The imprints of Cuban history can be seen everywhere in the country today - from the intermingling of races to the importance of sugar, the historical continuum is palpable. 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 are popular terms in Cuba still.
In addition to disease, the Spanish and French settlers who followed brought with them sugarcane and later slaves; both sugar and Cubans of African descent continue to help define the character of the island. The racial make up of the country is a mosaic of these separate waves of human inhabitation and in Cuban cities, dynamic and varied racial mixtures can be observed.
Two wars of independence defined 19th-century Cuba. The first, between 1868 and 1878, ended in stalemate; the second, in which the rebels were inspired by the poet and revolutionary, José Martí, began in 1895 and ended when the USA was drawn into the war in 1898. Interestingly, the term 'yellow journalism' was coined during this latter Spanish-American war. Cuba was initially occupied for two years by US forces. After their withdrawal in 1901, the USA maintained effective political and economic control of the island, while Cuba was governed by 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 between the two countries were broken by the USA. Thereafter, Cuba accelerated relations with the Soviet Union and the USA instituted a full economic and financial blockade on the island.
In 1961, the US Central Intelligence Agency organised a corps of anti-Castro rebels to invade the island. This '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. President 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 lost nearly all its trading partners and foreign aid overnight. A 'Special Period in Time of Peace' was declared, an extraordinarily difficult economic period that threatened the revolutionary government's survival. In the new millennium, Cuba began pulling back from the economic abyss, largely thanks to help from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.