POPULATION: 11 million
RELIGION: Discouraged by the communist government, but Roman Catholicism and Santeria are practiced.
Cuba was discovered and claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Columbus did not realize that Cuba was an island. Except for a brief occupation by the English, Cuba remained a Spanish colony until the end of the nineteenth century.
Cuban patriarch, José Marti (1853–95), along with key military figures Antonio Maceo (1845–96), Máximo Gomez (1836–1905), and Calixto Garcia (1839–98), led a historic War of Independence against the Spanish in 1895. In 1898 a U.S. battleship, the Maine , was blown up in the Havana harbor, resulting in the United States declaring war on Spain. Then a colonel, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was among the Americans who defeated the Spanish. As a result of losing this Spanish-American War, Spain gave Cuba to the United States under the Treaty of Paris. On May 20, 1902, the United States ended its military occupation of Cuba, and the Cuban republic was created under its first president, Tomas Estrada Palma (1835–1908). The United States and Cuba maintained close ties, and Cuba leased naval bases at Rio Hondo and Guantanamo Bay to the United States.
Governments in Cuba during the early and mid-twentieth century were often corrupt and changed frequently. In spite of an unsettled political climate, Cuba's natural beauty made it a popular vacation spot for Americans and people from all over the world. In 1959, Fidel Castro's (1926–) guerrilla movement, that is warfare carried on by small forces of soldiers making surprise raids, successfully overthrew the existing corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1901–73). Castro established a long-standing relationship with the Soviet Union and led Cuba into communism. Over the next few years, approximately 1 million Cubans left home, most fleeing to the United States. In January 1961, the United States declared an economic blockade of Cuba, halting the export of American goods to the island. In April of that year, CIA-trained Cuban exiles staged the Bay of Pigs invasion. The attempt failed to collapse the Castro regime. Perhaps the most tense period of the Cold War occurred when the United States discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba. This Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in 1962 when the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles and the United States promised never to invade Cuba. Cuba has remained the only communist government in the Western hemisphere.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba has continued to experience political and economic unrest. Tens of thousands of Cubans have left the country, even risking their lives in makeshift rafts in an effort to flee.
A country of approximately 11 million people, Cuba is the largest island in the Antilles archipelago (chain of islands) in the Caribbean Sea. It is approximately 90 miles south of Florida. The island's terrain is very diverse. Approximately one-third of the island consists of three extensive mountain systems: the Sierra Maestra (where Castro formulated his guerrilla-style revolution), the Guamuhaya, and the Guaniguanico. There are nearly 200 rivers; mostly short, narrow, and shallow. Two wide-ranging plains account for the remaining two-thirds of the island and these plains are where most of the population lives. The combination of trade winds, warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and sea breezes gives Cuba a moderate and stable climate. Sugar is the island's key export. Nickel is the main mineral found on the island, making Cuba the fourth largest exporter of nickel in the world. Cuba is home to a number of rare birds and animals, many found nowhere else. The island's Bee hummingbird is the world's smallest bird, measuring just two inches in length.
Cubans speak Spanish. Their names are composed of three parts: first (given) name, father's surname, and mother's maiden name; for example, Jose Garcia Fernandez.
One of the better-known examples of Cuban folklore is El Bizarron, the story of a man who outsmarts the devil. Most of Cuba's heroes, however, come not from folklore but from real life. José Marti, who masterminded the War of Independence, is without a doubt Cuba's national hero. Marti is also known for his inspiring prose and poetry. The verses of his most famous poem, "The White Rose," have been set to music in what is Cuba's most poignant song, La Guantanamera.
Fidel Castro is the modern idol in Cuba. He stands for all that is the Revolution and for this he is honored by some and despised by others. He is known for delivering long and dramatic speeches. In 1956, Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–67), Castro's younger brother, Raul (1931–), and other revolutionaries were on a yacht traveling from Mexico to Cuba, when the yacht was captured by Batista. Castro and the others headed for the hills of the Sierra Maestra where they began the three-year revolution that ended the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1959. At one point, their invasion force consisted of only twelve men.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara's picture can be found throughout Cuba on murals and billboards. A key person in Castro's revolution, Guevara has been elevated to a stature usually reserved in other cultures for martyrs and saints. Cuban schoolchildren begin their day by reciting the patriotic slogan, "Pioneers of communism, we shall be like Che." Originally a medical doctor from Argentina, after the revolution in Cuba, Guevara served as president of the National Bank of Cuba. He resigned that post in 1965 and went to Bolivia to join the revolutionary movement in that country. He was killed by the Bolivian army in 1967. Castro declared a three-day period of national mourning in Cuba, and even now the government sponsors campaigns with themes of "Let's Be Like Che."
As a communist country, Cuba has officially condemned participation in religion. Nonetheless, many Cubans maintain a Catholic tradition, although they do so secretly for fear of punishment. Much more openly practiced is Santeria, an African-based religion introduced into Cuba by slaves brought in from Africa in the late 1700s. The rough equivalent of a priest in Santeria is known as a babalao. When one is initiated into Santeria, he or she dresses completely in white clothing for one year.
Major holidays in Cuba mark significant events in the revolution: January 1 and July 26. May Day, a communist holiday worldwide, is an official holiday, as is October10 which marks the historic revolt against Spain that began in 1868. Catholics honor Three Kings Day on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.
Girls in Cuba sometimes celebrate turning fifteen years old with los quince (literally, "the 15"), the Latin American version of a "sweet sixteen" party. Often los quince is celebrated as festively as a wedding. The young lady will usually wear an extravagant gown made especially for the occasion.
Cubans are known for their warmth, wit, sense of humor, and resilience. They greet each other by shaking hands and by saying hola (hello). Like other Latin peoples, Cubans are known for using very expressive body language—wrinkling one's nose, for instance, means "What?" Traditionally, when young women went on dates, they brought along a chaperona (chaperone), although this has recently gone out of fashion.
The Soviet Union sent aid to the island nation of Cuba. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has gone through what it calls the "Special Period"—a mandatory belt-tightening, or cutting back on its standard of living. Energy consumption has been drastically reduced, food rations are low, and people get around on bicycles. Patients must bring their own bed-sheets to the hospital, and surgeons are given one bar of soap per month with which to wash their hands. Macetas are people who illegally buy and sell goods such as food, clothes, liquor, medicine cigarettes, and gasoline. In sharp contrast to the living conditions of the local people, tourists enjoy the best accommodations, food, and drink that Cuba can offer.
Extended families often live together for traditional and economic reasons. Often one or more grandparent lives with a married couple and their children. For economic reasons, children also tend to live at home until they marry.
Women are expected to work outside the home and are also expected to cook, clean, and take care of the home.
People normally wear casual Western-style clothing. As in so many parts of the world, blue jeans from the United States are a popular commodity. The guayabera, an embroidered man's shirt, is a traditional and elegant article of clothing that is still worn today for both formal and informal occasions.
Like other aspects of Cuban culture, traditional Cuban foods are rich in both Spanish and African influences. Pork, the meat of choice in a traditional meal, is almost always accompanied by rice and beans. When white rice and black beans are cooked together, they are called arroz congri, which literally means "rice with gray." Black beans, prepared many different ways, are a Cuban specialty.
Fried green plantains, called tostones or mariquitas, and ripe plantains, or maduros, round out the meal. Yuca (cassava), malanga (taro), and boniato (sweet potato) are also commonly served in traditional meals. Typical fruits include avocados, mangoes, guavas, and papayas. Customary beverages include guarapo (sugarcane juice) and rum.
Poor economic conditions that resulted in reduced food rations have made the traditional meal a thing of the past. Rations under the Special Period consist of a piece of bread per person per day, three eggs per week, and a portion of fish or chicken per month. Milk is available only for children under the age of eight. Rice and beans are hard to get and many Cubans have not had beef or pork in years. On the black market, a piece of beef can cost as much as a month's wages.
Education is free and compulsory up to the age of seventeen. There are more than four hundred schools and colleges in rural areas where students divide their time between working in agriculture and the classroom. Shortages have made it necessary for textbooks to be shared and workbooks to be erased and passed along to the next class. Higher education is also free. Scientific and technical fields are emphasized. The University of Havana, founded in 1728, is the leading institution of higher education on the island. Cuba's government initiated a campaign to wipe out illiteracy in 1961 and now has one of the highest literacy rates, at 94 percent, in all of Latin America.
Music is probably the most important aspect of Cuba's popular culture. Cuban music combines Spanish and African influences. Typical music styles include charanga, son, rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and danzon. From a blend of these rhythms evolved salsa which literally means "sauce." Celia Cruz, known all over the world as the Queen of Salsa, began her career in Havana in the late 1940s with a group named Sonora Matanzera. In addition to traditional music, Cubans teenagers enjoy rock and roll, both Cuban and American versions.
In Cuba, ballet is to the fine arts what baseball is to sports: the top. The Cuban National Ballet Company, founded by its leader and star performer, Alicia Alonso, has performed all over the world. She is considered one of the best ballet dancers of all time.
Several Cuban writers and poets, including José Marti and Alejo Carpentier (1904–80), have left their mark upon Latin American literature. A notable poet, Herberto Padilla, whose collection of poems, Out of the Game , received praise worldwide but was banned in Cuba, was even arrested.
Before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuban painters and sculptors demonstrated European influences. Postrevolutionary artists like Manuel Mendive (1944–) have incorporated Afro-Cuban mythology and folklore into their work. Many artists have produced works that protest government policies, although artists who disagree with the Revolution may be persecuted.
The labor force in Cuba is divided almost evenly among service-related jobs, agriculture, trade, manufacturing and mining, and utilities. Jobs in tourism are highly desirable because of their access to U.S. dollars and foreign goods. Even teachers, doctors, and engineers have left their professions to work in tourism jobs because they can earn more money.
Sports are a very important part of Cuban life and identity. "Sports is a right of the people," reads a banner inside the arena in the athletic complex in Havana. Castro, himself an athlete and sports enthusiast, was once offered a contract to pitch on a baseball team in the United States. At the age of eight or nine, outstanding young Cuban athletes are selected to attend a boarding school where they take academic courses and play various sports.
Cuba has been referred to as "the best little sports machine in the world," consistently turning out champion Olympic athletes. In 1992, Cuba won more Olympic medals per capita than any other country. Cubans excel in baseball, boxing, track and field, and volleyball. Top Cuban athletes are heroes in their society, but unlike the highly paid athletes in the United States, they only earn about two to four times the salary of the average Cuban.
Cuba's state-run television stations are on the air from six to twelve hours a day broadcasting sports programs, novelas (soap operas from Latin America), and some recent American movies. Young Cubans rarely sit home watching television. When they are not playing sports, young people are often involved in government youth programs, some of which operate computer instruction centers. Older Cubans enjoy playing dominoes and chess, sitting in ice cream parlors, and strolling along the water-front.
Handmade Cuban cigars, considered the finest in the world, are as much a craft as they are an important export. More than three million are produced each year, one at a time. An experienced worker can make a cigar from start to finish in just two minutes.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, an already struggling Cuban economy took a turn for the worse. Many of the social problems in Cuba can be related to its poverty.
The Cuban government is often accused of violating human rights. Members of neighborhood watch groups report nonconformist behavior to the government. Paramilitary agents deal harshly with protesters.
Tourism has been good for the economy, but locals are not allowed into the resorts unless accompanied by foreign tourists. Very few blacks are in the upper levels of government. Banned from membership in the Communist party, gays and lesbians are openly discriminated against, and AIDS sufferers are quarantined.
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