A Brief History of Cuba

Before the conquest by Spain

The Siboney people, aboriginal hunter/gatherers, were the first inhabitants of the island we call Cuba. They were followed by the fierce Taino, who settled most of the Caribbean islands. When Christopher Columbus reached Cuba on October 27, 1492, it is estimated that there were a half-million indigenous people living in small villages farming yucca, yams, peanuts, avocados and tobacco.

The time of occupation

The Spanish occupation began in 1514 when Diego Velasquez landed near Guantánamo Bay with 300 men. Smallpox, brutal treatment and malnutrition quickly decimated the native people. Thousands committed suicide rather than submit to the Spaniards. The entire indigenous population was wiped out by 1542.

Slavery, plunder and sugar from sugar cane

The first Africans were brought as slaves to work the mines and plantations of Cuba in 1522. Sugar cane, which eventually became a huge export crop, was first planted in 1512, but it was tobacco, a plant native to the island that became the first important commercial crop. The sugar industry exploded into importance in 1791 when French planters fled a slave revolt in Haiti and settled in Cuba. Sugar cane blanketed the island and 700,000 Africans were bought to Cuba over the next 40 years. Eventually, Africans outnumbered whites. Cuba was the world’s largest sugar producer, and the newly-independent United States was its biggest market.

Wars of Independence

Criollos—persons born in Cuba of Spanish descent—were becoming wealthier and dissatisfied with Spanish rule. The US twice tried to purchase Cuba from Spain, in 1848 and 1854, but the colonial power refused to sell. Pressure for self-rule began to build and erupted in a war of independence in 1888. The independence movement was exhausted by great expenditures and loss of life, forcing the leadership to sign a peace treaty. Spanish landowners were also bankrupted by the war. US investors took advantage, snapping up plantations being sold cheaply. By the late 1890s, 70 per cent of land in Cuba was in US hands, and 90 per cent of the country’s sugar went to the US.

The second uprising against Spain began in 1895. Due to an incident arising between the Spanish colonial government and the US in February of 1898, the United States declared war against Spain. A few months later, in July, the Spanish surrendered and Americans occupied Cuba.

In 1902, the island finally gained its independence after being forced to accept a made-in-USA constitution. A clause, the Platt Amendment, gave the US the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs whenever it was deemed necessary to protect American interests. It also allowed for a US naval base at Guantánamo Bay which remains to this day.

Dictators and gangsters

The next five decades were dominated by corruption and increasing American control of the economy. Tourism boomed along with gambling and prostitution as mobsters from Miami, Florida and New York moved into Havana. Poverty and unemployment increased. The countryside and its agricultural working people were virtually ignored. In 1933, a young mulatto army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, seized power and ran the country until ousted in 1944. Batista staged another successful coup in 1953. Elections were cancelled, and for the next six years Batista and his cronies lined their pockets by opening the arms of the government to organized crime. Order was maintained by the army and secret police. Hundreds of government opponents were tortured and murdered.

The Revolution triumphs

In December 1956, a young Fidel Castro and 82 cohorts sailed from Mexico in a small yacht called Granma. The Cuban revolution had begun. Of the 81 original men, only 12 survived the landing in Cuba. Betrayed by a guide, the rest were ambushed and killed by the army. The survivors established themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the eastern part of the island, and slowly gained support among the rural campesinos, the peasants. Underground resistance grew in the cities. Protests were staged and new recruits joined Castro’s guerrilla fighters. As popular support for the guerrillas spread throughout the island, Batista’s troops  became demoralized. When the army collapsed, the dictator Batista fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day 1959, reputedly carrying $40 million. Fidel Castro arrived in Havana on January 8, 1959. Now 33, Castro was named prime minister, and on January 25th over a million Cubans filled the streets to hear Fidel Castro define the goals of the Revolutionary government.

The new government immediately nationalized all landholdings over 400 hectares. Racial discrimination was abolished, rents slashed and wages increased. Some land was redistributed to landless peasants and the rest was turned into state farms where agricultural workers were given secure, paid employment for the first time. Fidel Castro and his close colleague in arms and friendship, Ernesto “Che” Guevara set out to build a utopian state that included a complete shake-up of the economy, a ban on all forms of private enterprise, and the intention to create an enlightened “new man” and “new woman” to fulfil the Revolution’s goals. Thousands of volunteers spread across the countryside to teach one million illiterate Cubans, one-quarter of the population, to read and write.

It is at this juncture of Cuba’s history that the story, Anita’s Revolution, begins.