Havana Travel Blog

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Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba consists of the island of Cuba (the largest of the Greater Antilles), the Isle of Youth and adjacent small islands. Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Cuba is south of the eastern United States and the Bahamas, west of the Turks and Caicos Islands and Haiti and east of Mexico. The Cayman Islands and Jamaica are to the south.

Cuba is the most populous country in the Caribbean. Its culture and customs draw from several sources including the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples, the period of Spanish colonialism, the introduction of African slaves, and its proximity to the United States. The island has a tropical climate that is moderated by the surrounding waters; however, the warm temperatures of the Caribbean Sea and the fact that Cuba itself almost completely blocks access to the Gulf of Mexico, make Cuba prone to frequent hurricanes.

The recorded history of Cuba began on 28 October 1492, when Christopher Columbus sighted the island during his first voyage of discovery and claimed it for Spain. The island had been inhabited by Amerindian peoples known as the Taíno and Ciboney whose ancestors had come from South America several centuries before. The Taíno were farmers and the Ciboney were both farmers and hunter-gatherers.

Contrary to what I learned in US History class Christopher Columbus and his men weren’t really great legends… actually they were great murderers. If you really want to understand US History read Howard Zinn’s The Peoples History of the United States of America, Here is a selected excerpt about the famous Christopher Columbus:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.2 He later wrote of this in his log:

"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts." The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."

Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.

The chief source-and, on many matters the only source of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:

"Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians..."

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings."

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."

The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports. "they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help." He describes their work in the mines:

"... mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pans full of water and throwing it up outside....

After each six or eight months' work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died. While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides . . . they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated.... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write...."

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...."

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas--even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?) is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure--there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.



The coast of Cuba was fully mapped by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1511, and in that year the first Spanish settlement was founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at Baracoa. Other towns, including Havana (founded in 1515), soon followed. The Spanish, as they did throughout the Americas, oppressed and enslaved the approximately 100,000 indigenous people that resisted conversion to Christianity on the island. Within a century they had all but disappeared as a distinct nation as a result of the combined effects of European introduced disease, forced labor and genocide, though aspects of the region's aboriginal heritage has survived in part via the rise of a significant Mestizo population. With destruction of aboriginal society, the settlers began to exploit abducted African slaves, with more resistance to the diseases from the old world, and who soon made up a significant proportion of the inhabitants.

Cuba was a Spanish possession for 388 years, ruled by a governor in Havana, with an economy based on plantation agriculture and the export of sugar, coffee and tobacco to Europe and later to North America. It was seized by the British in 1762, but restored to Spain the following year. The Spanish population was boosted by settlers leaving Haiti when that territory was ceded to France. As in other parts of the Spanish Empire, a small land-owning elite of Spanish-descended settlers held social and economic power, supported by a population of plebian creoles, mixed-race small farmers, laborers and African-descended slaves.

In the 1820s, when the other parts of Spain’s empire in Latin America rebelled and formed independent states, Cuba remained loyal, although there was some agitation for independence. This was partly because the prosperity of the Cuban settlers depended on their export trade to Europe, partly through fears of a slave rebellion (as had happened in Haiti) if the Spanish withdrew and partly because the Cubans feared the rising power of the United States more than they disliked Spanish colonial rule.

An additional factor was the continuous migration of Spaniards to Cuba from all social stratas, a demographical trend that had ceased to exist in other Spanish possessions decades before and which contributed to the slow development of a Cuban national identity.

Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. has been a powerful influence on its history. Throughout the 19th century, Southern politicians in the U.S. plotted the island’s annexation as a means of strengthening the pro-slavery forces in the U.S., and there was usually a party in Cuba which supported such a policy. In 1848, a pro-annexationist rebellion was defeated and there were several attempts by annexationist forces to invade the island from Florida. There were also regular proposals in the U.S. to buy Cuba from Spain. During the summer of 1848, President James Knox Polk quietly authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer Spain up to $100 million, an astonishing sum of money at the time for one territory. Spain, however, refused to consider ceding one of its last possessions in the Americas.

After the American Civil War apparently ended the threat of pro-slavery annexationism, agitation for Cuban independence from Spain revived, leading to a rebellion in 1868 led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy lawyer landowner from Oriente province who freed his slaves, proclaimed a war and was named President of the Cuban Republic-in-arms. This resulted in a prolonged conflict known as the Ten Years' War between pro-independence forces and the Spanish Army, allied with local supporters. There was much sympathy in the U.S. for the independence cause, but the U.S. declined to intervene militarily or to even recognize the legitimacy of the Cuban government in arms, despite the fact that many European and Latin American nations had done so.

In 1878, the Peace of Zanjon ended the conflict, with Spain promising greater autonomy to Cuba.

The island was exhausted after this long conflict and pro-independence agitation temporarily died down. There was also a prevalent fear that if the Spanish withdrew or if there was further civil strife, the increasingly expansionist U.S. would step in and annex the island. In 1879-1880, Cuban patriot Calixto Garcia attempted to start another war, known in Cuban history as "la guerra chiquita" (the little war) but received little support. Partly in response to U.S. pressure, slavery was abolished in 1886, although the African-descended minority remained socially and economically oppressed, despite formal civic equality granted in 1893. During this period, the rural poverty in Spain provoked by the Spanish Revolution of 1868 and its aftermath led to an even greater Spanish emigration to Cuba.

During the 1890s, pro-independence agitation revived, fueled by resentment of the restrictions imposed on Cuban trade by Spain and hostility to Spain’s increasingly oppressive and incompetent administration of Cuba. Few of the promises for economic reform made by the Spanish government in the Pact of Zanjon were kept. In April 1895, a new war was declared, led by the writer and poet José Martí who had organized the war over a ten year period while in exile in the U.S. and proclaimed Cuba an independent republic — Martí was killed at Dos Rios shortly after landing in Cuba with the eastern expeditionary force. His death immortalized him and he has become Cuba’s undisputed national hero.

The Spanish armed forces totaled about 200,000 troops against a much smaller rebel army which relied mostly on guerilla and sabotage tactics to fight battles, and the Spaniards retaliated with a campaign of suppression. General Valeriano Weyler was appointed military governor of Cuba, and as a repressive measure he herded the rural population into what he called reconcentrados, described by international observers as "fortified towns". These reconcentrados were the prototype for 20th century concentration camps. Estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 Cuban civilians died from starvation and disease during this period in the camps. These numbers were verified by both the Red Cross and the U.S. Senator, and former War Secretary, Redfield Proctor. U.S. and European protests against Spanish conduct on the island followed.

In 1897, fearing U.S. intervention, Spain moved to a more conciliatory policy, promising home rule with an elected legislature. The rebels rejected this offer and the war for independence continued. Shortly afterwards, on 15 February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine was mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing 266 men. Forces in the U.S. favoring intervention in Cuba seized on this incident to accuse Spain of blowing up the ship (although Spain had no motive for doing so and there was no evidence of Spanish culpability). Swept along on a wave of nationalist sentiment, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling for intervention and President William McKinley was quick to comply.

The result was the Spanish-American War, in which U.S. forces landed in Cuba in June 1898 and quickly overcame the exhausted Spanish resistance. In August a peace treaty was signed under which Spain agreed to withdraw from Cuba. Some advocates in the U.S. supported Cuban independence, while others argued for outright annexation. As a compromise, the McKinley administration placed Cuba under a 20-year U.S. treaty. The Cuban independence movement bitterly opposed this arrangement, but unlike the Philippines, where events had followed a similar course, there was no outbreak of armed resistance.

Theodore Roosevelt, who had fought in the Spanish-American War and had some sympathies with the independence movement, succeeded McKinley as President of the United States in 1901 and abandoned the 20-year treaty proposal. Instead, the Republic of Cuba gained formal independence on 20 May 1902, with the independence leader Tomás Estrada Palma becoming the country’s first president. Under the new Cuban constitution, however, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations. Under the Platt Amendment, Cuba also agreed to lease to the U.S. the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Cuba today does not celebrate May 20 as their date of independence, but instead October 10, as the first declaration of independence and the day Castro and his army entered Havana, January 1, 1959, as "the triumph of the revolution".

Independent Cuba soon ran into difficulties as a result of factional disputes and corruption among the small educated elite and the failure of the government to deal with the deep social problems left behind by the Spanish. In 1906, following disputed elections to choose Estrada Palma’s successor, an armed revolt broke out and the U.S. exercised its right of intervention. The country was placed under U.S. occupation and a U.S. governor, Charles Edward Magoon, took charge for three years. Magoon's governorship in Cuba was viewed in a negative light by many Cuban historians for years thereafter, believing that much political corruption was introduced during Magoon's years as governor. In 1908 self-government was restored when José Miguel Gómez was elected President, but the U.S. retained its supervision of Cuban affairs. Despite frequent outbreaks of disorder, however, constitutional government was maintained until 1925, when Gerardo Machado y Morales, having been elected President, suspended the constitution.

Machado was a Cuban nationalist and his regime had considerable local support despite its violent suppression of critics. During his tenure, Cubans gained greater control over their own economy and major national development projects were undertaken. His hold on power was weakened by the Great Depression, which drove down the price of Cuba’s agricultural exports and caused widespread poverty. In August 1933, elements of the Cuban army staged a coup which deposed Machado and installed Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, son of Cuba's founding father, as President. In September, however, a second coup led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista overthrew Céspedes leading to the formation of the first Ramón Grau San Martín government. This government lasted just 100 days, but engineered radical liberal changes in Cuban society and a rejection of the Platt amendment.

In 1934, Batista and the army, who were the real center of power in Cuba, replaced Grau with Carlos Mendieta y Montefur. In 1940, Batista decided to run for President himself. The leader of the constitutional liberals Ramón Grau San Martín refused to support him, so he turned instead to the Communist Party of Cuba, which had grown in size and influence during the 1930s.

With the support of the Communist-controlled labor unions, Batista was elected President and his administration carried out major social reforms and introduced a new progressive constitution. Several members of the Communist Party held office under his administration. Batista's administration formally took Cuba into World War II as a U.S. ally, declaring war on Japan on December 9, 1941, then on Germany and Italy on December 11, 1941; Cuba, however, did not significantly participate militarily in World War II hostilities. At the end of his term in 1944, in accordance with the constitution, Batista stepped down and Ramón Grau was elected to succeed him. Grau initiated increased government spending on health, education and housing. Grau’s liberals were bitter enemies of the Communists and Batista opposed most of Grau’s program.

In 1948, Grau was succeeded by Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had been Grau's minister of labor and was particularly hated by the Communists. Prío was a less principled liberal than Grau and, under his administration, corruption increased notably. This was partly a result of the postwar revival of U.S. wealth and the consequent influx of gambling money into Havana, which became a safe haven for mafia operations. Nevertheless Prío carried out major reforms such as founding a National Bank and stabilizing the Cuban currency. The influx of North American money fueled a boom which did much to raise living standards and create a prosperous middle class in most urban areas, although the gap between rich and poor became wider and more obvious.

Bullet ridden truck used in the attack on the Presidential Palace in Havana by the Directorio Revolucionario and the Organizacion Autentica in 1957

The 1952 election was a three-way race. Roberto Agramonte of the Ortodoxos party led in all the polls, followed by Dr. Aurelio Hevia of the Auténtico party, and running a distant third was Batista, who was seeking a return to office. When it became apparent that Batista had little chance of winning, he staged a coup on 10 March 1952 and held power with the backing of a nationalist section of the army as a “provisional president” for the next two years. In 1954, under pressure from the U.S., he agreed to elections. The Oartido Autêntico put forward ex-President Grau as their candidate, but he withdrew amid allegations that Batista was rigging the elections in advance. Batista could then claim to be an elected President. His regime was marked by severe corruption and poverty.

Fidel Castro directed a failed assault on the Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba, and on the smaller Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks and on the feast of Saint Ann July 26, 1953.

Many Florida-based American mafiosi established themselves in Cuba under Batista's rule, notably prominent mob boss Santo Trafficante, Jr. Their operations included legitimate hotels and casinos as well as all manners of illicit businesses.

The American mobsters became influential supporters of Batista in Cuban politics, whose government tolerated their activities in exchange for bribes and kickbacks.

In 1956 a party of rebels, including Fidel Castro, landed in a boat from Mexico and tried to start an armed resistance movement in the Sierra Maestra. In Mexico, his army got strengthened by Ernesto Che Guevara joining in, which is later going to be one of most important people in Cuban revolution and one of the closest to Castro, resulting in his politics engagement later, when Cuban revolution was finished. Castro had gone to Mexico after serving only two years of a twenty year prison sentence for his part in a 1953 rebel attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Castro received his pardon from Batista after being requested by the Archbishop of Santiago, Monseñor Enrique Perez Serantes and Senator Rafael Diaz-Balart, at the time Fidel Castro's brother-in-law. After the landing, Batista made launched a campaign of repression against the opposition, which only served to increase support for the insurgency.

Through 1957 and 1958, opposition to Batista grew, especially among the upper and middle classes and the students, among the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and in many rural areas. In response to Batista's plea to purchase better arms from the U.S. in order to root out the insurgents in the mountains, the United States government imposed an arms embargo on the Cuban government on March 14, 1958. By late 1958, the rebels had succeeded in breaking out of the Sierra Maestra and launched a general insurrection, joined by hundreds of students and others fleeing Batista’s crackdown on dissent in the cities. When the rebels captured Santa Clara, east of Havana, Batista decided the struggle was futile and fled the country to exile in Portugal and later Spain. Castro’s rebel forces entered the capital on January 1, 1959.

Fidel Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba in February 1959, and has held effective power in the country until temporarily handing it over to his brother, Raul Castro, for medical reasons in July 2006. During 1959, Castro’s government carried out measures such as the confiscation of private real estate, the nationalization of public utilities, and the suppression of the widespread corruption that had developed under Batista, including closing down the gambling industry. Castro also evicted many Americans, including mobsters from the island. These measures were undertaken by his government in the name of his promised democratic reform.

Castro flew to Washington, DC in April 1959, but was not met by President Eisenhower, who decided to attend a golf tournament rather than meet with Castro.  Castro returned to Cuba after a series of meetings with African-American leaders in New York's Harlem district, and after a lecture on "Cuba and the United States" delivered at the headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Summary executions of suspected Batista collaborators, coupled with the seizure of Cuban-owned businesses and the rapid demise of the independent press, nominally attributed to the powerful pro-revolution printing unions, raised questions about the nature of the new government. Attitudes towards the Cuban revolution both in Cuba and in the United States were changing rapidly. The nationalization of U.S.-owned companies (to an estimated 1959 value of US$1 billion ) aroused immediate hostility within the Eisenhower administration. Cubans began to leave their country in great numbers and formed a burgeoning expatriate community in Miami. Many were angry at Castro's revolutionary government due to its seizure of private property in Cuba and the increasing number of executions of those who opposed the reforms. Cubans soon formed a powerful political lobbying group in the United States. The United States government became increasingly hostile towards Cuba throughout 1959. This, in turn, may have influenced Castro's movement away from the liberal elements of his revolutionary movement and increase the power of hardline Marxist figures in the government, notably Che Guevara, although this theory may be open to debate.

In October 1959, Castro openly declared himself to be friendly towards Communism, though he did not yet claim to be a Communist himself, while the liberal and other anti-Communist elements of the government were purged. Many who had initially supported the revolution fled the country to join the growing exile community in Miami. In March 1960, the first aid agreements were signed with the Soviet Union. In the context of the Cold War, the U.S. saw the establishment of a Soviet base of influence in the Americas as a threat and plans were approved to remove Castro from power (see The Cuban Project). In late 1960, a trade embargo was imposed, which strengthened Castro's ties with the Soviet Union. At the same time, the U.S. administration authorized plans for an invasion of Cuba by Florida-based exiles, taking advantage of anti-Castro uprisings which were repressed (see some details and references in War Against the Bandits and Bay of Pigs Invasion). The result was the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961. President John Kennedy withdrew promised US air support for the invading force at the last minute and the populist anti-Castro uprising failed to materialize. Kennedy refused to provide direct American military intervention and the invasion force was routed. This prompted Castro to declare Cuba a socialist republic, and himself a Marxist-Leninist in May of 1961.

A so-called 'yank tank', one of the many remaining U.S. cars in Cuba, imported prior to the United States embargo against Cuba.

One immediate strategic result of the Cuban-Soviet alliance was the decision to place Soviet intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, during which U.S. President John F. Kennedy threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear war unless the missiles were withdrawn. The idea to place missiles in Cuba was brought up either by Castro or Khrushchev, but agreed by USSR from the reason that the U.S. had their nuclear missiles placed in Turkey and elsewhere in Middle East, thus directly threatening USSR safety. Eventually the Soviets backed down, and made an agreement with Kennedy - all the missiles to be withdrawn from Cuba, but at the same time from Turkey and elsewhere in Middle East. Kennedy however couldn't disturb the nation by doing this immediately, but made an obligation to withdraw the missiles within couple of months. Another result was that Kennedy agreed not to do military operations on Cuba in (near) future. In the aftermath of this, there was a resumption of contacts between the U.S. and Castro, resulting in the release of the anti-Castro fighters captured at the Bay of Pigs in exchange for a package of aid. But during 1963, relations deteriorated again as Castro moved Cuba towards a fully-fledged Communist system modeled on the Soviet Union. The U.S. imposed a complete diplomatic and commercial embargo on Cuba. At this time U.S. influence in Latin America was strong enough to make the embargo very effective and Cuba was forced to direct virtually all its trade to the Soviet Union and its allies.

In 1965, Castro merged his revolutionary organizations with the Communist Party, of which he became First Secretary, with Blas Roca as Second Secretary; later to be succeeded by Raúl Castro, who as Defense Minister and Fidel’s closest confidant became and has remained the second most powerful figure in the government. Raúl Castro’s position was strengthened by the departure of Che Guevara to launch unsuccessful attempts at insurrectionary movements in Congo, and then Bolivia, where he was killed in 1967. Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, President of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, was a figurehead of little importance. Castro introduced a new constitution in 1976 under which he became President himself, while remaining chairman of the Council of Ministers.

During the 1970s, Castro moved onto the world stage as a leading spokesperson for Third World “anti-imperialist” governments. On a more concrete level, he provided invaluable military assistance to pro-Soviet forces in Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen and other African and Middle Eastern trouble spots. Cuban forces were decisive in helping the MPLA forces win the Angolan Civil War in 1975. Although the bills for these expeditionary forces were paid by the Soviets, they placed a considerable strain on Cuba’s economy and manpower resources. Cuba was also hampered by its continuing dependency on sugar exports. The Soviets were forced to provide further economic assistance by buying the entire Cuban sugar crop, even though the Soviet Union grew enough sugar beet to meet its own needs. In exchange the Soviets had to supply Cuba with all its fuel, since it could not import oil from any other source.

Cuba’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union was deepened by Castro’s determination to build his vision of a socialist society in Cuba. This entailed the provision of free health care and education for the entire population. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets were prepared to subsidise all this in exchange for the strategic asset of an ally under the noses of the United States and the undoubted propaganda value of Castro’s considerable prestige in the developing world.

By the 1970s, the ability of the U.S. to keep Cuba isolated was declining. Cuba had been expelled from the Organization of American States in 1962 and the OAS had cooperated with the U.S. trade boycott for the next decade, but, in 1975, the OAS lifted all sanctions against Cuba and both Mexico and Canada defied the U.S. by developing closer relations with Cuba. Both countries said that they hoped to foster liberalization in Cuba by allowing trade, cultural and diplomatic contacts to resume — in this they were disappointed, since there was no appreciable easing of repression against domestic opposition. Castro did stop openly supporting insurrectionary movements against Latin American governments, although pro-Castro groups continued to fight the military dictatorships which then controlled most Latin American countries.

The Cuban exile community in the U.S. grew in size, wealth and power and politicized elements effectively opposed liberalization of U.S. policy towards Cuba. However, the efforts of the exiles to foment an anti-Castro movement inside Cuba, let alone a revolution there, met limited success. On Sunday, April 6, 1980, 7,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. On Monday, April 7, the Cuban government granted permission for the emigration of Cubans seeking refuge in the Peruvian embassy. On April 16 500 Cuban citizens left the Peruvian Embassy for Costa Rica. On April 21 many of those Cubans started arriving in Miami via private boats and were halted by the State Department on April 23. The boat lift continued, however, since Castro allowed anyone who desired to leave the country to do so through the port of Mariel and this emigration became known as the Mariel boatlift. In all, over 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States before the flow of vessels ended on June 15.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 dealt Cuba a giant economic blow. It led to another unregulated exodus of asylum seekers to the United States in 1994, but was eventually slowed to a trickle of a few thousand a year by the U.S.-Cuban accords. It again increased in 2004-06 although at a far slower rate than before. Castro’s popularity was severely tested by the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, which led to a cut off in aid, the loss of a guaranteed export market for Cuban sugar and the loss of a source of cheap imported oil. It also caused, as in all Communist countries, a crisis in confidence for those who believed that the Soviet Union was successfully “building socialism” and providing a model that other countries should follow. In Cuba, however, these events were not sufficient to persuade Cuban Communists that they should voluntarily give up power.

By the later 1990s the situation in the country had stabilized. By then Cuba had more or less normal economic relations with most Latin American countries and had improved relations with the European Union, which began providing aid and loans to the island. China also emerged as a new source of aid and support, even though Cuba had sided with the Soviets during the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. Cuba also found new allies in President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia, major oil and gas exporters.

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