Cuba, the island in the Caribbean sea in the shape of a crocodile, biting the foot of America.
Cuba was colonised by the Spanish from the 15th Century, who rapidly wiped out the indigenous population. In 1762 the British defeated the Spanish and took control of Cuba, but less than a year later they ceded the island back to the Spanish in exchange for Florida. How different history could have been, if Cuba had remained British and Florida Spanish…
Cuba was a strategically vital outpost over the centuries, serving as the point where the gold from Spain’s New World empire was gathered before being shipped back to Spain. By the 19th century, sugar and slavery had become vital elements in the island’s economy, bringing tremendous wealth for the lucky few, and along with it agitation for emancipation and independence. Also during the 19th century, the United States of America was on the ascendency and took an increasing interest in Cuba, culminating in its intervention in the Wars of Independence against the Spanish and leaving the island under American rule by the end of the century. The option of incorporating Cuba into the Union as a state was seriously considered, but at the dawn of the 20th century Cuba was granted its independence as a republic, albeit under American hegemony.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, American interests became the dominant force in the island’s economy. Havana became a playground for wealthy Americans, with bars, clubs, hotels, casinos and brothels all being built and run by organised American crime gangs.
Ordinary Cubans became increasingly tired of the corruption and maladministration, including a charismatic young lawyer called Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. A failed armed rebellion in 1953 saw Castro imprisoned briefly, and after being released he fled the country to organise insurrection from abroad. In 1956, Castro and an unlikely band of bearded rebels sailed back to Cuba in a small yacht, and over the following years their movement gained the hearts and minds of the Cuban masses. On New Year’s Eve 1958, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in an unlikely victory for guerrilla warfare, derailed a government troop train in Santa Clara. The reviled President Batista decided his time was up and fled the country, and on New Year’s Day 1959, the Triumph of the Revolution was announced.
Initially the USA and Castro both thought that they would be able to come to an accommodation with one another, but during the next two years of escalating disagreements over nationalisation of property, sugar quotas and oil, Castro found his requests for development aid were heard much more sympathetically by the Soviet Union.
The casinos and brothels were shut down, and for rich Americans in Cuba, the party was over. Thousands left, leaving their mansions in the hands of their servants, expecting to return in a few years, but in April 1961, the USA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs was soundly defeated, causing severe embarrassment to the Kennedy administration, serving to strengthen Castro’s grip, and prompting Castro to declare the Marxist-Leninist character of the Revolution.
In October 1962, Cuba was again the focus of the world’s attention, when the USA discovered Soviet missiles on Cuba which for the first time brought the continental USA within range of nuclear strike. The crisis was resolved and the missiles removed, but Castro was furious with the Soviets as much as the Americans for failing to consult him during the negotiations.
Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Cuba prospered under Soviet patronage. Huge programmes of public works and a literacy campaign brought a better standard of life for millions of Cubans, and Cuba punched above its weight in international affairs with political and military interventions around the world.
At the start 1992, Castro received the news he had been fearing. Following the collapse of the USSR, the new Russian government was ceasing the subsidies to Cuba, effective immediately. With oil now in short supply, almost overnight agricultural products became unobtainable, electricity was rationed, and cars, buses and trucks stopped running. The Cuban economy all but collapsed. This was the start of the Special Period. City dwellers were forced to start growing food on every available square metre of land to survive. Secret plans were made for evacuating the cities, turning the country into one based on subsistence farming. In the end, the country’s salvation came in two forms. Starting in 1993, Castro declared the country open for tourism, and luxury seaside hotels were built. In 1999, Hugo Chavez came to power in oil-rich Venezuela, and the two countries formed a strategic partnership, with Cuba once again benefiting from subsidised oil, which to this day keeps the lights on and the cars running.
In 2008, Fidel Castro announced his decision to step down, handing power to his brother Raul. He pushed forward with economic reforms, allowing more private businesses to open, and bowing to pressure to allow ordinary Cubans to own computers, mobile phones, and access to the Internet.
In December 2014, a surprise joint declaration by Raul Castro and President Barack Obama paved the way for the normalisation of diplomatic relations between their countries, with controls on travel and trade between the two countries being loosened after more than 50 years.
2015 will be an exciting year for Cuba, with American interests keen to move back into a territory less then 100 miles off the shores of Florida which has been closed to them for so long. Many wonder if the process will lose some of what makes Cuba such a fascinating space – will there be McDonald’s on the Malecon and Starbucks on every other street corner? How will the government answer calls from its own people for more political freedom? How will the inevitable economic disparities, between those Cubans having access to foreign money and those earning a State wage of about $1 per day, be managed?