Cuba’s original inhabitants were the Siboney—hunter-gatherers and fishermen—who were later joined by the Taino—a farming people related to the Arawak Indians of South America. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506 C.E.) was the first European to find Cuba on October 28, 1492, but it was Sebastián de Ocampo (d. c. 1514) who identified Cuba as an island and mapped it. In 1514 Spaniard Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465–1524) conquered Cuba and established seven settlements there. The presence of Europeans had an adverse effect on the native population—which is true in general of every people unlucky enough to encounter them—who by 1570 had largely succumbed to the diseases the Spanish brought with them and to the ruthlessness of the invaders. Sugar, tobacco (of Cuban cigar fame), coffee, and bananas (over 30 varieties) were the major crops from the beginning, but sugarcane soon became the most important. Slaves from the African continent were caught and brought in to work the sugarcane fields. The first railway in Latin America was built in 1837 to connect Havana and the plantations. Cuba was a rich territory by any measure. Because few Spanish women cared to live in Cuba during the first two centuries of Spanish occupation, there was much commingling between the European men, indigenous peoples, and people of African descent, and this accounts for the mixed ancestry of most of Cuba’s population today. The push for independence from Spain had a major turning point in 1868 with the Grito de Yara declaration that initiated the First War of Cuban Independence, also known as the Ten-Year War, from 1868–78. In 1895 the Cry of Baire (named for the village near Santiago, where the war was proclaimed) signaled the Second War of Independence. Two momentous events occurred in 1898: The autonomous Cuban government came into being on January 1, and the American warship USS Maine entered Havana harbor and mysteriously exploded on January 25. The sinking of the Maine resulted in the U.S. declaration of war on Spain and its demand that the Spanish withdraw from Cuba. The Spanish-American War saw the defeat of Spain on December 10; the Spanish flag was lowered and the American flag flew over Cuba for the next three years. Cuba gained sovereignty on May 20, 1902. A series of incompetent governments and dictators led to a rebellion in 1953. This was the beginning of Fidel Castro’s (b. 1926) political career as he sought to oust Fulgencio Batista (1901–73)—the Cuban dictator. The first attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 was a failure, but the revolutionaries succeeded in 1959. The charismatic Argentinian Marxist Che Guevara (1928–67) was at Fidel Castro’s side. The government assumed complete control over all areas of the economy, but this would-be utopia of equality-and-wealth-for-all concealed a harsh reality: political repression. In spite of brutal government controls, however, the arts flourished.
Cuba, a group of islands located south of Key West, Florida, is the largest country in the Caribbean. It enjoys a tropical climate and fertile plains, coral reefs and coral islands, natural harbors, and white beaches. The islands that comprise the country of Cuba include the main island (Cuba), the Island of Pines (Isla de Pinos in Spanish), now known as the Isle of Youth (Isla la Juventud); Sabana; Colorados; Jardínes de la Reina; Canarreos, and several smaller ones. Mogotes are unique to Cuba. These are steep hills shaped like haystacks that form the Sierra de los Órganos mountain range that reaches a height of over 1,000 feet. Of Cuba’s many rivers only the Cauto and Sagna le Grande are navigable, but the others offer excellent fishing. Cuba is also home to the city of Trinidad, designated a World Monument by UNESCO in 1988.
Under Fidel Castro’s Communist administration the government of Cuba owns and runs most of the means of production. Officially about 75 percent of the workforce is employed by the government, though some economists place the figure closer to 90 percent. The only private employment covers about 200,000 farmers and about 100,000 small business owners of a population of 11 million. Cuba benefited from trade with and subsidies from the Soviet Union prior to that country’s dissolution. Begining in the late 20th century Cuba began again to court tourism as a source of income.
The father of Cuban independence José Martí was a writer of renown. But music is Cuba’s greatest contribution to the arts. An amalgam of Spanish, African, and other influences, Cuban music is indeed inspiring—the rumba gave birth to the mambo, which led to the cha-cha-chá, salsa, danzón, son, and others. In the 1960s political messages and artistic expression found perfect expression in nueva trova, the musical movement based on the troubadour style of the Middle Ages. The rhythms of Cuba are definitely African, but the lyrics and melodies retain a Spanish flavor. The cultural melting pot saw new additions in the last two centuries. Chinese laborers arrived in Cuba in the 19th century, while Americans, Russians, and more Spaniards joined the mix in the 20th century. The traditional Roman Catholicism of the past gave way to an officially atheist state as Cuba adopted the tenets of orthodox Communism. The pope’s visit in 1998 led to a relaxation of the ban on religion, and Christmas is once again celebrated openly. A majority of Cubans are Catholic but continue to practice spiritism and other African beliefs, including Santería. Nowhere is this merging of beliefs better reflected than in the December 17 pilgrimage to a chapel near Havana, which honors both San Lázaro and the African deity Babalu Aye, the orisha who governs epidemics and heals infectious diseases. Many of Babalu Aye’s worshippers pray to him to heal them of HIV/AIDS in the 21st century. Festivities reflect the mixed history and culture of Cuba, and anniversaries of military events coexist with Spanish traditions. People prefer to enjoy holidays like Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) at home with their families, while Carnival is a time for parties and unrestrained revelry. Dancers and musicians take to the streets for the float-parades, cheered by spectators who dance along in bright costumes and papier-maché masks.
The famed cocina criolla (“creole kitchen”) of Cuba is part Spanish and part African, combining the African favorites—roasted meats, beans, and tomatoes—with the Spanish preference for rice, oranges, and lemons. A French planter who arrived from Haiti in the 19th century introduced the rice-andkidney-bean dish moros y crístianos, also known as congrí. It has been likened to the population mix of Cuba. Ajiaco, a stew much like Colombia’s chicken and potato soup, is another classic Cuban dish. BIRTH
Following the Christian custom children are baptized in church. The Cuban government guarantees a liter of milk per day per child, from birth to seven years of age.
In Cuba a girl’s puberty is cause for joy, because she is now eligible for marriage. The ceremony is known as the quinceanera (“celebration of budding womanhood”) and is traditionally held on her 15th birthday. It is usually as elaborate as a wedding, complete with formal flower arrangements, lavish parties, gowns, rented formal wear, limousines, photo sessions, catered dinners, and dance parties.
Marriage ceremonies are Christian in nature, and Cubans need to provide proof of baptism in order to marry within the Catholic church. The wedding ceremony takes place in the church or the “wedding house.” Foreigners are not permitted to get married in Cuban churches. Once the marriage has been solemnized the marriage laws are read to the couple and they sign the register.
Cubans view funeral rites with great reverence. They hold wakes for 48 hours before the Catholic funeral Mass and burial. A funeral is treated as a community event and matters of social position become secondary as far as funeral rites are concerned. Members of the family, the community, and religious groups all donate money and other necessities for the burial. Funeral proceedings are photographed.