Magazine article New Internationalist

Cuba: A Brief History

Magazine article New Internationalist

Cuba: A Brief History

Article excerpt

1. Before the conquest

THE SIBONEY, HUNTER/GATHERERS from South America, were the first people in Cuba around 3,000 years ago. They were followed by the Taino, an Arawak tribe who settled most of the Caribbean islands as well as the northern edge of South America. By the time Christopher Columbus reached Cuba on 27 October 1492 the fiercer Taino had driven the Siboney to the western tip of the island. When the Europeans arrived there were an estimated half-million indigenous people living in small villages farming maize, yucca, yams, peanuts, avocados and tobacco.

2. Occupation

THE SPANISH OCCUPATION began in 1514 when Diego Velasquez landed near Guantanamo Bay with 300 men. There were soon pitched battles with Hatuey a Taino chief who had fled neighbouring Hispaniola where he had witnessed Spanish atrocities. Hatuey was eventually burned at the stake, refusing to be converted to

Christianity. Velasquez eventually established seven new settlements and an encomienda system which gave the colonizers land and Indian labour in return for teaching them Christian ways. Smallpox, brutal treatment and malnutrition quickly decimated the natives. Thousands committed suicide rather than submit to the Spaniards. In 1542 the encomienda system was abolished but by 1570 the entire indigenous population had been wiped out.

3. Slavery and plunder

THE FIRST AFRICAN SLAVES were brought to work the mines and plantations in 1522. Blacks were allowed to stay together in tribal groupings, a move which allowed African culture to develop strong roots. Sugar cane was first planted in 1512 but a native plant, tobacco, became the first important commercial crop.

The Spanish soon ignored Cuba in favour of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. But because of its strategic position the island became a staging point for the shipment of colonial plunder to Spain. Havana was heavily fortified but frequently attacked by British and French pirates. In 1762, the British briefly occupied the port and severed the Spanish trading monopoly.

4. King sugar

THE SUGAR INDUSTRY exploded after 1791 when French planters fled a slave revolt in Haiti and settled in Cuba. Sugar cane rapidly blanketed the island and 700,000 Africans were imported over the next 40 years, eventually outnumbering whites. Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer and the newly independent United States was its biggest market. Meanwhile, the criollo bourgeoisie (born in Cuba of Spanish descent) was becoming wealthier and impatient with Spanish rule. By 1825 there were only two Spanish colonies left in the Americas-Cuba and Puerto Rico. The US twice attempted to buy Cuba from Spain, in 1848 and 1854, but the colonial power refused to sell. In the 1850s nationalist pressure for self-rule began to build and soon became unstoppable.

5. Wars of independence

CRIOLLO PLANTERS IN THE EASTERN PROVINCE of Oriente began the first war of independence on 10 October 1868 at the instigation of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes who called for the abolition of slavery. More than 200,000 Cubans and 80,000 Spaniards died in the fighting and the exhausted rebel leadership was forced to sign a peace treaty in February 1878. US investors snapped up plantations sold cheaply by bankrupt Spanish landowners. By the late 1890s, 70 per cent of the land in Cuba was in US hands and 90 per cent of the country's sugar went to the US. The second war against Spain was started in 1895 by Cuba's national hero, Jose Marti, a gifted writer and advocate of social justice. Marti campaigned for Cuban independence from exile in the United States and warned of the danger of American domination. He was killed in the first months of the war but the fighting continued. In February 1898 the US battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbour. Washington blamed Spain and declared war a few months later.

In July the Spanish surrendered and the Americans occupied Cuba. In 1902 the island finally gained its independence after being forced to accept a made-in-USA constitution which included the Platt Amendment. …

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