On one hand, strong rum cocktails and world-class cigars. on the other, revolutions and years of strict communist rule. Cuba - the destination for our SS17 campaign - is a country that can stir up a wealth of associations, and the nation’s history is indisputably a complex one. Behind this history lies an incredibly interesting travel destination.
Few countries have a history as complicated as Cuba. For us in the west, the history of Cuba starts on 28 October 1492, when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic on his ship, the Santa Maria. Columbus began to map out the island, which was then the home to just over 100,000 members of the Arawak people – and it was not long before Spanish soldiers arrived to claim the island for their king. The Arawak were unable to put up any serious resistance, and a Spanish conquistador, Diego Velásquez de Cuéllar, annihilated almost the entire indigenous population with a battalion of just 300 men.
The Spanish colonization of Cuba quickly became a jewel in the crown for the kingdom, as the conditions were perfectly suited for growing sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Havana, Cuba’s current capital, was founded in 1514, and came to serve as a central hub for the Spanish conquistadors’ march through Latin America.
During the 17th century, Cuba’s colonialists turned the island into ever more of a slave society. With 40 percent of the world’s sugar production, the plantation owners recognized the huge profits to be had from importing African slaves, and countless slaves toiled on the sugar plantations over the course of the following centuries. The rumbles of discontent with this situation began to increase, and the relationships between workers and plantation owners became progressively more strained. The slaves eventually rebelled to overthrow their Spanish rulers, and in 1868, Cuba declared its independence, marking the beginning of the prolonged Ten Years’ War. The result of this conflict was that Spain took back Cuba – although with the promise of greater autonomy and the abolition of slavery.
But the pact didn’t last long. Cubans had tasted true freedom, and in 1895, José Martí, a revolutionary, declared a new war against the Spanish. Three years later, the US stepped in to support Cuba, and against this backing the Spanish rule was soon abolished once and for all. The US promised to defend Cuba’s independence in return for permanent access to an area of the island known as Guantánamo Bay. The Republic of Cuba was formally declared in 1902 – but the blood-soaked struggles were far from over.
In 1933, Cuba became a military dictatorship after the success of a coup led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. A chaotic period awaited, with Batista himself becoming president in 1940 and then being replaced a few years later. Batista staged a new coup before the 1952 election and regained control of the country. This time he kept Cuba under a harsh authoritarian regime, and oppressed forces once again began to roll their sleeves up in preparation for an uprising. The leader of the revolutionary movement was the young lawyer Fidel Castro, who together with the Argentinian doctor Ernesto ”Che” Guevara began to form a potent rebel army. The full force of Castro’s and Guevara’s army entered Havana in January 1959. Batista was forced to flee, and the revolution was victorious.
The US did not rejoice over this news. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved an invasion with 1,500 soldiers; it started at the Bay of Pigs and intended to overthrow Castro. The operation was a colossal failure. The invaders were forced to surrender after only three days, with 100 Cuban exiles in the army being executed and the remaining soldiers imprisoned. The USA had to pay Cuba to release the prisoners and the relationship between
Cuba and the US became frosty, to say the least. Castro was not especially perturbed and instead turned to the Soviet Union to find new friends. The Soviet Union was only too happy to embrace Castro, and even took the opportunity to place a few nuclear missile facilities on the island to keep the US from entertaining thoughts of any more invasions. For two nervous weeks which later became known as the Cuban missile crisis, the world held its breath as the threat of full-scale nuclear war loomed.
After some tense diplomatic negotiations, an agreement was finally reached, and the nuclear weapons were returned to the USSR. Cuba’s relationship with the US had reached rock bottom, and Cuba now aligned itself fully with the Soviet Union. Cuba became a one-party state, and all forms of opposition were strictly forbidden. Decades of oppression and torture were to follow, where even being unemployed was against the law. Tens of thousands of Cubans were imprisoned and millions fled the country. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba lost its most important supporter.
Ever since, the country’s economy has struggled. As one of the world’s few remaining socialist states, there are no longer any other team mates to turn to for help, and Cuba has had to rethink its policies. There have been relaxations to its strict system of rules, more and more private businesses have been permitted on the island and there have even been a handful of flirtations with the USA again. State-run restaurants have been sold to private operators, and the country is increasingly promoting tourism in order to get back on its feet.
Marketing itself to international tourists is also a smart strategy. Despite its turbulent history, Cuba is an island that offers a fantastic range of discoveries. The long years of communist
rule have certainly left an impression on the island; you don’t come here for the shopping, and the towns are characterized more by worn-out alleys and destitution than by gleaming avenues and boutiques – but Cuba is nonetheless a place with much to experience. Visitors can immerse themselves in history with a walk through the old town or a trip to the Museum of the Revolution, or those on the look-out for something else can entertain themselves with the island’s magnificent nature, endless white beaches and luxury hotels. The tropical climate is perfect for sun, sea and sand, or why not see if you can land a bite from one of the large fishing boats that sail here. Cuba is world-renowned for its deep-sea fishing, with a bounty of huge tuna, barracuda and swordfish to be found in its waters.
Even more impressive nature experiences include the brilliant white sands of the paradise beach at Guardalavaca or a trip to the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park. The park is inscribed as an UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique mixture of beaches, rainforest, and mountains.
It’s fair to say that Cuba offers a wealth of possibilities. But Cuba is still a country that people associate with its past rather than its present. In some respects that’s not so unusual – the world’s most unique and complex history would tend not to be so easily forgotten.