Quick Reference

An island country, the largest of the Caribbean Islands.


Cuba is long and narrow – about 1280 km (795 miles) from west to east yet rarely more than 160 km (100 miles) from north to south. Most of it is flat, with plains rising southward to heights seldom greater than 90 m (295 feet), except in the south-east, where the Sierra Maestra reaches 2000 m (6560 feet) and more. The climate is tropical, with heavy rain and easterly winds which often become hurricanes.


The world's second largest producer of sugar, Cuba has a centrally planned economy. Exports have been heavily dependent on sugar (75% in 1975, mainly to the Soviet Union), though nickel and petroleum products (based on the resale of imported Soviet crude oil) have also been important. Agriculture is highly mechanized, and most farms are cooperatively run on state-owned land. Tobacco is another major crop. Iron, nickel, and manganese are Cuba's main mineral resources. Compared to its neighbours, Cuba has a sizeable industrial sector and high standards of social services. The loss of Soviet aid and trade since the Soviet Union's disintegration in 1991 has had serious consequences on the economy, and social services have suffered.


Cuba was first settled by migrating hunter-gatherer-fisher people, the Ciboney from South America, by c.3000 bc. Migrations of agriculturist, pottery-making Arawak Indians from northern South America began to displace them in eastern Cuba after c.1000 bc, but the Ciboney remained in the west. Cuba was discovered by Columbus in 1492 but it was not realized that it was an island until it was circumnavigated in 1508. Spanish settlement began in 1511 when Diego Velásquez founded Havana and several other towns. The Arawak became virtually extinct by the end of the century from exploitation and European-introduced diseases. Black slaves were imported for the plantations (especially sugar and tobacco) from 1526. Britain seized the island in 1762–63 but immediately exchanged it with the Spanish for Florida. Slave importation ended in 1865, but slavery was not abolished until 1886. Various attempts were made by US interests to acquire the island and many Americans fought in the unsuccessful first War of Independence (1868–78). Large US investments were maintained in the sugar industry, which by now was producing one-third of the world's sugar. The second War of Independence (1895–1901) was joined by the USA (1898) after a well-orchestrated press campaign, and Cuba was occupied by US troops (1899–1901). In 1902 the Republic of Cuba was proclaimed. A series of corrupt and socially insensitive governments followed, culminating in the brutal, authoritarian regime of Gerardo Machado (1925–33), which prompted the abortive revolution of 1933–34, the island remaining under US ‘protection’ until 1934. Fulengio Batista was President 1940–44 and 1952–59. Although supported by the USA, his second government was notoriously corrupt and ruthless. In 1956 Fidel Castro initiated a guerrilla war which led to the establishment of a socialist regime (1959) under his leadership. He repulsed the invasion by Cuban exiles at Cochinos Bay, the Bay of Pigs (April 1961), and survived the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The accomplishments of his one-party regime in public health, education, and housing are considerable though his record on human rights remains poor. Castro maintained a high profile abroad and although the espousal of world revolution was tempered under pressure from Moscow, Cuban assistance to liberation movements in Latin America and Africa was consistent. At home, after the political turbulence of the 1960s, the revolution stabilized with the establishment of more broadly based representative assemblies at municipal, provincial, and national levels. In economic terms, the initial hopes of diversification and industrialization were not realized, and Cuba continued to rely on the export of sugar as well as on substantial financial subsidy from the Soviet Union. Agricultural production in the socialist state was generally poor, and shortages and rationing continued. Frustrations with the regime led to an exodus of 125,000 Cubans in 1980. Yet the regime survived when COMECON and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and 1991 respectively, and the country found itself faced with a grave economic situation. In October 1991 the fourth Congress of the Communist Party endorsed the policy of centralized control, a policy that has been largely maintained despite some concessions through necessity to private enterprise. The economic situation improved, although the average standard of living is still lower than in 1991.


Subjects: History.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »