Land ahoy! La Pinta has found land ahead. It’s 1492 and Christopher Colombus, the explorer in charge of finding new routes that would direct the Spanish towards India, could not believe his eyes. It was not India that he was seeing, but unknown, tropical and yet undiscovered land…
The black sheep, the lonely Island, the tiny-communist country, the land of Castro, the rum paradise, Ché Guevara’s second home. Cuba is a nation like no other. From the man who sold it to the US, to the man who always said No to that same country. Cuba’s peculiar history becomes evident in its economy. It was used as a massive US Casino, but also as a USSR war pawn. It was at the verge of triggering a third world war and it was the target of more than one hundred CIA failed attacks.
Cuba is known to represent Latin American history. According to research made by D. Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Latin America has been shaped by historical patterns. Most countries have gone through similar historical processes that have yielded comparable results. Cuba has experienced every one of these patterns. Starting with its conquest, followed by its independence, its struggle to find an appropriate political order, the uneven wars against every major power with interest in the country, and the mobility of revolutions with the placement of a dictator. “So what is the history of Cuba, if not the history of all Latin America? And what is the history of Latin America if not the history of Africa, Asia and Oceania?” (Unknown, 1968).
Cuba’s position lies 169 kilometers south of the United States. It guards the Gulf of Mexico and it acts as a massive gateway from the Atlantic Ocean to Central America. Its location could not be more favorable if geography wasn’t a reason for armed conflict. Cuba’s geographical position turned into a curse when it became one of the last Spanish colonies in the Americas. Under the leadership of Jose Martí, Cuba sought independence in 1895 (almost one hundred years after the first Latin American country, Haiti, became independent). By 1895 the Spanish Empire held only four remaining colonies. Due to the large trade routes from The Caribbean to Spain, they could not afford to lose Cuba. The United States, in turn, had a plan for the Island regarding its own ongoing project; the Panama Canal. Cuba was the perfect spot to hold a military base that would protect the Canal while managing Caribbean waters, hence their need for a Cuba Libre.
As a result of an increase in business trade between the United States and Cuba, American interests in the island escalated densely. Their desire to control Cuba became unbearable and in 1898, the US had intervened in the war of independence by providing Cuba with military aid to accelerate the war. Under the excuse of a Spanish attack against the USS Maine (a US ship), the United States sent troops to the Island and by 1902 the Spanish Empire had lost its last remaining colonies: Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Philippines and Guam.
After the independence was consolidated, the Island rapidly progressed economically. Under US control and despite its miniature size, Cuba became the fifth largest economy in the hemisphere. Its largest industries were sugar cane and tourism, with the United States as their main consumer. By 1950 Cuba’s GDP was the same size as that of Italy.
The US had secured its investments in the Island by implementing the Platt Amendment. Among other clauses, this amendment prohibited the Cuban Government from allowing foreign powers to use the island for military purposes. The US reserved the right to intervene in Cuba in order to preserve “a government adequate for the protection of life”. The amendment also served as a base for the perpetual lease by the United States of Guantanamo Bay. So few would say that Cuba was indeed Libre.
Cuba’s tourism was massively favored by its proximity with the United States. Hotels and casinos were the leaders of the industry with US corporations as the main investors. The streets of Havana were packed with opulent tourists displaying their wealth. Restaurants over the Camellón (walking pathway along the sea in Havana) were exclusively for foreigners as they were the only ones able to afford their prices. These businesses aimed to the tourist sector were also owned by outsiders, leaving the local population with no gains from external investments. Cuba was no longer theirs (again).
The Island was quickly turned into an American fantasy. More than one celebrity described it as a “Las Vegas of today”. Streets overcrowded with North American tourists in search of a vicious holiday that would usually involve rum, casinos, drugs and high amounts of prostitutes. Its low costs, ideal climate conditions and an enormous debauchery, turned Cuba into the most attractive US destination.
From Lucky Luciano to Frank Sinatra.
Due to its flexible laws against wealthy foreigners and its proximity to the US, Cuba became a residential paradise for the Italian Mafia. Havana turned into the center of Italo-American mafias operations. Fulgencio Batista, the president in turn, had close ties to various illegal organizations operating in Cuba. Corruption was escalating heavily.
The Havana Conference, one of the most important meetings among mafia leaders ever held, was hosted by Batista himself. Under the excuse of a Frank Sinatra concert, the meeting was held amongst the most relevant leaders of family-mafia businesses in Havana to discuss future operations and investments in Cuba and New York. After being exiled from the US, Lucky Luciano, the then leader of Cosa Nostra, had recently returned from Italy to Havana, “to be closer to the United States”.
Paradise for some, hell for others.
While American tourists and Italian mafias enjoyed the excess offered by the Island, national residents struggled to survive. One third of the population lived under poverty, around 90% had no access to electricity, only 2% had access to basic aliments such as meat and eggs and 43% of them were analphabets. Cuba was going through a major unequal epoch.
The list goes on and on, local residents were not allowed into hotels and casinos unless they worked there, unemployment hit levels never seen before. Society demanded a change. When discontent arose from within the population, a young and recent lawyer graduate stood out as one of the leaders of the uprisings. His last name was Castro and he would later become the maximum leader of Cuba (for the rest of his life).
The Cuban Revolution
After a few rebellions, Fidel Castro was exiled to Mexico, where he met 27-year-old Ernesto Che Guevara. They gathered a fleet of revolutionaries and sailed to Cuba from Mexican coasts using a small yacht named Granma. After surviving the initial attack, Castro took over Cuba’s government in 1956, three years after their initial landing.
Castro threw former president Fulgencio Batista, along with American corporations and gangster mobs, off the Island. Several protests and acts of violence predicted the inevitable fall of Batista’s regime, but most gangster Mobs seemed oblivious to the fact that their stakes in the Island were at risk. A few weeks later, the Mafia lost most of its assets to the Cuban Revolution.
In January 1959 the revolutionary rebels entered Havana. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Ernesto Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, they sacked every object and building that resembled North American capitalism. Most hotels and casinos were appropriated immediately. The Italian Mafia’s dream of a touristic Cuba where the Mob controlled the underground economy, was being rapidly destroyed. As T.J. English describes in Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, “The greatest indignity of all was saved for the Riviera Hotel. In an act of revolutionary audacity, campesinos brought into the city a truckload of pigs and set them loose in the lobby of the hotel and casino, squealing, tracking mud across the floors, shitting and peeing all over”.
The Cuba of Castro
The man who outlasted nine US presidents. The man who ended up at the centre of the most dangerous moment in the Cold War. The man who holds the record for the longest speech at the United Nations. The man who turned a small Caribbean island into the centre of world politics.
Fidel Castro rapidly began with the transition in government. He emphasized on educational and healthcare programs that would benefit the entire population. Castro’s administration expropriated foreign conglomerates and reused the gains for the functioning of the economy. The US in turn, was furious about their loss and decided to use its massive military and intelligence power to recover the Island. However, by this time the Cold War had begun and the US was no longer the only world power with an interest in Cuba.
The antagonism between Cuba and the United States raised eyebrows at the other side of the world. By following the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered its economic and military help. The process of a new communist Cuba had begun under the supervision of the USSR. The Island was now considered an issue of the highest priority to the United States. The number of CIA attacks against Cuba and Fidel Castro himself is still uncertain, but they were by far more than against any other political leader.
By 1962 Cuba had convinced the USSR to place nuclear missiles on the Island in order to avoid a future invasion. After a period of negotiations between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, an agreement was reached. The USSR would retrieve its ballistic missiles from the Island under the condition that the US retired its bombs from Italy and Turkey. This moment is considered the closest the Cold War came to turn into a massive nuclear war.
In 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s economy has not recovered ever since. The loss of its major economic partner brought Cuba to a North-American embargo that prevented it from trading with not only the US, but also with some of Latin American countries that decided to turn their back on it in order to align their interests with those of the United States.
Ever since then, Cuba has struggled to find an order for its population. The Communist Party still governs the country but with a more flexible regime. Cubans are now allowed to leave the Island with no other prerequisite than a passport. Private property is becoming more common among citizens and private businesses are beginning to flourish.
Along the narrow streets of Old Havana, there’s a 1980 Russian LADA passing by. After inhaling the excess of smoke left by the car, the colorful buildings become visible and the energy becomes evident. The Cohiba cigar tastes better and the heat stops being a hassle. There’s a sense of happiness, bliss, joy. * Salsa plays on the background *.
Cuba has suffered the struggle of experimenting several forms of government within short periods of time. Changing from absolute monarchy to North American capitalism and from capitalism to communism. They seem to not adapt to any political order. Throughout its history, there have been several uprisings with similar results. One rebellion brings down a leader, only to put up a new one that would soon fall as a result of a new riot. The cycle goes on and on.
However, there are some bright sides in this lack of organization. Cuba is currently considered among the countries with the best and most accessible healthcare systems in the world. Their HIV rate is the lowest in Latin America, and youth pregnancy is an issue of the past. Their educational institutions have also obtained terrific results internationally, but the surprising characteristic is the easy access to these institutions. Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Most of its adult population holds a university degree, even when they do not practice their specific area of expertise. So if you ever visit Havana, don’t be surprised if your taxi driver holds a PhD in biochemistry while being fluent in Russian, English and French.
Cuba’s athletes are also known to excel. The Island is among the three best countries in the Central America and Caribbean medal chart. Second to fifth on the entire continent and among the top fifteen on the globe. Athletes’ success from economically developed countries comes as no surprise, but an isolated island that has suffered the fist of several riots, political shifts and severe social inequality surely deserves respect when they get these amounts of medals Not to mention its miniature population (11.5 million) relative to some of the most athletic-advanced economies.
Cuba’s tourism industry is thriving again. After years of economic decay, investments in the Island are skyrocketing. Construction is back in place and foreign investments are filling the Island with hotels, restaurants and touristic spots not only aimed to foreigners, but also focused on the local population.
In March 11th, 2018 the Cuban Communist Party held presidential elections for the first time in the party’s history. The winner was Miguel Diaz Canel, former Vice President of the Council of State. He became the first president to govern the Island after a member of the Castro family.
Cuba has shown the world how resilient a country can be. Its sovereignty has been left untouched ever since Fidel Castro secured the government. This tiny, Caribbean Island put European and North American imperialism to shame by saying No every time the country’s sovereignty was threatened. It should serve as an example on how a country can determine its own faith without any foreign power intervening in its internal affairs. For this, and many other reasons, Cuban history is worth noticing. For this, for its history, its land and its people…Siempre Cuba.