The official name is the Republic of Cuba. It is the largest Caribbean island nation; covers 44,426 sq mi / 115,062 sq km (approximately the size of Pennsylvania), includes a second large island, Isla de la Juventud (934 sq mi /2,419 sq km), and more than 4,000 much smaller islands and cays totaling more than 3,570 miles of littoral (coastline). It is located respectively 90 nm from Key West, FL, 47 nm from Inagua Island, Bahamas, 49 nm from Haiti, 83 nm from Jamaica, 106 nm from Mexico and 130 nm from Grand Cayman. It is commonly called the key to the Gulf of Mexico. Viewed from the air, it resembles an alligator or crocodile and is often referred to as “El Cocodrilo” or “El Caíman” in Spanish. It encompasses a varied geography including seven mountain ranges (Escambray, Guaniguanico, Sierra Maestra, Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa, Sierra de los Órganos and Sierra del Rosario) as well as urban centers dating over five centuries, colonial villages, rolling farmland and white sand beaches. The capital city, “La Habana” in Spanish, is the largest city in Cuba, followed by Santiago de Cuba in Oriente, the easternmost province. The island’s population is slightly over 11.2 million people as of the 2013 census. Cuba is presently divided into 15 provinces and Isla de la Juventud, a special municipality. Cuba’s notable areas include the beautiful westernmost province of Pinar del Río, home of “Vuelta Abajo”, the island’s best tobacco and economic resource. Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas and Guanabacoa are the cradle of Afro-Cuban culture and religion. Trinidad is a colonial town designated a UNESCO world heritage site founded between the mountains and the sea.
The original indigenous inhabitants of Cuba were the Guanahatabey people, followed by the Siboney and Taíno peoples. Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1492, remarking it as “the most beautiful land, human eyes have ever looked upon” and claimed it as Spanish territory. Cuba remained a Spanish colony for 406 years, but when separatism was unleashed and through a period of three wars, Cuba waged the longest struggle for independence of all the peoples of the Americas. The Ten Years War (The Big War), started the 10th of October 1868 through 1878 with the “Grito de Yara” (Shout of Yara) under Carlos Manuel de Céspedes at his sugar plantation “La Demajagua” where he liberated his slaves. This was followed by the “Small War” 1879-1880. This culminated with the “La Guerra de Independencia” (War of Independence) started by Jose Martí on the 24th of February 1895, known as “El Grito de Baire” (The Shout of Baire). At this junction, the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor the 15th of February 1898 and this began what is known in the U.S. as the Spanish American War. The Spanish signed a peace treaty in Paris on the 10th of December 1898, ending Spanish rule in Cuba. The U.S. turned over the elected Cuban government on the 20th of May 1902. The 20th of May is celebrated as the “Día de la República” (Republic Day). The U.S. had a strong influence over the island until the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959. The country remains one of four self-declared communist states in the world today. Fidel Castro stepped aside as leader due to health reasons in 2008 and was followed by his brother, Raul Castro.
Cuba has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, seven of these are cultural and two are natural. Cuba is the oldest repository of European and African cultures in the Americas. It was the collation, archival and fleet departure location for the Aztec and Inca treasures and natural resources plundered by the Spanish Empire as well as the logistics base and starting point for the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Havana is touted and admired as being one of the most architecturally diverse cities in the world. Cuba is renowned for its music, both classical and popular, a polyrhythmic blend of African drum rhythms and Spanish guitar melodies. Music has evolved for five centuries from African rhythmic liturgical music (the drum and requisite chants for the deities) and the Spanish romantic troubadour tradition leaving its signature on blues, jazz, tango and rock & roll amongst many musical styles. The Cuban National Ballet with prima ballerina assoluta and choreographer Alicia Alonso is a national treasure. Latin jazz, modern dance, painting, sculpture, classical music and film are very well represented internationally and Cuban artists are showing worldwide. The Bienal Habana www.bienalhabana.cult.cu is an international bi-annual art show hosted by the Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art in Havana.
Cuba is the only country in the world that met the World Wildlife Fund criteria for sustainable development in 2006, making it one of the “greenest” nations, due to its low environmental impact. Cuba is a world leader in organic farming, with over 10,000 farms nationwide. Fortunately, this was the unintended result of the 1993 “Special Period” following the fall of the Soviet Union, when petroleum, pesticides and financial aid ceased and forced the return of traditional agriculture. Cuba outlawed GMO crops as well. There are six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Cuba and nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The navigable Rio Cauto is 213 miles/474 km long. The Pico Turquino is Cuba’s highest peak at 6,476ft /1,974m which gives its name to the national park that surrounds it in Oriente province. The nation is also home to the world’s smallest bird, a hummingbird called the Zunzuncito. There are no known poisonous animals in Cuba.
Cuba’s nation-wide literacy rate is 99.8%, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations’ Institute for Statistics. This is the second highest literacy rate in the world. The government spends 10% of their central budget on education, making it free for all at every level, including all materials, books and uniforms. Class size is limited to 25 students. Should a student be unable to attend school, a teacher is sent to their home. Cuba has 47 universities with 112,000 citizens enrolled.
Cuba follows a socialist economic model. The state controls most resources and the majority of citizens are government employees. There has been an emergence of a private employment sector. Recent legislation introduced private ownership of homes and cars. In 2006, the private sector employed 22% of citizens, an increase of 14% from 1981. Cuba’s main industries are food production and industrial products. Main exports are sugar, nickel, citrus, seafood, tobacco products and rum.
Cuba operates a national health system. The government assumes all fiscal and administrative responsibility for the health care of all its citizens and manages all hospitals and clinics. Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the region, the average citizen living to 78.05 years old, in comparison to the U.S. 78.62 year’s average. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of the world’s health systems, Cuba ranks at #39 right behind the U.S. at #37.
Sugar is the primary export crop of Cuba; sugar cane is also used for rum production. Tobacco follows second, used in hand-crafting the world’s finest and most sought after cigars. Nickel is Cuba’s most important mineral resource, exporting 4% of the world’s production.
Cuba is the most populous island in the Caribbean and home to over 11 million residents. It is a multi-ethnic melting pot with a population that is 65% white, 24% mixed-race, 10% black and 1% Chinese. Due to the free education system, the cities are becoming filled with people pursuing higher education. To increase the population in rural areas, the Cuban government has offered land incentives to city-dwellers, and Cuban citizens must have governmental consent before moving to Havana.
Over 50% of Cubans consider themselves Catholic. Afro-Cuban religions, Santeria of Yoruba with origins in Nigeria and Benin, Palo Monte of Congo origins and Arara of Dahomey also play a large role in the nation’s self-identity. All of these beliefs systems were brought over to Cuba by Africans slaves and syncretized with Catholicism. The most common form combines Yoruba beliefs with Catholicism and is commonly called Santeria. These belief systems have allowed the different African liturgical systems along with the customs, African languages and music to survive and thrive in Cuba. The Nigerian Ifa divination system has an oral tradition of over thousands of years, and has been designated by UNESCO as a Heritage to Humanity. Other religions practiced in Cuba, though minimal, are Protestantism, Judaism, Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are many beautiful churches and synagogues scattered throughout Havana, but no mosques.
Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Cuba. The national team often beats MLB all-star teams in exhibition games. The country is also dominant in boxing and has produced a number of Olympic boxing champions. Other sports of interest include basketball, volleyball, cricket, football (soccer) and athletics.
The game of dominoes is Cuba’s favorite board game by far and is extremely popular with players of all ages. It is played with a set that ends with double nines and a vibrant and friendly rivalry that transcends friends and family alike.
Cuba has a semi-subtropical climate, divided into two seasons: wet (May-October) and dry (November-April). Cuba’s average temperature is 77 °F, although July and August can be hot and humid. Trade winds and geographical factors account for regional fluctuations; however, compared to most countries, Cuba experiences little variation. Nearly two-thirds of all rainfall occurs during the wet season. Hurricane season is from June-November. Cuba has an advanced disaster preparedness system and civil defense network for evacuations.