The history of Cuba is fascinating. From its pre-Columbian inhabitants to today's Communist regime, Cuba history has seen more than its fair share of major events and pivotal people. A strategic possession during the time when European ships first took to crossing the oceans, Cuba’s location was so crucial that it was known as the Key to the New World. Recent history has been just as significant—the Cuban Revolution is regarded as one of the influential events of the twentieth century, and even as the Communist government in Cuba has become more relaxed since Raul Castro took power, the symbols of the revolution and Cuban culture, including Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Jose Marti, can still be seen throughout the country in monuments, posters, and books about the watershed moments in the history of Cuba.
The first inhabitants of Cuba were believed to have come from South America 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and the Taino Indians ultimately became one of Cuba's primary pre-Columbian civilizations, arriving some time later from other Caribbean islands. Although Christopher Columbus sighted the island on his famous trip to the New World, it wasn’t until the early 1500s that Cuba was claimed for Spain, by the conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. Few pieces of the indigenous heritage survived the centuries of Spanish rule. Historic structures from those days mostly include buildings constructed by the Spanish, such as the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which dates to the sixteenth century.
Jose Marti Monument
In the 1800s, the Spanish began to lose their grip on the island. The Cubans staged their first war of independence (the Ten Years’ War) in 1868, and though they were defeated by the Spanish military, they delivered a heavy blow to the colonial rule. The most famous revolutionary of the period is Jose Marti, still regarded as a national hero in Cuba. Born in Havana, Marti is known for his poetry, essays, and political activism, and his unifying the Cuban emigrants in the US and elsewhere was critical to the revolutionaries’ eventual success. Killed in military action in 1895, Marti is now honored by a massive monument at the Plaza de la Revolucion in central Havana.
After the United States defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War of 1898, they took charge of the island and ceded control to a Cuban government in 1902, with numerous conditions that continued a long history of close ties between the two countries. Many of these benefited the United States, including allowing the US military the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Cuba soon held elections and was declared independent, though Guantanamo remained—and still remains—leased to the United States. The country had strong trade ties to the US, and several Cuban cities, especially Havana and Varadero, became popular vacation destinations for Americans.
Che Guevara Monument
From the beginning of Cuba's independence, there was unrest among the people and a number of revolts that culminated in the mutiny bringing Fulgencio Batista to power, serving as the country's leader from 1940 to 1944. Heading another coup, he seized power again in 1952. Although there were economic advances during Batista's time in power, there was also great corruption, and the young attorney Fidel Castro began filing court papers to have Batista removed. He led a raid against a barracks near Santiago de Cuba, was arrested, subsequently released, and met the young physician Ernesto "Che" Guevara while in exile in Mexico. Together, the two revolutionaries and 80 fighters sailed the Granma yacht to Cuba in 1956, beginning the Cuban Revolution that would eventually see a communist Castro become the country's leader in 1959. Castro ultimately took charge of Cuba, and Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967, is regarded as a hero of the revolution. The Che Guevara Monument, on the Ministry of the Interior at the Revolution Plaza, is one of Havana’s iconic attractions.
Castro was relentless in stamping out all opposition within Cuba. Relations with the United States soured, as Castro was angered by US support of Batista and resented US influence. The Cuban government began nationalizing and expropriating US businesses in 1960, including oil refineries, ITT, and the United Fruit Company. Diplomatic relations were broken in 1961, and in April of 1961 the US backed a group of Cuban exiles in their failed attempt to invade the island and overthrow Castro; the incident is better known as the now-infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion. The embargo against Cuba was instituted early in 1962, and relations were further strained by the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The repressive regime of Fidel Castro saw more than a million people flee the island, most coming to the United States, where Miami now has the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba. Others, like the Bacardi family (makers of the rum used to make the island's signature mojitos) moved to other Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Since the fall of the Soviet Bloc countries in 1989, the country has suffered financially. An ailing Fidel Castro was replaced by his brother Raul in 2007, and there has been a loosening of many of the most restrictive laws against private ownership and private businesses. Cuba’s tourism industry has grown again in recent years, and there is promise of even more reforms to come. At the end of 2014, President Obama announced the loosening of travel restrictions and the embargo. This meant that American citizens now had more access to the island. They were now able to spend American dollars on the island, and even bring cigars back home with them.
With so many changes afoot, the future is bright for tourism in Cuba.