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History of Cuba

History of Cuba

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Pre-Columbian Cuba

Conquest of Cuba

Cuba was first visited by Europeans with Christopher Columbus. Diego Velasquez de Cuellar lead the Spanish conquest of the Island.

Spanish Colonial Cuba

The Spanish settlers established sugar cane and tobacco as Cuba's primary products. As the native Indian population died out, African slaves were imported to work the plantations. Slavery was abolished in 1886.

Cuba's Struggle for Independence

Cuba was the last major Spanish colony to gain independence, following a 50-year struggle begun in 1850. Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, began the final push for independence in 1895. In 1898, after the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor on February 15 due to an explosion of undetermined origin, the United States entered the conflict (see: Spanish-American War), which was already almost won by Cuban revolutionaries. Spain sent over one million men to Cuba, and only about 200,000 returned. The rest either died in combat, succumbed to tropical diseases or decided to stay due to the prevalent poverty in their home country.

In December of 1898, Spain relinquished control of Cuba to the United States with the Treaty of Paris.

The Platt Amendment

On May 20, 1902, the United States granted Cuba its independence, but retained the right to intervene to preserve Cuban independence and stability under the Platt Amendment. It was that policy that shaped the history of Cuba up until the Cuban revolution in 1959 and Cuba was more or less an American protectorate during that time. This was seen as an affront to national sovereignty by most Cubans. American forces finally left Cuba on January 28, 1909.

Cuba in the Early 20th Century

President Gerardo Machado[?], originally elected by popular vote in 1925, was constitutionally barred from reelection. He decided to stay in power anyway, as a violent dictator, with some support from the United States. In 1933, a number of liberal Cubans staged an uprising which deposed the Machado dictatorship and led to a series of short-lived governments. As part of the revolutionary process, the Platt Amendment was repealed. Still, American pressure forced Cuba to reaffirm the agreement which was imposed on the country in 1903 which leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States for a nominal sum, under terms which many Cubans at the time found (and still find) objectionable and colonialistic.

A key figure in the process was Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant, who orginally organized a non-commissioned officer revolt in September 1933. After some time, he decided to become de-facto dictator, wielding significant power behind the scenes until he was elected president in 1940 in an election which many people considered to be rigged. His rule was marked by corruption and violence to opponents. Batista was voted out of office in 1944.

He was succeeded by Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín[?], a populist physician who had briefly held the presidency in the 1933 revolutionary process. President Grau passed a number of populist measures favoring workers and also was instrumental in passing the 1940 Constitution, which has been widely regarded as one of the most progressive ever written in terms of worker protection and human rights.

Grau was followed by Carlos Prío Socarrás[?], also elected democratically, but whose government was tainted by increasing corruption and violent incidents among political factions. Eduardo Chibás[?] was the leader of the Ortodoxo Party, a liberal democratic group, who was widely expected to win in 1952 on an anticorruption platform. Chibás committed suicide before he could run for the presidency, and the opposition was left without its major leader.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Batista, who was running for president in the 1952 elections, but had only a small minority of votes, seized power in a bloodless coup three months before the election was to take place. President Prío did nothing to stop the coup, and was forced to leave the island as a result. Batista suspended the balloting and began ruling by decree.

The Castro Revolution

Fidel Castro, a young lawyer from a wealthy family, who was running for a seat in the Chamber of Representatives for the Ortodoxo Party, circulated a petition to depose Batista's government on the grounds that it had illegitimately suspended the electoral process. However, the petition was not acted upon by the courts.

On July 26, 1953 Castro led a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks near Santiago de Cuba and was jailed until 1955, when his powerful family secured a pardon from Batista. Castro subsequently went into exile in Mexico. While in Mexico, he organized the 26th of July Movement with the goal of overthrowing Batista. A group of over 80 men sailed to Cuba on board the yacht "Granma", landing in the eastern part of the island in December 1956. Most of Castro's men were promptly killed or taken prisoner by Batista's forces. Castro managed to escape to the Sierra Maestra mountains with only 12 men, from where, aided by urban and rural opposition, he began a guerrilla campaign against the regime.

Batista's dictatorial rule fueled increasing popular discontent and the rise of active urban resistance groups, a fertile political environment for Castro's 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. The country was soon driven to chaos, particularly by a very effective sabotage and urban warfare campaign conducted in the cities by supporters of Castro.

Faced with a corrupt and ineffective military itself, dispirited by a U.S. Government embargo on weapons sales to Cuba and public indignation and revulsion at his brutality toward opponents, Batista fled on January 1, 1959. Within months of taking control, Castro moved to consolidate power by marginalizing other resistance figures and imprisoning or executing opponents. As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.

Communist Cuba

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban government expropriated U.S. properties, notably those belonging to the International Telephone and Telegraph Company[?] (ITT) and the United Fruit Company. In the Castro government's first agrarian reform law on May 17, 1959 it sought to limit the size of land holdings, and to distribute that land to agricultural workers in "Vital Minimum" tracts. In compensation the Cuban government offered to pay the landholders based on the tax assessment values for the land. Actual payment would be with twenty-year bonds paying 4.5% interest (instead of the then U.S. investment grade corporate bond rate of 3.8%). Landholders from most other countries settled on this basis. The problem was with the tax assessed values. Most of the large landholdings had been acquired in the 1920 period when world sugar prices were depressed, and the land could be bought at bargain-basement prices. In the intervening period Cuban governments friendly to these interests had kept these bargain prices as the basis for calculating property taxes, thus insuring that those taxes would be kept low.

In response, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and broke diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961. (The embargo is still in effect as of 2003, although some humanitarian trade in food and medicines is now allowed.) However, the embargo does not extend to other countries. Cuba trades freely with most European, Asian and Latin American countries.

Bay of Pigs Invasion

The United States then sponsored an unsuccessful attack on Cuba, using conservative political groups as the main source of support. The attack began on April 15, 1961, when exiles, flying planes provided by the U.S. bombed several Cuban air force bases. This attack did not succed in destroying all of Castro's air force. In response, Castro declared Cuba a socialist state in a speech on April 16, 1961.

On April 17, 1961, a force of about 1,500 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, landed in the south at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA's assumption was that the invasion would spark a popular rising against Castro. Castro's forces were forewarned of the invasion and used the opportunity to round up thousands of suspected opponents even before the invasion landed. As a result, there was no rising and what of the invasion force made it ashore were slaughtered as President Kennedy withdrew support at, literally, the last minute. Many believe that the invasion, instead of weakening Castro, actually helped him consolidate his grip on power.

For the next 30 years, Castro pursued close relations with the Soviet Union until the demise of the USSR in 1991.

The Organization of American States suspended Cuba's membership in the body on January 22, 1962 and the United States Government banned all US-related Cuban imports and exports a couple weeks later on February 7. The Kennedy administration extended this on February 8, 1963 making travel, financial and commercial transactions by US citizens to Cuba illegal.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Tensions between the two governments peaked again during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. blockaded Cuba to force the USSR to withdraw their newly-installed MRBMs[?] from the country. The USSR agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an agreement that the United States would not invade Cuba. The U.S. has honored this agreement, although the CIA continued to support anti-Castro groups mounting a harassment campaign and several botched assassination attempt throughout the 1960s.

Castro's rule has been autocratic and dictatorial, with dissidents being heavily repressed, jailed, or forced to leave the island. Elections are limited to voters ratifying the official slate of candidates. There is no freedom of the press, and people are routinely jailed or harassed for expressing anti-government ideas. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders have condemned the Cuban government for its record on human rights. The government counters that such repression is needed because of the many attempts by the U.S. and anti-Castro forces to overthrow the government.

Until its demise, the USSR heavily subsidized Cuba. In exchange, Castro's military provided support to USSR-backed regimes in Angola, Nigeria and to guerrilla groups in South America. During one such campaign, Ernesto Che Guevara, who has become a symbol of revolution in the world, was captured by U.S.-trained commandos in Bolivia in 1967 and later executed. In the late 1970s, Cuban forces defeated the stronger South African army in a major battle in Angola.

Cuba after the Soviet Union

When USSR support was lost, Cuba's economy was essentially paralized, and living conditions in Cuba worsened. This led Castro to open the country to tourism from Europe and Asia, and to enter into several joint ventures with foreign companies for hotel, agricultural and industrial projects. As a result, the use of U.S. dollars was legalized in the late 1990s, with special stores being opened which only sell in dollars. This has created a social split in the island. Persons with access to dollars live much better than those who do not.

Some non-violent initiatives have been launched by Cubans in the island, aiming at political reform. In 1997, a group led by Vladimiro Roca[?], a decorated veteran of the Angolan war and the son of the founder of the Cuban Communist Party, sent a petition, titled "La Patria es de Todos" (the homeland belongs to all) to the Cuban general assembly requesting democratic and human rights reforms. As a result, Roca and his three associates were sentenced to jail, from which they were eventually released.

In 2001, a group backed by the powerful Catholic church collected thousands of signatures for the Varela Project, a petition requesting a referendum on the island's political system. The process was openly supported by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter during his historic 2002 visit to Cuba. In response, Castro backers formally proclaimed that Castro's brand of socialism would be perpetual.

See also: Cuba, Spanish colonization of the Americas



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