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Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1511, the island of Cuba was inhabited by three separate cultures: The Gauanahatabeyes, Ciboneyes and Tainos. It is believed that the Guanahatabeyes were the original inhabitants. They were a nomadic society that used primitive tools made from stones and seashells. The few artifacts that have been found are simular to those of the people that lived in the area that is now Florida, in the south of the United States.

south america politic click on the image to enlarge
The two other cultures, the Ciboneyes and the Taínos, are believed to have migrated between the islands and were likely to have originated from South America. The Taino people introduced agriculture to the island, including maize, yucca, and tobacco. They used tools made from polished stones and wood, and created ceramic pots, cerimonial figurines and sculpures. They lived in houses called bohios, which were made from bamboo and the branches of palm trees. It is believed that the three cultures lived peacefully, and traded surplus agricultural and handicraft products.

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Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) first explored the coastline of Cuba in 1494. He did not explore the whole of the island because he believed it to be the west coast of China. When Columbus left the Cuban coast to head back to Spain a few members of his crew decided to stay behind to explore and to make a new life on the island. In 1508, Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated Cuba and proved for the first time that it was actually an island. In 1511, the Spanish returned and appointed Diego Velazquez as the first governor of Cuba. The arrival of the Spanish had disaterous consequences for the local indigenous population. It only took a few years before the local indigenous population was decimated by the Spaniards through direct battle and introduced diseases. As a result of the enforced labour and the destruction of their land it is beleived that many chose to commit suicide instead of being forced to live and work under the cruel conditions imposed by the Spaniards.

In 1520, due to the rapidly diminishing indigenous population, the first group of slaves arrived from Africa to work on the numerous sugar and tobacco plantations. In the 1530’s the first of many slave uprisings occured in the town of Havanna. As a result, the whole town was practically burned to the ground. During this period many Spanish settlers moved back to Spain in fear of their lives, and tired of the constant struggles that the new colony was facing.

Carlos Ibáñez del Campo click on the image to enlarge
Around the late 1540’s, a Taino chief named Guama led a force of approximately 100 men, and engaged in random attacks on the Spanish forces. Guama and his men would hide in the jungle and surprise the Spanish with guerrilla style hit and run tactics. This small rebelion was doomed to fail. The Spanish, while still relatively small in numbers had already established themselves acoss the entire island. It is estimated that by the mid 1550’s only 2000 indigenous people were still alive from a pre-Spanish population of more than 1 million.

In 1597, the Castillo de Morro, which is a large fort at the entrance to Havana Harbour, was completed to protect the town against possible attacks, and to provide an emergency safe haven for the towns people. In 1607, Havana was officially named the capital of Cuba.

During the 1600’s, tobacco was the main agricultural product grown on the island. Various laws were introduced to restrict its sale and cultivation. Pirates and smugglers profited from the restrictions, leading the local authorities to pass a law that required the entire crop to be transported to Spain. In a drastic move to reduce the impact that tobacco smuggling was having on the local economy, the local authorities passed a law that made the sale of tobacco to foreigners illegal. At one point in time its sale to foreigners carried the death penalty.

In 1762, Cuba became part of the British Empire after a brief war. Not long after, the British exchanged Cuba for Florida, which at the time was controlled by the Spaniards. In the sensus of 1774, Cuba had a total population of 172 620. The composition of this was 96 440 whites, 31 847 free Blacks, and 44 333 black slaves.

By the early 1800’s Cuba was establishing itself as a desirable place to live. Many North Americans moved there to purchase cheap land, plant tobacco or sugar farms, and tp take advantage of the cheap labour that the local slave population afforded. All that was required of a land owner in exchange for the free labour was to provide food and shelter. This was an obvious requirement because without these essential human needs, the slaves would have been unable to work the long and hard hours that were expected of them. In the mid-19th century, plantation owners imported more than 100,000 indentured Chinese laborers to make up for the shortage of African slaves that resulted from British interference in the slave trade.

During the 1800’s there were numerous slave uprisings. The slaves had many sympathisers, particularly amongst former slaves. Due to the many uprisings and presure from the free settlers, slavery was finally outlawed in the 1880’s. By this stage Cuba was growing in its national identity. The Cuban Revolutionary Party was formed in 1892. Jose Marti, it’s leader and founder was strongly opposed to Spanish rule, as well as the increasing political presense of the United States, through its many citizens that owned land in Cuba, and its government. Marti died in 1895 leading a rebelion against the Spanish forces. He was portrayed as a hero by many of his supporters and remains a popular historical figure in modern day Cuba.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte click on the image to enlarge
The battle for independence lasted many years. In 1898, an American ship, The Maine, sent to protect US citizens, was blown up in Havana Harbour, killing over two hundred and fifty people. It is believed that the Spaniards, who objected to the American presence, were responsible for the sinking of the ship. After the explosion of The Maine, the US declared war and defeated the Spanish in a relatively quick take over. After the Spanish forces left the island, Cuba became a republic, although the US kept a degree of control in the country using troops to suppress internal unrest, and to protect the many US citizens that still owned land and businesses. Tomas Estrada Palma was the first president of the newly established Cuban Republic.

Carlos Ibáñez del Campo click on the image to enlarge
A succession of corrupt regimes eventually led to General Machado claiming the presidency. Machado’s regime ended when the military rebelled against his leadership and installed Sergeant Batista as the new president. Batista imprisoned and killed his political oponents and isolated many other their sympathisers and supporters.
Batista's regime imprisoned Fidel Castro, a revolutionary and follower of the philosophy of Jose Marti. After imprisonment, Castro fled to Mexico where he met Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a revolutionary, intellectual and doctor from Argentina. In 1956 Castro, with eighty-one supporters, that included his brother and Guevara, landed in Cuba to gain support for their revolution. By 1959 their revolution had succeeded in overthrowing the military regime headed by Sergeant Batista. Guevara became Head of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Finance once Fidel claimed the presidency.

Castro nationalised the majority of the Cuban economy that included many US owned companies. This resulted in the US opposing Castro. When Castro first seized power the US supported him because of his claims that he was going to install a democracy. It wasn’t long before it became clear that his democracy claims were nothing more than retoric. When the US broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo Castro turned to the USSR for financial support. In 1961, a group of Cuban exiles with the support of the US attempted an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The attempted revolution failed because the majority of the Cuban people supported Castro and his regime. In order to deter the US from invading Cuba, Russia placed numerous missiles in Cuba that were aimed at US cities. In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis, as it became known, peaked when the US insisted that the Russian missiles stationed in Cuba be removed. Russia refused and as a result the US blockaded the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world close to nuclear war as the two nuclear powers exchanged demands and insults. Eventually the Russians dismantled the missiles after the US promised that it wouldn’t invade Cuba. In the years since the crisis, the US has continued its economic blockade of Cuba.

In 1980, 12 people crashed a minibus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking asylum. After about a week of preventing more asylum seekers from entering the embassy, the Peruvians opened the embassy grounds to those who wished to enter. As a result over 7,000 Cubans stormed the embassy. Within a few weeks the Cuban government announced that anyone who wanted to leave the country would be allowed, and could simply gather at the port of Mariel, where they would be given safe passage out of the country. The Mariel Boatlift, as it became known, continued for months. It is estimated that the total amount of refugees that migrated to the U.S during this period exceeded 125 000.
fidel castro click on the image to enlarge
In 1994, after many Cubans tried to seek exile in the embassys of foreign countries, or by attempting to enter the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Castro announced an open migration policy. As a result, a new boat lift of Cubans to the US began. This was exacerbated due to the deteriorating economic and social conditions in Cuba, which was largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had provided Cuba with the majority of its aid. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the funding of its aid program to Cuba stopped. In the later part of 1994, an agreement was negotiated with the US that allowed a minimum of 20,000 Cubans to immigrate to the US every year.
Cuba’s President Fidel Castro, who has been suffering from health problems, has officially handed power over to his younger brother, Raul. In 2006, Castro had major intestinal surgery, and at the time of writing, hadn’t been seen in public since July 31st 2006. There have been reports in the media by his close friend and ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that claim ‘Fidel Castro is in charge again in Cuba, and that his health is recovering’. Talk of a ‘post Fidel’ Cuba have been circulating in political circles but only time will tell how soon that will happen.
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