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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Insight Cuba Guidebook and meetings in Cuba
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.