When Columbus reached Cuba in 1492, declaring it “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen,” he encountered three indigenous groups: the Siboney, Guanahatabey and Taino. Although all three were virtually wiped out within 50 years, Siboney and Taino remain popular terms in Cuba still.
In addition to disease, the Spanish and French settlers who followed brought with them sugarcane and later slaves and the island’s racial make up is a mosaic of these separate waves of human inhabitation.
Two wars of independence defined 19th century Cuba. The first, between 1868 and 1878, ended in stalemate; the second, in which poet and revolutionary José Martí inspired the rebels, began in 1895 and ended when the USA was drawn into the war in 1898. Cuba was occupied for two years by American forces and even after their withdrawal the USA maintained effective political and economic control of the island, propping up a series of corrupt dictators including Fulgencio Batista. Then came Fidel Castro and his rebel army, which overturned the hugely corrupt Batista government in 1959, establishing a socialist state. All US businesses were expropriated in 1960 and diplomatic relations were broken by the USA as Cuba accelerated relations with the Soviet Union in the face of an American economic and financial blockade of the island.
In 1961, the CIA organised a corps of anti-Castro rebels to invade the island. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a complete fiasco; all the invaders were captured or killed and US involvement was quickly revealed. The following year, Soviet missiles capable of hitting targets in the USA were installed on Cuba and Kennedy ordered a naval blockade against the island. The confrontation escalated to the threshold of nuclear war, before Kennedy and Khrushchev reached a settlement.
When the Eastern Bloc dissolved in 1989, Cuba experienced an extraordinarily difficult economic period, but in the new millennium, it pulled back from the economic abyss and in recent years has moved closer to both China and the United States. In 2016, a year after diplomatic relations were restored, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Cuba since Coolidge in 1928.
Fidel Castro resigned as President in 2008 in favour of his brother Raúl, who has announced he will also step down in 2018. Fidel's death in November 2016 was followed by nine days of national mourning. The revolutionary politician had survived more than 600 assassination plots to become the longest serving non-royal leader of the 20th Century.
Did you know?
☻ Cuba has tripled its share of Caribbean tourism since the turn of the century.
☻ The sale of computer equipment is heavily regulated, access is controlled and email messages closely monitored.
☻ Culture is a key part of Cuban life and the government supports a range of arts organisations from the classical Ballet Nacional de Cuba to the hip hop Agencia Cuban de Rap.