Cuban History

Ever since Christopher Columbus called the largest of the Antilles islands “the most beautiful thing human eyes ever beheld,” Cuba has amassed a string of passionate admirers: In recent history Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, and Winston Churchill are just a few luminaries who've been enchanted by the "Pearl of the Antilles." But over the centuries Cuba has also amassed more than its fair share of foreign invaders and undergone a series of revolutions and counter-revolution, struggling through Spanish colonization and slavery, devastating wars for independence, and despotism.

Wars of Independence

For 400 years Spain ruthlessly exploited Cuba through trade monopolies, slavery, and political control. Although Cuba saw many skirmishes for greater freedom, including several slave rebellions, the struggle for independence marked its first major milestone in 1868 when landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves and declared his Grito de Yara (a Cuban Declaration of Independence), sparking the Ten Years’ War—the first Cuban War of Independence, against the Spanish.

Two of Cuba’s great military leaders, Dominican-born Máximo Gómez and Cuban mulatto Antonio Macéo, emerged during this conflict. Despite their initial military gains and glimpses of a potential rebel victory, the Spanish managed to maintain a deadlock that cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. The movement collapsed, and an uneasy peace agreement was reached with the 1878 Pact of El Zanjón. The pact did little other than acknowledge that both sides were exhausted and their resources depleted. Its terms were unsatisfactory to many (including Macéo, who fought for another year and never did surrender). The island seemed far from achieving true local autonomy; and although steps were taken to abolish slavery, its complete abolition—a goal for many revolutionaries—had not been realized.

In 1895 a Second War of Independence was launched. Gómez and Máceo once again served as top generals. José Martí, a beloved poet and patriot, served as the movement’s chief ideologue. Martí's battle did not last long—he was one of the first to fall in the fighting. But Cubans still remember Martí as a martyr famous for the motto: “To die for the fatherland is to live.” Cuban nationalists continued to fight across the country, and by 1897 they controlled much of Cuba.

The country was becoming increasingly unstable with riots occurring in Havana. In 1898 the United States sent its battleship Maine to Havana in a show of military power meant to protect U.S. citizens in Cuba's capital city. However, while docked in Havana Harbor the ship exploded. The Spanish denied destroying the ship, but American public opinion turned sharply against Spain. “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” became an American rallying cry, and on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war with Spain. American forces quickly wrested Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spanish control. Later that year the United States won Cuba. To many political strategists, this was no surprise. Starting as early as 1808, the United States had made a number of attempts to purchase Cuba in an effort to acquire "the Key to the New World," a prize of enormous strategic and economic value. The destruction of the Maine was considered by many Cuban nationalists to be the perfect pretext for U.S. military action against the Spanish, and an opportunity for imperial advancement. In 1899 the island became an independent republic under U.S. protection, effectively ending Spanish rule, but creating growing concerns among Cubans over U.S. occupation.

The Way to Revolution

The fears that the United States would subsume Cuba played out soon enough. The 1901 Platt Amendment, accepted grudgingly by Cuba, stipulated that the United States could intervene in Cuban affairs should the U.S. protectorate become unstable. The amendment also allowed the United States to buy or lease Cuban land for a military outpost (hence the Guantánamo Naval Base).

Within a few short years American interests owned large majority interests in Cuba’s nickel and copper mines, the country’s sugar and tobacco plantations, and its public services. The American mafia made Havana its headquarters, making the port a haven for gambling and prostitution. U.S. diplomats supported Cuban leaders, including Fulgencio Batista, who ruled Cuba with an iron grip. By the 1950s, average Cubans were in no better shape economically than many of their forebears had been at the beginning of the Wars of Independence. In 1952, when a charismatic lawyer named Fidel Castro entered the stage to run against Batista (in elections that Batista cancelled by way of a military coup recognized by the United States), Cubans were more than ready for change.

In 1953 Castro was captured after he led 119 rebels in a failed attack on the strategically important Moncada army barracks. Passionate and eloquent, Castro used his very public trial as a platform for his political aspirations and visions for reform. He famously declared "condemn me if you will, but history will absolve me," and his status as a national hero was firmly established. He was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment but was exiled to Mexico by Batista after only three years.

In 1956, Castro led 81 rebels aboard the yacht Granma and landed in Eastern Cuba but was met by an ambush by Batista forces. It was a devastating defeat, but Castro reorganized and led an improbable guerrilla movement in the island’s highland jungles. Chief among Fidel’s aides was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine-born physician, poet, and idealist. Obsessively opposed to capitalism, Che strove to create El Hombre Nuevo (the New Man), who would work for the common good rather than personal gain. To this day Che remains something of a Cuban saint among many Cubans (although many also view him unfavorably as a violent Marxist revolutionary), and his likeness is depicted in statues, propagandistic billboards, and on Cuban currency and T-shirts.

Castro’s rebels took Havana in January 1959 and deposed the government of Fulgencio Batista. Castro's government was to become one of the world’s last totalitarian, Soviet-style regimes. The Cuban people struggled under the yoke of a society significantly short on civil liberties and material wealth, but they took pride in their hard-won national independence as well as their educational, health care, and cultural successes.

American Conflict . . . and Reconciliation?

To protect its interests after Castro's Revolution, the United States compiled a troubled record vis-à-vis Cuba. In 1961 came an incident that Americans termed the Bay of Pigs invasion. (Cubans call the incident the Battle of Girón or La Victoria, "The Victory.") Counterrevolutionaries opposed to Castro’s repressions banded together under the support of the CIA. But Castro got wind of the U.S.-Cuban plan, shored up his defenses, and stopped the invasion in its tracks.

Just 18 months later, in October 1962, American-Cuban tensions flared again. The Soviet Union, feeling endangered by American missiles in Europe and emboldened in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, began to build up a military presence in Cuba. The United States felt threatened not only by the presence of Soviet missiles but by the existence of a Communist regime just 90 miles south of Florida. A stand-off that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis caused the very real fear of a proxy American-Soviet war in the Caribbean, and it was only averted at the 11th hour when Soviet leader Khruschev backed down.

Although Soviet and American missile strikes were avoided, a Cold War battle nearly as painful ensued and continued for decades—a clash that has included allegations of assassination attempts on Castro as well as a U.S. trade and tourism embargo enforced by half a dozen statutes.

However, U.S.-Cuba relations have slowly improved. In 2006 Fidel Castro, in flagging health, ceded power to his younger brother Raúl, who has issued modest liberal reforms, including expanded foreign investment and private enterprise opportunities for Cubans. And in December 2014 President Obama announced an historic accord between the two nations, further loosening restrictions on tourism and personal remittances to Cuba.In August 2015 Secratary of State John Kerry officially reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana, paving the way for full diplomatic relations.

So how soon before you can order your Americano at a Cuban Starbucks? Currently, participation in the coming Cuba boom remains officially off limits to American firms. That, along with totally unfettered travel for U.S. citizens, would require a complete lifting of the embargo by Congress. Bills have been introduced, and the U.S. business sector has lobbied hard to lift economic restrictions. But Cuba is a prickly, partisan issue in Washington. During the clamor of the 2016 U.S. presidential election year, few expect much to be accomplished on this front for at least a year.

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