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CUBA: Culture

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Cuba was first visited by Europeans when explorer Christopher Columbus made landfall here for the first time on October 28, 1492, at the eastern tip of Cuba, in the Cazigazgo of Baracoa. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar led the Spanish invasion, subdued the indigenous populations, became governor of Cuba for Spain in 1511 and built a villa in Baracoa, which became the first capital of the island and also in 1518 the seat of the (Diocese) of the first bishop of Cuba.

At that time Cuba was populated by at least two distinct indigenous peoples: Taíno and Ciboney (or Siboney). Both groups were prehistoric neolithic, perhaps copper age, cultures. Some scholars consider it important to distinguish the Taíno from the neo-Taíno nations of Cuba, the Lucaya of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and to a lesser extent from Haiti and Quisqueya (approximately the Dominican Republic), since the neo-Taíno had far more diverse cultural input and a greater societal and ethnic heterogeneity than the true high Taíno of Boriquen (Puerto Rico). Most of pre-Colombian inhabitants of Cuba, including the Siboney, can in first approximation fall under the general group of neo-Taíno. The Taíno were skilled farmers and the Ciboney were a hunter-gatherer society with supplemental farming. Taínos and Ciboney took part in similar customs and beliefs, one being the sacred ritual practiced using tobacco called cohoba, known in English as smoking.

The Taínos (Island Arawak) were part of a cultural group commonly called the Arawak, which extends far into South America. Residues of Taíno poetry, songs, sculpture, and art are found today throughout the major Antilles. The Arawak and other such cultural groups are responsible for the flourishing development of perhaps 60% of crops in common use today and some major industrial materials such as rubber. Europeans were shown by the indigenous Cubans how to cultivate tobacco and to smoke it in various ways.

Approximately 16 to 60 thousand, or perhaps many more, indigenous from the Taíno and Ciboney nations inhabited Cuba before colonization. The Indigenous Cuban population, including the Ciboney and the Taíno, were forced into encomiendas during the Spanish subjugation of the island of Cuba. One famous reservation was known as Guanabacoa, today a suburb of Havana. Many indigenous Cubans fell victim to the brutality of Spanish conquistadores (as witnessed and lamented by Bartolomé de Las Casas) and the diseases they brought with them, which were previously unknown to them. Most Conquistadors took Taínas as brides, common law wives or as was more frequent had casual sexual congress with these island women [3] since few Spanish women crossed the Atlantic in those days of conquest. Their children were called mestizo, but the residents called them Guajiro, which translates as "one of us". Today, Taíno descendants maintain their heritage near Baracoa.

Cuba had first served as base for Spanish conquest of the mainland of the Americas, but the island was almost depopulated in this effort. After the conquest of the Americas the resulting treasure, mined gold and silver, emeralds, chocolate and several then important plant products such as dyes and medicine was transported in the Spanish treasure fleet from the Americas and later from the Philippines to Spain using Cuban ports as safe harbors along the way. In this period there were further indigenous risings most especially that of Guamá, one of the last Taino leaders to organize resistance to Spanish rule.

But once Taino/Ciboney uprisings were no longer a concern, new ones arose from buccaneers, pirates, and privateers (e.g. Jacques de Sores, Alexander Exquemelin and Henry Morgan) and invasions as other countries (e.g. England Guantánamo Bay) tried to take the possessions that the Spanish had gathered for themselves, and their colonial descendents viewed as their own. Attacks on both ships and cities required Spain to respond by organizing convoys to protect the ships and building forts to protect the cities. However, Cuba’s most effective defense was yellow fever which killed off invading forces.

Cuba as seen from spaceSpanish mercantilism caused Spain to keep Cuba relatively isolated to external influences, but beginning with the year long occupation of Havana by the British in 1762 at the end of the Seven Years' War, Cuba became more open economically to both the importation of slaves and advances in sugar cultivation and processing. The massive La Cabaña fortress, never taken by assault, which completely dominates Havana Bay was built soon after Havana, exchanged for Florida, was returned to Spain. However, the fortress would later become infamous as a place of execution and imprisonment, not unlike the Bastille in Paris. Cuban colonial forces participated in Spain's efforts during the American Revolutionary War, helping Spain to gain East and West Florida. Between 1791 to 1804, many French fled to Cuba from the Haitian revolution, bringing with them slaves and expertise in sugar refining and coffee growing. As a result Cuba became the world's major sugar producer, but by 1884, slavery was abolished after having been weakened during the struggle to secure independence for Cuba.

The colony's struggle for independence lasted throughout the second half of the 19th century with the first effort with any success being the Ten Years' War beginning in 1868 . The writer and rebel organizer José Martí landed in Cuba with rebel exiles in 1895, but little more than a month later was killed in battle. He remains the major hero in Cuba to this day, and his legacy is claimed by both the supporters and opponents of the current government. While he expressed a preference for the U.S. Constitution and enjoyed some popularity in the United States, he was concerned about U.S. expansionism.

It is notable that some Taíno first fought the Mambi and then joined them to comprise the Hatuey Regiment [5]. Between 1895 and early 1898 revolution controlled most of the countryside and some towns, but the efforts of the Spanish, who held the major cities, to pacify the island did not cease until the United States occupied the island in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuban independence was granted in 1902, though limited by the Platt Amendment, which granted the United States a major influence in Cuban affairs and required Cuba to grant the United States a lease for Guantánamo Bay. Tomás Estrada Palma (term 1902-1906) was Cuba's first peacetime and elected president. Using the provisions of the Platt Amendment, U.S. troops occupied Cuba a second time from 1906 to 1909. The Platt Amendment was revoked in 1934, but the lease of Guantánamo Bay was extended against a nominal sum.

Fulgencio Batista a leader of the 1933 Sergeants' Revolt that overthrowing the transitional government after Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship collapsed, became first the Army Chief of Staff and eventually the man in charge under a series of presidents until 1940 when he was elected president himself. He had passed a new progressive constitution and in 1944 left office retiring to Florida for a time. However, in 1952 Batista seized power in an almost bloodless coup three months before the planned election and instituted an oppressive dictatorship. As a result many civil and guerrilla groups started opposing him.

One of many Cuban Maquinas, aka Yank tanksIn 1953, Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada barracks, was exiled to Mexico, but returned to Cuba on November 1956 with 82 fighters trained by Alberto Bayo (a former colonel in the Spanish Republican Army), and with the help of popular discontent managed to overthrow Batista, who fled the country, on 1 January 1959. Castro established a Soviet-leaning one party Communist state, the first in the Western Hemisphere, although Castro did not officially reveal his Marxist-Leninist leanings until 1961.

According to Antonio Núñez Jiménez at the time when Batista was deposed, 75% of Cuba's prime farm land was owned by foreign individuals or foreign (mostly U.S.) companies. Cuba’s main crop was sugar, for the American and to a lesser extent English market. Most of Cuba's sugar was exported to the United States because Cuba was given a large quota, which was paid above world prices in part to help domestic US industry. The new revolutionary government adopted successive "land reforms" and eventually confiscated almost all private property. At first, Castro was reluctant to discuss his plans for the future, but eventually he declared himself a communist, explained that he was trying to build socialism in Cuba, focusing on free health care and education for all, and began close political and economic relations with the Soviet Union.

Since Castro came to power, the United States has since progressively enacted legislation intended to isolate Cuba economically via the U.S. embargo and other measures, such as prosecuting US citizens who vacation in Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 by U.S. backed Cuban expatriates failed because U.S. president John F. Kennedy left the invaders stranded for fear of getting officially involved. The expected urban revolt collapsed when it became clear Brigade 2506 had been abandoned to its fate; and because the Soviet Union warned Castro, who ordered numerous executions and preemptive mass arrests of those thought likely to support a counter-revolution. (Priestland, 2003). Church schools were confiscated, clergy were arrested, [8] and expelled en masse. In the rural central provinces the War Against the Bandits (circa 1959-1965) was suppressed by massed Castro militia, many executions and internal deportations of rebel supporters.

The Cuban Missile Crisis started with the Soviet Union installing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. In response, the United States put up a blockade in international waters. This is generally believed to be the closest the world has come to a nuclear holocaust. The Soviet Union backed down, agreeing to remove the missiles in exchange for United States promises to remove similar nuclear missiles in Turkey and to never invade Cuba again.

After this, the United States never openly threatened Cuba again, but was said to engage in absurdly elaborate covert activities to assassinate Castro, namely The Cuban Project. Castro and the US dueled in Cold War actions. In a 1976 notorious terrorist attack on Cubana Flight 455 in which 73 died was allegedly masterminded by CIA funded Castro opponents operating from Venezuela. The United States has also supported anti-Castro terrorist groups in Miami in their attacks against Cuba.

In April 1980, over 10,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum. In response to this, Castro allowed anyone who desired to leave the country to do so through the port of Mariel. Under the Mariel boatlift, over 125,000 Cubans migrated to the United States. Eventually the United States stopped the flow of vessels and Cuba ended the uncontrolled exodus.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 dealt Cuba a giant economic blow. This led to another unregulated exodus of asylum seekers to the United States in 1994, which was slowed to a trickle of a few thousand a year by the U.S.-Cuban accords. Now it seems to be increasing again although at a far slower rate than before. Use your international cell phone rental to discover the rich history of Cuba.


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