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A Brief History of Cuba

This 745-mile-long island, located just 90 miles off the tip of Florida, was inhabited by about 50,000 people of the Cibony and Taino nations when Columbus first arrived in 1492. African slaves were introduced in 1523, and many more slaves were brought over as sugar cane production increased.

Cuba’s first liberation movement began in 1868 — 50 years after most other Latin American countries — when a wealthy estate owner named Céspedes freed his slaves and called for a revolt against Spain. After 10 years of guerrilla warfare this struggle was finally put down. Another insurrection was begun in 1895 by the poet José Martí. The Cuban people gained independence from Spanish rule in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, but they immediately fell under U.S. domination.

The first Cuban constitution contained the famous Platt amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and keep a naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The United States used this “right” liberally, sending U.S. Marines there in 1906–9, in 1912 and again in 1920. At the time U.S. companies owned or controlled half the natural resources in Cuba. Cuba was ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista most of the period from 1933 to 1959. This ended with the successful insurrection led by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement.

The United States cut off diplomatic relations in June 1960 in retaliation for the expropriation of about 2 billion dollars of U.S.-owned property. From this moment Cuba became the major battleground of the Cold War in this hemisphere, and balanced, unbiased information became virtually impossible to obtain. The sins of the government are well known — state control of the media, repression of dissidents and homosexuals, prohibition of independent trade unions — but the substantial achievements of the government are largely unknown. These include reduction of infant mortality to First World levels (10 per 1,000 live births) increase in life expectancy to First World levels (76 years for both men and women) eradication of malaria, polio, tuberculosis and tetanus universal health care and a 94 percent literacy rate. With the loss of substantial aid from the former U.S.S.R. and the 35-year U.S. embargo, Cuba’s economy is reeling. Cubans are uneasy in this time of change — yesterday’s paradigms no longer give a sense of security and no new ones have taken their place.

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