With Castro officially yesterday’s man, it’s time to talk of new eras in Cuba—of capitalism and all the joys it could bring. While everyone else is doing that, however, it’s also interesting to look at the longer scale, and to consider just how Castro’s 49 years slot into the 516 that have elapsed since recorded history began for the island (not to mention the 3,500-odd years of habitation that preceded this).
Carbon dating suggests that Cuba has been inhabited since at least 2000BC, and was being visited by South America tribes hundreds of years before that. Once settled, it provided a stable home for branches of the Siboney and Guanahatabey peoples for over 3,000 years; they lived by hunting and gathering until the rather more technologically savvy Taino—who understood such technological marvels as pottery—turned up in 1150AD, pushing the existing inhabitants westwards.
The Taino, then, dominated Cuba until 1492—at which point recorded history commenced, along with its traditional accompaniments of disease, massacre, exploitation and incremental genocide. Cuba got off relatively lightly at first (lacking the gold Columbus was so keen to get his hands on) but by 1514 had been settled in seven locations by the Spanish under Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. By 1550, only around 5,000 survivors of the native population remained; along the way, the Taino chief, Hatuey, mounted a doomed rebellion against the incomers. His reward was to be burned alive and, some half-millennium later, to have a local beer named after him.
Having killed off their local labour, from 1552 the Spanish began to import slaves from west Africa, using them to work the expanding cash crop sectors of tobacco, ranching and, later, sugar. It was a pattern that would continue until abolition, in 1886, by which time there were half a million slaves in Cuba: one third of its population . The Spanish were not the most efficient of empire-builders, however, and it was not until the 1740s that sugar production began to bring in real cash for the island. Gradually, Cuba began to come into its own (and to become a tasty prize for other powers—in 1762 Havana was seized by the British for 11 months). By the 1820s, it was the world’s largest sugar producer, and so important to the United States that they tried to buy it from Spain in 1848 and 1854 for $100,000,000 and $130,000,000 respectively, as well as forcefully dissuading Simon Bolivar from “liberating” it in the 1820s.
America was, however, to prove a decisive force in Cuba’s hopes for independence when, after the somewhat suspicious destruction of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbour in 1898, it declared war on the Spanish (who had been busily fighting the Cubans since 1895) and forced them to sue for peace. An independent Cuba was duly declared on 20th May 1902—although it was to exist largely at the pleasure of America, who retained the right to intervene militarily in its affairs as they saw fit, and to maintain a handy naval base at a spot known as Guantanamo Bay. The fledgling republic actually came under American military rule in 1906, but by 1908 was deemed fit to function again.
From then, it was constitutional government until 1930, when a series of coups began with the seizure of power by Gerardo Machado y Morales, a general who was himself ousted in 1933 by his junior officers. They were, in turn, replaced in power in 1934 by Carlos Mendieta y Montefur, a creature of General Fulgencio Batista, who controlled Cuba from behind the scenes for seven years until he was himself elected as President in 1940 (with the help of the Communist-controlled labour unions). After largely keeping out of the second world war, Batista proceeded to turn Cuba into an authoritarian gambler’s paradise—until a young man called Fidel, whose 1953 attempt at a rebellion had failed to make much of an impact, did it better the second time around, in February 1959, and began Cuban history’s most recent act.
Cuban soil has seen it all: conquest, colonialism, slavery, capitalism, revolution, communism, the cold war, waterboarding. It has lived the world’s history in an island. And, while it must fervently be hoped that the future will bring peace and prosperity, there are many than a few echoes of Hegel’s grim warning in its story: the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.