Originally inhabited by indigenous people, Christopher Columbus first sighted Cuba in 1492, and later claimed it as a Spanish territory. The Spanish went on to create many settlements around Cuba, which created conflict and warfare between the Spanish settlers and indigenous people. With the establishment of tobacco plantations and other cash crops like sugar cane, Cuba came to rely upon African slaves for labour during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bringing unique customs, music, language and food with them, the African slaves added to the melting pot of cultures already forming in Cuba. Due to Cuba’s rich natural environment and relative prosperity, the island became a prime target for pirates and other foreign invaders. When visiting Cuba today there are a number of fortresses and other historical remnants that act as a reminder of Cuba’s pirate past. After the Spanish-American War, Cuba was handed over to the United States, which assumed control until 1902, when power was then granted to a Cuban government.
Two iconic figures play the largest roles in Cuba’s more recent history. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are embedded in the national psyche of Cuba, their power and influence pivotal to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. After taking control, Castro soon set out to remove political opponents from the administration and gain control of newspapers, radio and television stations. Relations between the United States and Cuba became strained almost immediately with the US resenting Castro’s takeover and Communist rule. Trade embargoes were put in place after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 added further tension to relations between the US and Cuba, which continues into the present day. Standing alongside Fidel Castro as an equally important political figure, Che Guevara (although Argentinean) holds a very important place in Cuban history. A revolutionary, author, doctor and military leader, Guevara played pivotal roles in the guerrilla campaign leading up to the Cuban Revolution and the defence of the Bay of Pigs, as well as diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union, up until his death in 1967. It’s impossible not to notice the reverence and honour held for Guevara when visiting Cuba. Street art, monuments, statues and museums dedicated to the man Cubans simply call ‘El Che’ can be found all over the country.