Cuba is an alligator-shaped island and the largest country in the Caribbean Sea. It is located just south of the Tropic of Cancer (23 1/2° north latitude). Florida lies just 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the north and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is to the west. Cuba is one of the Caribbean region's Greater Antilles, a chain of islands that, in addition to Cuba, consists of Hispaniola (which includes the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.
Cuba has a varied landscape, fertile limestone soils, and a semitropical climate, making it an ideal island for agriculture. The island offers quaint fishing villages, colonial architecture, and the Caribbean's largest urban area, Havana. It also has coral reefs, emerald lagoons, wave-cut sea cliffs, lush mangrove forests, limestone caves, and sun-drenched beaches that combine to form one of the most inviting islands in the Caribbean region. Christopher Columbus visited Cuba on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. The island's physical beauty and potential riches charmed him, and he claimed the island for Spain.
Cuba's location is strategically important because it straddles maritime approaches to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Whoever controls Cuba controls sea-lanes passing between these bodies of water. The Spaniards were quick to recognize Cuba as a gateway between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Control of Cuba, they reasoned, would give them control of the sea-lanes to a colonial empire in the New World. Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) used Cuba as a fortress and as a jumping-off point for the conquest of Mexico and for expeditions into North America. In modern times, Cuba has been important to the United States because of its gateway location. American interest in Cuba's location contributed to the start of the Spanish-American War (1898). Following Cuba's independence from Spain in 1902 until the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the island's proximity to U.S. markets for Cuba's tropical crops and their products attracted huge agricultural investments from American businesses. Moreover, due to Cuba's proximity to the United States, the island became a vacation resort for wealthy Americans and a haven for Americans seeking such illegal pastimes as gambling and prostitution.
Since 1959, under Castro's ironfisted Communist dictatorship, Cuba's strategic location became a centerpiece of the Cold War. The Cold War (1945-1991) was a war of hostile diplomacy, intrigue, and subversion between Communist and non-Communist countries. These countries tried to gain political victories over one another without actually going to war. The former Soviet Union was Communist and saw Cuba as a base for military and espionage operations because of its proximity to the United States.
The Cold War's focus on Cuba's strategic location resulted in a series of significant events, including a U.S. trade embargo, an ill-fated U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba, and the Cuban missile crisis. Today, Cuba is politically and economically isolated from the United States, even though Havana, the capital, is the major Latin American city closest to the United States. Neither country has an embassy in the other's capital. Most Americans cannot travel to Cuba, and American businesses cannot trade with Cuba, except under special circumstances.
Cuba stands out among nations in several ways, aside from its strategic location. The island was Spain's last colony in the Western Hemisphere. It had the first passenger railroad in Latin America. Cuba was the first country in Latin America to have a radio broadcasting station. Its citizens were the first people outside of the United States to play baseball. Since ascending to power, the Communists have emphasized formal education and health care. Cuba's adult literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America. The country's medical research, despite suffering from inadequate funding, is highly praised worldwide.
Cuba is the 16th largest island in the world. It has the largest population among the Caribbean countries. It is home to the smallest species of bird and the largest species of cactus in the world. Cuba became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to embrace Communism. It is the only country with a Communist government in the region today. The island's main trading partners are Venezuela and the European Union. Its most important money-making crop is sugarcane. Its most famous product is the cigar.
Additionally, Cuba's former undisputed leader, President Fidel Castro, is one of the most recognizable world leaders. Until recently, the tall, bearded Castro, who likes to dress in combat boots and fatigues, has held his country closely to the ideals of Communism. Strict Communism requires that the state own all businesses. In recent years, Castro slightly loosened his hold to allow some privately owned Cuban businesses as well as investments from non-Communist countries. After experiencing a serious illness, Fidel passed the leadership to his younger brother, Raul, in 2006. Serving as a vice president at that time, Ratil was the expected choice.
The two brothers had worked closely together since the revolutionary days. Fidel Castro, who is over 80 years old, had held power for nearly a half century. No dictator, viceroy, or any other head of state in Latin America has endured for so long. Indeed, Castro was in power longer than any current head of state in the world, except for King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Cuban experts believe that Cuba may undergo major political and economic reforms under Ratil Castro. They cannot, however, predict for sure what these reforms will be like or what Cuba will be like in the future. Nevertheless, a better understanding of Cuba today will help prepare for a better understanding of Cuba tomorrow.
After the 2008 elections, the new U.S. administration has promised to work with Cubans in an attempt to achieve positive interactions between the two countries. One of the suggested changes is the removal of the travel ban. American citizens could then freely travel to Cuba. For this to happen, the other side must make concessions, primarily in the form of political and economic reforms.
Regardless of political circumstances, Cuba was and will always remain a tropical paradise. For decades, European tourists enjoyed travel to this country, but Americans could not legally enjoy such a luxury. The best way to learn about people and places is, after all, to visit them, especially when they reside only 90 miles away!