7 Disturbing Facts About Cuba’s History
7 Facts About Cuba’s History
At 42,426 square miles, Cuba is one of the largest island nations in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2020, it was home to 11.33 million people. Many people may only know Cuba as a communist country with great cocktails, but the history of Cuba is darker and more disturbing than the tourism industry gives the country credit for.
Cuban history is filled with stories of oppression, desperate battles, sacrifice, and the national yearning to be free. Cuba is much more than its natural resources, its political system, or its alcoholic creations. Here, we’ll boil down Cuba’s history to seven disturbing facts about the history of the people living in one of the largest island nations in the Northern Hemisphere.
1. After making friendly relations, Christopher Columbus enslaved the indigenous people.
Cuba’s first interactions with the Western World were far from peaceful or uplifting. When Christopher Columbus first set foot on Cuban soil, the Taíno welcomed him and his crew warmly. They shared their food and culture, but the Spaniards were more interested in the gold jewelry the Taíno wore.
The Taíno found gold nuggets in the streams in Cuba, and they made the gold into earrings and pendants. Columbus was so envious of their gold that he immediately stole some and took it back to Spain with him. But even this theft did not turn the indigenous people against their new arrivals. When Columbus returned to Cuba in 1493, they welcomed him and his seventeen ships – a far cry from the three ships he arrived in 1492.
The bigger crew came with a bigger price tag, and Columbus was beginning to feel the pressure to pay all that money back. When he couldn’t find enough gold, he began to kidnap the Taíno people as slaves. His first ship of slaves contained 560 victims from around the Caribbean – and only about 360 of them survived the voyage.
The Taíno people were horrified that their visitors would do such a thing, and they tried to defend themselves with their wooden weapons and inexperienced warfare skills. The problem was that the Spaniards had come prepared for war – wooden clubs are no match for gunpowder.
The battles were more massacres than military engagements, and the Spanish Empire continued the push to colonize the quiet, hospitable island. The Taíno people were used to focusing on their farming, ball games, and spiritual consultations, but thanks to the Europeans, Cuba suddenly had to fight for its freedom from the moment it entered the world stage.
2. After enslaving the indigenous people, the Europeans brought African slaves to feed their new love of Cuban tobacco.
Tobacco had been unknown in Europe until Columbus brought it back, although it didn’t really catch steam on the continent until the mid-15th century. It grew across North and South America, and the Taíno people had taught Columbus how to smoke the rolled tobacco leaves like a cigar.
The Europeans soon fell in love with the product and fed their addiction by bringing in slaves. After most of the Taíno population had been enslaved and died from overwork or exposure to European diseases, the Spaniards began to import African slaves.
The African slave trade was brutal. It is estimated that around thirteen percent of people died during the Middle Passage due to lack of food and water, cramped and unsanitary conditions, and the spread of diseases. Dead and dying people were thrown overboard unceremoniously, and some slaves tried to revolt and take over the ship, but it was often hard to gather followers because everyone was tired and beaten down.
Still, the slave trade continued to be lucrative, especially in Cuba. Slaves were so cheap in Havana that it was cheaper for a plantation owner to buy new slaves than to take care of the ones he already had. In European eyes at the time, slaves were seen as expendable resources, and the brutality of this new era of slavery was given full reign in Cuba. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba until 1886, but slavery would always be a disturbing scar on the face of Cuban history.
3. A slave’s life expectancy dropped when they stepped foot onto a sugar plantation
Sugar grew well in Cuba’s warm and wet climate, and the Europeans were desperate to have this luxury item that they called “white gold.” Because slaves were so cheap to replace, slave owners did not take care of their slaves very well. The slaves unlucky enough to land on sugar plantations were not expected to survive longer than eight years.
The slaves on sugar plantations worked in the fields until they died. They often died from exhaustion because they were expected to work sixteen to twenty hours a day. For those keeping track, that leaves as little as four hours to sleep every night, which is far less than the recommended eight hours. The work was bone-wearyingly hard, but overseers beat any slave who stopped or even slowed down under the pressure of sleep deprivation and the tropical sun. Slaves died by the thousands from lack of sleep, dehydration, disease, and beatings.
The inhumane conditions of slavery on Cuban sugar plants led to rebellions. Suicide was common among slaves, and although the overseers and slaveowners tried to discourage it, it was one of the most final rebellions that a slave had access to. Other slaves caused uprisings, which were quite common on sugar plantations.
The Cuban slaves never managed to stage a united rebellion, so the uprisings did little to change the slave trade at the time. The final rebellion that slaves had access to was escaping the plantations. They could not go back to Africa, but they could escape to the mountains of eastern Cuba. There, they met the remaining Taíno and developed little settlements of their own. The two groups mingled together and created communities in Guantanamo and the Sierra Maestra. They and their descendants were called “maroons.” Although it didn’t make up for their inhumane treatment on the sugar plantations, they began to carve out a life of freedom that would eventually ring true for all of Cuba.
4. The United States named itself the Protector of Cuba following the Spanish-American War.
The Spanish-American War finally freed Cuba from the rule of Spain. When the war ended in 1898, Spain had been defeated, and Cuba officially belonged to itself. This was the culmination of Cuban hopes and dreams, and the United States took pride in the part it had played to free another country from the horrors of colonization.
In fact, they were so proud that they named themselves the Protector of Cuba, and in the peace treaty between the United States and Spain (which Cuba was not allowed to attend), they agreed that there would be no time limit for the US military occupation of the island nation. As the Protector of Cuba, the United States invested in the sugar industry. They also maintained a military presence. In 1901, the Platt Amendment was passed.
The US set up terms to allow Cuba to become a self-governing nation, with Cuba’s first elections taking place that same year. It also set up the US’ terms for withdrawing its military from Cuba. In order to do so, it would require Cuba to sign several treaties, which gave quite a bit of control to the United States. For instance, the US could lease Cuban land for military bases, and the treaties restricted Cuba’s ability to sign treaties with other nations around the world. Even though their title of Protector of Cuba was no longer enforced, the US still had a dominant position over the island nation to its south.
5. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost started a nuclear war.
The closest the Cold War ever came to erupting into open warfare happened right on the shores of Cuba. Both the United States and the USSR were very interested in Cuba. The island was by then communist, which meant that the USSR wanted to support the island, and the United States felt threatened by its existence since it is a mere 90 miles off the southernmost tip of Florida.
The United States tried to invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and when that was not successful, Fidel Castro asked Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR, for support. Khrushchev’s response was to begin to build nuclear launch pads all over Cuba as a direct threat to the United States. When the United States learned about this on October 15, 1962, President John F. Kennedy immediately set up a naval blockade to prevent any nuclear weapons from reaching Cuban shores.
The USSR continued building the launch pads; the United States answered by loading nuclear weapons onto airplanes. For thirteen days, the tensions between these two countries ran so high that Castro asked the USSR to strike the United States first, even though a nuclear weapon strike would destroy the entire country of Cuba. Luckily, the USSR ignored that request, and the world was not plunged into a nuclear war that would have killed millions.
The United States and the USSR came to a diplomatic solution – the USSR was to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba, and the United States would remove them from Turkey (there is still debate on whether the US removed them from Italy as well). The catastrophe was averted, and the world was able to live another day.
6. Fidel Castro did not take over Cuba with the intention of becoming a communist country.
Fidel Castro had big plans for Cuba. The government at the time had become corrupt, and he wanted to create a more stable and better country for the ordinary people. After years of revolutions and on-and-off-again fighting, Castro officially took control of Cuba on January 8, 1959. He didn’t start his rule with the paranoia and control that would mark his later years; instead, Castro began his rule with the simple desire to make life better for ordinary people.
They had suffered much in the previous class system, where the wealthy few had everything, and the poor had to scramble to have enough food to eat. He began to raise wages, redistribute land, and improve national infrastructure. However, as the island leader, Castro now had power over millions, and that power corrupted his plans. He needed money to fund all his improvements, and he turned to the USSR.
Almost without realizing it, Castro slipped into communism and into the role of the tyrannical leader he had fought so long to drive out of his beloved country. Free speech was crushed, and any sparks of dissent were put out with extreme force. Although Castro had intended to make a better Cuba, his iron grip on power sent over one million people fleeing the country, desperate to get away from the sinking economy and the lack of freedom to live their lives as they chose. Castro’s stubbornness to refuse any outside help and to change with the world ended up costing his people the well-being he had fought so long to secure.
7. Both Pope Francis and Canada stepped in to help Raul Castro restore relations with the United States.
After Fidel Castro died, Raul Castro was desperate to revive Cuba’s failing economy. They were without allies, and Raul Castro knew that the time for isolation and stubbornness was over. Cuba needed him, so he turned to the closest large ally available: the United States. But overcoming the half-century of tension between the United States and Cuba was daunting.
In the end, both Pope Francis and Canada stepped in to help the two countries resolve their differences and reopen relations. With the help of these two peaceful entities, Cuba and the US loosened their travel restrictions, making it easier for the people of these countries to visit each other.