Cuba serves as a significant example of global interdependence extending back into early colonial times. Throughout its history, Cuba has fulfilled crucial roles in geopolitical events in the Caribbean, Europe, the United States, and, of course, Spain. When the Spanish began their rule over Cuba, the island became part of an interdependent world dominated by empires. Consequently, Cuba has a history of struggling to control its own destiny. 

When Christopher Columbus first arrived in Cuba in 1492, he discovered an island already inhabited by three different groups of indigenous peoples: the Taínos, the Ciboneys, and the Guanajatabeyes. Currently, scholars estimate that there were between 50,000-300,000 indigenous people occupying the island at the time. However, over the course of seventy years, these indigenous peoples were largely eradicated through disease and Spanish brutality during imperial rule or absorbed into Spanish lines of descent through intermarriage throughout the 1400s and 1500s.

The Guanajatabeyes, a cave-dwelling people, were the first indigenous group to inhabit the island. The Ciboneys were originally members of the Arawak group from South America that later spread throughout the West Indies. In Cuba, the Ciboneys were servants to the more advanced Taínos—Cuba’s largest indigenous group who arrived on the island in the 1400s from the West Indies.

Early Cuban Culture

Culturally, while the indigenous peoples did influence the Spanish language spoken on the island, they did not make a significant impact on its sociocultural or ecopolitical development. Rather, the island’s culture was largely shaped by Spanish colonialism, the importation of African Slaves and the predominance of the sugar trade. However, a few Indian villages exist today such as El Cobre, located near Santiago, Guanabacoa, which lies near Havana, and Pueblo Viejo, which is a short distance from Bayamo.

Spanish colonialism in Cuba was incited by the Crown’s interest in gold and other mineral deposits, the devotion to the missionary work to convert the indigenous peoples, and the zeal of the conquistadores and other settlers intent on exploring the New World. Under the fallacious impression that Cuba was saturated in gold deposits, Sebastian de Ocampo explored the island and its surrounding waters in 1508. Diego Velazquez furthered this initial venture in 1511 when he established the first Spanish settlement near Baracoa. As the first governor, he also instituted the encomiendas system, in which indigenous peoples were lawfully tied to Spaniards as laborers and Christian conversion was mandated.

Conquistadors and Plantations

Due to trade and further Spanish exploration of the New World throughout the 1500s, Havana and its port quickly became an essential transition site for Spanish conquistadors venturing into the New World and their returning cargo. On a broader scale, the Caribbean became a site of contention for competing empires, particularly England, France, and the Netherlands. By the 1600s, Europeans had created their own buccaneers who served as mercenaries to attack other settlements. An English buccaneer, Henry Morgan, terrorized colonists on the eastern portion of the island, in an effort to gain another foothold in the Caribbean.

By this point, Cuba had developed a dependence on their sugar plantations as well as slaves imported from Africa. In a world steadily moving toward the discontinuation of the slave trade and abolition, Cuba retained its reliance on the social structure and often resorted to illegal methods to continue it. However, the sugar market exacerbated the island’s economic inequality and ultimately weakened the nationalist movement for Cuban independence because it became an ideological divide among the elites. Throughout the 19th century, Cuba continued to be influenced by international powers, and their expanding sugar plantations served as a catalyst for the nationalist hopes for economic and political freedom.