(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Cuba is the largest island in the Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The island nation is located 145 km (90 mi) south of the United States across the Florida Straits. Positioned between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Cuba was visited by Christopher Columbus on Oct. 27, 1492, during his first trip to the New World. It was a Spanish colony until 1898. Cuban governments were mostly authoritarian, with brief periods of democratic rule in the 1940s and early 1950s. The triumph of Fidel Castro's guerrilla movement in 1959 ushered in the Cuban revolution. This created the only Communist state in the Americas. Cuba had close ties to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics before its collapse (1991).

Land and Resources

Cuba is about 1,200 km (750 mi) long. It has a median width of 97 km (60 mi) and a maximum width of 200 km (125 mi). The republic includes the Isle of Youth (formerly, Isle of Pines) to the south and numerous keys and islets. Gulfs, inlets, and bays are found in its coasts. The larger rivers are navigable by small vessels.


The island's topography is varied. Sixty percent of the total surface is plain, with the rest in hillsides and mountain ranges. Pico Turquino, in the Sierra Maestra range in the southeast, reaches to 1,994 m (6,542 ft); it is the highest peak. Other important ranges are the Escambray in central Cuba and the Sierra de los Órganos in the island's western part. Also in the west are the Viñales Valley and Desembarco del Granma National Park, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The longest river is the Cauto. It flows for 257 km (160 mi) in a westerly direction across Santiago de Cuba and Granma provinces. Beaches on Cuba's northern coast, such as Varadero, attract throngs of tourists. Cuba's beaches are known for their pure white sand and clear blue green waters. Several deepwater ports, such as Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Nipe, handle foreign commerce. Merchant and fishing fleets operate from smaller ports along both coastlines.


A moderate and balmy climate prevails. Seasonal median temperatures range from 18° C (66° F) to 30° C (86° F), but humidity is often high. The rainy season runs from May to October. Dry weather prevails between December and April. Hurricanes are a threat.


Cuba has extensive nickel reserves. Cobalt, iron, manganese, and copper are also found. Domestic oil and natural-gas production has been increasing at the rate of about 10% a year. By 2003 it met roughly 80% of domestic energy needs. The government is carrying out a nuclear-power program, and hydroelectric energy is generated.


Cuba's principal racial groups are mulattoes (mixed black and white), whites, and blacks. Ethnic or racial conflict is quite rare. Spanish is the national language. Roman Catholicism is the nominal religion, but Marxist-Leninist ideology dominates secular life. It is estimated that 70% of all Cubans at least occasionally practice Santería, which blends African and Catholic practices.


The capital, Havana, is the largest city. It accounts for some 20% of Cuba's total population. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city, followed by Camagüey. The population is mostly young, and the country does not have a high rate of population growth.

Education and Health. 

The government is in charge of all educational institutions; private and religious education has been abolished. School attendance is mandatory. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Political criteria affect admission to the universities, but education is free for all citizens. Technical and scientific subjects are emphasized over more traditional studies. The University of Havana is the leading institution of higher learning, but Cuba has numerous institutions providing postsecondary training. The Latin American School of Medical Science, founded in Havana in 1998, is one of the world's largest medical schools. The students in its six-year program are all foreigners, mostly from elsewhere in Latin America.

The government-run health system, long recognized as one of the best in the Third World, has suffered from shortages of imported drugs and equipment in recent years. At the same time, malnutrition-related diseases have been on the rise. Health care has remained a top government priority despite Cuba's recent economic woes, however. Most services are provided free of charge. The provision of health care is highly decentralized. Residents have access to services in neighborhoods, schools, and the workplace, as well as in clinics and hospitals. Hundreds of Cuban doctors, nurses, and specialists serve in several Third World countries. Cuba has also become a leader in biotechnology research. Cuban laboratories manufacture health products for domestic use. In addition, the export of state-of-the-art vaccines and other biotechnology products has become an important source of foreign exchange.

The Arts. 

Artistic expression is conditioned by political criteria, and the culture is affected by Marxist ideology as well as by traditional Spanish and African influences. Expression is watched by the state, dissent is proscribed, and nonconformity is frowned upon. The state controls the press, which is generally of low quality. Ideological pressures and subtle forms of censorship affect the content of literature, cinema, and theater, although the government has eased restrictions on the indigenous arts in recent years as part of its efforts to encourage tourism. Many writers and artists have left Cuba; an exception was the novelist Alejo Carpentier . Another of Cuba's leading cultural figures is the prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, who founded the Ballet de Cuba.

Economic Activity

Sugar is the principal cash crop. Traditionally, sugar exports provided 85–90% of Cuba's total foreign exchange earnings. Although this percentage has declined, Cuba remains one of the world's leading sugar exporters. In the late 19th and early 20th century, U.S. ownership of sugar mills and lands was common. Domestic capital also participated in production. Since 1959 the industry has been nationalized and, to some extent, modernized. Factories, utilities, large farms, and most other units of production were also nationalized in the 1960s. Government planners determine what is to be produced by industry and agriculture. Prices are regulated, and quotas are established for farms, factories, sugar mills, and so on. The government emphasizes the production of collective goods over consumer items. Scarcity prevails, but most basic needs are met.

With negative rates of economic growth in the 1990s, Cuba fell short of production goals in sugar, citrus fruits, tobacco, and other commodities. Sugar in particular suffered serious declines. A severe El Niño–induced drought in eastern Cuba in 1998 further buffeted the economy; it devastated agricultural production in the region. The overall rate of economic growth in 1998 was only 1.2%, with a 22% drop in export earnings as compared with the previous year. It increased in subsequent years. Hurricanes (including Hurricane Michelle in November 2001; Isadore and Lili in 2002; Ivan, which struck the western tip of Cuba as a Category 5 storm in September 2004; Dennis, which hit southeastern Cuba as a Category 4 storm in July 2005; and Wilma, which flooded much of Havana and northwestern Cuba in October 2005) have also caused major damage to the Cuban economy in recent years.

In 1993, in an effort to attract scarce foreign currency and promote economic growth, the government allowed limited private enterprise and reduced subsidies to many state enterprises. By 1998, however, new government regulations were making it more difficult for small private enterprises to survive. New regulations in 2003 stripped state companies and joint ventures of their quasi-independent status. They also reasserted central control over internal and external trade, and required central-bank approval for any substantial hard-currency transactions. This slowed the rate of foreign investment. The government claimed that the new restrictions were necessary to end corruption and "capitalist thinking." The use of the U.S. dollar (which had been made legal tender in 1993) in commercial transactions was banned in November 2004, although dollars could still be converted by individuals into pesos for a 10% commission. The move was seen as a response to the U.S. government's decision to place new limits on the amount of money that could be sent from the United States to Cuba and an effort by the Cuban government to shore up its foreign currency reserves. Subsequently, further restrictions were imposed on the small private sector and on foreign companies doing business in Cuba.

Manufacturing and Mining. 

Nickel is the principal mineral. It accounts for two-thirds of all mineral output. Cuba is one of the world's largest exporters of nickel, and it has the fourth-largest reserves. Oil, copper, chrome, and salt are mined in smaller quantities. Steel is also manufactured, but imports are necessary. Other manufactures include foodstuffs, canned fruits and vegetables, and canned fish. Cement is produced, as are textiles and light equipment.

Agriculture and Fishing. 

Potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, and eggs make up the bulk of nonsugar agriculture. Tobacco and citrus are produced and exported; tobacco is grown mostly on small, private farms. State farms and collective farms organize rural producers. Cattle raising has not been successful, and meat and milk are rationed. Fish production has risen. In 2002 the government announced plans to close about half of its sugar mills and replant the less productive half of the land devoted to sugar cultivation with other food and export crops. These proposals were designed to increase sugarcane yields and avoid the costs of modernizing or rebuilding mills damaged by Hurricane Michelle in 2001. They were expected to cause about one-fourth of the estimated 420,000 Cubans working in the sugar industry to lose their jobs. The government promised to provide new agricultural jobs or technical training as well as continuing pay to the laid-off workers. The sugar harvest subsequently declining due to drought and the loss of the Russian market.

Foreign Trade and Tourism. 

The collapse of communism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe cost Cuba markets, credits, investments, and billions of dollars in technical assistance. As a result, the economy contracted significantly. Consumption declined dramatically, and services were cut. A continuing problem is a severe shortage of hard currency. Cuba must find new markets for its sugar—still the economy's mainstay—as well as expand programs in tourism, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. Nickel and cobalt have become important exports. The number of tourists visiting Cuba hit 1.9 million in 2003, five times what it had been a decade earlier. By this time tourism was providing more than 40% of the country's hard-currency reserves. The takeover of the nation's hotel industry by the army in 2004 and additional efforts to recentralize tourism were considered part of a mounting government retreat from its earlier slight economic opening. Cuba has expanded its trade with Latin America, China, and member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; trade with China nearly doubled between 1993 and 1999. In 1998, Cuba became the first Caribbean nation to be admitted to full membership in the Latin American Integration Association. The following year it signed an accord with Panama designed to promote bilateral investment.

Because of a U.S. economic embargo imposed in the 1960s, there are no commercial or financial ties between the two countries. A new U.S. law passed in 2001 did lift sanctions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba by U.S. businesses. Money sent to family members in Cuba by Cuban Americans and Cuban exiles living in the United States was estimated at $800 million in 1997; this amount neared receipts from tourism and surpassed those from sugar. Between 1992 and 1997 the number of joint ventures in Cuba involving foreign investors (most of them in mining and tourism) increased sixfold. U.S. sanctions were tightened in 2004 to curb the amount of money sent home by Cuban expatriates living in the United States and further restrict family visits to Cuba in an effort to weaken the Castro regime. Nevertheless, the following year it was estimated that Cubans living in the United States were still sending at least $460 million a year to relatives in Cuba.


Cuba is a one-party state, with the Cuban Communist party (PCC) as the only legally recognized party. The party's position is dominant; it oversees all aspects of government and national life. Total party membership is about 706,000. Cuba's socialist constitution came into effect in 1976. It outlines the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens and establishes the government and electoral systems. The Organs of People's Power (OPP) function as local governments in each of 169 municipalities. Delegates to the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly are directly elected, as provided for by amendment of the constitution in 1992. The party still closely monitors the process through which candidates are selected.


Indian tribes, who lived by subsistence agriculture and fishing, inhabited Cuba at the time of its discovery by Columbus. The Spaniards quickly conquered the Indians. Cruel treatment and disease destroyed many Indians, who supplied the labor for Cuba's early development. Gradually, the cultivation and processing of sugar came to dominate the economy, linking Cuba to world markets. Hundreds of thousands of black slaves were imported over two centuries. Slave labor contributed to the expansion of the sugar industry.

Minor rebellions and conspiracies were common in the 19th century, but Cuban efforts to wrench free from Spain did not succeed until 1898. The Ten Years' War (1868–78) proved a bloody and costly affair, as did the War of Independence (1895–98), in which the United States finally intervened. The leaders of the independence movement were José Martí, Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo. The United States occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902. After independence, it turned Cuba into a protectorate. U.S. capital flowed into the island, and the United States exercised substantial political influence.

Political crisis and corruption were common. U.S. military contingents returned to Cuba in 1906, 1912, and 1917 to restore stability and protect private interests. Governments had little legitimacy, and democratic values did not shape political competition. A progressive constitution went into effect in 1940. This ushered in a period of democracy. The democratic interlude under Presidents Fulgencio Batista, Ramón Grau San Martín, and Carlos Prío Socarrás lasted until 1952, when a coup by Batista restored authoritarian rule. Insurrectional movements emerged in the 1950s. Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro's guerrillas in 1959.

A nationalist and popular revolution moved forward, substantially supported by the middle class. The revolutionary regime enacted reform laws and proceeded to change the character of society. It soon became evident that a radical socialist revolution was under way. The regime successfully challenged U.S. economic and political interests. It obtained economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union. Its power was unchallenged at home, but not all of its policies were well received. One million Cubans left home—including more than 200,000 between 1959 and 1962, another 125,000 on "freedom flights" from Havana to Miami (1965–73), and an additional 125,000 during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Cubans in the United States helped stoke the unrelenting U.S. hostility toward the Castro regime. This was manifested early in the unsuccessful U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and aggravated by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Cuba became increasingly isolated due to the collapse of communism, U.S. policy, and changes in Latin America and elsewhere. It has lost its superpower sponsor and has yet to find new allies and trading partners of comparable stature. Most Latin American countries have relations with Cuba. Some have urged its government to move toward democracy and a free-market economy. In 1994, despite the implementation of limited free-market reforms, tens of thousands of Cubans fled the island, only to be intercepted by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships and interned at Guantánamo Bay (a U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba) and in Panama. Castro blamed the exodus on the U.S. economic embargo. The United States blamed Castro's intransigence. In September 1994 an uneasy accord was reached between the two countries. Castro pledged to stop the outflow and the United States agreed to increase its quota for Cuban refugees.

In the fall of 1995, despite international criticism, the U.S. Congress passed legislation toughening sanctions against Cuba; the so-called Helms-Burton bill (the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act) officially became law in March 1996. Relations worsened in 1996 when the Cuban air force shot down two civilian airplanes flown by anti-Castro Cuban Americans. The year 1997 was marked by celebrations surrounding the 30th anniversary of the death of revolutionary leader Che Guevara, whose remains were returned from Bolivia to Cuba for a state funeral. The Cuban Communist Party Congress resisted further steps to reduce government control of the economy. Castro formally designated his brother Raúl Castro as his eventual successor in October 1997. In January 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. By that time, tourism had become the country's second-largest source of foreign exchange, after money sent home by Cubans in exile. In March 1998, Castro won a fifth term as president.

In January 1999 the U.S. government introduced measures to allow more contacts between ordinary Cubans and Americans. These included direct postal service, an increase in charter flights between Cuba and the United States, additional remittances to Cuban families, and permission to sell food to groups and people not linked to the government. The embargo (including a ban on tourism), however, remained in place.

In November 1999, Cuba hosted an Ibero-American summit of government leaders from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. In April 2000 it was the site of the first-ever meeting of the heads of state and government of the so-called Group of 77, an organization of developing nations founded in 1963 that had since greatly expanded its membership.

By the turn of the century the slight improvement in the relationship between Cuba and the United States had been derailed by a furor over a 6-year-old Cuban boy, Elián González. The boy's mother had drowned at sea while fleeing with her son to the United States in November 1999. The subsequent bitter custody battle between his great-uncle in Miami and his father in Cuba was accompanied by complex legal and political maneuvering. It provoked some of the largest demonstrations in Cuba since the revolution. Although the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS; now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) ruled that the boy should be repatriated to Cuba, many Cuban Americans (and some political leaders) sought to keep him in the United States. In March 2000 a U.S. federal district court judge found no reason to countermand the INS decision. On April 22, federal agents forcibly removed Elián from the home of his Miami relatives and reunited him with his father. He finally returned to Cuba on June 28 after his relatives' appeals in the U.S. court system had been exhausted.

In December 2000, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian president to visit the island nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin sought to increase trade between the two countries. Nevertheless, his October 2001 decision to close a major Russian radar base in Cuba dealt a further blow to an economy already suffering from a dramatic drop in tourism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The first direct scheduled flights by a U.S. airline to Cuba in 40 years were inaugurated in November 2001. They served primarily Cuban Americans visiting their families. Honduras reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 2002. This left the United States and El Salvador as the only countries in the Americas that did not have diplomatic relations with the Havana government. Subsequently, the rise of populist leaders in such countries as Venezuela and Bolivia gave Cuba a more prominent role in regional affairs.

In 2002, Jimmy Carter, who advocated the lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba and democratic reforms by the Cuban administration, received grudging U.S. government approval to become the first former or current U.S. president to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Less than a week before Carter's May 12–17 goodwill visit—during which he addressed the Cuban people in Spanish via the national media, met with Cuban dissidents, and promoted democratic reforms—the administration of George W. Bush added Cuba, Libya, and Syria to its earlier list of countries (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) that it claimed were deliberately seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. When pressed by Carter, the Bush administration said that it had no evidence that Cuba yet possessed such weapons.

Carter's speech publicized the Varela Project, a reform movement that had managed to gather more than 11,000 signatures on a petition to the National Assembly calling for a referendum on economic and political reforms. The following month, Castro organized a petition drive supporting a constitutional amendment stating that Cuba's social, economic, and political systems would be untouchable. This second petition was signed by more than 8 million people, nearly 99% of Cuba's registered voters. The constitutional amendment it supported was formally approved by the National Assembly on June 27, 2002. The earlier petition's request for a referendum on political and economic change was ignored, although dissident Oswaldo Payá, who spearheaded the Varela Project, was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Union (EU) in December 2002. (The prize is named for the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov; it is awarded annually to an individual who defends democracy and human rights.)

When new elections were held on Jan. 19, 2003, progovernment candidates ran unopposed for all legislative seats. The primary function of the newly elected National Assembly was to choose the Council of State, which elected Castro to another 5-year term as president in March 2003. Later that month, about 80 dissidents were arrested and accused of working with U.S. diplomats to undermine the Cuban leadership, ending several years of relative tolerance. Nevertheless, Payá submitted to the Cuban legislature in October 2003 another petition demanding political change. This one contained more than 14,000 additional signatures that had been gathered by the Varela Project. In May the EU had announced that it was restricting its contacts with Cuba due to the recent human rights abuses, which included the restoration of the death penalty. On July 26, 2003, Cubans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of the Communist revolution, which had been launched when Communist rebels attacked the Moncada army barracks on the same date in 1953.

In May 2004, U.S. president Bush endorsed new U.S. sanctions. He also launched efforts to circumvent Cuban jamming of pro-U.S. radio and television messages designed to hasten the end of communism in Cuba. The leader of the Varela Project denounced the U.S. plan; he said that outside interference would hamper efforts to achieve reform from within. Meanwhile, relations between Mexico and Cuba also deteriorated. Mexico temporarily recalled its ambassador to Cuba and expelled Cuba's ambassador to Mexico. In December 2004, Cuba staged its largest military exercise in nearly 20 years. The exercise was in response to what it called "continued aggression" by the United States.

The number of Cubans attempting to reach the United States illegally had been relatively low in the decade since 1994. The number spiked in 2005, however. That year, some 2,530 Cubans (up from 954 the previous year) managed to reach U.S. shores; at least 6,744 additional Cubans were known to have entered the United States by sailing to Honduras and other Latin American nations and crossing the land border between the United States and Mexico during the same period. Castro charged that the U.S. policy of generally allowing Cubans who reached U.S. shores to remain (those interdicted at sea were returned to Cuba) actually encouraged the migrants. The United States countered that poor economic conditions and Cuba's refusal to grant exit permits to many Cubans with U.S.-approved visas tempted them to risk their lives.

On July 29, 2006, Castro temporarily handed power over to his designated successor, his brother Raúl Castro, while undergoing treatment for intestinal bleeding. He insisted that the transfer would be temporary. Nevertheless, this was the first time since coming to power in 1959 that Cuba's leader had ever taken such an action. Some 70% of Cubans had known no other leader. In September, Raúl presided over the 14th summit of the Nonaligned Movement, which was held in Havana. When new legislative elections were held in January 2008, all candidates ran unopposed. Fidel Castro was reelected. This made him eligible for another presidential term. On Feb. 19, 2008, however, on the eve of the new legislature's first meeting, Fidel Castro announced that he would not seek or accept a renewed term as president.

Juan M. del Aguila


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