Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and one of the world’s few remaining communist states. Fidel Castro led the country for almost 50 years after overthrowing Cuba’s US-backed government in 1959. In 2008, Fidel handed over power to his brother, Raul.
Cuba was home to several groups of indigenous people before Christopher Columbus and his crew landed there in 1492, claiming the land for the Spanish crown. The native population was quickly decimated by disease and forced labour, and Spain imported African slaves to grow sugar cane and tobacco. Slavery was only abolished on the island in 1886.
Unlike most of Spain’s colonies in the Western Hemisphere, which became independent in the 1810s and 1820s, Cuba remained a part of its empire until 1898, when Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War. Cuba then became independent, but the US exerted heavy influence over its politics and economy, and militarily occupied Cuba for several years.
Population: 11 million
GDP per capita: $6,051 (2011)
Life expectancy: 78 years
Sources: World Bank, CIA World Factbook
1950s Cuba was beset by high unemployment, government corruption, and US control over much of the economy. In 1959, after a six-year war, communist rebels led by Fidel Castro succeeded in overthrowing US-backed President Fulgencio Batista. In the decade after taking power, Castro’s government established a one-party state, redistributed land, nationalised most of the economy, provided free education and healthcare, and executed thousands of opponents.
Cuba developed a close relationship with the Soviet Union, which provided its fellow communist state with economic and military support. In 1962, the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led the US and USSR to the brink of a nuclear war. After 13 tense days, the missiles were withdrawn from the island.
More than one million Cubans emigrated in the decades following the Cuban revolution, most of them to the US. Cuba underwent severe economic difficulties following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – but unlike the USSR’s satellites in Europe, Castro’s communist government weathered the storm.
Most Cubans earn very little money, with average salaries under $20 a month. However, healthcare and education are free, and many food staples are subsidised.
Cuba’s economy was jolted when the Soviet Union – which provided Cuba with subsidies and a big market for its exports – imploded in 1991. Cuba’s economic output quickly declined by about one-third, causing shortages and even malnutrition. Recent years have seen some economic liberalisations, but much of the economy remains controlled and planned by the government.
China is Cuba’s largest trading partner, and Venezuela, Spain, Brazil and Canada are also major partners. Cuba’s biggest exports are nickel, sugar, and cigars.
The US, which is just 90 miles (1.6km) away, has maintained an embargo against Cuba since Castro came into power, and the two countries do not have diplomatic relations with one another. The US has launched several attempts to assassinate Castro, and tried to overthrow his government in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which Cuban exiles stormed the island but were quickly defeated.
Despite its small size, Cuba has sent soldiers to fight on behalf of socialist movements in countries including Algeria, Yemen, Angola and Ethiopia. Cuba has also supported socialist movements closer to home, for instance backing the overthrow of Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and supporting left-wing rebels in El Salvador. Cuba has also deployed tens of thousands of doctors on medical missions abroad.
Today, Cuba is close with left-leaning countries in Latin America such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and also has strong ties with China and Russia.