The first occupants of Cuba were the Guanajatabey, a people who had migrated to the island from South America. Their primary occupation was the cultivation of cohiba (tobacco). They lived in tents made of palm leaves all over Cuba, until Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba, while under the assumption that it was a part of Asia.
Because the Spanish were under Papal orders to conquer and convert, Spain waged a three year battle against the natives, and eventually won, despite facing stiff resistance. Under Spain’s aegis, tobacco and sugar became Cuba’s main exports. In fact, the Cubans were responsible for showing the Spanish how to cultivate tobacco and convert it into cigars.
As a result of the booming sugar trade, the Spanish brought in African slaves, who held the Cuban economy together for a long time before slavery was finally abolished. In 1898, the US helped Cuba in the Spanish-American war and, in 1902, Cuba became an independent nation.
The first president of independent Cuba was Estrada Palma and the country had a relatively smooth political run until 1933, when the government was overthrown by Fulgencio Batista, a military leader. Batista eventually became president in 1940 and is known for his enforcement of a police state.
One of the most significant figures in Cuban political history to date is Fidel Castro. Castro started a guerrilla war against the government, with the help of his brother Raul and Che Guevara, the legendary and revolutionary Argentinean. The final nail in Batista’s political coffin came when the United States withdrew support to his government in 1956 and he was forced into exile. Castro remains in power to this day.
In 1959, a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara stormed the Cuban capital Havana, and succeeded in over-throwing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The Castro government then had to fight insurgent forces for six years in the Escambray Mountains, until they gained full control of the country. At first the revolution was looked upon as a positive development in the United States, which supported bringing democracy to Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Things took a different turn though as Castro purged Cuba of the Batista loyalists, resulting in a decreasing relationship between Cuba and the U.S.
When Castro embraced the communist party and broke up and redistributed areas of farmland to the workers of the farms, the relationship with U.S. decreased further. The breaking point between U.S. and Cuban relations broke down completely in 1960, when Casto signed a commercial agreement with the Soviet vice-premier. One month later, the U.S President Eisenhower gave the CIA the go-ahead to start planning an operation to train and arm a group of Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro regime.
That following autumn, the US banned all exports, except for medicines and food, to Cuba and the following year banned all imports from the island. In 1961, on 14th April, the new U.S. President, John Kennedy, gave the go-ahead for a CIA backed operation. Over 1000 Cuban exiles landed at the ‘Bay of Pigs’, a day after US forces had bombed Cuban air fields. After initially overwhelming a local militia, the invading exiles conceded after a counter-offensive, led by Fidel Castro. Most of the prisoners were publicly interrogated and eventually sent back to the United States. It was a major victory for Castro, cementing his power in Cuba.
In 1962, pressure was increasing on President Kennedy in the US to do something about the nuclear facilities, that were being supplied and built by the Russians in Cuba, especially after US spy-planes showed clear photographic evidence of the progress of the facility. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and announced that it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered by the Russians, to the island of Cuba. What followed was an incredibly tense drama and which made the headline news in the U.S. It was the closest the world would come to full scale nuclear war.
Kennedy and the Soviet leader eventually reached an agreement. The Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and the US would end its naval blockage and agree that it would never invade Cuba without direct provocation. The Americans also agreed to dismantle the nuclear warheads they had secretly deployed within striking distance of the USSR, in Italy and Turkey, a year earlier (a program which was unknown to the American people).
Cuba began to take on the impression of a communist state. The standard of living in Cuba in the 1970s was poor and discontent was clear among Cuban people. Fidel Castro himself would admit the failings of his economic policies in a 1970s speech. In 1975, the sixteen which formed the American states, lifted their sanction against Cuba, but the United States still maintained its own.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and this tested Castro’s rule in the years which followed. Cuba faced a severe economic downturn, following the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies worth around five billion dollars annually. This resulted in shortages in food and fuel shortages in Cuba. From 1993, Cuba began to accept US food and medicine, partly a sign of the growing influence of Cubans living in the US and the growing influence of Cuban Americans.
To replace the Russian aid, Cuba found a new friend in communist China. Castro also turned to Hugo Chavez, a former President of Venezuela and Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. These countries provided Cuba with oil and gas. In 2008, 81 year old Fidel Castro announced his resignation of Cuba and announced his younger 76 year old brother Raul Castro, as the new president.
After his 2009 inauguration, President Obama of the United States announced that relations with Cuba could be normalised, if Cuba took steps towards democracy. Obama also looked at a ban on Cuban Americans who wanted to travel and send money to their homeland, but relations became strained again that year, after Cuba arrested U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross and sentenced him to 15 years. In 2013, Cuba ended the 52 year old rule which demanded that any citizen who wished to travel abroad, had to buy an expensive government permit and produce a letter of invitation. Later that year, Raul Castro announced he was stepping down in 2018.
More recently, the Cuban to American relationship has come full circle. President Raul Castro and President Obama have negotiated the release of Mr Gross and an unnamed American spy, in exchange for a group of Cuban spies, held in America for over 15 years. This swap, along with Cuba’s agreement to some other conditions, led to President Obama’s historic announcement, that the United States would begin to normalise relations with Cuba, potentially ending one of world’s longest economic stand-offs in history.
Despite years of sanctions, the United States was still providing Cuba with over six percent of its imports, a number which is likely to rise dramatically if investment begins to flow from USA into Cuba.