Cuba was originally inhabited by about 50,000 Ciboney and Taíno, agricultural Amerindians related to the Arawak peoples, who died from disease and maltreatment soon after the Spanish arrived. Christopher Columbus made the European discovery of Cuba in 1492 on his first voyage to the Americas. The African slave trade began about 1523 as the Amerindian population declined, and grew thereafter, especially with the development of coffee and sugar on the island. During the early colonial years, Cuba served primarily as an embarkation point for such explorers as Hernán Cortés and Hernando de Soto. As treasure began to flow out of Mexico, Havana became a last port of call and a target for French and English pirates. In 1762, the English captured Havana, holding Cuba for almost a year. It was ceded to Spain in exchange for Florida territory in the Treaty of Paris (1763). Spanish rule was harsh, and intermittent rebellions over the next century all ended in failure.
Cuba's first important independence movement came in 1868, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy planter, freed his slaves and called for a revolution against Spain. For the next 10 years, guerrillas (mambises), mainly in eastern Cuba, fought in vain against the Spanish colonial government and army. Although eventually subdued, Céspedes is nevertheless viewed as the father of Cuban independence. A second hero was added in the 1890s when poet and journalist José Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party during exile in the United States. The call to arms (Grito de Baire) on 24 February 1895 initiated a new war. After landing with a group of recruits gathered throughout the region, Martí was killed at Dos Ríos, in eastern Cuba. The Spanish had the insurrection under control within a year.
In the end, the Cubans had to rely on the United States to defeat the Spanish. Anti-Spanish sentiment, fueled by US newspapers, erupted after the battleship Maine mysteriously blew up in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898. The United States declared war on Spain on 25 April, and in a few months, the Spanish-American War was over. The Treaty of Paris (10 December 1898), established Cuban independence. During the interim period 1899–1902, the US army occupied Cuba. It instituted a program that brought about the eradication of yellow fever, but it was more fundamentally concerned with the establishment of US political and commercial dominance over the island.
On 21 February 1901, a constitution was adopted, and Cuba was nominally a free nation. But the United States insisted that Cuba include in its constitution the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and maintain a naval base at Guantánamo.
For the next 30 years, Cuba lived through a succession of governments, constitutional and otherwise, all under the watchful eye of the United States. American companies owned or controlled about half of Cuba's cultivated land, its utilities and mines, and other natural resources. The US Marines intervened in 1906–9, in 1912, and again in 1920. The period culminated in the brutal dictatorship of Gerardo Machado y Morales (1925–33).
Cuba entered another unstable phase in 1933. A nationalist uprising chased Machado from office. After the United States attempted to install a regime, a "sergeants' revolt" headed by 32-year-old Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar assumed power and named Ramón Grau San Martín provisional president. Grau, a physician and university professor noted for his nationalist zeal, was never recognized by the United States, and his regime lasted only four months. From 1934 until 1940, Batista ruled through a series of puppet presidents. During these years, Batista made two major contributions to Cuba. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed Cuba to abrogate the Platt Amendment, although the United States retained its naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Batista also allowed the drafting of a new constitution, passed in 1940 under which he became president. In 1944, Batista permitted Grau San Martín, now his political enemy, to take office. The eight years of rule by Grau and his ally, Carlos Prío Socarrás, were ineffective and corrupt, and in 1952, a reform party was expected to win election.
That election was subverted, however, on 10 March 1952, when Batista seized power in a military coup. During the seven years of Batista's second administration, he used increasingly savage suppressive measures to keep himself in office. Under the Batista regime, the United States dominated the economy, social services suffered, poverty, and illiteracy were widespread, and the bureaucracy was flagrantly corrupt. It was at this point that Fidel Castro came on the scene.
Castro's insurrection began inauspiciously on 26 July 1953 with an abortive raid on the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago. Captured, jailed, and then exiled, Castro collected supporters in Mexico, and in 1956 landed in Cuba. Routed by Batista's troops, Castro escaped into the Sierra Maestra with a mere dozen supporters. The force never grew to more than a few thousand, but clever use of guerrilla tactics evened the score with Batista's poorly trained army. Moreover, there was almost no popular support for Batista, and in 1958 the United States ended its military aid to the falling government. On 1 January 1959, the Batista regime collapsed, and Batista and many of his supporters fled the country. Castro's 26th of July Movement took control of the government, and began to rule by decree. The revolutionary government confiscated property that had been dishonestly acquired, instituted large-scale land reforms, and sought to solve Cuba's desperate financial and economic problems by means of a bold revolutionary program.
After June 1960, Cuban-US relations deteriorated at an accelerated pace. Largely in retaliation for the nationalization of about $2 billion in US-owned property in Cuba, the United States severed diplomatic relations with the Castro government. Tensions increased when the revolutionary regime nationalized US oil refinery companies for refusing to process Soviet crude oil. The United States response was to eliminate Cuba's sugar quota. In April 1961, a group of 1,500 Cuban exiles—financed, trained, organized, and equipped by the CIA—invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast. The brigade was defeated within 72 hours, and the 1,200 surviving invaders were captured. They were eventually released after US officials and private sources arranged for a ransom of $50 million in food and medical supplies.
However, the United States did continue its attempt, through the OAS and other international forums, to isolate Cuba politically and economically from Latin America and the rest of the non-Communist world. All Latin American governments were pressured to break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Castro responded with an attempt to destabilize certain Central and South American governments. Inspired by the Sierra Maestra campaign, guerrilla movements became active throughout the region, often with Cuban support. However, by 1967, when Ché Guevara was killed in Bolivia, these movements had collapsed. The United States was only slightly more successful in its campaign of isolation. The OAS suspended Cuba in 1962, but in July 1975 passed the "freedom of action" resolution allowing countries to deal with Cuba as they pleased. Meanwhile, Communist influence was growing in the Cuban government. Castro declared Cuba to be a Socialist country in late 1960, and the following year declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist and a part of the Socialist world. All major means of production, distribution, communication, and services were nationalized. Soviet-style planning was introduced in 1962, and Cuba's trade and other relations turned from West to East. In October 1962, US planes photographed Soviet long-range-missile installations in Cuba. The United States blockaded Cuba until the USSR agreed to withdraw the missiles, in exchange for a US government pledge to launch no more offensive operations against the island.
During the Carter administration, there were moves to normalize relations with Cuba. In 1977, the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic contacts (but not full relations) and concluded fishing and maritime rights agreements. However, the advent of the Reagan administration brought increased tensions between the two countries. Citing Cuban involvement in Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Grenada, the United States took up a more intransigent stance toward Cuba.
Domestically, Castro's administration has had its successes and failures. A strong social welfare system, including free health care and subsidized housing, was implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. However, an attempt to produce 10 million metric tons of sugar by 1970 seriously crippled the island's economy. Other mismanaged projects have led to economic stagnation or chaos. Cubans live frugally under a highly controlled system of rationing.
Cuba was dealt a serious blow in the late 1980s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant a cutoff of economic and military aid on which Cuba had come to rely heavily over the years. The USSR had been Cuba's most important trading partner and provided the major market for Cuban sugar. The few consumer goods the USSR had supplied in the past were no longer available.
About three-quarters of a million Cubans have fled Cuba since Castro came to power. Most have settled in southern Florida, and many still have hope of returning to a Castro-free Cuba. There have been sporadic attempts to reunite families broken up by the emigration, but political circumstances often curtail these programs. For example, in February 1985 the repatriation of 2,746 "undesirables" from the United States began, but after Radio Martí (sponsored by Voice of America) began broadcasting in Spanish in May 1985, Cuba abrogated the agreement.
Just as the Cuban economy began to show signs of a rebound from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States tightened its embargo with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992. This led to another wave of emigration in 1994, as thousands of Cubans left the island on rafts and other small vessels bound for Florida. To stem this tide of illegal immigration, the United States in 1995 reached an agreement with Cuba under which the United States would admit 20,000 Cuban immigrants per year. Cuba, in turn, was to take steps to prevent future "boat lifts."
US-Cuba relations deteriorated further, and Cuba's weakened economy was hampered anew in 1996 when the US Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, another embargo-strengthening measure. The act met with harsh international criticism, and Canada and the World Trade Organization moved to fortify trade ties with the Castro government as a rebuff to the United States. Prior to the passage of Helms-Burton, Cuba had renewed its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. In February 1996, Cuban air force planes shot down two civilian aircraft over international waters, killing the four persons aboard. The planes had left the United States carrying computer and medical supplies.
In late 1999 and early 2000, tensions between Cuba and the United States returned to the international spotlight with the highly publicized custody dispute surrounding Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old Cuban boy who was the sole survivor of an attempted boat crossing to the United States in which his mother and 10 other Cuban refugees drowned. The dispute between the boy's father in Cuba and his expatriate relatives in Florida, who wanted him to stay in the United States, became a rallying point for both the Castro regime in Cuba and the anti-Castro Cuban community in southern Florida.
Despite its acquiescence to some economic reforms—dollar transactions and limited self-employment in the agricultural sector—the Castro regime retains its commitment to socialism. Its economy, still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been buoyed by increased tourism, mining, and cigar and fish exports. But economic growth has not translated into an improved quality of life for most Cubans, and Castro has continued to blame poverty and harsh living conditions on the US embargo. After the United States declared war on terrorism, Castro accused Washington of planning to invade the island. He has increased his prosecution of political opponents. The recent execution of some Cubans who were attempting to escape from the island drew international criticism, including criticism from former friends of the Castro regime and long-time leftwing activists.
In January 2003 Cuba held its third direct election for the National Assembly. Participation was limited to a "yes" or "no" vote for a list of candidates approved by the Communist Party. A month later, the Assembly appointed Fidel Castro chairman of the Council of State for five more years. Castro has ruled Cuba for 44 years, the longest tenure in recent Latin American history.