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A Brief History and Overview of Cuba

Cuba's national crest.

THE WORD CUBA might mean land from the Arawak language of the Taíno people, the original island inhabitants. It could also mean cupola, according to recent studies, yet to be confirmed, in which a Hispanic-Arabic origin is attributed to the name Cuba.

Discovered by Columbus in 1492, on his first voyage, the Taíno people were rapidly conquered and the island colonized by the Spaniards during the early 1500s. The establishment of the first seven towns culminated on November 16, 1519 with the founding of a village that later became Havana.


Cuba's flag, first raised in the city of Cárdenas in Matanzas province.


Cuba's former capitol building houses a public internet facility and the National Academy of Sciences.


Havana's Plaza Vieja.


Old church in eastern Cuba.


Las Terrazas ecocommunity.


Trinidad city center and main parish.

TIME/TEMP IN HAVANA NOW!


Island-wide annual averages:
Summer temp average: 81F | 27C
Winter temp average: 72F | 22C
Ocean temp average: 78F | 25.5C

From Doing Business with Cuba. Copyright © 1997 Fred D. Bloch and Professor Constantino Torres, Faculty of History, University of Havana.

THIS PAGE COVERS

Geography Climate
History Political System
Legal System Population
Language Religion
Education Health
Culture

GEOGRAPHY

Cuba is the largest, most varied and most beautiful of the Greater Antilles islands. It is long and narrow, extending approximately 1,260 km east-west in length; its width ranges from 193 km to 32 km. No point in the Island is more than 80 km from the sea. Cuba's territory, or the Cuban Archipelago, includes the Island of Youth (Isla de la Juventud) and several coastal islets and cays; it covers a land area of 110,861 km2.

Cuba is bound by the Atlantic Ocean on the north and east, the Caribbean Sea on the south, and the mouth of the Gulf of México on the west. It is located a mere 144 km south of the continental United States and is separated from it by the Straits of Florida, it is 140 km from the Bahamas, 210 km from Cancún and 146 km from Jamaica. Numerous bays, peninsulas and coastal reefs give Cuba a shoreline of 5,500 km with more than 280 natural beaches.

Cuba, often called the "Pearl of the Antilles," has a subtropical trade wind climate, adequate rainfall, significant mineral resources, and vast areas of level fertile land suitable for mechanized farming.

Cuba is part of a limestone platform related to the limestone areas of the Yucatán, Florida and the Bahamas. The Central American Antillean System, the main mountain system of the West Indies, crosses southeastern Cuba, where it is known as the Sierra Maestra. Although most of Cuba is low, there are several upland and mountain areas that increase in height from west to east. In the extreme west along the coast is a beautiful and unusual area of eroded limestone, the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. Just west of Havana is the narrow Sierra de los Organos, which has elevations of 150 to 750 m. Many of the hills resemble isolated haystacks and border magnificent valleys, rich in vegetation and endowed with a great variety of beautiful and exotic orchids. One such valley, the Viñales Valley, contains various steep, dome-shaped hills rising some 300 to 400 m, many of which are honey-combed with caves. Several mountain formations are found in central Cuba, the most important being the Sierra del Escambray, with Pico San Juan, its highest peak, at 1,160 m. Extreme eastern Cuba is a mountainous area divided into northern and southern ranges by the Guantánamo Valley. North of the valley are the Sierra de Cristal, Sierra Nipe, Cuchillas de Toar, and Sierra de Purial, with elevations up to 1,230 m. South of Guantánamo Valley is the Sierra Maestra, which holds Cuba's highest peak, Pico Turquino (1,974 m).

In addition to mountain ranges and terraced uplands, Cuba has unusual erosion forms and picturesque valleys. Yumurí Valley in northern Cuba, a reserve area of rich tropical scenery, includes the mammoth caves of Bellamar, known for their crystalline formations. The Yumurí River has cut through an almost circular depression about 8 km in diameter, leaving a flat floor and steep walls rising up as high as 150 m. The topography of the provinces near Havana and Matanzas is relatively flat and of low elevation. Havana City, the , with a population of 2.2 million, located on the north coast near the western end of the island, is a leading world port, it holds unequalled colonial architectural treasures and rich culture and tradition, mostly within Old Havana has been named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The coast near Havana consists of endless sandy beaches and crystalline waters, dotted by tourist facilities.

To the south of Matanzas is Cienaga de Zapata, known for its marshy lowlands where crocodiles are commercially raised. Also in this province is Varadero, known for its beaches of fine white sand, clear and transparent waters and comfortable resorts.

Ciego de Avila and Camagüey provinces in the Islands centre, are fairly level, and very well suited to agriculture and animal husbandry. Camagüey's north coast consists of endless unexploited beaches and cays of singular beauty.

Santiago de Cuba, also rich in tradition and architectural treasures, is located on the south coast at the island's eastern end. The rugged topography of the Sierra Maestra, with elevations of up to 1,980 m above sea level, is unique in the island and famous for its sceneries of breath-taking beauty and unbelievable variety.

Cuba's rivers are not commercially significant. The Cauto River, draining the southeastern mountains, is the longest (roughly 240 km), but is navigable for only 75 km by small boats. About 80 percent of Cuba's soil is derived from the action of rainfall on limestone, producing deep, fertile, often bright-red soil.

CLIMATE

Cuba has a tropical trade-wind climate moderated by the surrounding waters. The moist northeast trade winds reach most of the island except the deep isolated valleys and parts of the southeast coast, making the summers bearable and the winters usually warm and pleasant. The temperature decreases slightly with elevation and exposure to open waters, but the mean annual temperature at Havana is 25 C.

HISTORY

Christopher Columbus, in his quest to find a westward route to India stumbled on the territories of America, a continent then unknown to the Europeans, and reached the shores of Cuba on October 27, 1492, where he is reported to have said "this is the most beautiful land my eyes have ever seen." Columbus spent several weeks navigating along the Cuba's north coast without realizing it was an island. Convinced he had discovered the East Indies he returned to Europe and went back to Cuba two years later. It was only in 1508, after another explorer, Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated it, that it was discovered that Cuba was an island.

Cuba was inhabited by aboriginal peoples, known as Indocubans. Their society subsisted peacefully from hunting, fishing and agriculture until the arrival of the first conquistador, Diego de Velázquez, in 1510, who landed with a small army at the southeast end of the Island, a place known today as Guantánamo. The Indocubans, normally a peaceful people, offered fierce resistance under a brave leader named Hatuey, for a period of approximately three months, until his capture by the invaders. Once conquered, the Indocubans were nearly exterminated by the harsh working conditions imposed by the Spaniards and by diseases brought to the Island by the new arrivals. To replace the dwindling indigenous labour force needed to work the gold mines, the cane fields and the tobacco plantations, the Spaniards started importing African slaves to the Island and soon slave trade became one of the most profitable activities.

Velázquez established seven garrison towns along the Island: Baracoa, Santiago, Bayamo, Camagüey, Sancti Spíritus, Trinidad and Batabanó. Because of the Islands location it became "the Key to the Gulf" and the stopping-off point for the Spanish conquistadors going to or returning from Central and South America. Batabanó briefly became the principal stopping-off point for the Spanish Fleet until Havana, a better natural harbour, was discovered due north of Batabanó. Havana then became a flourishing trading post as increasing numbers of ships, on their way to Europe, stopped to take supplies for the journey as well as goods to trade with the Europeans.

Havana was occupied by the British during the Colonial Wars when the British confronted France and Spain and took over France's territories in Canada and the Island of Guadaloupe. Havana fell to the British on August 12, 1762, following a fierce, but unsuccessful, two-month resistance by the peasant population of Guanabacoa and Havana under the leadership of José Antonio Gómez better known in Cuban history as the national hero Pepe Antonio. Spain, realizing the strategic importance of Cuba recovered Havana from the British a year later in exchange for other of its major colonial territories. In the late 1700s Spain's grip on the economies of its American colonies started to relax and trade was allowed between Cuba and the United States. U.S. trade with the Island really took-off following its independence in 1776. To satisfy the growing demand for sugar in the U.S. during the 1800s Cuban plantations were expanded and the number of African slaves brought to the Island vastly increased. The new wealth created by sugar on the Island gave rise to a local aristocracy, locally known as "the Cuban sacarocracy" that became increasingly at odds with the decisions of the Spanish central government. Discontent with Spanish domination extended from the aristocracy to other sectors of the population including the peasants and the African slaves and was manifested in different ways in the ensuing years. Of the various independence movements that were brewing all over Cuba, the first one of any importance erupted on October 10, 1868, at the sugar plantation "La Demajagua," near Manzanillo, in Eastern Cuba, when plantation owner, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, considered the father of the nation, freed his slaves and, with the revolutionary cry of "Independence or Death", became the leader of a rebellion against Spain that would last until 1878 and would cost the lives of 250,000 Cuban rebels and 80,000 Spanish soldiers.

The first Cubans to make real headway in the quest for independence were José Martí, Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez, all of them popular leaders, who succeeded in mobilizing peasants and extending the rebellion across the Island. Martí was a journalist, poet and philosopher and is regarded by Cubans as the apostle and national hero of independent Cuba.

In 1892, Martí and a group of Cuban exiles in Miami founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party and in 1895 a new uprising against Spain was underway. Although Martí was killed in the early stages of the fighting, Máximo Gómez, Antonio Maceo and other revolutionary leaders continued the fight against the Spanish.

The fate of Spain, ironically, was sealed by the United States' decision to intervene in the war following the mysterious explosion on August 15, 1898, of the warship Maine, sent to Havana Bay by the U.S government to "protect U.S. citizens living in the city". With the U.S. intervention, the Cuban Revolutionary War became the year-long Spanish-Cuban-North American War, fought mainly on Cuban soil. By the end of the year the Spanish were defeated and the U.S. forces established a military occupation government which would last until May 1902. Although the U.S. forces withdrew from Cuba, the Americans retained almost total control over the Island and, under the Platt Amendment, kept the "right to intervene" in the Island's affairs "to preserve its independence". During its occupation of Cuba, the U.S. established a naval base at Guantánamo which they occupy to this day. On May 20, 1902, following the U.S. military withdrawal, Cuba became an pseudo-independent Republic or Neo-colonial Republic, with under the control of the U.S. Tomás Estrada Palma was its first president. The young country, with little experience in self-government, politically unsophisticated and with weak public institutions was plagued by corrupt governments which, combined with a growing economic dependence on the United States, resulted in many years of political turmoil and neglect of some sectors of the population and the steady deterioration of social conditions for many Cubans.

In 1925, after several ineffectual presidents, Gerardo Machado took power and established a harsh dictatorial regime that would last for 8 years until the deteriorating economy provided the opportunity for his overthrow, on August 12, 1933, by the same military establishment and U.S.-based interests that had supported him in the past. One of the engineers of the overthrow of Machado was Fulgencio Batista who, with U.S. backing, governed Cuba until 1944. Batista again seized power in another coup in 1952, and quickly established another brutal and repressive dictatorial regime. In reaction to Batista's oppression, new revolutionary movements started to spring across the Island. These were formed by students, labour organizations, intellectuals, the middle-class, farmers and peasants.

On July 26, 1953, a group of some 150 young revolutionaries, lead by Fidel Castro, launched an attack on the Moncada Barracks, in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. The rebels were defeated by Batista's troops and Castro and the other captured survivors were tried and imprisoned. The daring act of Castro and his followers captured the people's imagination and the failed July 26 Moncada assault became the rallying cry against Batista and the beginning of a wider political movement that would come to be known as the Movimiento 26 de Julio. Increasing admiration for Castro and his fighters soon translated into popular pressure that forced Batista to release the political prisoners, who left for México into exile in May 1955.

México brought together Castro and a young Argentinean physician, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Guevara joined the revolutionary gropu organized by Fidel Castro and together they planned a return to Cuba. With a group of 82 guerrillas they sailed from México in a cabin cruiser, the Granma, and landed in the southeast coast of Cuba on December 2, 1956. In their first encounters with Batista's troops Castro's fighters were reduced to a handful of men that took refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountains where they regrouped, reorganized and launched guerrilla attacks that soon gained support from peasants in the countryside and urban clandestine groups in the cities. The fight against Batista, coordinated by the Movimiento 26 de Julio, gained the support of the March 13 Students Movement, the Popular Socialist Party and other political and labour groups that together, after three years of growing and successful rebellion, forced Batista to give up power on January 1, 1959. Batista and his collaborators went into exile leaving behind an impoverished economy and population.

Castro came to power with huge popular support and formed a government that immediately set out to confront the problems it had inherited an economy near collapse, mainly geared to benefit American investors and to cater to the U.S. tourist to the detriment of the Cuban people.

Soon after assuming power, the new government decided to expand its diplomatic relations to other countries, including those of the Soviet bloc, and introduced two pieces of popular legislation, the Urban Reform Law, through which large rental properties not occupied by "absentee landlords" were confiscated and sold to the tenants, and the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959, a piece of legislation that would re-distribute the huge tracts of land owned mostly by Americans and by a few Cubans. American displeasure with these measures was clear and the reaction of the U.S. government was swift. Sugar purchases from Cuba were stopped and were accompanied by other actions aimed to undermine the Revolutionary government's programs. In response, Cuba nationalized American-owned industries, mostly sugar mills. When the U.S. petroleum companies threatened to cut-off oil supplies and paralyse the country, Cuba started purchasing oil from the Soviet Union which the U.S.-owned refineries refused to process. This resulted in the nationalization of the oil companies.

As the U.S. increased pressure on Cuba, the government of the Revolution sought, and found, new allies in the Soviet Union. By 1960 the USSR had became the main purchaser of Cuban sugar and its most important supplier of petroleum products.

Other actions of the Cuban government during 1960, namely the nationalization of industry, commerce and banking and the Havana Declaration of September 2, resulted in the U.S. decision to remove its diplomats from Havana, sever diplomatic relations with the Castro regime and begin an "economic embargo," which in practice was a "blockade" of the Island. In practical terms, all commercial exchanges between the two countries had now come to an end. At the same time the U.S. launched a series of overt and covert actions to undermine the new Cuban government, these included supporting insurgents in the Escambray region, influencing the Organization of American States to marginalize Cuba from the political and economic scene of the hemisphere, and the training and backing of the ill-fated April 17, 1961, CIA-led Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) invasion of the Island by 1,400 anti-Castro Cubans, who were quickly crushed by Castro's forces in what Cuban's consider the greatest defeat of U.S. imperialism. The more the U.S. pushed, the closer Cuba's ties with the Soviet Union became. Taking advantage of Cuba's fear of further U.S. armed aggression against the Island, the Soviets persuaded the Cuba into closer economic and political links including military and defence arrangements which rapidly lead to the October 1962, Soviet-U.S. confrontation over the deployment of Soviet missiles on Cuban territory.

As Cuba faced the structural changes required by the realignment of its commercial relations, it also embarked into a series of ambitious social programs in benefit of the less advantaged sectors of the population. During the 60s a massive program to eradicate illiteracy was launched and established, greater resources were devoted to the improvement of education and health facilities, there were massive programs to increase the availability of housing and increased economic resources were directed to the development of the rural areas. The early 60s also witnessed the creation of several organizations and institutions, such as the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the Union of Cuban Pioneers (UPC) and the Union of Cuban Youth (UJC), geared in part to help Cuba withstand the constant U.S. pressure, deal with the anti-Castro insurgents within Cuba and deepen the roots of the Revolution among its people and throughout the country. The early 1960s also saw the passing of the second Agrarian Reform (1963) which affected medium and small landholdings, the introduction of agricultural development plans centred on state-owned farms and cooperatives, the proliferation of small workers brigades devoted to development work in agriculture, literacy, construction of school, and the launching of an ambitious plan to increase sugar production to 10 million tons in order to boost the Island's income and its ability to acquire petroleum products and and consumer goods from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The 10-million ton goal for sugar production was never achieved and the efforts to reach it may have even caused adverse dislocations in the Cuban economy.

Isolated by most western countries, with the notable exception of Canada and México, in the early 1970s, the government's development programs shifted towards a political and economic institutionalization under increasing influence of the Soviet economic model, this resulted in Cuba's overdependence on the Soviet Union and proved to have worked against the long-term interests of the Cuban economy. By 1982, the Cuban government decided to modify its economic model and started to distance itself from the Soviet model. At about that time, legislation was passed establishing the conditions under which foreign and Cuban enterprises could jointly operate in Cuban territory. Also, in 1982, the Cuban government started to invest heavily in biotechnology and other high-technology areas such as pharmaceuticals, computers, computerized medical equipment and software. In the ensuing years, the development of tourism facilities was also started, catering first to Eastern European and Soviet sun-seekers, and later to Western Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans.

POLITICAL SYSTEM

Cuba is a republic with a centralized socialist system of government closely identified with the workers.

Political power rests with the Popular Power National Assembly, which nominates the Council of Ministers, the highest executive body. Its executive committee is composed of the president, the first vice-president and the vice-presidents of the Council of Ministers. Since February 1993, the National Assembly of People's Power is composed of deputies elected by secret and direct popular vote, for periods of five years. It sits regularly twice a year. Between sittings of the Assembly the 31-member Council of State, elected from members of the National Assembly, takes over its function.

Administratively, Cuba is divided into 14 provinces and 169 municipalities; each of the latter has an elected municipal assembly. Provincial and regional executive committees are elected by the members of the National Assembly.

LEGAL SYSTEM

Judicial power rests with the People's Supreme Court, which is elected by, and accountable to, the National Assembly. All judges, from the highest to the lowest, are elected by the respective Popular Power Assemblies; in other words, the Supreme Court judges are elected by the National Assembly; the provincial judges by provincial assemblies and the municipal judges by municipal assemblies.

The People's Supreme Court comprises a president, a vice president, and all professional and lay judges and is structured as follows: the Whole, the State Council, criminal, civil, administrative, labour, crimes-against-the-estate and military courts.

The judicial system is based on the principle that all judges, be they professional or lay, are independent and are subject only to the law, and all professional or lay judges are elected, accountable and can be replaced.

POPULATION

Approximately three-quarters of Cuba's population (estimated at 11.64 million in 1993) lives in urban areas, and one out of three persons is aged less than 26. Two-thirds of its inhabitants are of European descent, mainly Spanish, nearly one-third are of African origin or mestizo, and about one percent are of Chinese roots. Cuba's population has been growing at about 1.1 percent a year since 1981. The birth rate was 17.6 per 1,000 in 1993 and the mortality rate 9.4 per 1,000. Life expectancy at birth is 76 years, the highest in Latin America. Cuba's population is ageing, with 12 percent being over 60 years old, placing Cuba at a similar level to that of more developed western industrial countries.

LANGUAGE

Spanish is the official language of Cuba and is spoken throughout the Island. English is spoken by Cubans in many of the tourist areas such as Varadero, and in the more prestigious hotels in Havana and other large cities. However, once away from the tourist areas it is hard to function without some knowledge of Spanish.

Many Cuban business people understand and speak English, but in most cases foreigners make a greater impact anf find more acceptability if they address themselves in Spanish to their Cuban interlocutors.

RELIGION

The Roman Catholic religion was brought to Cuba by the Spanish colonizers and was practiced by nearly half of the population prior to the 1959 Revolution. A large number of Cubans also practiced, and many still do, a form of African worship known as Santería, believed to have its roots in Nigerian Yoruba animism combined with elements of Catholic rites.

At present, fewer people practice religion than did prior to 1959. Catholicism, the largest religion in the country has seen the number of its followers decrease, witness the empty and deteriorating old colonial Catholic churches. A growing number of Cubans, however, are to be found attending Christian Protestant services on Sunday mornings. Religious practice in Cuba tends to be relatively independent from institutionalized and structured forms. In recent years the number of people openly practising some kind of religion has increased, partly due to the fact that the government has introduced liberalizing reforms which make religion more accessible, such as the acceptance by the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party to admit "believers" as party members. Further liberalization took place with the 1992 Constitutional reform which, while confirming the non-religious nature of the State, accepted public exchanges between religious leaders and representatives of the Government and/or the Communist Party. At present there are approximately 55 recognized (identified) religious denominations practiced in Cuba, the more important being: Roman Catholic, traditional Christian Protestant and Evangelical, such as Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and less traditional ones such as the Pentecostal. Afro-Cuban cults are also widely practiced, such as Santería or the Rule of Osha, the Rule of the Mountain Tree "Palo Monte", the Abakuá Secret Society and other minor ones.

The Catholic Church is considered the main religion. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the population was baptized some 30 years ago, while approximately 45% do so at present.

It is reported that in Cuba there are approximately 250 secular and ordained Catholic priests and more than 450 nuns, there are also 640 Catholic churches and chapels in use. In addition, according to latest Cuban Ecumenical Council reports there are 1,143 protestant churches; 413 missions; 832 ministers and 206 students in seminaries.

EDUCATION

Education has enjoyed a favoured place in the Cuban government's development priorities; it is free at all levels and compulsory to grade nine. In addition to the country-wide primary school system with sufficient capacity for all Cuban children, Cuba has 2,174 high school level institutions and 47 higher learning establishments. Government statistics indicate that there is one teacher for every 37 inhabitants; expenditures on education in 1989 were reported at C$1.7 billion.

There are approximately half a million students beyond grade nine attending school under government scholarships, including some 20,000 foreign students from Asia, Africa and Latin America. In addition to having nearly 100 percent literacy, Cuba has approximately one million technicians, technologists and university graduates in its labour force.

About 1.3 percent of the GDP is devoted to research and development; there are some 180 technical and scientific research centres employing over 30,000 researchers.

HEALTH

Public health has also been a high priority sector for the Cuban government since the late 1950s. As a result, the Cuban population enjoys one of the highest life expectancies at 75.2 years, and one of the lowest infant mortality rates (9.7 per 1,000 live births). The country has a total of 35,000 medical doctors, or one per 300 inhabitants. The health system is free and accessible to all Cubans through 421 polyclinical centres, 267 hospitals and some 1,500 medical centres spread across the island.

Cuban medical facilities perform sophisticated interventions, including organ transplants (kidney, heart, bone marrow, corneal, liver, pancreas, etc.)

Other social services available to the Cuban population include sickness, maternity, and work-injury benefits and old age, disability, and survivors pensions.

CULTURE

Cuban culture is strongly linked to Cuban history, so it is necessary to know the history in order to understand the culture. Before the Europeans arrival, the Island was home to Arawaco tribes, saw the passing of the warring Caribes and finally, when the Spanish arrived, was the home of the Taínos, Siboneyes and Guanahatabeyes.

Cuba was rapidly conquered and colonized by the Spaniards during the early 1500s. The founding of the first seven towns culminated on November 16, 1519 with the founding of the town that later became Havana.

The founding of Havana was also the occasion for the first Catholic mass, which was performed underneath a massive silk-cotton tree. On the same site there is now a colonial building that houses a collection of paintings by the French artist Jean Baptiste Vermay, who roamed the Island and captured on canvas the images of early colonial life. The Centre of Old Havana, proclaimed in 1982, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, preserves nearly intact the historic legacy of colonial times, both in its architecture and its customs.

Illness hitherto unknown in the New World combined with slavery conditions in the exploitation of the riches of Cuba caused the near extinction of the aboriginal Indocubans during the early years of colonization. The fast disappearing labour force prompted the Spanish to import African slaves from all over the vast continent, the largest numbers, however, originated from West Africa, today Nigeria. Due to their numbers, the Yoruba influence left a marked imprint on Cuban customs and even today their religion, mixed with Catholic and other rites, known as Santeria or the Rule of Ocha, is practised in certain areas of Havana and other parts of the country.

Superimposed over a thin layer of indigenous customs, Spanish and African traditions became the foundation for today's Cuban cultural expression, influenced over the years by Chinese, Arabic, Haitian, French and U.S. cultural touches.

The Cuban identity, or nationalism, began to be felt in the late 1800s and culminated on October 10, 1968, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, known as the Father of the Nation, freed his slaves and incited them into the struggle for independence. The rebels from La Manigua, or the Mambisa Brigades, who already identified themselves as Cubans, sought to break away from Spain and rejected the leanings towards annexation to the emerging United States.

At about the same time, on October 20, 1869, Perucho Figueredo, a musician and a patriot on horse back, facing the gates of the city of Bayamo, composed with his guitar, the most revered and best known musical piece of Cuba, the National Anthem, moments before the city was set alight by the rebels to keep it from falling intact into the hands of the advancing Spanish armies.

When speaking Cuban culture one must start by mentioning the first Cuban literary work, El espejo de paciencia "The Mirror of Patience," written by Spanish-born Silvestre de Balboa, but considered nevertheless Cuban, because of the creole influence on his writings. Also famous during the latter years of the previous century was the Peña (artistic circle) de Don Domingo Monte, a wealthy creole, son of Spanish settlers, who's interest was to promote a culture with tropical flavour. During the same period, the poets Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Julian del Casal and, from the oriental provinces, Cristobal Napoles Fajardo, left a rich legacy, as did the priest Felix Varela in the field of education, and in painting, Victor Patricio de Landuce and Leopoldo Romaniach.

The most renowned Cuban man of letters, José Martí, a poet, journalist, orator, lawyer and a philosopher, who would later became the Apostle of Cuban independence, wrote an important essay, Our America, in which he identified, early on, many of the problems of his contemporary and future New World, and a collection of simple verses that inspired composers and troubadours to turn his poetry into popular songs. Martí died in battle in 1895, in the early days of the war of independence.

The period between the 20's and 50's saw the emergence of some of the most famous Cuban painters, like Wilfredo Lam, Marcelo Pogolotti, Carlos Enríquez and René Portocarrero. In literature, the writer, poet and narrator José Ledezma Lima and the writer, poet and playwright Virgilio Piñera also left behind an enriching legacy. During the 50's Cuban culture exploded and reverberated throughout Latin America with the works of painters such as Amelia Pelaez, writers like Alejo Carpentier, and poets like Dulce María Loinas, the latter two, winners of the Cervantes literature award. Their work influenced a generation of painters and writers through the Spanish-speaking world.

The national poet, Nicolás Guillén, deserves special mention for his Afro-Cuban lyricism depicting every-day life of the average Cuban over a period of 6 decades, from the 20's to recent past. Guillén's poetry provides a unifying force as it mirrors Cuban culture, beliefs, concerns, rhythms and colours that are repeated by singers like the Spanish, Ana Belén, who propagate around the world his better known poems. At the time of his death Guillén was the Director of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists.

Although the list of writers, poets and painters is long and continues to grow, the Cuban musicians and composers also left a deep mark along their way, introducing rhythms and beats based on African percussion instruments, principally the drums, that are now famous around the world. Ernesto Lecuona, Moisés Simons and Miguel Matamoros, created compositions and styles that have endured across the Island interpreted in many different ways and adapted to modern styles.

Cuban dance is summarized eloquently by the National Ballet, directed by the undisputed Cuban prima ballerina, Alicia Alonzo, whose fame has transcended Cuba to become a household name in Latin America, Europe and even the United States.

Cuban theatre also has produced outstanding works and performers, was recognized with several international awards and has been a strong influencing force in the development of film and television in the Island.

Cuba was the first Latin American country to have television, its introduction in 1950, thrust into fame many Cuban musicians, chief among them Benny Moré. It also helped popularize musical styles like the trova, son, bolero, guaguancó and columbía, all of them strongly influenced by African forms.

The African slaves, brought by force to the New World, were not only able to preserve their traditions and religion through songs and dances, they were also successful in influencing and shaping the development of the cultural expression of the newly emerging countries. Present Cuban artistic talent includes Manuel Mendive, whose paintings of Afro-Cuban nude dancers are successfully exhibited throughout Europe. Other prominent contemporary painters are Roberto Favelo and Zaida del Río. Among writers, Zenel Paz and Francisco Lopéz Sacha are also well known for their contributions to script-writing.

Cuban cinema has, during the past three decades, promoted Cuban culture and traditions through documentary films such as those by the renowned producer Santiago Alvares and directors like Tomás Gutierres Alea (Titón) who recently directed the best known Cuban film "Fresas y Chocolate", a film that courageously faces problems of Cuban society. "Fresas y Chocolate" earned several international awards and was an Oscar an nominee.

Havana is a city endowed with many culture-oriented institutions and organizations and Old Havana is home to a great number of them. In this area, in beautifully preserved colonial buildings, are found the National Restoration and Museums Centre (CENCREM) and the Office of the City's Historian, partly supported by business enterprises oriented to the promotion of cultural tourism, like HABAGUANEX S.A., or by the joint-venture created with Argentaria, of Spain, to restore the "Lonja de Comercio," a heritage building that will be rented as office space.

Architectural treasures are not limited to Havana, nor are they limited to the colonial period. Other cities and towns, like Trinidad, on the southern coast of central Cuba, possess well preserved colonial buildings and are in the process of restoring others. Other architectural styles, like the eclectic, classic, art decco, are also found in public buildings and residential homes across Havana, giving the city, the gateway to Cuban culture, a very unique Cuban flavour.

Every year Cuba is host to a variety of cultural events and encounters, chief among them the Latin American Film Festival, the Varadero International Music Festival, the International Ballet Festival, the Havana Jazz Festival, the Biennial Paint Exhibit, the Biennial Festival of Humour of San Antonio de los Banos and the International Choral Encounter, to name a few.

Cuba is, in other words, a country with over 500 years of history and with a well-defined sense of culture and most Cubans are all-too-aware of the riches of their country.

Visitors to Cuba, for business or for pleasure, will find that Cubans represent a country with an energy and vitality that will endure not only in the works of its writers, painters, musicians and other artists, but also in the imagination and vigour of its people.

OTHER QUESTIONS ABOUT CUBA AND ISLAND TRAVEL?

Cuba Explorer Tours organizers are always available to answer questions about Cuba prior to your trip. Ask a question now!

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