When was Cuba founded?

Until the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Cuba was inhabited by indigenous people. Written records from this period do not exist. The knowledge about pre-Columbian Cuba is based on archaeological finds and excavations.

Cuba before the arrival of the Spaniards

Little is known about the settlement of Cuba in prehistoric times. Excavations do not provide any reliable information as to when and by whom the Caribbean island was settled. Anthropologists believe that human settlement began around 10,000 years ago. When Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on October 27, 1492, he and his team came across indigenous people. The seafarer gave them the name "Indios". After all, at this point he was absolutely convinced that he had discovered a new sea route to India. The east and middle of Cuba were then settled by the Taino people. The natives lived in simple huts made of palm wood and grew sweet potatoes, peanuts and tobacco. A prehistoric Taino village was built in the village of Guama in the Zapata National Park. Findings as to what the huts of the indigenous inhabitants might have looked like resulted from excavations. The Indians also left their mark on the language. Numerous place names in Cuba are based on terms from the indigenous language. The word hurricane also has its origin in the language of the indigenous people.

The landing of Christopher Columbus

On October 27, 1492, for the first time in history, a European set foot on American soil. Christopher Columbus landed in the Bay of Bariay on the northeast coast of Cuba and wrote the legendary sentence: “The most beautiful island that human eyes have ever seen” in his on-board diary. Researchers estimate that up to a quarter of a million people were living in Cuba when the Spaniards arrived. Columbus was convinced that he had discovered a new sea route to India. Only later did the realization mature that it had to be an unknown country. It soon became apparent that Cuba could not only score with its beauty, but also with its strategically favorable location. The Antilles island lies like a barrier in front of the Gulf of Mexico. In the immediate vicinity are Jamaica, the Bahamas and the island of Hispaniola, which are now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Beginning of colonization

Diego Velázquez was commissioned by the Spanish Crown to subjugate Cuba and create the basis for annexation to Spain. In 1510 his campaign against the indigenous people began. With only 300 soldiers, he subjugated the Indians thanks to the superior armament. The prisoners were abducted and had to do forced labor. But the Europeans had another invisible weapon with them that they didn't know about themselves: smallpox virus. The indigenous people had no immunity to this disease and within a few years smallpox decimated the population to a minimum. In 1515 Cuba was conquered and almost 30 years later Cuba was annexed to the viceroyalty of New Spain. Economically, the Spanish colonial rulers were primarily concerned with the exploitation of resources in Cuba. After the search for gold and silver was unsuccessful, they turned to agriculture and the export of tropical woods. In 1607 the governor's seat was moved from Santiago de Cuba to Havana on the north coast.

Social structures after colonization

After the colonization of Cuba was complete, special social structures developed on the Caribbean island. White Europeans were soon in the majority, although only Spaniards who had been born on the European continent had the option of high administrative and church offices. Descendants of the Spaniards who saw the light of day in Cuba were called Creoles. The first settlers and their descendants owned large estates in Cuba that were used excessively for agriculture. They formed the oligarchy and filled offices in politics and the church. Countless workers were required to manage the huge plantations. The number of indigenous residents had shrunk so much that forced laborers could no longer be recruited from their ranks. This situation led to the slave trade flourishing from the second half of the 18th century.

Slavery in Cuba

From the second half of the 18th century, sugar production in Cuba experienced a real boom due to the increasing demand from overseas. The Spanish crown had sugar cane cultivation expanded, thus preparing the ground for mass slavery. The number of slaves on the Caribbean island rose rapidly. Sailing ships brought more and more people from sub-Saharan Africa to Cuba, where they had to toil on the sugar cane plantations under inhumane conditions. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Antilles island was the largest sugar producer in the world. In 1841 there were more than 430,000 slaves in Cuba. Crammed together in simple huts, they vegetated until their untimely death. The "Valley of the Sugar Mills" near Trinidad was one of the most important centers of sugar production at that time. The entire valley including the slave huts, the colonial mansions of the sugar barons and the 50 m high slave tower is now a listed building and has been included in the list of world cultural heritage by UNESCO. Slaves were used in all areas of the economy and social life. Many toiled in railway construction, others had to work in housekeeping.

British occupation in the 18th century

Tensions between the Spanish crown and Great Britain were frequent in the 18th century. The reason was increasing pirate attacks and opposing views on the trade. In June 1762 the situation escalated. Ships of the British fleet appeared in front of Havana and besieged the island capital until the Spanish governor announced the surrender. Britain then occupied western Cuba for 11 months while the east remained under Spanish control. The British lifted all trade restrictions, which led to a huge economic boom. Freed from the shackles of the Spanish colonial system, the sugar barons and oligarchs recognized what prosperity was possible if all foreign trade did not have to be conducted through Spanish ports. But the joy of the economic freedom gained did not last long. In 1763, Cuba was returned to the Spanish crown in exchange for Florida. After the slave revolt on the neighboring island of Haiti in 1791, numerous French plantation owners fled to Cuba. They brought with them the know-how for a successful cultivation of coffee and cocoa beans. In some cities in southern Cuba, the influence of French colonial rulers can still be seen in the architecture.

Ten Years War: First Struggle for Independence

After Cuba was completely under the control of the Spanish crown again, the bourgeoisie and the large landowners of Cuba tried in vain to wrest more freedom and reforms in foreign trade from the colonial rulers. In addition to greater autonomy, the ruling class also called for the abolition of slavery. When all diplomatic efforts failed, there was open resistance against the Spaniards in 1868. The fuse on the explosive atmosphere was laid by a plantation owner named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who released his slaves and took the city of Bayamo with a small army. He proclaimed Cuba's independence and later became a national hero. The Cuban national anthem La Bayamesa is based on a poem in which the events of the time are described. More and more Cubans joined the freedom fighter and the revolutionary guards grew to the impressive number of 12,000 within a month. The fighting between the revolutionary army and the troops of the Spanish crown raged for ten years. Ultimately, the colonial rulers put down the uprising thanks to their numerical superiority and better morale. In 1878 the war was officially over after Carlos Manuel de Céspedes had died in combat four years earlier and the rebels had signed the deed of surrender.

Resistance by Antonio Maceo

Antonio Maceo was a general in the Revolutionary Army during the Ten Years' War. Surrender to the Spanish crown was not an option for the ardent resistance fighter. He saw his mission to create an independent Cuba as not fulfilled and declared at the first meeting with the Spanish general Arsenio Martínez-Campos that the war of independence was going on. The declaration went down in history as the “Protest of Baraguá”. The half-African Maceo defied the Spaniards for two years until he had to flee into exile in Mexico in 1880. But Mexico was not intended to be the resistance fighter's whereabouts forever. 15 years later, the rebel José Marti succeeded in winning Antonio Maceo as a comrade in Cuba's second war of independence.

The second war for independence

The central figure in the second Cuban War of Independence was José Marti. He was a poet, a freemason and a revolutionary. At a young age he was sentenced to forced labor and then went into exile in the United States. He quickly became the leader of the Cubans in exile who had been preparing a second war for Cuba's independence since 1879. The Ten Years War had welded the locals together and Marti could hope for the support of broad sections of the population. In February 1895, the rebels landed on the Cuban east coast. José Marti fell in one of the first battles due to his inadequate military experience. This earned him the reputation of a martyr and to this day he enjoys hero status on the Caribbean island. The fighting between the revolutionary army and the Spanish troops raged for three years until the USA intervened militarily. The rising great power had long wanted more influence over Cuba. The Spanish fleet was defeated, but for Cuba the success did not mean a step towards independence.

American domination until 1902

In the subsequent peace negotiations between the USA and Spain, the Cuban freedom fighters were excluded. From 1899 to 1902, Cuba was administered militarily by the United States. In 1902 the first independent republic was officially established and the Cuban Estrada Palma became president. But the apparent independence only existed on paper. Under pressure from the Americans, the so-called “Platt Amendment” was anchored in the Cuban constitution. This amendment guaranteed the Americans military rights of intervention at all times. Cuba's sovereignty as an independent state was undermined in this way. The Platt Amendment also enshrined the right for Americans to maintain two military bases in Cuba. The base on Bahia Honda Island was disbanded in 1912. The military base in Guantánamo Bay still exists today.


Cuba under the rule of Machado

Gerado Machado was a general who was elected Cuban President in 1925. During the election campaign, he was able to enjoy the generous support of US economic and financial giants. Guggenheim, Morgan and Rockefeller invested millions in their top candidates. After taking office, Machado established a dictatorship that found expression in the uncompromising persecution of political opponents. There was resistance among the population and the rebel organization ABC carried out several attacks on high-ranking government officials. Machado's response was the execution of numerous political prisoners. The dictator's reign lasted eight years. It was not until 1933 that a general strike put an end to the dictatorship. Machado fled to the United States, where he died in Miami in 1939.

Batista's dictatorship

In August 1933, a transitional government took over political affairs in Cuba. Even this should not remain in office for long, because the so-called "Uprising of the NCOs" led by Fulgencio Batista led to the overthrow of the interim government. The power-obsessed Batista subsequently installed several puppet presidents until he was elected president himself in 1940. Four years later he was replaced by Grau San Martín and temporarily went to the USA. After Batista saw no chance for himself to come to power through regular elections, he became the leader of a military coup in 1952. He established an authoritarian regime and partially suspended the 1940 constitution. At that time, the young lawyer Fidel Castro sued the Supreme Court against the coup. The lawsuit was not allowed, whereupon Castro prepared the violent overthrow of Batista with reference to the constitutional right of resistance.

The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution began in 1953 with an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba led by Fidel Castro. The company failed thoroughly and Castro was imprisoned. After his pardon two years later, he went into exile in Mexico, where he prepared the armed resistance against the Batista dictatorship. In December 1956 he and 82 other rebels crossed the yacht Granma from the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán to Cuba. The landing took place at Playa Las Coloradas in what is now the province of Granma. In the inaccessible mountain range of the Sierra Maestra, the rebels set up their command post, which would not have been possible without the support of the local farmers. The Comandancia de la Plata is located at the foot of the Pico Turquino and is now a popular destination. The huts and furnishings have practically not been changed since they were left by the revolutionaries around Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The guerrilla struggle of the revolutionary army against the Batista troops lasted two years. On January 1, 1959, the dictator fled into exile and Fidel Castro took over the office of Prime Minister on February 13 of the same year.

Establishment of the socialist system

After the revolutionary army seized power, Fidel Castro quickly began installing a socialist system on the Caribbean island. His loyal followers received high offices in the state. Che Guevara first became industry minister and later also head of the state bank. Companies like the telephone company were nationalized and large landowners were expropriated. Cuba sought closer ties to the Soviet Union and expropriated the US-owned oil refineries. The United States' response was a trade embargo that remains in place to this day. The situation escalated further after the socialist leadership took the next step in expropriating the US sugar companies. At the beginning of the 1960s, the economy and the financial system were almost completely controlled by the state. As before, under the dictators Machado and Batista, political opponents were imprisoned to silence them. In April 1961, an attempted coup by Cubans in exile failed. The operation, accompanied by the American secret service CIA, aimed to overthrow the socialist government. On April 17, 1961, around 1,300 Cubans in exile landed in the Bay of Pigs and were welcomed there by the heavily armed Castro troops. The fighting lasted for three days, then the defeated invaders had to admit their defeat.

Cuba crisis in 1962

In 1962, the Cold War between the countries of the Eastern Bloc and the Western powers reached a new high point. After repelling the Bay of Pigs invasion, the USSR stationed nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. The step was justified with a balance of the balance of power. In response, the United States set up a naval blockade around Cuba. Soviet merchant ships were prevented from docking with warning shots. The situation seemed to escalate and the world stood on the brink of nuclear war for days and weeks. Secret negotiations between the Americans and the Soviets, of which the public was unaware, ultimately led to an agreement between the two superpowers. As a result of the negotiations, the US forces dismantled their nuclear missiles in Turkey and Moscow eliminated the missile bases in Cuba.

Cuba after the fall of the Iron Curtain

The fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of socialism in the Eastern Bloc countries had catastrophic economic consequences for Cuba. Up to this point in time, the country had handled more than 80 percent of its foreign trade via the Eastern Bloc countries. The Soviet Union, as the largest trading partner, fell from one day to the next. The result was a severe economic crisis with food shortages. In 1994, for the first time since the revolution, violent unrest broke out in the country. While agriculture was down, tourism experienced a boom. In 1997 a slow economic upturn set in and a year later Pope John Paul II visited the Caribbean island. Fidel Castro ruled the country until 2006. After that, he handed over the official duties to his 75-year-old brother Raúl Castro for health reasons. A departure from the socialist system was not associated with the change at the top of the government, although market-economy mechanisms and elements were cautiously introduced. In April 2018, Raúl Castro was replaced as Prime Minister by Miguel Díaz-Canel.