(NOTE: This background information dates way back to 2012. A LOT has happened in Cuba since then. Like, lots…. Updates will come. But up to 2012, the below still holds true.)

Castro.  Castro.  Castro Castro Castro.  Americans who know nothing about Cuba but the fact that it’s an island somewhere off the coast of Cuba all know Castro.  We know Fidel Castro and his iconic beard and military outfit.  We know Fidel Castro who worked with Che Guevara to spread revolution all over Latin America.  We know Fidel Castro the Communist who has thumbed his nose at the United States for fifty years.  The life and deeds of Fidel Castro have defined Cuba’s relationship to the world since he and a small band of revolutionaries overthrew the island’s U.S.-supported government in 1958.  The older generation of the America’s Cuban immigrant population, most of whom lost all their worldly possessions when Castro came to power, maintains a special, undying resentment.  But of course there’s more to Cuba than even the most iconic leader.  Cuba’s history is long and stretches back to well before Columbus “discovered” it.  The cultural, racial and even political realities of the island nation are more complex, and more interesting, than the life of one man.

Yet Cuba’s colonial-era history does read like one long prelude to Castro’s inevitable rule.  When Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492 and claimed it for the Spanish he found communities of Taino and Ciboney people.  The Spaniards who settled Cuba over the next several decades treated the previous residents of their new home very harsly.  After a hundred years of forced labor and rampant infectious disease, few native Cubans remained.  For the next three hundred years, Spanish plantation owners grew wealthy by exporting sugar, coffee and tobacco, using African slaves to work their farms.

In the 1800s Cuban pro-independence rebels rose up repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, against the Spanish.  In 1892, José Martí, an exiled dissident, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York and in 1895 died in Cuba while participating in yet another failed rebellion.  Today Cubans revere him as a national hero.

In 1890s popular opinion in the United States turned against the Spanish (why? it’s complicated) and in 1898, after the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in the Havana harbor (an act of anti-U.S. terrorism by the Spanish? No, an engineering accident), the U.S. and the Spanish went to war. By the end of 1898 the U.S. won the war and had control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.  The U.S. had become an imperial power.

The U.S. soon granted Cuba independence but kept substantial political control — and maintained a lease on a small patch of land in Guantanamo Bay. For the next sixty years the U.S. supported most Cuban leaders, including the increasingly brutal and corrupt Fugencio Batista.  Batista was the leader who Fidel Castro and his small band of rebels toppled in 1958.

Fidel was born out of wedlock on a sugar plantation — the son of a prosperous sugar industry businessman and a household servant.  Castro overcame the stigma of his birth and, according to his legend, at 13 helped organize a strike on his father’s plantation.  He eventually became a lawyer in Havana and, as an outspoken opponent of Batista, a revolutionary intent on overthrowing the regime.  In 1956 he and 81 of his followers, including his brother Raul and a young doctor named Che Guevara, took a boat from their exile in Mexico to Cuba, hid in the hills, and within two years had expelled Batista.

Fidel’s revolutionary government nationalized public utilities, confiscated a substantial amount of private property, closed casinos that the U.S. mafia had operated in collusion with Batista, and took state control of all media.  He also imprisoned dissidents, held thousands in “re-education” camps and executed political opponents.  At the same time, Castro’s government, bolstered by increasingly close ideological (Marxist/Communist) and economic ties to the Soviet Union, universalized popular education, granted citizens free, quality health care, enforced public and even private gender equality and sent troops to support independence struggles around the world.

Since Fidel took power the U.S. has unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Cuba, to assassinate Fidel and to use an ongoing blockade to inspire the Cuban people to rebel.  Even after the Soviet Union fell (and Cuba fell on hard economic times), the Cuban people refused to — or were unable to? — unseat their leader.  Fidel’s recent illnesses have forced him to cede power to his brother Raul, and to step back as Cuba embarks on a slow, uncertain period of market-style economic reforms.  No one knows what path Cuba will follow once Fidel passes, but as of today, Cuba still has its leader.

…And here we are talking all about Castro again. Castro Castro Castro.  While all this history was happening, Cuba developed into a multilayered, multiracial, multicultural Spanish/African international nation, whose people accomplished so much economically, educationally and artistically that even through the most difficult times, no matter how fervently they agree or disagree with their government, Cubans felt enough pride in their nation that they believed it to be something worth fighting for.  As we’ll see below, Cuba is a physically beautiful island, a place with a resounding, resilient spirit that can’t help but overflow into its passionate politics and, the matter of our utmost concern, its music.

More information:

Wikipedia’s entry on Cuba | Human Rights Watch on Cuba | The Cuban Missile Crisis…Oh, so close | History of the Cuban immigrant community in the U.S. | The Mariel boat lift: a mass exodus in 1980 | What happens next?

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