Cuba, the largest and most western island of the West Indies. It forms, with various adjacent islands, the Republic of Cuba. Cuba occupies a central location between North and South America and lies on the lanes of sea travel to all countries bounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. For most of its history, Cuba’s fertile soil and abundant sugar and tobacco production made it the wealthiest island of the Caribbean.
The Republic of Cuba is an archipelago, or group of islands, consisting of the main island (named Cuba); Isla de la Juventud, the second largest island; and numerous other islands. Havana is the capital city with a population of 2,189,716 in 2000. In 2007 the nation’s population was estimated to be 11,416,987.
Cuba’s proximity to Haiti, the United States, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and Jamaica has allowed people to migrate easily onto and off of the island. This movement contributed to the rich mixture of people and customs in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean area. Although agriculturally rich, Cuba exports only a few products, such as sugar, tobacco, citrus fruits, and several manufactured products.
Cuba’s rich soil, abundant harbours, and mineral reserves have enticed foreign powers such as Spain, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to use Cuba for their own interests. For 400 years Cuba was a colony of Spain. Spain’s conquistadores (Spanish for “conquerors”) launched their invasion of Mexico and South America from the island. In the mid-19th century, the Cuban people formed an independence movement; decades after most of Spain’s other colonies had become independent. By 1868 Cubans began to fight the first of three wars of independence. In 1898 the United States entered the war against Spain and declared Cuba independent but under the protection of the United States.
In 1902 Cubans began to rule themselves, although U.S. influence remained strong on the island. The United States still operates a naval base at Guantánamo Bay on Cuban territory under agreements dating back to 1903. Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, the Cuban government functioned under a series of corrupt presidents and dictators. Beginning in 1934 army officer Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar governed either directly or indirectly as a military strong man, a civilian president, and a military dictator. By the mid-1950s many Cubans opposed the corruption and political repression that developed under Batista’s dictatorship. Opposition to Batista developed into a revolt known as the Cuban Revolution.
In 1959 Fidel Castro and a number of other rebels overthrew the Batista government. In the 1960s Castro split with the United States and became an ally of the USSR. Cuba’s economic problems became more serious after 1989, when Communist governments began to collapse in Eastern Europe and the USSR reduced its aid to Cuba as well as its trade with the island. Tourism sector has grown significantly in Cuba since the late 1980s. In 1990 tourists spent $243 million in Cuba; in 2005 that figure had increased to $1.9 billion. The number of people vacationing in Cuba grew from only 3,000 in 1973 to 326,000 in 1989, and to over 2.3 million in 2012.