An Introduction to Cuba

Exploring and Living in Cuba

  • Register

Throughout much of its history, Cuba was wealthy and much fought over. Havana’s wealth was protected by four main fortresses and the Morro Castle, the imposing guardian at the entrance to Havana's harbor. Cuba's economy, then based on sugar, slaves, and trade between the New and Old Worlds, flourished.

               Before the Spanish set foot on the island of what is now Cuba, three Indian tribes inhabited different parts of the country.  The Siboneys in the east, the Guanahatabey in the west and the Tainos in the central region.  The two Arawak groups—the Siboneys and Tainos—lived in relative peace before the Spanish arrived.

There is no record of the language the Indians spoke, but many of their words were introduced into the Spanish language.  The word Cuba is thought to have come from the Taino word for "center of the island." Hamaca (hammock), tabaco (tobacco), cigarro (cigar), huracán (hurrican), canoa (canoe) and barbecue are all words of Indian origin.

               On October 27, 1492, Columbus discovered Cuba.  However, it was not until almost 20 years

               The Spanish in their quest for gold and riches decimated the Indian population.  Those who were not slaughtered by the Spanish or didn't die from the diseases introduced by the Europeans, were forced into slave labor and worked to death.  By 1620, as a result of the Spanish conquest, nearly all of the Indians had been wiped out.

               In 1514 Havana was founded. The Spanish soon realized this city’s strategic importance.  The city was heavily fortified to protect against the incursions of pirates, who raided the island quite frequently and preyed on the treasure-laden ships.  All the booty and gold from the New World was sent to Spain via Havana.  In the meantime, sugar and tobacco were first cultivated commercially.  These two crops eventually became a great source of wealth for the country.

               The 17th century was a time of growth in Cuba, despite incessant attacks by pirates.  Piracy continued to be a problem until the second half of the eighteenth century, when it became more difficult for pirates to make a living because gold was being depleted in Mexico, Central and South America, and convoys and cities had become well protected.

               During the 18th century, Havana was briefly occupied by the English.  Towards the end of the century the English introduced slaves from Africa for sugar plantation work.  Cuba’s economy grew at this time because of increased sugar and tobacco production.

               As a result of the wars for independence that swept Latin America, Spain lost most of its colonies during the first two decades of the 19th century.  By 1824 Cuba and Puerto Rico were Spain’s only remaining colonies in the New World.

                Around the middle of the century, general Narcisco López and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes both led ill-fated attempts to secure Cuba’s independence.  In 1895 José Martí organized a new rebellion, but was killed.  Despite having interest in Cuba, the U.S. remained neutral in the Spanish-Cuban War.  However, when an American battleship, the Maine, was mysteriously sunk in Havana Bay, the U.S. government decided to intervene.  This was perfect timing because during the 19th century, four U.S. presidents had tried to buy Cuba from its colonial master, Spain.

               The Spanish-American War only lasted a few months.  On August 2, 1898, Spain relinquished sovereignty over Cuba, and the U.S. ‘s long role of involvement in Cuba’s affairs began.  Hence, the stage was set for the U.S. to basically run Cuba for the next fifty years.

               It seems that the country has really never to stand on its own two feet and always maintained an uhealthy relationship and dependence on outside countries: colonial Spanish, the U.S. which virtually owned the country by the 1950s, the Soviet Union and most recently Venzuela. Ironically, the Cubans see the U.S. as a source of income again.

               In 1902 a Cuban republic was established, with the U.S. reserving the right of intervention in Cuba in accordance with the terms of the Platt Amendment.  This agreement also established the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.

               A series of rulers followed, their regimes plagued by corruption and tumultuous politics.  From 1925-1933 Gerardo Machado, who was supported by the U.S., ruled Cuba as a dictator with an iron fist. Discontent grew and Machado’s downfall was brought about by Fulgencio Batista in 1933.

                Batista soon became as corrupt as his predecessors.  Under his rule the wealth was concentrated in very few hands with the rich controlling all of the positions of power.  The majority of the people lived in poverty.  After ruling until 1944, Batista was defeated in an election and went to Florida.  In 1952 he returned to stage a successful coup, suspended the constitution and established a dictatorship.  During his reign, Cuba became the playground of the Americans, moral decadence was rampant and many businesses were Mafia-run.  The American corporation, United Fruit Company practically ran the country at this time.

               The mob first established a foothold in Cuba during the Prohibition years.  During this time the country had the dubious distinction of being the prostitution capital of the Western hemisphere.  Cuba also became known as the "Las Vegas" of the Caribbean.  Against this background, lawlessness and corruption flourished.   Soon many Cuban people became increasingly fed up with corruption and opulence on one side and poverty and injustice on the other side.   People began to feel despair under Batista’s harsh dictatorship and the seeds of rebellion began to grow.

               On July 26th, 1953, a band of young men led by Fidel Castro unsuccessfully attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago. This event was considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. After a long fight, Castro’s guerrilla force triumphed and Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959.

               The Cubans who fled Castro’s revolution for the safety of the U.S. probably assumed that they’d be able to return in a few years at the most.

               It must be pointed out that before Castro took over many Cubans had money, or hope of acquiring it. Cuba's wealth before 1959 was, contrary to Communist propaganda, "not the purview of a privileged few." In 1958 Cuba had a higher per capita income than much of Europe. And Cubans were free to read and think and leave the country whenever they wanted, with their property. More Cubans vacationed in America in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Enrique Krauze, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that before the revolution, one in six Cubans owned a radio; one in 25, a television set. There were 120 newspapers and magazines. A poor nation could not have built Havana's grand, eclectic structures.


Official Guide to
Cuban Spanish

Official Guide to Cuban Spanish

For those who want to communicate with the locals and to develop basic Spanish survival skills, purchase our one-of-a-kind eBook which includes Cuban slang in English


"I always keep this book on my tablet so that I can maneuver through Cuba’s linguistic maze."

Max Gómez, Cuba Scout, Travel Expert

Contact Us

Send an e-mail. All fields are required.

Medal Award

Not ready to relocate to Cuba yet,
then check out 
Costa Rica Latin America’s #1
retirement haven


Living and Investing in Cuba - Live in Cuba - Retire in Cuba - Retirement Tours in Cuba 

Information herein is authorized through the courtesy of Christopher Howard, author of the best selling Cuba information source, Living and Investing in the New Cuba. Please be aware that all information herein is protected by COPYRIGHT © and misuse of it will carry a penalty by law.