Cuba has a riveting history and a rich heritage that stems from the mixture of different cultural influences over time. From its early beginnings as a Taino-inhabited island to the colonisation years and the decades' long battle to obtain independence from the Spanish colony to the rebel-led revolution of the 1950s where figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became instant legends; Cuba's history is sure rich, action-packed and undoubtedly inspiring. Learn more about Cuba's riveting past with our overview of the main historic highlights - an essential handy guide for history enthusiasts.

Cuba Quick Facts


Capital
Havana
Area
110 860 km² (almost half of UK)
Population
11 242 628 hab.
Language
Spanish
Currency
Cuban Pesos (CUP)
Electricity
110 v / 60 Hz
Dial code
53
Time zone
GMT -5 hours

A brief introduction to Cuban history and culture

Cuban History

When most of us think about Cuban history, our minds jump back to the Cuban Revolution and not much else. However, this is a serious mistake if we truly want to understand the island. Even making sense of the Revolution itself is impossible if we don't understand the factors that led up to it!

Prior to the arrival of European colonizers, the island that we now call Cuba was already inhabited by indigenous peoples. But don't make the mistake of thinking things were totally peaceful until the Europeans arrived-one of the island's original indigenous groups, the Guanajatabey, were driven to the far western reaches of Cuba after the arrival of Arawak people who conquered north along the Caribbean island chain.

Christopher Columbus sighted Cuba on his first voyage in 1492, and subsequently the first European settlement in Cuba was founded in 1511. It was then that things got much worse for the native people-they resisted Spanish rule, and a three year campaign full of brutalities and full-scale massacres were carried out. Many of those who survived were forced onto reservations or into slavery, where most died of disease and mistreatment.

As the indigenous people were no longer a viable workforce for Spanish landowners, the end of the 18th century saw a significant increase in the import of slaves from Africa and other Caribbean islands. Thanks to these slaves and to improvements in local technology, the beginning of the 19th century saw Cuba become the world's most important producer of sugar and one of its major coffee producers as well. This remained the case until slavery was abolished in 1886, and many of the mansions you still find on the island today attest to these times of great suffering for many and great wealth for a few.

The 19th century also found the desire for independence from Spain growing within Cuba. Antislavery and independence movements were often tied together or even one in the same and, as a whole, were advocated by the poor and working classes and resisted by the wealthy. This period also found various sectors of Cuban society advocating for annexation into the United States for a variety of reasons including still-legal slavery, democratic idealism, and simple geographic proximity.

The war which finally led to Cuban independence began in 1895 and lasted until 1898. Initiated by independence hero Jose Marti (who was killed early on in the process), fighting continued until United States intervention in 1898. The Spanish lost Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States in this process, and the Spanish granted Cuban independence in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The United States then militarily occupied the island for a number of years, and this was the beginning of a period of heavy U.S. political and economic influence on the island.

This U.S. presence made Cuba into a popular tourist destination during the first half of the 20th century, when Prohibition resulted in alcohol being made illegal in the US. However, the country's presence disappointingly had no effect towards ending the economic and racial inequality on the island. Puppet governments advocated for the interests of large U.S. businesses and generally ignored the plight of Cubans, making the island ripe for revolution during the mid-20th century.

So in 1953, the Cuban Revolution reached a turning point with the support of non-conformist groups of university students and unhappy working class people. The attack on the Moncada Barracks that year failed, but it introduced the Cuban people to a new revolutionary named Fidel Castro. He would be exiled to Mexico where he would meet Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and they returned to Cuba together in 1956 to begin an armed revolutionary struggle against the by-then dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista, who by that time had become immensely unpopular.

The Cuban Revolution was won in 1959 and, though the United States was briefly optimistic, it soon became clear that the new government would not be content to remain within the U.S. sphere of influence. The relationship between the two countries quickly deteriorated and, by 1962, a U.S. trade embargo was in place against Cuba. Cut off from their major trading partner, Cuba had no choice but to turn to another major world power-the Soviet Union.

This relationship remained close until the Soviet Union's demise in 1991. Once again Cuba was thrown into an economic crisis and the so-called "Special Period" began. It was during this period that international tourism opened up on the island, and since then Cuba has been attracting more and more tourists from around the world, including Ireland and the United Kingdom, each year.

In more recent history, high-level talks of normalized relations between Cuba and the United States have recently begun. Though history has shown many similar attempts to only be false starts, this time things look more serious. Only time will tell if this is the true beginning of a new relationship between Cuba and the United States.

Cuban Culture

Cuba is home to one of the world's true cultural melting pots. On the island, you'll find a mixture of primarily Spanish, African, and American cultural influences with plenty of other smaller ingredients thrown in for good measure. These include French culture, specifically in Cuba's eastern reaches where many French colonists arrived from nearby Hispaniola, and even Chinese culture, especially in Havana and a few other large cities. The truth is that indigenous Cuban culture largely disappeared, as most native peoples were exterminated by the Spanish quite early in the colonial period. However, it does still live on in certain foods, words, and place names-even the name of the country itself comes from an indigenous word!

Cuban culture is widely recognized for its music, a mix primarily of African and European influences, as well as its dance. Music and dance styles such as the son, the rumba, and the mambo originated in Cuba, and these have by now been exported to other countries around the world. However, much Cuban music is yet to be discovered by the international market.

Popular Cuban sports include baseball and boxing, though football is growing somewhat in popularity on the island. Lastly, the two major religions in Cuba are Roman Catholicism and Santeria-a mix of Christian and African Yoruba influences. In the early years of the Cuban Revolution the government worked to suppress religion, but in recent years it has once again become fully-accepted on the island.

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