By the early sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and traders had already recognized Havana as an ideal port for trade with Spain. Beginning in the early 1800s, sugarcane production boomed, ensuring a huge influx of black slaves and the institution of a plantation economy. During the 1860s–1870s, a growing independence movement brought armed revolt against Spanish rule. Slavery was outlawed in 1886, and in 1895 Cuban nationalist and poet José Marti led the final struggle against the Spanish, which was fully realized as a consequence of U.S. involvement in the 1898 Spanish-American War.
The Spanish-Cuban-American War marked a watershed in Cuban-American relations, as it greatly enhanced American influence on the island. However, the event was controversial because Cuban independence fighters saw the island's newfound freedom as an outcome of their thirty-year struggle against Spain, whereas many Americans saw Cuban independence as an American victory. The result was an uneasy compromise by which Cuba became an independent republic with limitations to its sovereignty embodied in the 1901 Platt Amendment, an appendix to the Cuban constitution authorizing U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs at its own discretion. Cuba became a politically independent state on 20 May 1902.
The duality of opinions as to Cuban sovereignty was at the heart of the crisis that brought down the Cuban republic. For the first half of the twentieth century, the United States set the standards to which the Cuban population aspired. In this context, the crisis of the Cuban economic model of dependence on the sugar industry was accompanied by a sympathetic attitude in Washington toward anticommunist dictators.
General Fulgencio Batista's military coup on 10 March 1952 occurred only two months before an election in which nationalist forces were within reach of the presidency. In the context of McCarthyism in America, the destruction of the Cuban democracy by Batista's rightist junta did not generate significant opposition in Washington. Indeed, the United States backed Batista as an ally in the Cold War. For its part, the Cuban authoritarian Right manipulated the West by presenting itself as a bulwark against communism. In practice, the Batista government was actually undermining democracy with its repressive policies. And all along, Batista's regime did little to improve living standards for poor Cubans, while the middle class and elites enjoyed a close and lucrative relationship with American businesses.
A potent popular insurrection against Batista's regime had grown in the eastern and central parts of Cuba by 1958. The leaders of the revolution, Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, questioned Cuban dependence on the United States as well as market economy principles. They perceived their movement as part of a developing-world rebellion against the West and as a natural ally of the communist bloc.
The United States was not prepared to deal with the charismatic and doctrinaire Castro. After his takeover, the United States underestimated the profound grievances provoked by American support for the Batista regime. Some of Castro's early measures such as land reform, the prosecution of Batista's cronies (with no guarantee of due process), and the nationalization of industries were overwhelmingly popular, but at the same time they met stiff U.S. resistance.
Against this backdrop, Castro approached the Soviet Union for support, and in February 1960 a Soviet delegation led by Vice Premier Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a trade agreement with Castro's government. The Soviets then began to replace the United States as Cuba's main trade and political partner. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev soon promised Cuba new machinery, oil, consumer goods, and a market for Cuban products now subject to American sanctions.
In April 1961, U.S.-Cuban relations collapsed completely, thanks to the abortive Bay of Pigs fiasco sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The assault was condemned to failure, given Castro's popularity and the lack of U.S. air support for the rebel force. The botched attack only encouraged closer relations between the Soviet Union and Cuba. Khrushchev subsequently proposed installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba to ensure a better bargaining position with the United States and as a means of offering protection to Cuba. Castro was elated. Khrushchev naively assumed that the missiles could be installed without U.S. detection. U.S. intelligence quickly discovered the activity, however, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous confrontation between the two superpowers of the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy declared a naval quarantine against the island in October 1962. For nearly two weeks the world stood at the edge of a nuclear abyss. In the end, Kennedy and Khrushchev worked out an agreement in which the Soviets withdrew the missiles in return for U.S. promises not to invade Cuba and to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
The end of Kennedy's quarantine did not conclude the strife between Cuba and the United States, however. In addition to an embargo that continues to this day, the United States launched additional covert operations against Castro's government. The most important one, Operation mongoose, included fourteen CIA attempts to assassinate Castro. American hostility was reinforced by the Cuban revolution's transformation from a nationalist rebellion against authoritarianism to a totalitarian state aligned with the Soviet Union, with serious shortcomings in civil and political liberties.
The solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis also created serious strains between Havana and Moscow. Cuba's foreign policy was made in Havana, and therefore Castro refused to accept Moscow's or Beijing's directives. In 1968, he cracked down on a group of Cuban communists, accusing them of working with Soviet agents in Havana. In the end, he used the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia against the Prague Spring to broker a compromise by which Cuba preserved its autonomy but promised not to criticize the USSR publicly. Cuba thus became a Comecon member and received significant additional economic aid from the communist bloc.
In Latin America, the Cuban government actively supported revolutionary movements with leftist or nationalist agendas, especially those that challenged American hegemony in the region. But the 1960s witnessed successive failed Cuban attempts to export revolution to other countries. Guevara's 1967 murder in Bolivia concluded a series of subversive projects encouraged by Havana. Cuban revolutionary attempts were part of Cubans' core revolutionary beliefs and also a response to the rupture of diplomatic relations with Havana by all the Latin American countries except Mexico.
From the 1970s to 1990, as part of the Cold War conflict, Cuba played a major role in the international context. A high point of Castro's foreign policy came at the 1979 Sixth Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana. Cuba became a major conduit of alliance between the developing world and the communist bloc. Havana's diplomatic success and military involvement were accompanied by a massive civilian involvement in aid programs to African, Latin American, and Asian countries in the areas of health and education.
Cuba adopted a foreign policy suited to a medium-sized power. Castro sent 40,000 troops to Angola to support the pro-Soviet Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government in its struggle against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) forces backed by South Africa and the United States. Cuba also dispatched troops to aid the pro-Soviet government of Ethiopia. In all, Cuba deployed more than 300,000 troops or military advisors to Angola, Ethiopia, the Congo, Guinea Bissau, Algeria, Mozambique, Syria, and South Yemen. The fight in southern Africa was ended through a skillfully designed tripartite agreement signed by Cuba, Angola, and South Africa and mediated by President Ronald Reagan's administration that led to the independence of Namibia.
Paradoxically, due in part to these Cold War commitments, Cuba missed its best chance to solve its conflict with the United States. During 1970–1980 the Americans sought serious negotiations with Cuba. This began under Richard Nixon's presidency and saw the most promise during Jimmy Carter's presidency (1977–1981). Carter demonstrated that he was serious in his desire to improve relations among the nations of the hemisphere and promote human rights. In 1977, Carter went so far as so say that the United States did not consider a Cuban retreat from Angola a precondition for beginning negotiations. Castro, however, insisted on continuing what he defined as "revolutionary solidarity" and "proletarian internationalism."
The Cuban government was interested in negotiations with the Americans but insisted on a radical leftist solution to problems. Castro took significant steps in releasing political prisoners and allowing visits to the island by Cuban exiles as goodwill gestures to the United States. In the international arena, Cuba informed the Americans about the Katanga rebellion in Zaire. Nevertheless, Cuba gave priority to its relations with other revolutionary movements, especially in Africa. In 1977, Castro sent 17,000 Cuban troops to Ethiopia to support dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in his territorial conflict with Somalia. This development, despite the progress in several bilateral issues, represented a major blow to the prospect of improved Cuban-U.S. relations, as did Castro's support for the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
A new development came in 1976 when Ricardo Boffill, Elizardo Sanchez, and Gustavo Arcos founded the first human rights group in Cuba since 1959. A new generation of opposition groups based on strategies of civil disobedience slowly emerged, gaining strength in the 1990s. Equally, during the 1970s Cuban civil society began to emerge from totalitarian ostracism that had reduced its religious communities to a minimum. This evolution continued, and at the end of the 1980s the religious groups were growing at a fast pace.
The collapse of the communist bloc beginning in 1989 was a major catastrophe for Castro's government, as Cuba lost its major benefactors. At the same time, the international community, particularly Latin America and the former communist countries, adopted general norms of democratic governance opposed to the goals and behavior of the Cuban leadership. Without Soviet backing, Cuba adjusted its economy and foreign policy to survive in a world that was no longer safe for revolution. In 1988 Castro withdrew Cuban troops from Angola and reduced the Cuban military presence in the Horn of Africa.
Cuba's gross domestic product fell by almost one-third between 1989 and 1993. The collapse of the Cuban economy was particularly hard on imports, which fell from 8.6 billion pesos in 1989 to about 2 billion pesos in 1993. In response to the economic collapse, Castro permitted limited private enterprise, allowed Cubans to have foreign currencies, and pushed for foreign investment, particularly in tourism. His reforms, however, did little to stop the economic hemorrhaging. In addition, Cuban troops were withdrawn from wherever they were posted. More than fifteen years after the Cold War wound down, Castro remains one of the last leaders of the old-style communist order.
Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.; Pastor, Robert. The Carter Administration and Latin America. Occasional Paper Series, Vol. 2, No. 3. Atlanta, GA: Carter Center of Emory University, 1992.; Smith, Wayne. The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years. New York: Norton, 1987.