The native Amerindian population of Cuba began to decline after the European discovery of the island by Christopher COLUMBUS in 1492 and following its development as a Spanish colony during the next several centuries. Large numbers of African slaves were imported to work the coffee and sugar plantations, and Havana became the launching point for the annual treasure fleets bound for Spain from Mexico and Peru. Spanish rule eventually provoked an independence movement and occasional rebellions that were harshly suppressed. US intervention during the Spanish-American War in 1898 assisted the Cubans in overthrowing Spanish rule. The Treaty of Paris established Cuban independence from the US in 1902 after which the island experienced a string of governments mostly dominated by the military and corrupt politicians. Fidel CASTRO led a rebel army to victory in 1959; his iron rule held the subsequent regime together for nearly five decades. He stepped down as president in February 2008 in favor of his younger brother Raul CASTRO. Cuba's Communist revolution, with Soviet support, was exported throughout Latin America and Africa during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The country faced a severe economic downturn in 1990 following the withdrawal of former Soviet subsidies worth $4 billion to $6 billion annually. Cuba portrays its difficulties as the result of the US embargo in place since 1961. Illicit migration to the US - using homemade rafts, alien smugglers, air flights, or via the southwest border - is a continuing problem. The US Coast Guard intercepted 2,656 individuals attempting to cross the Straits of Florida in fiscal year 2007. Source: World Factbook
Batista’s coup d’état on March 10, 1952, had a profound effect on Cuban society, leading to doubts about the ability of the Cubans to govern themselves. It also began a brutal right-wing dictatorship that resulted in the polarization of society, civil war, the overthrow of Batista, and the destruction of the military and most other Cuban institutions. Fidel Castro Ruz, a charismatic, anti-U.S. revolutionary, seized power on January 1, 1959, following his successful revolt against the U.S.-backed Batista government. As the Castro regime expropriated U.S. properties and investments and began, officially, on April 16, 1961, to convert Cuba into a one-party communist system, relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly. The United States imposed an embargo on Cuba on October 19,1960, and broke diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961, in response to Castro’s expropriations without compensation and other provocations, such as arrests of U.S. citizens. The failure of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–sponsored invasion by Cuban exiles in April 1961 (the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion) allowed the Castro regime to destroy the entire Cuban underground and to emerge strengthened and consolidated, basking in the huge propaganda value of having defeated the “Yankees.” Country Profile: Cuba, Library of Congress.