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Rich with stunning vistas and natural resources, modern-day Cuba stays in the shadow of its troubled pastcomment (0)

February 7, 2008

By Shaley Fabris

Cuba, the largest country in the Caribbean and the westernmost island of the Greater Antilles, is the definition of a tropical paradise: white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, towering palm trees, rolling sugarcane fields. But Cuba’s history begins long before Christopher Columbus ever sailed over its horizon. In 1492, he spotted what he believed was a peninsula of Asia, and later wrote passionately about its beautiful landscape and clear rivers. The island Columbus first saw was still covered in palm forests and populated by peacefully coexisting people who may have been there since 5300 B.C.

In spite of its beauty, Cuba reminds most Americans only of trade embargos, illegal immigration, revolutions, Castro, communism, classic cars, and, of course, the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. With its natural resources, such as fertile land and rich mineral deposits, Cuba has the potential to be a wealthy island. But its history and its politics have, at least for now, made this impossible.

Cuba’s volatile past started in 1511 when Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar arrived to conquer the island for the Spanish government, marking the start of nearly 400 years of Spanish rule. During the Spanish occupation, the enslaved native peoples began to die out. They were harshly treated and unable to resist imported diseases such as smallpox. Slaves from Africa were brought to Cuba to work the coffee and sugar plantations.

Spanish rule was, at first, marked by neglect. But soon it was apparent that Cuba was a source of wealth, and the government of Spain became more repressive, provoking a series of rebellions, which were always harshly suppressed, and an independence movement.

Road to independence
Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain began in 1868. Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, was the catalyst for this movement. Martí — poet, essayist, patriot and martyr — organized and unified the movement at a young age. In 1868, he was sentenced to hard labor for his patriotic sympathies and deported to Spain in 1871. While living in New York in 1892, Martí was elected leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party he had helped to form. In 1895, joined by other revolutionaries, Martí invaded Cuba. He was killed a month after the invasion, but the fight for independence continued for seven more years.

The February 1898 explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana brought the United States into the conflict. Before the year was out, Spain turned control of Cuba over to the U.S. with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. In 1902, the Platt Amendment established Cuban independence but retained the U.S. right to intervene militarily. This amendment was repealed in 1934, and a Treaty of Relations was established. With this treaty, the U.S. leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Although independent, Cuba was often controlled by rulers who came to power and stayed in power by force.

In 1933, an army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista organized a revolt by which he gained power in Cuba. After controlling the country from “behind the scenes” for several years, he was elected president in 1940.
During his first term, Batista established a strong government, expanded the educational system and improved public works. As the economy grew, Batista enriched himself and his associates. When his term ended in 1944, there was a breakdown of public services. Batista ran for president again in 1952, but, as he was not expected to receive many votes, he seized power in a bloodless coup three months before the election. During this term, he controlled the university, the press, and the congress while embezzling money from the growing Cuban economy.

The rise of Castro
Many in Cuba, including political figures, opposed Batista. Fidel Castro, a wealthy young lawyer who had participated in violent political activity before Batista’s rule, led a failed attack in 1953 on an army barracks in which more than 100 died. Castro was jailed as a result. After defending himself in a trial, he was eventually freed in an act of clemency. He fled to Mexico and, in 1956, launched a movement to overthrow Batista. His guerilla tactics were successful, and Batista fled Cuba in 1959.

Though Castro promised constitutional rule and democratic elections, he used his control of the military to secure power over Cuba.

According to the U.S. State Department Web site, “an estimated 3,200 people were executed by the Castro regime between 1959–62 alone. As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.” Illicit migration to the U.S. continues today: According to the CIA World Factbook, 2,810 people were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard trying to enter the United States by crossing the Straits of Florida in 2006.
Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961, and for 30 years, close ties existed between Cuba and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union withdrew support in 1990, Cuba entered a severe economic recession.
However, according to the CIA World Factbook, “Cuba portrays its difficulties as the result of the US embargo in place since 1961.” The U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960 and broke all diplomatic relations Jan. 3, 1961, as Cuba moved toward a one-party communist system. Tensions between the U.S. and Cuba peaked during the 1962 missile crisis.

Cuba is now a totalitarian state controlled by Fidel Castro, both chief of state and head of government. Over the years, Castro’s government has slowly changed. The Communist Party lifted its prohibition against religious believers seeking membership in the Catholic church in 1991 and amended the constitution to label the state as “secular” instead of “atheist.”

Changes have also occurred in the country’s economy. Castro’s government struggles to balance a desire for complete governmental control with a need for more economic freedom. Despite attempts at change, though, most Cubans’ standard of living remains very low.

Some economic growth
Following the economic decline resulting from the withdrawal of Soviet support, Cuba’s government, between 1993 and 1994, introduced some reforms. The country was opened to tourism and foreign investment, the dollar was legalized, and self-employment was legalized for about 150 occupations. These reforms resulted in some economic growth.

The divide between Cubans with access to American dollars and those without has created a gap in the standard of living. Jobs that earn dollar salaries or tips from foreigners are in demand. Because of this, doctors, engineers, scientists and others who would earn a government (meaning “peso”) salary in their professions often work as waiters or taxi drivers.

Tightening control
Today, many of the governmental reforms of the 1990s are being repealed as Castro’s government strives to regain tighter control over the economy. It is increasingly difficult for foreigners to conduct business on the island, and the Cuban people are affected by a reversion to a “peso economy” from a “dollar economy.” As a result, many Cubans turn to the black market for clothing, food and other necessities.
The government’s control goes beyond the economic sector. Only a small number of non-Communist Party members have been permitted to serve in the National Assembly. Citizens have no right to change their government or to voice dissatisfaction with it, and private citizens are prohibited from accessing the Internet or buying a computer without special authorization. The U.S. State Department reports that the Cuban government “incarcerates people for their peaceful political beliefs or activities.”
As Castro entered the hospital for surgery on July 31, 2006, he temporarily transferred power to his brother Raul, who had been head of the Cuban armed forces and second-in-command of the government and the Communist Party. This is the first time in 47 years that power has been transferred from Fidel Castro. Many speculate whether he will ever return to power while the world tries to imagine what a Cuba without the dictator Castro could become.
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