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A Brief History of Cuba

Columbus, treasure and tobacco
In 1492 Columbus discovered not continental America, but San Salvador, an island in the Bahamas. His second discovery just 15 days later was a much larger island which he named 'Juana' in honour of a Spanish princess.

In Cuba as Juana became Columbus imagined he had found the garden of Eden. "This land is the most beautiful that eyes have seen" were his first words. When he had got over that, Columbus thought he had discovered the Asian East Indies, part of the Empire of the Great Khan described by Marco Polo as rich in gold and treasures.

Columbus found no gold. Instead he met Indian medicine men who used a reed pipe called a 'tobago' to sniff smoke from the dried leaf of what they called the 'cohiba' plant. In return the Spanish brought smallpox to the native Indians. It almost wiped them out. The Indians repaid the compliment by giving the Spaniards syphilis, as well as tobacco, to take back to Europe.

Cuba soon became the great entrepot for the treasure filched from the locals in a Spanish empire stretching from Tierra del Fuego at the foot of South America to northern California. Each summer the Spanish flota would assemble off Havana for the voyage to Spain, laden with the gold and silver wrenched from the Incas and Aztecs.

The American mines were eventually worked out and there was not much left to pilfer from the natives of whom there were not many left either. So the great treasure fleets dwindled, but Havana roared on, fuelled by the great tobacco boom. But tobacco soon gave way to something far more profitable.

The sugar boom
Columbus brought sugar cane cuttings to Cuba on his second voyage in 1493. Sugar ultimately proved more valuable than the gold which the conquistadors had hoped to find. Sugar cane grew far better in the tropical heat of the Caribbean than in southern Europe and it steadily replaced tobacco as Cuba's main crop in the eighteenth century, boosted by French planters fleeing the slave rebellion in neighbouring Haiti in the 1790s.

Unlike tobacco, sugar was grown on large plantations which were often carved out of land ruthlessly wrenched from small farmers. The sugar boom made Cuba immensely rich, but also caused immensely rich America plantation owners from the southern states greedily to smack their lips at the prospect of adding Cuban profits to their own. Many of them saw Cuba as a place where slavery could remain, untroubled by any notions of emancipation.

By the 1820s Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer. Mexico and all of mainland South America had by then won independence from Spain. Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of the Americas, wanted independence for Cuba too. But the United States warned him off. They preferred weak Spanish rule for the time being. The Americans first tried to buy Cuba, offering $100 million in 1846, upping the price to $120 million in 1854. Told the Spanish equivalent of "sod off", the Americans played hardball and began supporting a series of pro-independence rebellions against the Spanish as a means of gaining control of the island.

Rebellion and 'independence'
The first rebellion in 1850 was led by a former Spanish general who set sail with a force of 600 soldiers from New Orleans. This failed, though the rebel banner, based on the Texas version of the Stars and Stripes, eventually became Cuba's national flag.

The rebellions continued in the second half of the century, acquiring a more liberal feel as the movement was taken over by educated, anti-slavery planters. A series of vicious independence wars increasingly pitched the Criollos people born in Cuba and allied to gangs of escaped slaves, against the Peninsulares Spaniards who came to Cuba for only a few years, often as government employees and who mainly lived in Havana and the big towns.

By the late 1890s the US newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, was pitching in by sensationalising Spanish atrocities against the rebels and boosting his sales figures. His papers ran exaggerated reports of Spanish concentration camps. The rescue of a pretty Cuban girl by one of the New York Journal reporters made headlines.

These were the days before newspaper photographs. When in 1897 Hearst's chief illustrator asked to return from Cuba after a lull in one of the rebellions, he was told: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war".

Hearst did just that. In 1898 the battleship USS Maine provocatively sailed into Havana harbour "to protect US citizens". It mysteriously blew up with the loss of 258 American sailors. What evidence there was pointed to an accidental explosion in the ship's magazine. But Hearst did not let the facts get in the way of a good front-page lead. He blamed Spanish sabotage, offered a $50,000 reward for the perpetrators, demanded war and got it.

"A splendid little war" the US secretary-of-state called it. The philosopher, William James preferred "puking up our principles." The United States had renounced imperialism in theory. In the half-century to 1898 nearly half of the modern US had been grabbed from Mexico. Most of the rest had been expropriated from North American Indians. But the Spanish-American War outed the US as an imperial nation by for the first time adding substantial overseas territories.

The war had elements of near farce but was not quite the walk-over that the Americans expected. The Spanish forces had much antiquated equipment and the disadvantage of fighting in US's back-yard, far from their supply lines. They were further extended by the action of Theodore Roosevelt, a New York politician and assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt waited until his boss was out of the office before cabling the US Pacific fleet to attack Manila, capital of the Spanish Philippines. But the Spanish also had some good equipment, especially their Mauser rifles, and tough soldiers.

Roosevelt went on to lead his own gung-ho volunteer troop of Rough Riders in Cuba. In the main land battle of the war at San Juan Hill near Santiago just 700 Spanish troops held up 6,000 Americans. Many American soldiers had been issued only with winter uniforms and the Spanish often fought tenaciously. 509 Americans died in battle: 1,800 of disease.

The Spanish fleet had, meanwhile, been blockaded in Santiago Bay. Although they managed to escape, the Spanish ships were mainly wooden and caught fire in a tail wind allowing the Americans to claim a great victory. Their losses were one dead from a stray bullet and two wounded. The war was over.

The American era
The United States committed itself to respect Cuban self-determination but immediately occupied Havana and refused to leave until the constitution had been re-written to allow US military intervention whenever it suited them. Just to make absolutely sure they built a base at Guantanamo Bay. It is still there, an 116 square kilometre pimple of yankee golf-courses, cinemas, supermarkets, air bases and 7,000 military personnel on Cuba's far eastern extremity. The Cubans are waiting until the lease expires in 2034.

After 'independence' American business interests poured in to Cuba. By the 1920s they had what they wanted: two-thirds of Cuban farmland was American owned. And when Prohibition began in the US in 1919, tourists also poured into Havana in search of forbidden pleasures, along with American gangsters intent on profiting from them.

The massive Capitolio Nacional, the Cuban parliament, an almost exact copy of the US Congress was completed in 1929 after more than three years work by 5,000 labourers. They wasted their time. America permitted Cuba technically to become an independent republic in 1902. But Cuban democracy consisted of a series of carefully managed elections to ensure alternate Liberal and Conservative regimes. They differed only in levels of corruption and incompetence the Conservatives tended to be better at corruption and the Liberals were more accomplished at incompetence.

Not that it mattered much as the Americans sent in the marines whenever it suited them (1906, 1912, 1917). The Cuban military caught on quickly. In 1933 a group of junior army officers overthrew the American-backed Machado government. A sergeant named Fulgencio Batista emerged as the as the strong man. He was not popular with Cuba's upper classes who denied him membership of the fashionable Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club because of his partial black ancestry, but he guaranteed many rights, held elections and was voted in as president in 1940. Four years later, however, his favoured candidate was beaten. General Batista (he had himself promoted) tried to make a comeback in 1952. But when the election looked lost he staged his second coup which, fatally, deprived a young lawyer called Fidel Castro of election.

Fidel and Che
Castro had been a student radical who had helped to found the moderate, pro-Catholic anti-corruption Orthodox Party for which, as a young lawyer, he stood as a candidate in the 1952 elections. Castro was odds on favourite to win a congressional seat when Batista staged his military coup with tacit American support. Castro began his rebellion a year later when he and his friends attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago in the south-east corner of Cuba. It was carnival time and they reckoned the soldiers would be staggering around drunk. Bad move. They ran into a patrol and Castro was captured.

Castro could easily have been remembered only through municipal statues, the sort whose size is in inverse proportion to the subject's achievements. But instead of being shot he was put on trial during which he made a speech in his defence. It lasted two hours.

After his trial Castro was imprisoned, but later freed in an amnesty by the Batista regime, which is usually characterised as vicious and mean. It was. But winners write history and Batista's misdemeanours have been played up, just as Castro's have been obscured by a gloss of romanticism, reinforced by anti-Americanism and sympathy for the Cuban under-dog.

Castro immediately left for Mexico where he joined other Cubans and teamed up with a young Argentine doctor named Ernesto Guevara whose social conscience had been aroused during a motorbike tour of South America as a med. student. The Cuban exiles nicknamed Guevara 'Che', gaucho slang for 'pal'. In 1956 they returned to Cuba in a cruiser called Granma to begin their two year rebellion against Batista.

The rebellion began badly. Granma ran aground. A rebellion in Santiago timed to create a diversion went off before they arrived. Most of the Granma party were killed or captured soon after they landed. But Castro, Che and a few survivors made it into the Sierra Maestra mountains where they waged a two year guerrilla campaign, helped by rebellions, strikes and fighting by other groups elsewhere in Cuba.

By the end of 1958 a column led by Che had pushed into central Cuba and effectively cut the country in two. Early on New Year's Day 1959 the regime collapsed and Batista fled. Che and Fidel rushed to Havana, set up their HQ in the Havana Hilton.

Cuba's tropical communism
American opposition to Castro had not been a fore-gone conclusion. Although Castro had been a left-wing student leader in the late '40s he was no communist. His revolution was inspired more by the Cuban nationalist hero, Jose Marti, than Marx.

Che had been moving steadily to the left. He was 27 when he met Castro in Mexico City having spent most of the preceding three and a half years travelling through the Americas. He made the first part of the journey on a Triumph motorcycle from Buenos Aries over the Andes into Chile where the bike conked out. From there, Che and his companion hitched rides in trucks, boats and planes, bumming food and rafting down one of the tributaries to the Amazon.

As he travelled Che's interests slowly changed from wondering where the next lay was coming from to a concern at the lives of ordinary people. He used his medical knowledge to help lepers in neglected and isolated colonies. Later in Mexico he became more aware of "St. Karl" as he called Marx in letters to his parents and, as with Castro, his experience in the mountains further radicalised Che.

But Castro was still not a red when he marched into Havana in January 1959. In fact the Cuban communists were most unhelpful during the rebellion until they were sure Castro would win, then they piled in.

The Americans had themselves also begun to pull away from Batista long before the end. Castro visited the States a few months after taking power and was even received by a vice-president by the name of Richard Nixon. Kennedy himself was not unsympathetic when he became president in 1960. Nationalism rather than communism was behind Castro's revolution. Batista, after all, had begun as an anti-American firebrand and eventually proved to be one of their most loyal clients. Why not Fidel too?

But the American oil lobby was not too enamoured when the bearded-one nationalised their installations. So the Land of the Free began to impose the trade embargo which is now such an issue. The Soviets gleefully trundled in offering to buy up any surplus sugar. Then Castro nationalised all American companies. The Americans responded by further tightening the embargo.

In the middle of 1960, more than a year after Castro came to power, the CIA began trying to dispose of him. Exploding cigars were tried, and chemicals to make his beard fall out so that people would think he was losing his strength. The CIA even paid the Mafia $150,000 to assassinate Castro. When this failed, they supported the invasion by Cuban emigrees. One of the CIA men who helped to plan the operation was Howard Hunt.

The Cubans were ready for the invasion. Castro's spies had infiltrated emigre groups in Miami as well as the CIA-backed underground movement at home. When news of the landings came, Castro himself headed south to lead his troops, sending Che to defend the vulnerable north-western coast opposite Florida.

The Nicaraguan dictator, Luis Somoza, helped the rebels by bombing Cuban airfields the day before the landing, but this failed to eliminate the Cuban airforce. Castro's remaining planes shot up the invaders' supply ships, leaving the rebels stranded on the beaches without most of their equipment.

The choice of the Bay of Pigs was also disastrous for the invaders. The swamps were impassable and there were only two ways out: via the narrow roads through the marshes or along the exposed strip of coastal beach. The rebels were also expecting more American air support. It did not come. After a B-26 with US-Air Force markings was shot down President Kennedy cancelled further air cover. This is the Kennedy 'betrayal' which conspiracy-theorists claim led to his assassination by right-wing Cuban-Americans.

The invaders had no option other than to dig in on the beach. After 72 hours nearly 200 had been killed. The remaining 1,200 surrendered. Most of the captured rebels were eventually ransomed by the US in return for $53 million in food and medicines. The Americans declared a full trade embargo just a month later. Howard Hunt went on to further disasters he helped to plan the Watergate burglary.

More significantly, Castro, who had been suspicious of the communists, for the first time proclaimed the Cuban revolution to be Marxist-Leninist, though he waited until 1965 to rename his party the Communist Party of Cuba. The tail section of the downed B-26 resides alongside Granma outside Havana's Museo de la Revolucion.

So American Cold Warriors helped to pushed Castro into the lap of their enemies. Apart from considerations of superpower balance and the little matter of invasion and assassination attempts, Castro may also have just decided that the USSR was just a better bet. At the time Soviet Sputniks were girdling the globe and Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space. The Americans had been left trying to light the blue touch paper of their space programme. People thought communism might actually work. It was a bad idea whose time had come.

The deal with the Soviets was that they sent the Cubans around $5bn a year in grants, subsidies and assistance mainly petrol, guns, cars, technicians and machinery. In return the Russians got rum, sugar, nickel and manky oranges which reminded Muscovites what fruit looked like during the long winter. The Soviets also succeeded in severely irritating the Americans by having a best-friend in Uncle Sam's back yard. And of course, after boot camp in Novosibirsk, the Cuban sun, rum and chicas must have seemed like commie paradise to the Russians. Not a bad deal all round.

During the '70s it seemed as though it might actually work. This was the high point of Cuba's tropical communism. The West was hit by oil shortages and labour unrest. Soviet technology seemed to be matching that of the Americans. The Cubans helped their Soviet allies by fighting against the South Africans in Angola. Much of the Cuban infrastructure was still intact and the Soviets were busy building roads and huge office and apartment blocks as well as the Autopista. Cuban athletes and boxers were also making a stunning mark on the Olympics Juantorina was the first man to win both the 400 and 800 metres.

But by the '80s the technology gap with the West was really opening up. Cuba's cities were beginning to crumble for lack of maintenance. In the late '60s Casto had also nationalised all bars, cafes and restaurants, as well as setting up huge state collective farms and preventing the small campesinos from freely selling their produce. The result was food shortages.

Limited reform
In 1991 it all went mango shaped. This was the year that a bunch of old Soviet tankies tried to stage a coup and kidnap Mikhael Gorbachev, the leader who had been just about keeping the Soviets rattling along the tracks. Bang. The whole thing went south or west, really. To the Russians struggling into democracy and a semblance of capitalism, the Cuban alliance was a distasteful relic of the old regime.

Crafty Castro had seen what was coming. Even Soviet aid had not been enough to keep the economy afloat during the late '80. A process euphemistically referred to as "rectification of errors" had already begun. This included shooting generals who had a tendency to use military aircraft for drug trafficking and the like. But when in 1991 Russia withdrew its 11,000 advisers and technicians the Cuban economy would still have collapsed if there had been anything of substance left to disintegrate.

Castro's response was to legalise a limited number of very small businesses and permit farmers to sell surplus produce in private markets. More to the point, foreign companies were allowed to invest in tourism, which has grown rapidly. Western capitalist tourists have basically saved Cuba. Castro has even part privatised the state telephone corporation, selling shares to Italian and Spanish multinationals. But he has resisted the level of reform begun in other former communist countries such as China and most commentators believe that only after Castro's death will real reform begin.

After Fidel?
Although Cubans are still leaving their country in droves and almost everyone outside of the government apparatchiks and a few pampered intellectuals are more than happy to grumble at the system, Castro is still a genuinely respected icon. Virtually everyone refers to him just as "Fidel". He after all gave Cubans self-respect by seeing off the Americanos. There is, however, a definite generational divide. Those over 50 make more excuses for the regime. Not many people under 40 seem to give much of a damn about the rhetoric.

Nor do many people think there is the faintest chance of the old boy being overthrown in the short run. For every Cuban there is a different theory of what will happen when Fidel puffs his last Cohiba cigar. In theory the designated successor is Raul Castro, Fidel's brother. But he is not popular and has a brutal reputation. More likely, reform-minded technocrats inside the Party will join forces with some of the respected dissidents currently in jail, including a group of air-force officers who refused to be exiled. Then reforms will come and quite likely the Cuban-Americans will flood back, though it may not be the easy American takeover that many predict as Mexican, Canadian and European companies already have a strong foothold. In ten years time Cuba may well be a relatively prosperous tourist destination, growing and exporting high-value tropical fruits rather than low value sugar. In the meantime, despite the privations, there is always the compensation of easy going sex and cheap rum more than you can say for most places.

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