Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Cuba was originally populated by the Arawak Indians, a melange of folks from the Orinoco River and some blow-ins from nearby islands. They were not an over-achieving people – hunter gatherers – and no match for the Spaniards who popped by following Christopher Columbus’ visit in 1492. The conquistadors managed to wipe out 90% of the population with their lethal combination of genocide and contagious diseases.
The Spanish didn’t initially think much of Cuba, using it as a service station for their galleons carrying booty from meso-America, thereby attracting the pirate classes, with Francis Drake and Cap’n Henry Morgan in starring roles. One of the islands offshore was supposedly the model for “Treasure Island”.
During the process of wiping out and indenturing the locals, one of the chiefs staged a brief insurgence, which was quickly crushed. The chief (Hatney, after whom Havana is named) was offered a deal – convert to Catholicism and you’ll be spared. His response was a cheeky “If heaven is full of people like you, I don’t want to go there”, whereupon he was promptly burnt at the stake in keeping with traditional Christian principles. Whole villages committed suicide rather than being enslaved, so when the sugar industry took off, the Spaniards imported hundreds of thousands of workers from Africa.
The Brits stopped by around 1762, capturing Havana, but a year later traded Cuba back to Spain in exchange for Florida (only 90 miles to the north). Cuba was the last of the Caribbean islands to abolish slavery, in 1886, following the Haitian slave revolt against the French. Half a million slaves worked the sugar and tobacco plantations by the middle of the C19th, when Cuba was producing 1/3 of the world’s sugar. In the ten years from 1868, 250,000 died in revolts by the small holders and their slaves, presaging decades of revolt against the governing powers.
The quest for national identity was furthered by one Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who’d been exiled to the USA, and who lobbed back to Cuba in 1895 to lead an uprising against the Spanish. When the US (who’d been eyeing Cuba for some time) offered to buy Cuba from the Spanish, Marti warned that this was a bad idea “I know the monster, because I have lived in its lair”. In 1898 the USS Maine, hovering off the coast, mysteriously exploded, triggering the ‘Spanish-Cuban-American war’. The Yanks won and in 1902 the Treaty of Paris ceded overlordship to the US. The new kids on the block set about ensuring their power by disenfranchising 95% of the population, but even so were nobbled when the vast majority of the voting 5% resoundingly rejected US sovereignty in favour of independence, so the Americans were forced to cobble together a show-pony government, giving themselves the right to intervene militarily without pretext and to set up bases on the island in perpetuity, hence the Guantanamo Bay installation to this day.
Fifty years of puppet governments saw the ‘Gangsterismo’, endemic corruption, high rollers and glitterati thrive in Cuba, meanwhile the population was undernourished, poorly educated and enslaved in all but name. All the usual suspects arrived and signed up for booze, brothels and fat offshore bank accounts, including the mafia, cranky Frankie, Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe.
But the seeds of revolt were firmly planted, and one smart young lawyer, Fidel Castro Ruz, cut his teeth by organizing an uprising on his father’s 10,000 hectare sugar plantation near Santiago de Cuba in the south east of the island. Daddy must have been pleased!
Fidel and his band of your rebels attacked the Moncado Barracks on July 26, 1953, failing miserably. There’s a ghastly but telling photo in the Museo de la Revolution showing numerous dead and bloody bodies with the soldiers and American military elite posing and grinning broadly at the results of their day’s work.
Those who survived were captured and put on trial, which was just the opportunity young Fidel needed, giving his legendary 2-hour defence, ending with the gutsy proclamation “condemn me, it does not matter – history with absolve me”.
In sentencing Castro and his band, Batista’s mob were curiously careless, impounding them in comfortable quarters on the Isle of Pines. Batista stopped by for a visit to the motley crew, who stupidly greeted him by singing revolutionary ditties, whereupon Castro was slammed into solitary confinement for the duration.
Batista granted the renegades amnesty in 1955 but the writing was on the wall. From Mexico, Castro and his new best friend, a doctor from Argentina with a penchant for organizing revolutions, one Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, planned their return using an ancient motor launch, the Granma, to land 81 rebels on the south coast. A combination of bad weather and good intelligence meant that Batista’s men were waiting for them, and only 16 survived the landing, fleeing to the nearby Sierra Maestro mountains where Fidel and Che recruited a formidable band of peasants to form a guerilla army.
As they mobilised their fleet of sugar harvesters converted to tanks and moved westward to public hysteria, Batista decided it was time to visit his fat offshore bank accounts and independence was finally declared on January 1, 1959 by the ‘barbudos’ (the bearded ones).
On the plus side, Castro instigated reforms in education and health (Cuba has one of the world’s best health systems), whilst appropriating utilities, factories and private lands. The media was placed under State control (still is) and many thousands of people suspected of being anti-revolutionary were interrogated/disappeared/fled to the USA, settling in Florida and wielding political clout in Washington disproportionate to their numbers. Other ‘undesirables’, including homosexuals and priests were dispatched to labour camps.
Within a year, the US imposed a trade embargo and subsequently broke off diplomatic relations. The attempt by the CIA-trained exiles to land a force at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco for the Kennedy Government, and drove Castro into the arms of the USSR, which loved the thought of needling the US by having a presence just 90 miles from the mainland – a payback for the US base in Turkey. Expedient as always, Castro declared himself to be an instant Marxist-Leninist in return for massive economic support from the USSR, totalling $5B per annum by the mid-80’s.
In the autumn of 1962, Krushchev installed 42 medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, the installation being immediately noted by the US’ spy planes. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island and the world held its breath for six days until the standoff was resolved, with the USSR removing the missiles in exchange for the promise that the US would never invade Cuba.
Another 200,000 fled Cuba during the Freedom Flights program from 1965 to 1971, then another 125,000 were helped leave through the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Castro’s canny pragmatism again excelled, peppering the refugee contingent with assorted undesirables, including criminals, drug addicts and patients from the mental hospitals!
The dismemberment of the USSR in 1991 caused Cuba a crisis in energy, the economy and all the essential of life; but America’s other hated neighbour, Venezuela, stepped into the breach. Over the next ten years, Cuba slowly loosened up, welcoming tourism, and gradually moving to a more tolerant attitude to private enterprise. While Fidel and brother Raul are still ostensibly the ruling elite, there is a group of intellectuals who run the show – they’re young and apparently respected by the population. Nobody knows where Fidel actually lives – somewhere in the area of Miramar/Playa, and are full of beautiful colonial and ‘40s-‘50’s mansions. (The CIA’s 638 assassination attempts all failed!)
Postscript: - Fidel Castro died of natural causes in Havana, on November 25, 2016