Cuba’s original inhabitants were an Arawak people called Taino who became extinct following settlements by Spanish colonists.
From its discovery by Columbus in 1492 until the Spanish-American War in 1898, Cuba was a Spanish colony. In the 19th century, the country became a major sugar producer, with slaves from Africa arriving in increasing numbers to work the sugar plantations.
The drive for independence from Spain gathered momentum, but it only came about after the US entered the conflict when the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor after an explosion of undetermined origin. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the US ruled Cuba for four years until Cuba was granted independence in 1902. Nevertheless, the US still retained contingent authority to preserve Cuban independence and maintain stability in accordance with the Platt Amendment that became part of the Cuban Constitution of 1901.
The US subsequently intervened militarily three times between 1906 and 1921 to restore order. After the repeal of the Platt Amendment in 1934, Cuba’s political system as an independent nation was dominated by authoritarian figures. Gerardo Machado (1925-1933), who served two terms as president, became increasingly dictatorial until his ousting by the military. A short-lived reformist government gave way to a series of governments that were dominated behind the scenes by military leader Fulgencio Batista until he was elected president in 1940.
Batista was voted out of office in 1944 and was followed by two successive presidents in a democratic era that ultimately became characterized by corruption and increasing political violence. Batista seized power in a bloodless coup in 1952, and his rule progressed into a brutal dictatorship – fueling popular unrest and setting the stage for Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Castro led an unsuccessful attack on military barracks in Santiago, Cuba, on July 26, 1953. He was jailed, subsequently freed, and went into exile in Mexico, where he formed the 26th of July Movement.
Castro returned to Cuba in 1956 with the goal of overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. His revolutionary movement was based in the Sierra Maestra mountains in eastern Cuba and joined with other resistance groups seeking Batista’s ouster. Batista ultimately fled the country on January 1, 1959, leading to more than 45 years of rule under Fidel Castro until he stepped down from power in July 2006 because of poor health. While Castro had promised a return to democratic constitutional rule when he first took power, he instead moved to consolidate his rule. Under the new revolutionary government, Castro’s supporters gradually displaced members of less radical groups.
Castro moved toward close relations with the Soviet Union while relations with the US deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban government expropriated US properties. In April 1961, Castro declared that the Cuban revolution was socialist, and in December 1961, he proclaimed his Marxist-Leninist beliefs. Over the next 30 years, Cuba became a close ally of the Soviet Union and dependent state until Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
Fidel’s brother, Raul, assumed power in Cuba after his retirement. Poor economic performance after the withdrawal of Soviet support led to successive attempts to liberalize the economy and to re-establish diplomatic relations with the US in 2015.
Here is a longer-form concise early history of Cuba.