WHY CUBA? WHY TODAY?
Cuban culture has no equal: a melting pot of Spanish and West African nationalities has been spiced with settlers from around the globe and allowed to simmer for several centuries. Today they will be celebrating the anniversary of the revolution in 1959 that brought Fidel Castro to power. In the heads-of-state longevity league, he is outlasted only by the Queen.
The island has far more depth and diversity than other Caribbean islands, and its culture has been preserved by the bizarre US economic embargo that prevents Americans from travelling to Cuba. The island's rich heritage of music, dance and religion stands in stark contrast to the poverty into which Cuba has sunk. Yet the resilience of the Cuban spirit is extraordinary, as is the welcome given to foreigners (even US visitors, who risk fines and imprisonment for breaking their government's strict anti-tourism laws). For tourists who are after the basics of life, Cuba boasts rum, cigars and the best collection of clapped-out old American cars in the world.
BIG AND BEAUTIFUL?
Cuba is by far the largest of the Caribbean islands. Similar in area to England, it is around 1,200km long, between 32 and 210km wide and shaped (if you use your imagination) like an alligator or lizard. The island lies just within the tropics, at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. Partly because of its size, it boasts a wider range of terrain than anywhere else in the Caribbean - from bizarre limestone landscapes in the west to dramatic mountains in the east. The highest point on the island is Pico Turquino (1,980m) in the Sierra Maestra, where Castro, Che Guevara and the other revolutionaries battled it out with the Batista regime.
Between the mountains are immensely fertile plains with rich red- brown earth, and about a quarter of the island is forested (predominantly pine and mahogany). Some of the Caribbean's best beaches ring its shores.
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
It is thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500BC. Christopber Columbus sighted the island (but didn't land there) on 27 October 1492, but by 1514 Diego Velazquez de Cuellar had conquered Cuba for Spain and founded seven settlements. Cattle-ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island and the Spanish enslaved the native Indians. It is thought that in 50 years, all but one per cent of the native Indian population perished. To replace them, the Spanish imported African slaves.
The British invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. Sugar, and - in the early 19th century - tobacco became the island's most important products. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest producer of sugar. Despite several Central and South American countries gaining independence from Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico stayed loyal to their colonial rulers for a while. Cuba's First War of Independence was launched in 1868, but failed after 10 years. In January 1898, the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbour, exploded mysteriously and sparked a Spanish-American war.
Within two decades US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland. An army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, seized power in 1933, and over the next 20 years Cuba crumbled and its assets were increasingly placed into foreign hands. On January 1, 1959, Batista's dictatorship was overthrown after a three-year guerilla campaign led by young lawyer, Fidel Castro, and assisted by an Argentinian doctor, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Batista escaped with his life and a fortune in government funds.
Castro was named prime minister and began major reforms. Relations with the US, already shaky, deteriorated when he nationalised US-owned petroleum refineries. The Americans responded with an embargo in an attempt to cripple the Cuban economy, and in 1961 they sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion. …