PRESIDENT: Raul Castro (since February 2008)
POPULATION: 11.3 million
KEY EXPORTS: Sugar, tobacco
|Dec. 2002||Castro was treated for infections caused by a bad insect sting.|
|Jan. 2003||Elections were held for the 609 seats in the Cuban National Assembly, and 97% of voters supported the Communist party.|
|Mar. 2003||Castro returned from a visit to Vietnam, Japan, and Malaysia, where he attended the Non-Aligned Conference. The National Assembly elected him to another five year term as president.|
|Mar. 2003||A Cuban DC-3 passenger plane was hijacked to Florida, where the hijackers were arrested.|
|Mar. 2003||Two passenger planes were hijacked from Cuba to Florida, where the hijackers were arrested both times.|
|Mar. 2003||Crackdown on political dissidents began; a total of 78 human rights activists and other political dissidents were arrested and sentenced to terms of between 6 and 28 years in prison.|
|Apr. 2003||Three men were executed only three days after being convicted of hijacking a ferry boat with 50 passengers. The vessel was retaken in international waters after it ran out of fuel en route to Florida.|
|Apr. 2003||Castro rejected criticism by the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the Interamerican Human Rights Commission of the OAS in response to Cuba's summary execution of hijackers last week.|
|Apr. 2003||Cuba was reelected to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, in spite of the recent crackdown on dissidents.|
|May 2003||In his annual International Workers' Day address to the nation, Castro assailed the Bush administration's attitude toward Cuba as "provocative" and denounced U.S. "neofascist pretensions," alluding to Iraq.|
|May 2003||A resolution condemning Cuba for its harsh treatment of political dissidents failed to garner a majority of votes in the OAS because of opposition by Argentina, Brazil, and others.|
|June 2003||During his visit to Argentina for the inauguration of president Nestor Kirchner, Fidel Castro made a fiery speech to a large, friendly crowd in which he praised martyred guerrilla leader "Che" Guevara.|
|June 2003||Castro led a large protest in front of the Spanish embassy in Havana, calling the Madrid government "fascist" for invoking economic sanctions against Cuba as punishment for its recent human rights violations, while his brother Raul did likewise at the Italian embassy. The European Union criticized this gesture as "unacceptable."|
|July 2003||Several Cuban men tried but failed to escape to Florida by rigging empty oil barrels to float a 1951 Chevy pickup truck.|
|Oct. 2005||Fidel Castro offered to send doctors and supplies to help New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina.|
|Apr. 2006||Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia form "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas" to counter the U.S. "Free Trade Agreement of the Americas."|
|June 2006||U.S. State Department accused Cuba of deliberately blacking out U.S. mission in Havana; Cuba denied it.|
|July 2006||Castro attended MERCOSUR summit in Argentina, then suffered severe intestinal distress and underwent surgery.|
Most of Cuba is flat except for the Sierra Maestra in the far southeast and a small hilly area in the center of the island. The soil is fertile, and the wet, tropical climate is very favorable to sugar and tobacco growing, though hurricanes sometimes devastate the crop yields. There are also large nickel deposits, mostly underdeveloped. Hundreds of small islands are found along much of the coast of Cuba. The largest of these is the "Isle of Pines," also known as the "Island of Youth." The United States had leased the land around Guantanamo Bay before the Cuban Revolution, and has retained control of that territory since then.
Cuba and Puerto Rico were Spain's last colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba's national hero was Jose Marti, who opposed both Spanish AND American imperialism. For several decades after the U.S. seized control of Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-American war there was repeated military intervention: 1906-1909, 1919-1924. Economic crisis sparked a "revolution" by Fulgencio Batista in 1933, but he ended up a crooked and brutal dictator, though NOT a tool of the U.S., as many believed. Fidel Castro emerged as opposition leader in the early 1950s, set up guerrilla base in mountains and marched into Havana in January 1959. Though he denied being a Communist at first, he seemed to hate the U.S. all along. Anti-Castro Cubans led "Bay of Pigs invasion" in May 1961, with CIA support, but invaders were crushed. Soviet aid grew, and U.S. found out about nuclear missiles, leading to Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Castro was thereafter relatively free to implement a communist paradise, establishing an open egalitarian system that smashed virtually all traces of traditional society. Cuba thus became only the second country in Latin America to experience a true revolution, and indeed went far beyond the transformations achieved by the Revolution in Mexico. One of Castro's top advisers was Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an idealistic doctor from Argentina who was later killed in Bolivia, becoming a larger-than-life iconic martyr. Discontent grew as Castro's economic programs foundered and people got fed up with being told what to do all the time. In 1980 thousands of Cubans sought asylum at Peruvian embassy, resulting in the "Mariel boatlift" to Florida. Castro became irrelevant after end of Cold War, with no more Soviet aid to prop up his regime. The situation today is hopelessly backward and poor, and the ideology of "socialism or death!" is losing its appeal. Elian Gonzalez provided a rare P.R. victory for Castro in 1998.
Like other Caribbean countries, a majority of Cuban people have some African ancestry, and 11 percent are classified as black. Thus, there are strong elements of traditional African customs and religious beliefs, often mixed with mainstream Hispanic values. Before the Revolution, 85 percent of Cubans considered themselves Catholic, but it is uncertain how many do now. Cuba is the home to Mambo music, and is one of the major centers of Salsa music as well.
Baseball is very popular in Cuba, and 16 high-quality amateur teams play in organized leagues. Many top players such as Livan and Orlando Hernandez have defected or fled to the United States to become major league players. Indeed, Fidel himself was once a major league prospect! Cuba earned second place honors in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, in March 2006, greatly boosting national pride.
"Socialism or death!" One of the few true totalitarian Communist dictatorships left in the world, the government controls and oversees virtually all elements of Cuban society. In order to prevent any "reactionary" relapse, Castro organized the "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" (CDR) during the 1960s, and they still function as an anti-capitalist "neighborhood watch." Castro is a true believing fanatic, a prisoner of his own mythology, and he would probably be willing to inflict extreme privation on his people in order to keep the revolutionary dream alive. Nevertheless, there are increasing signs of popular discontent and government intolerance in Cuba, possibly related to the rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces. Castro desperately needs cash from European tourists, so the recent sanctions against him are dire threats to his regime. Every few years there is a debate in the United States over the Helms Amendment, which basically calls for trade penalties against foreign companies that trade with Cuba or purchase assets that had been seized by the Castro regime from private individuals. Given the fact that Castro has a virtual lock on the nationalist sentiment in Cuba, the United States is not really in a position to do much against him one way or another. The Cuban exile community in Miami has long nurtured dreams of being a "shadow government," and they are amply represented in the U.S. Congress by such Cubans as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart.