New Internationalist

History

Issue 301

Cuba a brief history

1. Before the conquest
The Siboney, hunter/gatherers from South America, were the first people in Cuba around 3,000 years ago. They were followed by the Taino, an Arawak tribe who settled most of the Caribbean islands as well as the northern edge of South America. By the time Christopher Columbus reached Cuba on 27 October 1492 the fiercer Taino had driven the Siboney to the western tip of the island. When the Europeans arrived there were an estimated half-million indigenous people living in small villages farming maize, yucca , yams, peanuts, avocados and tobacco.

2. Occupation
The Spanish occupation began in 1514 when Diego Velasquez landed near Guantánamo Bay with 300 men. There were soon pitched battles with Hatuey, a Taino chief who had fled neighbouring Hispaniola where he had witnessed Spanish atrocities. Hatuey was eventually burned at the stake, refusing to be converted to Christianity. Velasquez eventually established seven new settlements and an encomienda system which gave the colonizers land and Indian labour in return for teaching them Christian ways. Smallpox, brutal treatment and malnutrition quickly decimated the natives. Thousands committed suicide rather than submit to the Spaniards. In 1542 the encomienda system was abolished but by 1570 the entire indigenous population had been wiped out.

3. Slavery and plunder
The first African slaves were brought to work the mines and plantations in 1522. Blacks were allowed to stay together in tribal groupings, a move which allowed African culture to develop strong roots. Sugar cane was first planted in 1512 but a native plant, tobacco, became the first important commercial crop.

The Spanish soon ignored Cuba in favour of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. But because of its strategic position the island became a staging point for the shipment of colonial plunder to Spain. Havana was heavily fortified but frequently attacked by British and French pirates. In 1762, the British briefly occupied the port and severed the Spanish trading monopoly.

4. King sugar
The sugar industry exploded after 1791 when French planters fled a slave revolt in Haiti and settled in Cuba. Sugar cane rapidly blanketed the island and 700,000 Africans were imported over the next 40 years, eventually outnumbering whites. Cuba was the world’s largest sugar producer and the newly independent United States was its biggest market. Meanwhile, the criollo bourgeoisie (born in Cuba of Spanish descent) was becoming wealthier and impatient with Spanish rule. By 1825 there were only two Spanish colonies left in the Americas – Cuba and Puerto Rico. The US twice attempted to buy Cuba from Spain, in 1848 and 1854, but the colonial power refused to sell. In the 1850s nationalist pressure for self-rule began to build and soon became unstoppable.

5. Wars of independence
Criollo planters in the eastern province of Oriente began the first war of independence on 10 October 1868 at the instigation of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes who called for the abolition of slavery. More than 200,000 Cubans and 80,000 Spaniards died in the fighting and the exhausted rebel leadership was forced to sign a peace treaty in February 1878. US investors snapped up plantations sold cheaply by bankrupt Spanish landowners. By the late 1890s, 70 per cent of the land in Cuba was in US hands and 90 per cent of the country’s sugar went to the US. The second war against Spain was started in 1895 by Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, a gifted writer and advocate of social justice. Martí campaigned for Cuban independence from exile in the United States and warned of the danger of American domination. He was killed in the first months of the war but the fighting continued. In February 1898 the US battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbour. Washington blamed Spain and declared war a few months later.

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

6. Dictators and gangsters
The next five decades were dominated by corruption, incompetence and increasing American control of the economy. Sugar and tobacco were exported to the US in exchange for imports at preferential tariffs: by 1956, three-quarters of Cuban imports were from the US. Tourism boomed along with gambling and prostitution as mobsters from Miami and New York moved into Havana. Meanwhile, poverty and unemployment increased and the countryside was virtually ignored. In 1933, a young mulatto army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, seized power and ran the country until 1944. The next two governments combined systemic corruption with brutal repression of political opponents. Batista staged another coup in March 1952 ‘to restore order and democracy’. Elections, which the mildly liberal Partido Ortodoxo was expected to win, were called off. Batista and his cronies were intent on lining their pockets and the dictatorship opened its arms to organized crime. Order was maintained by the army and the secret police. Hundreds of government opponents were tortured and murdered.

7. The Revolution triumphs
On 26 July 1953 over 100 militants and students led by a young lawyer, Fidel Castro, attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The assault was thwarted and most of the rebels killed. Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Two years later he was granted amnesty under popular pressure and fled to Mexico City where he gathered other revolutionaries around him, including his brother Raúl and a radical Argentine doctor named Ernesto Guevara. In December 1956 Castro and 81 cohorts sailed from Mexico in a small yacht called Granma: the Cuban Revolution had begun. The guerrillas established themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountains near Santiago and slowly gained support among the peasants. In the cities an underground resistance grew, staging protests and supplying new recruits and arms to Castro’s fighters.

In May 1958 Batista dispatched 10,000 soldiers to wipe out the guerrillas but the campaign failed miserably. Castro’s troops fought back led by ‘Che’ Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. As popular support for the guerrillas spread Batista’s troops became demoralized. Finally, his army collapsed and the dictator fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day, 1959, with $40million. Che and Camilo arrived in Havana the next day. Fidel, now 33, drove from Santiago to Havana, arriving on 8 January. He was named Prime Minister and on 25 January over a million Cubans filled the streets to hear Fidel define the goals of the new Revolution.

8. Guerrillas in power
The new government immediately nationalized all landholdings over 400 hectares. Racial discrimination was abolished, rents slashed and salaries 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. Thousands of volunteers spread across the countryside to teach peasants to read and write in one of the most successful literacy campaigns of all time. The US was outraged by the nationalization of American-owned plantations and initiated a CIA-led plan to oust the Castro Government.

Cuba responded by nationalizing all US-owned companies and by establishing closer economic and political ties with the Soviet Union. Washington began an economic blockade and cut off diplomatic relations in January, 1961. The US effort to topple the revolutionary government culminated in the 17 April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles. The invasion failed miserably. The following October the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Moscow had installed 40 nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. The US threatened war unless the missiles were removed: in the end the Soviets backed down in exchange for a promise from President Kennedy not to invade.

9. Building Utopia
`Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set out to build a utopian socialist state. This included a complete shake-up of the economy and a ban on all forms of private enterprise. Despite Soviet aid, production sagged and a quarter-million disgruntled Cubans left for the US. An ambitious effort to harvest 10 million tons of sugar in 1970 produced economic chaos and pushed Cuba further into the Soviet orbit.

Dependence on Moscow increased in the 1970s as Cuba adopted the Soviet model of authoritarian central planning and bureaucratization. The system survived on Soviet subsidies which helped build an impressive social-welfare system. But underneath, the economy was sputtering and frustration growing: 125,000 Cubans left for the US in 1980 alone. Dissent and criticism were stifled. Opportunities for economic advancement were limited and corruption was spreading – bringing with it both cynicism and disillusionment.

[image, unknown]
PHOTO: TRYGVE BOLSTAD / PANOS PICTURES

10. The special period
IN the mid-1980s Fidel Castro tried to loosen the rigid Soviet model. But with US President Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist crusade in full swing there was little room to move. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, Cuba lost five billion dollars worth of support almost overnight and in August 1990 President Castro announced a ’special period’ austerity program to confront the nation’s worst-ever crisis. As Soviet oil imports dropped, Cuban industry and agriculture ground to a halt. The US used this opportunity to tighten its trade embargo. The 1992 Torricelli Act curtailed shipments of food and medical supplies from subsidiaries of American companies. Basic consumer goods like soap and clothing grew scarce. The country’s limited resources were channelled into education and healthcare, both deemed crucial to the Government’s survival.

The Government introduced a clutch of market reforms including legalization of the dollar and limited self-employment. References to Marxism-Leninism were removed from the Cuban Constitution. In March 1996 Washington turned up the heat by passing the Helms-Burton Bill which set out to limit foreign investment in the country. Canada and the European Union challenged the American law. In January 1998 Pope John II paid an historic visit to Cuba. He censured the US for its trade embargo while urging the Castro regime to cede political space to opposition voices. Shortly afterwords Havana announced the release of several hundred political prisoners. The Revolution now faces its biggest challenge: to create a pluralistic, participatory democracy based on social justice while finding an independent place in the emerging global economy.

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