization: Allied Revolutionary Organizations (ORI). The United States placed strong diplomatic pressure on Cuba and had the country excluded from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962.
In 1964, it was decided that all OAS members should break diplomatic relations with Cuba. Mexico was alone in not following the request. Cuba’s revolution, just a few miles from the United States’ own coast, was viewed with admiration by politically conscious Latin Americans and was an important source of inspiration for guerrilla movements in many countries. One could freely travel out of Cuba until 1962, and the exile Cuban environment that arose in Florida should be noted with military actions not only aimed at Cuba, but against radical trends in Latin America in general.
Especially after the Cuba crisis, the country was effectively boycotted by its traditional trading partners, and the socialist countries with the Soviet Union at the forefront took over most of the market. The Communist Party, Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC), was officially formed in 1965 with Fidel Castro as First Secretary. The PCC was for years the world’s smallest state-carrying Communist Party and, compared to other similar parties, played a relatively withdrawn role until its first congress in 1975.
During the first year of the revolution, persistent attempts were made to industrialize the country and to redistribute agriculture to limit dependence on sugar exports. However, the economic development strategies were to change on several occasions during the 1960s, and towards the end of the decade an opposite strategy was reached: to produce more sugar than ever to generate revenue to develop the country.
The 1969-70 sugar harvest, where ten million tonnes of sugar was to be produced, the highest figure in the country’s history, failed, and Fidel Castro went public and took self-criticism. Nevertheless, the country was aiming to mechanize the sector and to export large quantities of sugar to the Soviet Union in the years that followed, and received favorable payment for the commodity. Since 1991, sugar production has fallen, and sugar is no longer Cuba’s most important export commodity.
Agricultural reforms and regulations on internal migration have helped Cuba avoid the large influx of cities, with associated slums that have dominated much of Latin America. On a Latin American scale, the country has achieved a high degree of social equalization, and illiteracy is the lowest in Latin America. Cuba has given priority to health and education. Politically, Cuba sought to take a leading position in the movement of alliance-free states. The military support of the MPLA in Angola from 1975, and later to the revolutionary government in Ethiopia, provoked significant reactions among Western countries, which accused Cuba of exporting its revolution, but Cuba’s role in Africa has received positive acclaim from others Nelson Mandela. Cuba’s military involvement ceased at the end of the Cold War, but the country later sent health workers, teachers and technicians to a wide range of developing countries.
Over the years, the OAS boycott has been broken by several member states, and in the 2000s Cuba managed to build new alliances in Latin America. This, through the ALBA collaborative organization that Cuba initiated in 2004 with the oil-rich Venezuela, as well as the Multilateral Community Forum of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which is often interpreted as a challenger to the OAS and unites all Latin American countries, but not the United States and Canada.
Closer ties to the Soviet Union
While in the 1960s, Cuba sought to develop its own form of socialism, largely based on popular mobilization and with ever-changing lines, in the following decade the country copied many institutions and experiences of the Soviet Union. When Cuba was accepted as a full member of the Soviet- led trade cooperation Comecon in 1972, this country provided increased financial security and status as a full member of the Socialist bloc.
Economic policy allowed a few private companies from the mid-1970s, after the last small businesses had been nationalized during a radical experiment known as “The Revolutionary Offensive” in 1968.
In the 1970s, extreme poverty was practically eliminated, although goods were largely rationed. Many Cubans, especially the poorest, experienced this as a period marked by social progress. One also entered the 1970s with a greater degree of calm and order than was the case at the start of the revolution. The last internal armed resistance groups, with support from the exile Cuban environment and the United States, had been defeated in 1965-1966. An exception is the terrorist attack on a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 in which all 73 passengers were killed.
A new socialist constitution was passed in February 1976. This gave the local government bodies direct political influence over matters that until then had been centrally decided. Later that year, Fidel Castro was elected president of the Cabinet, and thus the head of state. His brother Raúl Castro was elected Vice President. Few countries have given one man such a central political role as Fidel Castro has had in Cuba.
A dark chapter from the 1970s is cultural policy – or lack thereof – during what is often called “the five gray years” (1971-1976). During this time, and perhaps longer, many outstanding writers and artists were subjected to censorship and social marginalization.
Some consider the late 1970s as a period of some softening. Castro granted amnesty in 1979 to 3,600 political prisoners who were allowed to leave the country, and offered exile Cubans to return for short stays. 200,000 Cubans had been emigrated to the United States by air during the period 1965–1973, but then the opportunity was lost. When it was re-opened for emigration to the United States in 1980, it caused 120,000 people to cross the narrow strait to Florida in small boats, despite the fact that this led to property loss and those who traveled were termed “scum” in official rhetoric.
While the United States took a gradual approach under President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981), Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) and George HW Bush (1989–1993) provided tightening relations with Cuba. In 1985, Martí radio station was established in Florida to actively influence the citizens of Cuba. Up until the perestroika, the Cuban Communist Party had copied much of the trends in the Soviet Union. In 1986, large parts of the Central Committee were replaced, and a so-called “error correction” process was initiated, a process that included the removal of private agricultural markets. Castro had little sense of the trends in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe towards the end of the 1980s and regarded the development there as capitalist. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit in 1989 clearly showed Castro that similar reforms had been ruled out in Cuba.
“The Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union
In the first half of the 1980s, the economy went relatively well, and the period has been referred to as the golden age of Cuban socialism. However, from the middle of the decade growth stopped. The financial difficulties coincided with the dramatic turnaround in Eastern Europe, which also led to noticeable opposition in Cuba. Military overlords in the United States from 1987 to 1989, and the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez in 1989 for cocaine smuggling, revealed entirely new problems in the Cuban system. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the electoral defeat of the country’s most important ally in Latin America, the Sandinists in Nicaragua, Cuba’s isolation became real.
The liquidation of Comecon led to the liquidation of 85 percent of Cuba’s very special market for the country’s monoculture sugar, and the end of access to cheap oil from the Soviet Union, which was resold on the open market to obtain foreign currency. In 1990, the Cuban authorities declared the “special period” to begin, a crisis that was likely to be even more protracted and profound than the authorities expected. Trade with Eastern Europe fell dramatically and Cuba was ideologically and economically isolated. In 1993, the 3000 ex-Soviet soldiers were withdrawn.
While political reform took place in the context of direct elections in 1993, the economic situation was becoming precarious. The rationing was sharpened and the fuel shortage was noticeable. In 1993, Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro were re-elected as president and vice president. A new generation of politicians also had to escape, with the dynamic Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina in the lead. In July 1993, the government lifted the ban on access to foreign currency for Cubans, which strengthened economic class differences – while the general repression promoted corruption, black labor and prostitution. However, a restructuring of the economy was under way through the army, and with the tourism industry in the country as an example. This industry had a strong growth during the 1990s.
Although the living conditions of most Cubans deteriorated dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union, a 2001 World Bank report ranked Cuban health care among the very best in the developing world. In November 1993, the UN urged the United States to end the trade boycott against Cuba. After four years of very sharp decline in the economy (1990-1993), the country again experienced weak growth in 1994-1996. From 1997, the economy again suffered a setback when the United States introduced the Helms-Burton Act, which sanctions any foreign company that invests in Cuba’s economy. One specific event that caused the United States to tighten the boycott was the Cuban shooting of two small aircraft by Cuban-American anti-Castro activists in February 1996.
Around the turn of the millennium, there were signs of thaw in the relationship between the two countries. A new US law opened for the export of food and medicine, but initially under conditions that made Castro designate it all as a bluff. George W. Bush announced a new austerity when he took office as US President in 2001, and he reiterated and reinforced the demand for improvement when it comes to democracy and human rights. In 2002, 75 intellectuals, all participants in the so-called Varela project – demanded a referendum on freedom of organization and expression- Arrested and sentenced to up to 28 years in prison for treason after a summary trial. At the same time, three people were executed after an attempt to hijack a boat. This led to new tensions on the part of the United States, and to reactions in the UN and the EU as well.
In 1997, the remains of Che Guevara were buried with considerable honors in Cuba after being buried in Bolivia since 1967. Also of historic significance was the visit of Pope John Paul 2 in 1998. As a last survivor from the Soviet era on the island, Russia Lourdes SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) station in 2001 – the year before the United States initiated the disputed detention at the Guantánamo base of prisoners from Afghanistan, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
Towards the end of the Castro period
During his last years in power, Fidel Castro made the point of forming new alliances with a number of Latin American countries that had elected leftist leaders; especially Hugo Chávez ‘Venezuela. An agreement was made in which Cuba sent doctors to Venezuela to get oil in return, creating a certain economic respite.
In a country with a crisis-ridden population that had lost many illusions after the fall of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro sought to create new enthusiasm for the revolution in the 2000s. Small pockets of private sector that the government reluctantly allowed during the crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union were again curtailed; these were seen as a source of social difference and a capitalist way of thinking.
At the same time, the authorities increasingly used popular mobilization and participation in national affairs as part of a thought to create a strong “revolutionary consciousness”. This could be reminiscent of the literacy campaign in the 1960s, where urban youth were sent to the countryside to teach others to read and write, and even got a stronger commitment to the revolution, or that hundreds of thousands of Cubans were sent on international missions (e.g. the war in Angola and health care). In November 1999, a conflict arose around the parental right of Cuban six-year-old Elián González who was found floating on a car ring off the coast of Florida. The boy and his mother had escaped from Cuba, but the mother and the others in attendance had drowned during the crossing.
Fidel Castro also personally led the “energy revolution”, with tens of thousands of students going door-to-door to exchange millions of energy-saving appliances in ordinary homes in an effort to save the power grid that was on the brink of collapse. A massive campaign was launched to release and return five Cuban agents from captivity in the United States (“the five heroes”).
Reforms under Raúl Castro
With the 2008 election, an epoch shift was underway. The new National Assembly met on February 24, at which point the newly appointed Cabinet elected Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raúl Castro as new leader – and thus the country’s president. Since 2006, as number two in the rankings, he had held these functions temporarily after Fidel Castro fell ill and had to undergo several operations. Fidel Castro, however, retained his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party until 2011. As President since 1976, and the country’s undisputed leader since the 1959 revolution, he now figured as one of the world’s longest reigning leaders.
Raúl Castro has initiated cautious liberalization in several areas. Immediately most notable was the lifting of the ban on the sale of mobile phones, PCs and a number of high-power or non-essential consumables such as air conditioning, as well as staying in hotels that were previously reserved for foreigners. A double-digit number of political prisoners were released in 2010–2011 against leaving the country, a minority refused to leave Cuba and eventually stayed. In 2013, the government removed the travel permit scheme, first introduced in 1962.
That same year, Cuba and the United States entered into secret negotiations to resume diplomatic relations, supported by Canada and the Vatican City. In December 2014, Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries. Half a year later, countries restored full diplomatic relations with embassies in each of their countries, something they had not had since 1961. The United States removed Cuba from its list of countries that support terrorism, an entry that was always debated, and softened some of the restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba, even though most of the US embargo or blockade against Cuba remained unchanged.
In June 2017, however, Obama’s successor Donald Trump announced that his administration would reverse the changes made under Obama, which has been partially followed up.
In an effort to create a more sustainable economy, Raúl Castro’s government introduced agricultural reforms in 2008, giving state land use rights to independent farmers and more incentives to produce. The changes in agriculture have subsequently been followed by an opening for people to establish small businesses, which goes beyond previous similar reforms in the 1970s and 1990s, which were subsequently also completely or partially reversed. The reforms have so far provided a better range of goods and services, but have made the economic distinctions clearer, and they have not led to the growth the government hoped for. An internal crisis in Venezuela that became acute in 2013–2014, as well as Trump’s policies, is also affecting the Cuban economy.
Fidel Castro died in November 2016, and in recent years had had a reclusive role in Cuban politics; as a kind of political commentator.
In April 2018, Raúl Castro was replaced in the presidential office by former Vice President and Engineer Miguel Díaz-Canel, signaling a shift to a “post-Castro era”. However, Raúl Castro is expected to continue as leader of the Communist Party until 2021, and the party’s policy is still “updating the model,” a slow-moving reform process that is more limited than reforms in other countries with related models (e.g. China and Vietnam).
“Socialism has not failed,” declared President Raúl Castro at the 50th anniversary of the revolution in January 2009, and an advanced health care and education system is still at the top of the “bragging list”. Amnesty International stated in 2013 that Cuba had one prisoner of conscience, while the disputed organization The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) named about 100 political prisoners.
In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 26th time, with an overwhelming majority, to condemn the US trade blockade of the country. Cuba’s main trading partners in 2016 were China, Venezuela, Spain and Russia.