1990 Census Data:
Cuba is by far the largest land mass in the Caribbean, comprising an area larger than that of all the other islands combined. Cuba is also the only island in the Greater Antilles not dominated by mountains, and its flat savannah plains provide a plentiful harvest of natural resources, mainly sugar, tobacco, and tropical fruits. For most of its history, Cuba enjoyed an economy and standard of living comparable to that of European nations such as Great Britian and France. However, governmental corruption and political instability have been chronic plagues in Cuba's history, and the economy has faltered greatly during the dictatorial rule of Fidel Castro, which began in 1959.
Important Dates in Cuban history
1760 - 1880
Spain ends all trade regulations on Cuba, opening Cuban ports to the world economy. The next 120 years would bear witness to a Sugar Boom in which Cuba became one of the world's largest exporters of this product. Previous Cuban markets such as coffee and cattle-ranching were swallowed up by the enormous sugar plantations. Cuba's white population comprised only 50% of the island's total inhabitants by the mid-1800's, as slaves from Africa streamed into the country to work the sugar mills. The booming economy created much wealth, and the landowners in Cuba began to bicker with the Spanish government in Madrid by the mid-1800's concerning taxes.
"Grito de Yara"
On Oct 10, 1868, the Cuban landowners sent the Spanish government a proclamation of Cuban autonomy, very similar to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The ensuing war lasted for 10 years, and neither side was capable of victory. Trench warfare was common, and at one point during the war Spanish soldiers dug a trench which ran the entire width of the island, from the northern to the southern shores. The war ends through negotiations, in which Spain maintains a more limited control over Cuba.
"The Industrial Revolution begins"
The Industrial Revolution brings new technology to the island, and sugar production accelerates exponentially. By the turn of the century, Cuba's Central Constancia Mill is producing more sugar than all mills in Jamaica combined.
"Free at last!"
Slavery becomes illegal in Cuba. Many former slaves continue to work on their respective plantations as indentured servants.
1880's - 90's
Following the stalemate of the war for independence, many Cuban separatists opt to live in exile rather than submit once again to Spanish rule. Cuban poet and political leader Jose Marti leads a group based in New York City called the "Cuban Junta" which continues to press the case for Cuban independence through newspaper articles and other publications. The propoganda created by the Cuban Junta is printed on shoddy paper whose color has faded to yellow, thus creatingthe monikor "yellow journals".
"The fighting resumes"
A civil war breaks out in Cuba between workers and landowners. The war takes on the characteristics of a struggle between urban and rural Cuba. In 1896, 300,000 peasants are rounded up by the army and placed in concentration camps. Stories of the horrific conditions of these camps are published in American newspapers by the Cuban Junta as propoganda to encourage the USA's impending war with Spain.
"The Spanish-American War and Cuban Independence"
The US battleship "Maine" is sunk near the ports of Havana, Cuba in January. On April 25, the US declares war on Spain. The war lasts only 10 weeks, comprised of two major naval victories by the US. In the first of these victories, at Manila Bay, Cuba, US Admiral George Dewey defeats the entire Spanish Pacific fleet in 1 hour without suffering a single US casualty. Later, Spain's Atlantic squadron is destroyed in similar fashion near Santiago Bay. Without its navy, Spain is forced to surrender. Cuba is recognized as an autonomous state, but under the Platt Amendment is required to lease land for the construction of naval bases to the US. The Platt Amendment is accepted by the Cuban national congress in 1901 by a majority of 1 vote.
"The Yankee factor"
Political instability and governmental corruption become the norm in Cuba. Fearing that European powers will intervene so as to protect their business interests, the US government sends marines on three separate occasions to occupy Cuba and to insist on governmental reform. In 1933, US ambassador Sumner goes so far as to cooperate with the Cuban army in orchestrating the forced resignation of president Gerardo Machado y Morales. During this time, the US also becomes Cuba's largest trading partner, offering reduced tariffs on Cuban sugar as well as investing in the construction of luxurious Cuban hotels.
The Great Depression hits Cuba hard. The one-dimensional Cuban economy of sugar production is highly dependent on imports, and basic necessities become scarse after world trade all but disappears. Poverty and misery become widespread. The dictatorial government of Machado y Morales is especially brutal even for Cuban standards. Machado uses bribery and intimidation to control the congress and the army, as well as preventing the organization of opposing political parties. Machado's lone political opponents are university students, who create a terrorist group called the ABC. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressures ambassador Sumner to prevent the impending civil war, and Machado flees to the Bahamas after losing his political influence.
World War II increases world trade and overall demand for manufactured goods, thus ending the Great Depression. Cuba's economy once again flourishes. The living standard is comparable to European nations, the literacy rate is 80%, and the percentage of Cuban doctors and dentists relative to the population is higher than that of France and Great Britain.
"Fidel and Che: the revolutionaries"
On July 26, 1953, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro leads a revolt against the Cuban government. The movement fails, and Castro flees to Mexico to recruit more followers. Among those who join Castro is Ernesto "Che" Geuvara, a man of Argentinian decent who would become one of Castro's most important generals.
"Castro assumes power"
After using radio stations and publications to create an ideological myth of a peasant uprising (most of his followers came from urban areas) and declaring his intentions of restoring a constitutional government, Castro's political influence has begun to surpass that of current Cuban president Batista. After losing the support of Cuban business, the Church, and the US government, Batista flees to the Dominican Republic. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumes power in Cuba. His leadership is welcomed by the US government, which tries to maintain an alliance. Yet Castro is not welcome to this courtship: he quickly establishes a totalitarian government which controls all aspects of Cuban life, places all Cuban business and farms under state control without compensation to its previous ownership, jails all political opposition, and establishes an alliance with the Soviet Union.
"The embargo begins"
By the end of 1960, Castro has stolen over $1 billion worth of US business operating in Cuba without compensation. US President Eisenhower begins a partial trade embargo, and lowers Cuba's sugar quota in the US to zero. Castro displays the charisma and flair that led to his rise to power in delivering a two-hour tirade against the United States to the General Assembly of the United Nations, after which Soviet primier Khruschev embraces Castro in a bear hug.
"The Bay of Pigs"
US President John F. Kennedy authorizes an invasion of exiled Cuban freedom fighters into Havana to overthrow Castro's regime. On April 15, US B52 bombers begin destroying the Cuban airforce bases near the designated beachhead. The ensuing international uproar creates too much pressure, and Kennedy calls off the second wave of bomber attacks. On April 17, the Cuban renegades land on the beachhead, yet their supplies and weapons cargos are sunk by the Cuban airforce. The remaining US naval fleet retreats, stranding 1500 freedom fighters on Cuban shores. On April 19, the fighting ends with Castro's army taking over 1100 prisoners. On May 1, Castro makes a speech before 2 million people in which he proclaims his victory against the yankee invaders. JFK gives a blank check to the CIA to arrange for Castro's murder, a balance which ends up amounting to over $100 million. Among the techniques devised to either kill Castro or weaken his macho persona are poisoned cigars, an exploding sea shell, a poisoned wet suit designed to cause a chronic skin disease, and a chemical to dissolve Castro's beard. A planned staging of the Second Coming of Christ is rejected as being too expensive.
"The Cuban Missile Crisis"
In attempting to win the US Presidential election over incumbent president Eisenhower, John Kennedy declares that Eisenhower has allowed the Soviet Union to gain an advantage in the amount of nuclear missiles they possess, a so-called "missile gap". The missile advantage is in fact held by the US by a large margin, a situation which creates political pressure on Soviet premier Khruschev within the USSR. To save face for his false declaration, Kennedy plans to build missiles long enough to claim that the missile gap has closed, afterwhich planning to discontinue their production. As the US commences construction of more missiles, Khruschev's political opposition in the USSR grows stronger. Rather than building expensive long range ICBM missiles, Khruschev decides to ease this political pressure by constructing cheaper medium-range missiles to be secretly placed in Cuba. After an American U2 spy plane discovers these Soviet missiles in Cuba, Pres. Kennedy orders a naval blockade of the island. The US and USSR come perilously close to war, most assuredly an all-out nuclear war, before a compromise is met: the Soviet Union will remove their missiles from Cuba, provided the US remove their nuclear missiles from Turkey and promise never to invade Cuba. Castro attempts to hijack the Soviet missiles before they are deported from Cuba, but Soviet troops fight off the Cuban army and escape.
Castro reverses his law that Cuban citizens are restricted from leaving his island, and announces that all Cubans are free to leave. 300,000 refugees flee from Cuba in 1965, mostly to the United States. Another 125,000 refugees are allowed to flee Cuba during the summer of 1980. In 1965, Castro also confirms that his government holds over 20,000 political prisoners.
"Fall of the Soviet Union"
Despite Castro's ambitious goals for "rapid industrialization", Cuba has been running a trade deficit since the start of his regime in 1959. To keep their political ally afloat, the Soviet Union has provided large amounts of foreign aid to Cuba, as well as offering guaranteed sugar prices and inexpensive purchases of Soviet oil. In the 1970's, Castro permits foreign investment to return to Cuba, and runs a $10 million debt with western banks in order to fund extensive national health care and education programs. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba loses its largest trade partner and struggles to find replacement imports for oil.
"The fight to survive"
Isolated by the American trade embargo and having lost the aid of the Soviet Union, total economic collapse threatens the island of Cuba. Electricity and fuel output are cut, and farmers are encouraged to use oxen to work their fields. Bicycles are also distributed to replace automobiles. To keep the island afloat, Castro promotes the tourism industry, as well as creates a "joint-venture" sector in industry through which a Cuban labor force works for Mexican and European companies. Cuba thus is able to provide itself with life's basic necessities, and the regime of Castro hangs on.