Spanish settlers established the raising of cattle, sugarcane, and tobacco
as Cuba's primary economic pursuits. As the native Indian population died
out, African slaves were imported to work the ranches and plantations.
Slavery was abolished in 1886.
The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia wrote, "Cuba was discovered by
Columbus during his first voyage, on the 28th of October, 1492. He took
possession in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, and named it
Juana in honour of the Infante Don Juan. He again visited the island in
1494, and in 1502, and on each occasion explored part of the coast. He
then believed that Cuba was part of the mainland, and it was not until
1508 that Sebastian Ocampo, by order of the king, circumnavigated it, and
proved it to be an island. IN 1511, Captain Diego Velásquez, who
had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, was sent to Cuba to subjugate
and colonize the island. He landed near Cape Maisí, the eastern
extremity, and there was founded Baracoa, the first colony in Cuba. In
1514 Velásquez founded Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba on the south
coast, Sancti Spiritus, Remedios, and Puerto Príncipe in the central
portion; and, on the site of the present city of Batabanó, towards
the western extremity of the south coast, San Cristóbal de la Habana;
this last name, however, was given, in 1519, to a settlement existing on
the present site of Havana. The same year Baracoa was raised to the dignity
of a city and a bishopric, and was made the capital, as it continued to
be until 1522, when both the capital and bishopric were transferred to
Santiago de Cuba. Havana became the capital in 1552, and has remained so
"Upon the death of Ferdinand, 23 January, 1516, Velásquez changed
the name of the island to Fernandina in honour of that monarch. Later,
the name was changed to Santiago in honour of Spain's patron saint, and
still later, to Ave María in honour of the Blessed virgin. During
all these official changes, however, the island continued to be known by
its original name of Cuba, given it by natives, and it has retained the
name to the present day. The aborigines (Siboneys) whom the Spaniards found
in Cuba, were a mild, timid, inoffensive people, entirely unable to resist
the invaders of their country, or to endure the hardships imposed upon
them. They lived under nine independent caciques or chiefs, and possessed
a simple religion devoid of rites and ceremonies, but with a belief in
a supreme being, and the immortality of the soul. They were reduced to
slavery by the white settlers, among whom, however, the energetic and persevering
Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, "The Protector of the Indians", as
he was officially called, earned a high reputation in history by his philanthropic
efforts. In 1524, the first cargo of negro slaves was landed in Cuba. Then
began the iniquitous traffic in African slaves upon which corrupt officials
fattened for many years thereafter. The negroes were subjected to great
cruelties and hardships, their natural increase was checked, and their
numbers had to be recruited by repeated importations. This traffic constantly
increased, until at the beginning of the nineteenth century, slaves were
being imported at the rate of over 10,000 per year."
"In 1538, Havana was reduced to ashes by the French, and was destroyed
a second time in 1554. In 1762, the city was taken by the English, but
within a year, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the
Seven Years War, it was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida. From
this time the progress of Cuba was rapid. Luis de Las Casas, who was sent
to Cuba as captain general, was especially energetic in instituting reforms,
and he did much for the prosperity and advancement of the island. During
the nineteenth century, however, Cuba was governed by a succession of captains
general, some of whom were honourable in their administration, while others
seemed to regard their office solely as the means of acquiring a fortune.
Various oppressive measures instituted by some of these governors, such
as depriving the native Cubans of political and civil liberty, excluding
them from public office, and burdening them with taxation, gave rise to
the deadly hatred between the Cubans and the Spaniards, which manifested
itself from time to time in uprisings for greater privileges and freedom.
Of this kind were the conspiracy of the "Black Eagle" (1829, the insurrection
of the black population (1844), and the conspiracy of Narciso López
(1849-51), all which gave occasion to repressive measures of great cruelty.
The rebellion of 1868-78, however, compelled Spain to promise the Cubans
representation in the Cortes, together with other needed reforms. She failed
to keep many of her promises, and the general discontent continued, with
the result that in 1895, a new and formidable revolt broke out. The insurgents,
under able leaders, were able to keep the field, in spite of the extremely
energetic and even cruel measured that were adopted to crush them. They
were able to maintain the semblance of a government, and their heroic resistance,
as well as the conduct of Spain, aroused great sympathy for them throughout
the United States."
Cuba was the last major Spanish colony to gain independence, following
a lengthy struggle begun in 1868. Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, helped
initiate the final push for independence in 1895. In 1898, after the USS
Maine sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15 due to an explosion of undetermined
origin, the United States entered the conflict. In December of that year
Spain relinquished control of Cuba to the United States with the Treaty
of Paris. 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. In 1934, the amendment was repealed,
and the United States and Cuba agreed to continue the 1903 agreement that
leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States.
Independent Cuba was often ruled by authoritarian political and military
figures who either obtained or remained in power by force. Fulgencio Batista,
an army sergeant, organized a non-commissioned officer revolt in September
1933 and wielded significant power behind the scenes until he was elected
president in 1940. Batista was voted out of office in 1944 and did not
run in 1948. Both those elections were won by civilian political figures
with the support of party organizations. Running for president again in
1952, Batista seized power in a bloodless coup 3 months before the election
was to take place, suspended the balloting, and began ruling by decree.
Many political figures and movements that wanted a return to the government
according to the Constitution of 1940 disputed Batista's undemocratic rule.
Fidel Castro, who had been active politically before Batista's coup,
on July 26, 1953 led a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago
de Cuba in which more than 100 died. After defending himself in a trial
open to national and international media, he was jailed, and subsequently
was freed in an act of clemency, before going into exile in Mexico. There
he organized the 26th of July Movement with the goal of overthrowing Batista,
and the group sailed to Cuba on board the yacht Granma, landing in the
eastern part of the island in December 1956.
Batista's dictatorial rule fueled increasing popular discontent and
the rise of many active urban and rural resistance groups, a fertile political
environment for Castro's 26th of July Movement. 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. Although he had promised
a return to constitutional rule and democratic elections along with social
reforms, Castro used his control of the military to consolidate his power
by repressing all dissent from his decisions, marginalizing other resistance
figures, and imprisoning or executing thousands of opponents. An estimated
3,200 people were executed by the Castro regime between 1959-62 alone.
As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans
fled the island.
Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961. For the next
30 years, Castro pursued close relations with the Soviet Union until the
demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Relations between the United States and
Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban regime expropriated U.S. properties
and moved toward adoption of a one-party communist system. In response,
the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and, in response
to Castro's provocations, broke diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961.
Tensions between the two governments peaked during the October 1962 missile
Under Castro, Cuba became a highly militarized society. From 1975 until
the late 1980s, massive Soviet military assistance enabled Cuba to upgrade
its military capabilities and project power abroad. The tonnage of Soviet
military deliveries to Cuba throughout most of the 1980s exceeded deliveries
in any year since the military build-up during the 1962 missile crisis.
In 1990, Cuba's air force, with about 150 Soviet-supplied fighters, including
advanced MiG-23 Floggers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, was probably the best equipped
in Latin America. In 1994, Cuba's armed forces were estimated to have 235,000
active duty personnel.
Cuban military power was sharply reduced after the loss of Soviet subsidies.
Today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces number about 60,000 regular troops.
The military plays a growing role in the economy and manages a number of
hotels in the tourist sector. The navy and air force are only a fraction
of their former size. The country's two paramilitary organizations, the
Territorial Militia Troops and the Youth Labor Army, have a reduced training
capability. Cuba also adopted a "war of the people" strategy that highlights
the defensive nature of its capabilities. The government continues to maintain
a large state security apparatus, under the Ministry of Interior, to repress
dissent within Cuba, and in the last decade, has formed special forces
units to confront indications of popular unrest.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba expanded its military presence
abroad, spending millions of dollars in exporting revolutions; deployments
reached 50,000 troops in Angola, 24,000 in Ethiopia, 1,500 in Nicaragua,
and hundreds more elsewhere. In Angola, Cuban troops, supported logistically
by the U.S.S.R., backed the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola
(MPLA) in its effort to take power after Portugal granted Angola its independence.
Cuban forces played a key role in Ethiopia's war against Somalia and remained
there in substantial numbers as a garrison force for a decade. Cubans served
in a non-combat advisory role in Mozambique and the Congo. Cuba also used
the Congo as a logistical support center for Cuba's Angola mission.
In the late 1980s, Cuba began to pull back militarily. Cuba unilaterally
removed its forces from Ethiopia, met the timetable of the 1988 Angola-Namibia
accords by completing the withdrawal of its forces from Angola before July
1991, and ended military assistance to Nicaragua following the Sandinistas'
1990 electoral defeat.
President Bush announced an Initiative for a New Cuba on May 20, 2002,
that called on the Cuban Government to undertake political and economic
reforms and conduct free and fair elections for the National Assembly.
The Initiative challenged the Cuban Government to open its economy, allow
independent trade unions, and end discriminatory practices against Cuban
workers. President Bush made clear that his response to such concrete reforms
would be to work with the U.S. Congress to ease the restrictions on trade
and travel between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban Government did
not enact any such reforms. Elections for the National Assembly were held
in January 2003, with 609 government-approved candidates running. That
was followed by the March crackdown on members of civil society. On October
10, 2003, President Bush announced new initiatives on Cuba. These include
a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which will be co-chaired by
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Martinez and
Secretary of State Powell in order to: bring about a peaceful, near-term
end to the dictatorship; establish democratic institutions, respect for
human rights, and the rule of law; create the core institutions of a free
economy; modernize infrastructure; and meet basic needs in the areas of
health, education, housing, and human services.
Cuban History Bibliography