a brief


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t A historical print of Havana.

Cuba has had a tumultuous history owing to its strategic location as the “Key to the New World”. The island’s colourful colonial past is shadowed by slavery and a passionate quest for independence, but following the revolution Cuba became a world leader in literacy, health care and music.

Pre-Columbian Cuba

Until as recently as 5,500 years ago, the island of Cuba appears to have been uninhabited. The first settlers, the Guanahatabeys, were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves. They were followed by the Siboneys, another pre-ceramic tribe that may have arrived from the North American mainland. Around 1,500 years ago, the Taíno arrived from the Orinoco basin in South America. They developed a more advanced culture, living in tribal units under caciques (chiefs) and becoming skilled farmers, potters and weavers, as well as evolving basic astronomical charts.

Spanish Conquest and the Heyday of Sugar

The peaceful Taíno culture was swiftly decimated following the landing of Christopher Columbus on the shores of Cuba on 27 October 1492. The first settler expedition followed in 1511. Those Taíno not put to the sword for resisting Spanish subjugation succumbed to European diseases, and within a century the native population had perished.

In 1553, Havana was named Cuba’s capital. Vast treasure fleets passed through the city's harbour on their way to Spain, resulting in regular attacks by pirates and privateers. Castles and fortresses were built in Cuban cities for protection, while forests were felled for precious timber and to raise cattle for hides bound for Europe. A significant slave trade also evolved at this time.

Spain’s monopolistic treatment of Cuba inspired several revolts. In 1762, a British fleet captured Havana and lifted Spain’s trade restrictions. Although the conquest was brief, this change caused a surge in trade with North America and a rapid expansion of sugar plantations and, in consequence, the slave trade. By the mid-1800s, Cuba had become the world’s largest supplier of sugar and Havana was more sophisticated than Madrid.

Did You Know?

The British returned Havana to the Spanish in 1763 in exchange for Florida and Georgia.

Quest for Independence

By 1826, all of Spain’s Latin American colonies, apart from Puerto Rico and Cuba, had gained independence. Spain ruled Cuba to its own benefit with indifference to criollo (local) sentiment. On 10 October 1868, planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves and launched a war of independence – the Ten Years’ War – in which white and black criollos fought side by side. Although generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo liberated much of Cuba, the uprising was brutally suppressed and one-fifth of the population were killed. In 1895 a second war was launched and by 1898 the independence fighters were close to victory, when a US warship exploded in Havana’s harbour. The US had long coveted Cuba and, blaming Spain, declared war. Spain was vanquished and the US military administered Cuba until independence was granted in 1902.

The Quasi-Republic

US entities came to own more than 50 per cent of the Cuban economy and Washington, DC tolerated a series of corrupt presidents as long as they supported US economic interests. In 1933, Fulgencio Batista seized power in the Sergeants’ Revolt. At first, he enacted progressive reforms and was elected president. After retiring to Florida, he seized power again in 1952, granted the Mafia free rein and imposed a brutal dictatorship to which the US turned a blind eye. Popular opposition to Batista’s rule was marked by assassinations and bombings.

Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro, a 26-year-old lawyer, launched the revolution to topple Batista with an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. It failed miserably, but Batista caved in to popular support and granted Fidel and his brother Raúl amnesty. This proved to be a fateful error as the Castros left for Mexico to organize a Rebel Army. On 2 December 1956, Fidel Castro and 81 others, including Che Guevara, landed in Cuba. Only 16 survived an ambush and made it to the safety of the Sierra Maestra. As volunteers swelled their ranks, the Rebel Army consolidated control of the mountains. On 31 December 1958, after Che Guevara’s guerrilla force captured the city of Santa Clara, Batista fled Cuba.

Did You Know?

Ernesto Guevara was nicknamed "Che" for his use of the interjection, meaning "Hey!" or "mate".

Five Decades of Fidel

Fidel Castro and leaders of several other revolutionary groups had agreed on a civil government, led by President Manuel Urrutia. But Fidel usurped Urrutia, seized power and, embracing Communism, enacted radical reforms to rid Cuba of racism, poverty, illiteracy and unequal health care. He negotiated the support of the Soviet Union and manipulated a break with the US. In retaliation, President Dwight D Eisenhower imposed the US embargo on Cuba in 1960.

The US also sponsored an invasion by Cuban-American exiles on 17 April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. Following this failed coup, the US launched Operation Mongoose, with the aim to rid Cuba of Castro once and for all. Stalemate was the result, however, as Castro asked the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles on the island as a deterrent. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was only resolved when President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba.

Fidel Castro was now free to pursue his dreams. The Great Literacy Campaign eradicated illiteracy, and education and health care were extended to the entire country. But, as every business was nationalized, the economy tanked and Cuba became entirely dependent on the Soviet Union for its supplies. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, Cuba entered the “Special Period” of extreme economic crisis and turned to tourism to save the day.

Cuba Today

In 2006, Fidel Castro fell gravely ill and handed power to his younger brother Raúl, who in 2011 initiated far-reaching economic reforms to stimulate private enterprise. That same year, President Barack Obama expanded travel opportunities by lifting restrictions against US citizens visiting Cuba. In 2015 the two countries formally re-established diplomatic relations and, in March 2016, President Obama became the first president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 to visit Cuba. Fidel died on 25 November 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. In 2017, Trump reinstated many restrictions on Cuba. In April 2018, almost 60 years of Castro rule came to an end when Raúl stepped down as Cuban president. He was replaced by a civilian, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Did You Know?

Cuba is the only country in the Americas ranked 100 per cent literate by UNESCO.

Discover A Brief History


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Initiated by President Eisenhower in 1960, the US trade embargo with Cuba was made permanent in 1996. Condemned by the United Nations, it cannot be lifted until Cuba renounces communism, holds “free and fair elections”, and becomes a multi-party democracy.

Discover A Brief History

Timeline of events

3500 BC

First inhabitants settle on the island of Cuba.

500 AD

Taíno arrive from South America and displace the Siboneys.

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Christopher Columbus “discovers” Cuba.

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The Spanish begin to settle the island, led by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.


Foundation of Santiago de Cuba and Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe (Camagüey).


Havana is founded beside a bay at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, at the site of a natural deepwater port.


Havana becomes the island's capital.

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Welsh privateer Henry Morgan and his pirates sack Havana.


Spain creates the Real Compañía, with a monopoly on Cuban trade.

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The British seize Havana and establish free trade.


US attempts to purchase Cuba from Spain.

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Carlos Manuel de Céspedes launches the ill-fated Ten Years’ War for independence.


Slavery abolished in Cuba.


Independence fighter José Martí is martyred.

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US declares war on Spain and seizes Cuba.


US grants Cuba formal independence.

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Fulgencio Batista seizes power following the Sergeants’ Revolt.


Batista returns from retirement and seizes power in a second coup.


Fidel Castro attacks the Moncada Barracks.

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The Granma brings Fidel Castro’s Rebel Army ashore.


Batista flees and the revolution triumphs.


US launches a CIA-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs.


Soviets install nuclear missiles in Cuba, triggering the Missile Crisis.

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125,000 Cubans emigrate from the small harbour at Mariel.


Collapse of Soviet Union plunges Cuba into a period of severe economic crisis.

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Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba (21–25 January) is a significant turning point.


1,774,000 tourists visit Cuba in one year.

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Fidel Castro is taken seriously ill and hands power to his brother Raúl.


President Obama authorizes travel to Cuba for all US citizens.


President Obama visits Cuba; Fidel Castro dies.

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Miguel Díaz-Canel becomes president.

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