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A Brief History of Cuba

| By Jack Bettridge | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

A mere 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus first visited Cuba, pronounced it "the loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes" and discovered tobacco for the Old World. But you must go back at least 130 million years to fully appreciate this land that makes up more than half of the area of the Greater Antilles islands. It was then that a complicated series of geologic foldings and uplifts began to form the sublime combination of limestone,clay and shale drainage that makes Cuban soil ideal for tobacco andsugarcane cultivation.

Fast forward to the pre-Columbian years of this millenium, when Caribbean peoples called the Guanajatabyes, Siboneys and Tainos inhabited the island. The latter group dominated until the early sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez began the conquest of Cuba. Enslaved and killed off by the Spaniards, the original inhabitants and their cultures virtually disappeared by the middle of the 1500s. Tobacco cultivation, nevertheless, survived.

The island soon became a way station for Spanish colonization of the Caribbean. Conquistador Hernán Cortés used it as a base from which to wage his conquest of Mexico. With the demise of the indigenous culture, slave labor was imported (first from Africa and later from China) to work the burgeoning sugar and tobacco plantations. Colonialists, known as creoles, were often restive as they bridled at the tight controls that Spain placed on trade. Settlers were also at the mercy of English, French and Dutch pirates who attacked the island regularly.

In 1762, the English captured Havana and traded it back to Spainin exchange for Florida. A looseningof trade restraints, particularly the abolishment of Spain's tobacco monopoly, followed.

Still, reform didn't come fast enough. In 1868, the Ten Years' War broke out between rebel Cuban forces and the Spanish administrators. When the smoke cleared, 200,000 combatants were dead and Spain promised massive reforms on which it never made good. By 1895, the forces for liberation had again mustered, this time under the Cuban Revolutionary Party of poet José Martí. Two years of bloody civil war followed before U.S. president William McKinley asked Spain's permission to mediate. Following a mysterious explosion that sank the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898, U.S. forces entered Cuba. By 1899, Cuba was under U.S. military rule and Teddy Roosevelt had gained fame as leader of the Rough Riders regiment.

A new Cuban constitution that gave the United States authority to intervene to preserve Cuban independence (and an indefinite lease of the 45-square-mile Guantánamo naval base in eastern Cuba) was approved in 1902 and foreshadowed a sequence of mishandled relations between the two countries.

A series of ineffective or corrupt administrations followed, prompting uprisings and several U.S. interventions. In 1925, Gen. Geraldo Machado became president of Cuba and soon made himself dictator, but by 1933 an economic crisis brought on by falling sugar prices caused his downfall.

An army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista gained control of the army and, through it, the government and a succession of presidents. In 1944, when his candidate for president was defeated by reform-minded Ramón Grau San Martín, Batista fled the country. With a military junta, he regained power in 1952 and was made president in an election that featured no opposition. Under Batista's corrupt rule, American gangsters were invited to control the island's gambling interests and Havana became a playground for the rich. Most Cubans, however, remained in poverty.

A guerrilla force led by Fidel Castro began waging civil war in the countryside, and, on January 1, 1959, his forces took power, as Batista fled to Spain with an ill-gained fortune. Castro quickly aligned himself with the Soviet Union and expropriated U.S. interests in the country. Cuban nationalists, who had also been stripped of their property, formed an enclave in Miami, and, in 1961, with help from the United States, launched a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

A year later, John F. Kennedy signed an embargo, curtailing trade with the island and making the importation to the United States of Cuban cigars (or any other Cuban products) illegal. In the fall of 1962, the discovery of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba caused a global crisis. After a tense standoff, the Soviets backed down.

Castro married the island's economic fortunes to sugar production and trade with the Soviet Union, which heavily subsidized the Cuban government. When the Soviet empire began to collapse in 1989, so did Cuba's economy. In a bid to attract U.S. dollars, Cuba has started shoring up its fallow tourist industry in recent years. But, while the Clinton Administration has made some nods toward easing strained relations, the embargo against Cuba remains. --Jack Bettridge


According to the U.S. Treasury Department, anyone subject to U.S. jurisdiction must have a license from the Treasury "to engage in any transactions related to travel to, from, and within Cuba." In general, only three groups qualify: government officials, journalists, and those "with extreme need" to visit family members in Cuba. License requests by members of other groups, such as academic, cultural and religious organizations, are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

For the rest of Americans, it is illegal to travel to Cuba--from the United States or any other country. That said, there are tens of thousands who each year make the trip via third countries, most commonly Canada, the Bahamas and Mexico. (Cuban customs does not stamp American passports.)

If you do go and are caught by U.S. Customs, you could be charged with violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, with maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. The reality, however, is that prosecuting American tourists is not high on the U.S. government's list of priorities.