Thirdeyemom

A Look into Cuba’s Tumultuous Past

Author’s note: Many readers have asked lots of questions about Cuba and why the US continues to have an embargo after 50 years. America’s relationship with Cuba is a fascinating albeit complicated topic. My goal for this post is to briefly outline the complex history between Cuba and the United States. It is a daunting task and by no means am I an expert. All the information used to write this post was gained from my people-to-people visits, interviews with Cubans, and reading and research on Cuban-American relations.  I feel it is hard to explain Cuba without explaining her long fight for freedom and revolutionary past. – thirdeyemom

Mi amigo in Trinidad

I saw this man in Trinidad and he fit the bill of my image of a true Cuban.

Cuba is a place of perseverance, pride and frustration. In order to get an understanding of how today’s Cuba evolved, it is essential to dig back in time and examine Cuba’s turbulent past and struggle for independence after years of colonial rule.

Like many parts of the world, Cuba had an indigenous population who were living peacefully before Cuba was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 during Columbus’ first expedition to the Americas.

Voyages of Christopher Columbus

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus from 1492-1500. Source: WIkipedia Free Commons

Given Cuba’s strategic location between the United States, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, Spanish conquistadors called Cuba “the key to the Gulf” and in 1511 began colonizing Cuba. Virtually the entire native population (estimated around 100,000 people) was wiped out due to disease, forced slavery and mass killings, leading to over 400 years of brutal Spanish colonial rule.

The new Cuba was founded on slavery. Three groups of Cubans slowly formed: The “peninsulares” born in Spain, the “criolles” descendants of Spaniards born in Cuba, and the slaves. Seeing the need to find free labor to grow the tobacco, sugar and coffee industries which were making Cuba rich, the Spaniards began importing slaves from Africa in 1526. Eventually as slaves mixed with the population, a mixed race or mulatto population evolved.

Life under Spanish rule was nothing short of hard. While the rich plantation owners enjoyed the benefits of Spanish rule, a large group of Cubans began desiring more freedom, equality and an end to slavery. Cuba’s long fight for freedom intensified in thirty years of struggle during the late 1800s. There were two major wars for independence in which Cubans fought for freedom from Spain. The first occurred from 1868-1878 and the second happened from 1895-1898, during the midst of Cuba’s abolition of slavery.  Concerned about losing their own economic interests in Cuba, the US declared war on Spain and defeated them in 1889 ceding Cuba to the United States in the The Treaty of Paris.

Cuban Revolutionary Propaganda

The Cubans love their revolutionary past or so it seems.

It was not until 1902 that Cuba finally gained her independence after centuries of colonial rule. However, not without a caveat. The American government granted Cuba freedom however the inclusion of the Platt Amendment gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban Affairs at any time. Cuba’s first president, US-backed Tomas Estrada Palma, was elected in 1902 followed by years of several puppet presidents who were highly corrupt and backed by the United States.

The height of Cuba’s corruption and decadence was during the 1950s when Fulgencio Batista, formally commander in chief of the military, seized power in a coup d’état in 1952. Batista established a cruel and unfair dictatorship backed by the US government,  rewarding the wealthy plantation owners and mingling with the American mafia.

As anger swept across the nation among the “haves” and the “have-nots”, a revolutionary wave was spreading. The most notable revolutionary in the history of Cuba, a young Fidel Castro Ruz, would change the course of Cuba forever and also be one of the world’s most divisive leaders. Castro dreamed of ending the corruption and inequity in Cuban society. Pairing up with Che Guevara, Castro and his rebels were the force behind the Cuban Revolution which began in 1953 and ended in victory in 1959 by conquering Batista’s troops.

A defeated, corrupt Batista made sure to drain all the money out of the Cuban banks before fleeing to the Dominican Republic on December 31, 1958 and opening up the door for Castro to claim victory in early 1959 and eventually launch a new one-party Socialist regime.

Havana Cuba

Crumbling, decaying buildings, a reminder of Cuba’s glorious past, line the streets of Havana.

Castro inherited a country laced in corruption, poverty and severe inequality. While many rich Cubans fled the country before the revolution leaving all of their possessions behind, most of the poor Cubans stayed behind and their standard of living was extremely low.  Castro’s first goal was to establish a new social order based on the ideals of equality. He began transforming the political, social and economic landscape of Cuba by privatizing industries, implementing free education, universal health care and other social systems. He also launched a literacy campaign, which brought the country to 100% literacy, a miraculous achievement, in one year. However, Castro’s regime also had its downfalls. Many basic rights were denied and many freedoms were removed such as freedom of the press, governance, and economy.

Simultaneously, the relations between Cuba and the United States during this time also became full of tension and escalating conflict. In January 1960, the US cut off sugar importations from Cuba opening the door to a renewed relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union who gladly took their sugar.  In retaliation, the US blocked Soviet crude oil from being refined at US owned refineries in Cuba, resulting in the nationalization of these American companies by Castro without compensation. Angered, the US government issued an embargo on selected products to Cuba which had a devastating impact on the Cuba economy.

Vintage American Cars in Havana

Pre-Revolutionary American cars are quite common in Cuba and a reminder of the isolation imposed on Cuba after the US Embargo.

On January 3, 1961 Washington severed all diplomatic relations with Cuba leading Cuba to declare herself a Communist country and ally with Russia. As US and Cuban relations deteriorated, the US government led several attempts to assassinate Castro with the disasterous Bay of Pigs invasion being the most monumental. The ultimate blow happened in February 1962 when the US issued a total blockade prohibiting any economic relationship with Cuba. Sadly, a half a century later the blockade remains.

The most terrifying escalation of US-Cuban relations occurred in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Countering the growing threats and tensions with the US, Cuba formed an economic and military alliance with the Soviets and allowed them to place nuclear weapons on the island, only 90 miles distance from the coast of Florida. Over a 13-day period Cuba and the US were on the brink of a nuclear war and thankfully a secret agreement was reached by the US and USSR to remove the missiles.

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 lead to the “Special Period” as it is called in Cuba, a time of severe shortages, poverty and hunger. Cuba was essentially isolated and had to change in order to survive. Castro began reluctantly losing up his grip on the economy and introduced new laws allowing for a small amount of entrepreneurship.    Slowly but surely things began to improve in Cuba but only for the lucky few who have access to the new economy. The slow opening of Cuba’s economy continues today but at a snail’s pace which frustrates most Cubans who are ready for a better life. 

Havana homes

Sadly, many Cubans live in small, cramped and rundown apartments.

Havana homes

And many of the glorious mansions and villas of Havana’s past are deteriorating due to lack of funds for upkeep.

While there have been successes of the Cuban Revolution – Cuba boosts one of the highest literary rates in the world and also an extremely educated population – there have been many failures as well. For the most part, Cubans remain poor and their standards of living are despicably low. The average Cuban continues to survive on $2 a day and the Cuban ration card for basic food staples isn’t enough. Cuban professionals such as doctors, engineers, architects and professors are either leaving the country or starting up a second job as a taxi driver that can earn the average monthly salary of $25 in less than a day’s work in tourism.

After traveling to Cuba, it is clear that Castro proves to be a divisive figure around the world. While some people applaud him for ending corruption and bringing in a more equitable regime, his opponents view him as an oppressive dictator that has ruled Cuba for over half a century without improving human rights and the economy. There is also a huge mass exodus of rich and powerful Cubans living in the United States who after fifty years refuse to give in and let the US end its total blockade despite the fact it is hurting their own people.

As Fidel’s younger brother, Raul Castro took over Cuba’s rule in 2008, simple but small reforms have been introduced that have slowly brought much needed change to Cuban politics, economy and every day life. Yet the majority of Cubans argue that it has not been enough.

Before going to Cuba, I read that most Cubans have a special skill for dealing with a life of hardship, frustration and complexity: A good sense of humor and frequent laughter. Once inside Cuba I instantly discovered that it is indeed true. Cubans are some of the warmest, genuine people I’ve ever met. They reluctantly accept their lives – often filled with frustration and empty promises – with a grain of salt. Now that is something to admire.

Los tres amigos de Cuba

The history of Cuba is extremely complicated yet also very fascinating. I have much more to explore and share in future posts on some of the topics discussed above. Stay tuned…

Some of the resources used in this post include the following: I 

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten

Cuba….Like a Local” by Peter Greenberg, Michelin Travel

Cuba Timeline via BBC news

Insight Cuba Guidebook and meetings in Cuba

Voyages of Christopher Columbus (map)

Stay tuned….I plan on discussing in more details many of the issues I’ve touched upon above. I am fascinated by Cuba and plan on sharing many more stories, photos and facts. 

45 comments

  1. Sas

    Thanks Nicole, this is a really interesting and educational post. A friend of mine moved to Cuba on his own when he was 15 to play baseball, and he always talks fondly of his time there 🙂

  2. Amy

    As time progress, I hope their quality of lives will be improved a little sooner than later… They are talented people.

  3. If I didn’t see the word Cuba, I would have thought I was reading a history of the turbulent times in Nicaragua. It is eerily reminiscent of the history of Nicaragua. The untimely intervention and interference of the U.S. in Cuba is strikingly similar to Nicaragua. I wish I had an answer as to why the U.S. feels that it must intervene in third world countries that are struggling to survive and grow. Is it because of oil? A fear of socialism? Greed and power without compassion and understanding? Who knows. But, like the Cubans, the Nicaraguans are remarkably resilient. Thank you, Nicole, for your detailed, yet simplified account of the history of Cuba. It is superb. I can’t help but feel angry at my country, yet hopeful for these genuine people. Awesome job. I’ll bet it took you a long time to do all the research for this commendable post. 🙂

    • Yes, it is amazing to learn more about the history of both Cuba and the US as well as other international relations among countries. So fascinating isn’t it. I want to read a book on Christopher Columbus now and also learn more about US involvement in Central America.

  4. A very interesting read, well-presented and easy to follow (quite an achievement given the complexity of the subject). As a Welshman living so far from Cuba I have regarded the place with much naivety for many years, viewing it as simply a ‘poor country with many political issues with the US’. My girlfriend has wanted to go there with me for quite some time now and I’ve always put it off, but your blogs have made me see Cuba in a new light, thank you! You have also inspired me to read up on Che Guevara, a figure I have come to associate with revolution but with little knowledge on. Keep up the good work!

  5. ah! an overnight road trip places me where there’s wifi and internet, though last night i was so tired that i collapsed into slumber. this morning finds me on the run again.. one of these days i’ll have internet at home again!

    what a great post, and i’ve saved it to read offline when i’m home so that i can savor all of your research and also try to grasp why cuba is still ‘taboo’ for a tourist destination for north americans.

    when i read the historires of the crimes against the true native americans, i am so ashamed.. the cultures, the histories, the traditions and most of all the people – lost/destroyed because of the invading countries —-

    then there are rare walkaing ambassadors – citizens of the world, who negate the bad and help restore peace, one person at a time.

    thank you for all that you do. you’re a rare and wonderful powerful-yet-gentle woman!

    love
    lisa

    • Oh Lisa! Thanks for the kind words. Yes our past in this world and even present is often so unexplainable. How people can have so much hatred and desire for power that nothing can get in their way. Tragic.

  6. Thank you so much for this post, Nicole! It’s a perfect roundup of the history of Cuba for those who know nothing about it like me! I had no idea of the Russian involvement. Very enlightening and of course I love your photos! Have you seen this movie about the revolution in Cuba? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGoHAg4dNVI It’s in Spanish but maybe you can get a copy with subtitles. I watched it a few years ago but now you’ve inspired me to watch it again. I’m looking forward to more of your Cuba posts!

    • Thanks Lucy! I tried to check out this movie on YouTube and it said we couldn’t watch it as it had copyright issues in the US! Crazy. THanks again for the comments!

  7. Reblogged this on Dream Across The World and commented:
    I really enjoyed this history of Cuba. I must admit I am fascinated by the island. My father was adopted and when we met his biological family we learned of a great grandfather that was a cuban dentist. As the story was told to me, his wife was once a part of Welsh royalty but fell in love with him on vacation and was banished. I would love to get the opportunity to visit this country and experience the people and the lifestyle they are living. It is so fascinating that in the 21st century people are still being oppressed all around the world. It is sad to say but the more I explore the world and read about the U.S.’s foreign relations the more disappointed I am with my country. Our ideals were solid in the beginning but corruption has taken over in so many facets. I would love to be an ex-pat one day. I’d like to experience first hand the amount of genuine people that still exist in our world today.

  8. Fascinating read Nicole…well done. Cuba has always fascinated me. I believe [from what I have read], that though mistakes have been made the goals and the ideals were good. Faced with America and the embargo they have had such a difficult road to travel.

  9. Nicole this was so informative and added to the few facts I really know about Cuba. Everyone that visits loves it. I know a few people that have visited recently and also love it and want to return. Is it safe for travel across the country now? I find that I have time to only read one or two blogs a day now and I am surely glad it was yours!

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