From Columbus to Castro

An overview of the most important moments of Cuban history.


Christopher Columbus lands in Cuba

Christopher Columbus made four trips to the New World. On his first trip on Oct. 27th, 1492 he arrived at the north coast of the island of Cuba. He took possession of the island in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain and named it Juana in honor of the Spanish princess. Columbus fell in love with the beauty of the countryside: the bright sunlight, the intense green color of its vegetation, its contrasting turquoise of the sea. Impressed, he wrote in his diary this is “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”

Columbus called the inhabitants he found in Cuba Indians thinking he had arrived in India. The island’s native population was divided into three main groups: Guanahatabeyes, Ciboneyes, and Tainos. The latter group was the most developed. They were excellent farmers and fishermen. They lived in small villages called batey. Their houses were built from weaved palm tree leaves, similar to present-day bohios. Each family had its piece of land called conuco where they raised yams, corn, cotton, tobacco, and yucca-based cassava, which early settlers used as a bread substitute. The first seven towns were founded during the Spanish conquest under Diego Velazquez’ orders. Today, they are Cuba’s oldest cities.


The First Cuban City is Founded

Founded in 1512, Baracoa is known as the first city of Cuba. The eastern part of Cuba is famous not only for its beauty but especially for its courage and bravery. The village of Bayamo was founded in 1513. Among the oldest cities in Cuba, Bayamo is possibly the one that breathes the greatest historical wealth.

The battles for independence began to take hold in this city during the 19th century as an expression of incipient Cuban nationality. Bayamo was the birthplace of the father of the Cuban nation Carlos Manuel de Cespedes who started the Ten Years War in October 1868. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes was the first person to free his slaves at the Demajagua sugar mill. Another citizen of Bayamo Pedro Figueredo, also known as Perucho, wrote the verses that would later become Cuba’s national anthem.

In Trinidad’s mountains, also known as the Escambray range, we find Topes de Collantes a natural habitat rich in forest and abundant vegetation. The mariposa, the butterfly lily, is Cuba’s national flower and is common here. Among the beautiful spots at Topes de Collantes we find the Caburni river waterfall and Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo or trogon.

Early Colonial Life in Cuba

For the first 300 years of its colonial life, Cuba remained as a less important part of the Spanish empire when compared with Mexico and Peru.  Cuba had little mineral wealth and Spaniards searching for gold and silver concentrated on the mainland colonies.  Cuban society developed slowly and the island was primarily a supply naval base for Spanish fleets transporting metals from Mexico and Perú.   

Several factors converged in the late eighteenth century to bring Cuba into world affairs and to give sugar a major boost.  In 1762-63 the British occupied Cuba.  Oppressive Spanish trade restrictions were lifted and Cuba was thrown open to trade with England and its North American colonies.  Following the occupation, Spain relaxed its restrictive trade policies and allowed Cubans to trade with its neighbors to the North.

The occupation gave Cuba an initial economic impulse.  When the slave uprising and the destruction of the sugar properties in neighboring Haiti in the 1790s, Cuba was ready to become the sugar bowl of the Caribbean and replace Haiti as the supplier of sugar to Europe.  Thousands of slaves were imported to work the sugar plantations.  Throughout the 19th century sugar as well as coffee and tobacco became increasingly important.   Large cattle estates were subdivided.   The Spanish Crown also aided the development of sugar.  In 1795 Cuba had 478 sugar mills.  By 1860, it is estimated that there were over 900 steam sugar mills producing over 500,000 tons of sugar.

A Cuban National Sentiment is Born; Cubans Seek Independence

A prosperous and influential class of rural proprietors emerged.  This new aristocracy of wealth feared a repetition in Cuba of the events in Haiti; they supported the Spanish monarchy and sought the army’s protection.

Cuba’s cultural life developed rapidly during the 19th century.  Poets like Avellaneda and Heredia wrote about the beauty of the island and musicians like Manuel Saumell and Ignacio Cervantes produced beautiful music.

Cuba’s nationalist conscience emerged at this time under the intellectual influence of Felix Varela, José Antonio Saco, and José de la Luz y Caballero.

Cespedes’ call for independence in 1868 recorded him in history as the father of his nation.   These men laid a solid foundation for Cuba’s national identity. 

Although remaining on the Spanish fold “the ever faithful island” gradually grew away from the Spanish Crown.  The views of Cuban criollos and Spanish peninsulares clashed.  Some slave owning criollos wanted annexation to the U.S. but after the American Civil War and the end of slavery that movement declined.  Others advocated reforms within the Spanish empire.  When that movement went nowhere, those clamming for violence and independence grew.

One of the warriors who most valiantly fought for Cuba’s freedom and shared the ideals of independence was Antonio Maceo.  A mulato born in Santiago de Cuba in 1845, he was the hero of the “mambises” as the Cubans fighting in the mountains against Spanish were known. He and Maximo Gomez led the Cubans in the famous machete charges that helped undermine Spanish power.  Yet the most important leader of Cuba’s independence struggle was Jose Marti. 

The United States in Cuba

The three year U.S. occupation produced numerous changes in Cuba.  The economy was revived.  A system of rural guards as well as a new Cuban army was created.  Health and education received much attention.  Yellow fever was eradicated primarily through the work of Cuban scientist Carlos J. Finlay who discovered that mosquitoes transmitted the disease.  The Americans established a public schools system, reorganized the judicial system and helped draft the 1901 Cuban Constitution.  The U.S. included in the Constitution the Platt Amendment giving the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba.  A serious setback to Cuba’s nationalistic ideals.

Cuban Independence

In 1902, the U.S. ended the occupation and Cuba launched into nationhood with fewer problems than most Latin American nations.  Prosperity increased during the early years, militarism seemed curtailed, social tensions were not profound.  Yet corruption, violence and political irresponsibility grew.  A second United States intervention and economic involvement weakened the growth of Cuban nationality and made Cuba more dependent on its northern neighbor. 

The 1930s saw a major attempt at revolution, prompted by a cruel dictatorship, the economic hardships of the world depression, the growing control of the economy by Spaniards and North Americans, and a series of international events that included the Soviet and Mexican revolutions and student revolts in Latin America.  A group of Cubans led by students and intellectuals and supported by the military sought radical reforms and a profound transformation of Cuban society.  

Machado, Grau San Martin, and Batista

The overthrow of the regime of Gerardo Machado in 1933 catapulted Ramon Grau San Martin, a University of Havana physiology professor, and a group of students into power.  Grau issued a series of progressive measures that broke with Cuba’s past.  Yet, the short lived revolution of 1933 failed. The rise of militarism, the opposition of the United States, and divisions among Cuban political elites and within the revolutionary ranks returned the island to less turbulent times. 

 Fulgencio Batista, an obscure army sergeant, emerged as the leader of the military after overthrowing the U.S. trained officers.  The military became the arbitrer of Cuban politics.  First through de facto ruling and finally with the election of Batista to the presidency in 1940.  Batista collaborated with Grau in drafting the liberal Constitution of 1940, now without the Platt Amendment.

 The end of World War II and the end of this early Batista era brought to power the inheritors of the 1933 revolution.  In the democratic election of 1944 Grau San Martin became president and four years later, his ally, Carlos Prio Socarras was elected.

Today there are over 1.5 million Cubans in exile.

The Castro Dictatorship and Exile

January 1, 1959, the toppling of dictator Batista, signaled the dawn of a new era.   Power lay in the streets and Fidel Castro and his rebels came down from the mountains to claim it.  A magistrate named Manuel Urrutia was sworn in as the new Cuban president.  The cabinet was pluralistic comprised of figures of a diverse political spectrum.  The charismatic leader of the 26th of July movement, Fidel Castro was appointed Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.  Castro quickly emerged as the most prominent political figure. 

On January 8th a triumphant Fidel addressed a large gathering in the capital city of Havana.  He concluded his speech by declaring that he had no political ambitions and promising elections. 

April 15th 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in the United Sates.  Before leaving Cuba, Castro told reporters that the trip would serve to strengthen the ties with the U.S.

Castro hid his anti-Americanism and his plan to transform Cuban society into a totalitarian state.  He defended what he called revolutionary justice, Time magazine reminded its readers that by the end of April 1959, 529 Cubans had been executed.  Communist presence grew within the revolutionary ranks. 

In late 1960 and early 1961 the U.S. organized and trained 1,200 Cubans for an invasion of Cuba to overthrow Castro.  The vital air cover over the Bay of Pigs failed.  It was a tragic disaster.

After the failed invasion Castro proclaimed, “Porque hay que decir que por encima de todo, somos Marxista-Leninistas.” “What we can say, above all, we are Marxist-Leninists.”  He embarked on a program to create a new man along socialist ideas, emphasizing loyalty to the party and the leader and anti-Americanism.

Fearing Marxist indoctrination, many Cuban parents sought a way out for their children. Operation Pedro Pan sent thousands of unaccompanied children to the U.S. in the care of the Catholic Church.  Many of these children never saw their parents again.

       Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union and by 1962 the Soviets introduced nuclear missiles into Cuba, bringing the world close to a nuclear holocaust.  

Castro announced that those wanting to leave could do so and he encouraged various migrations.

Cuba and the U.S.S.R.

For four decades Cuba became a close and faithful ally of the Soviet Union.  In the 1970s, with Soviet support, Cuba sent several hundred thousand troops to Africa, intervened in Latin America and supported revolutionary, anti-U.S. groups in the region.  Cuba also became an ally of Iran and Syria and an enemy of Israel.  Che Guevara attempted to spark revolutions in Africa and Bolivia where he was killed.  During the Yom Kippur Arab War against Israel in 1973, Cuba sent troops to support Syria.  In the 1970s Cuban troops participated in the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua.

 At the turn of the century Castro faced some of the old problems that had plagued the Revolution in the past, as well as new and critical challenges.  The failure and collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe produced a major economic dislocation in Cuba and the beginning of the “Special Period” with growing shortages of food, electricity and transportation.  There was growing evidence of disillusionment with the Communist Party and Castro’s exhortations. 

Cuba Today: Government Control, Dissidence and Lack of Human Rights

Absenteeism and youth apathy increased.  A dissident movement began to develop and a growing number of Cubans opposed the Castro regime.  Castro was losing the battle to create a new generation devoted to anti-Americanism, the party and the revolution.  Despite four decades of education and indoctrination the “new socialist man” was nowhere to be found.  The loss of this generation represents one of the greatest challenges for the continuity of the revolution.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela provided petroleum, loans and investments.  Yet Cuba has progressed little.  Venezuelan aid only helped Cuba muddle through the difficult times. 

In 2006, Castro fell ill and relinquished power.

Quick and smooth succession to his brother General Raul Castro followed.  Little changed.  Repression continued, militarization of the economy increased, Cubans continued to leave the island. 

Minor economic adjustments were implemented under Raul but Cuba was not moving toward a market or even a Chinese type economy.

Today, Cuba an ally of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea. Continued Economic Problems. Cubans living in poverty. No freedom or human rights. Cuba remains a military dictatorship.


In 2018 Miguel Díaz-Canel was appointed President of the Cuban Council of State and Ministers.  Raul Castro remains as Secretary General of the Communist Party and Maximum Leader of the Cuban Government.

Videos on Cuban History

Cuba: From Columbus to Castro

A concise history of Cuba from Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492 to present day. Produced by Cuban Studies Institute director Jaime Suchlicki and narrated by Andy Garcia.  

La historia de Cuba con Carlos Alberto Montaner: Parte 1 & 2

Exiled Cuban author and academic Carlos Alberto Montaner provides a two part course (in Spanish) about Cuban history and culture. The conference was hosted by the Cuban Studies Institute at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora.