Cuba, largest and most western island of the West Indies. It forms, with various adjacent islands, the Republic of Cuba. Cuba occupies a central location between North and South America and lies on the lanes of sea travel to all countries bounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. For most of its history, Cuba's fertile soil and abundant sugar and tobacco production made it the wealthiest island of the Caribbean.
The Republic of Cuba is an archipelago, or group of islands. The main island of Cuba covers 105,006 sq km (40,543 sq mi). It is 1,199 km (745 mi) long and 200 km (124 mi) across its widest and 35 km (22 mi) across its narrowest points. The next largest island, Isla de la Juventud, or the Isle of Youth (formerly known as the Isle of Pines), off Cuba's southwest shore, covers 3,056 sq km (1,180 sq mi). Four sets of smaller archipelagos—the Sabana, the Colorados, the Jardines de la Reina, and the Canarreos archipelagos—and numerous other islands are part of the Cuban nation. Havana is the capital city with a population of 2,189,716 in 2000. In 2002 the nation's population was estimated to be 11,224,321.
Cuba's proximity to Haiti, the United States, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and Jamaica has allowed people to migrate easily onto and off of the island. This movement contributed to the rich mixture of people and customs in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean area. Although agriculturally rich, Cuba exports only a few products, such as sugar, tobacco, citrus fruits, and several manufactured products.
Cuba's rich soil, abundant harbors, and mineral reserves have enticed foreign powers such as Spain, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to use Cuba for their own interests. For 400 years Cuba was a colony of Spain. Spain's conquistadores (Spanish for “conquerors”) launched their invasion of Mexico and South America from the island. In the mid-19th century, the Cuban people formed an independence movement, decades after most of Spain's other colonies had become independent. By 1868 Cubans began to fight the first of three wars of independence. In 1898 the United States entered the war against Spain and declared Cuba independent but under the protection of the United States.
In 1902 Cubans began to rule themselves, although U.S. influence remained strong on the island. Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, the government functioned under a series of corrupt presidents and dictators. Beginning in 1934 army officer Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar governed either directly or indirectly as a military strong man, a civilian president, and a military dictator. By the mid-1950s many Cubans opposed the corruption and political repression that developed under Batista's dictatorship. Opposition to Batista developed into a revolt known as the Cuban Revolution.
In 1959 Fidel Castro and a number of other revolutionaries overthrew the Batista government. Since that time Castro has been the head of state and the ultimate authority on all policy decisions. In the 1960s Castro split with the United States and became an ally of the USSR, then the world's leading Communist nation. In 1961 Castro formally embraced Marxism, the political philosophy that forms the basis for Communism.
Marxist theory states that capitalism and the middle-class society it supported would be replaced by a society in which the working class would enjoy the same material wealth and political power as the middle and upper classes. To achieve this goal, nations had to pass through a period of socialism in which a powerful central government would represent the interests of the working class. A centrally controlled economy would replace private enterprise, and the state would guarantee health care, education, retirement, child care, and employment.
Cuba adopted the form of Marxism that had been practiced up to that time in the USSR, where a highly organized Communist Party controlled the government. Cuba has since been governed according to socialist economic and political principles, with a centralized economy and a government under the control of the Cuban Communist Party. Under socialism, individual freedoms were sacrificed for the social advancement of all Cubans. In addition, religion was discouraged, although not forbidden, so that the allegiance of citizens would belong solely to the state. However, Cuban socialism could not and did not directly mimic the Soviet model because Cuban history and culture were entirely different from Eastern European nations and cultures. Governing offices and agencies were similar, but Castro personally retained ultimate control over the Communist Party, all governing bodies, and the military.
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