Most of us might think of white-sand beaches, tropical dances, colorful cars, and big cigars when Cuba is mentioned, but there’s so much more to this Caribbean island than meets the eye. The result of nearly fifty years of embargo and isolation might have put the country through some financial hardships in the past but also meant that it developed its very own, distinctively unique character and culture. Indeed, Cuba’s history is filled with fascinating facts. Here’s a list to prove it.
It was once called Isla Juan.
Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived at the Caribbean, his famous ships -La Nina, La Pinta and the Santa Maria- reached the northern shores of Cuba. Columbus claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Spain and named the island Isla Juan, after the prince of Asturias.
The origin of the name.
Cuba’s name is widely believed to derive from the Taino language and it may translate either to ‘’great place’’ (coabana) or “the place where fertile land is plenty’’ (cubao). There are also some who believe that the island got its name from the homonymous Portuguese town.
It was inhabited long before Columbus.
During the pre-Columbian era, the island was inhabited by three different indigenous tribes: the Taino people that migrated from Hispaniola, the Ciboney people that came from South America and the Guanahatabey people.
Havana is much older than you’d think.
Initially named San Cristobal de la Habana, the city was one of the first Spanish settlements on the island, founded in 1515. Today, Havana is the capital and most populated city in Cuba.
European diseases brought the downfall of indigenous peoples.
Forcing the natives to work in harsh conditions under a tough regime was not the only reason behind their undoing. In fact, their population saw a dramatic decline due to contagious European diseases -primarily measles and smallpox- for which they had developed no immune mechanisms.
The 10 Years’ War.
Cuba’s first war of independence began in 1868, led by Carlos Manuel de Déspedes, a sugar plantation owner who proclaimed independence and called all natives, regardless of race, to unite and fight for freedom. The conflicts between Cuba and Spain went on for a whole decade and war also became known as the “Guerra Grande” or Great War.
An offer to buy Cuba was denied.
The United States has attempted to invade independent Cuba several times throughout their history – without much success. After it became clear that conquering the Caribbean island was probably an unattainable goal, the American government offered to buy it from Spain in 1848 for $100 million, but the offer was quickly declined.
The mysterious explosion that started a war.
In 1898, the explosion of a United States naval ship called Maine shook Havana harbor. Almost three hundred men were killed in this calamity. Numerous investigations were conducted but revealed no culprits, causing outrage in the States with the press proclaiming ‘’Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” The explosion led to the Spanish-American war that started the same year.
Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana, Cuba for twenty years.
Even though Hemingway was an American, he is one of the most prominent literary figures in Cuban history. The famous author moved to Havana in 1940 and went on to write some of his most famous works there, including ‘’The Old Man and the Sea” and “To Have and Have Not.”
Cuba’s nickname comes from its physical shape from an aerial view.
You might have heard Cubans refer to their country as “El Caiman” or “El cocodrilo”, meaning crocodile in Spanish. Have you ever wondered why? The answer is simple. Just look at any map and you’ll find that Cuba looks like an alligator from an aerial view.
¡Revolución! Cuba is the first communist country in the western hemisphere.
Led by Fidel Castro, a rebel army of communist revolutionaries came to power in 1959. Castro went on to rule Cuba for almost 50 years until he stepped down due to health issues in 2008, with his younger brother Raúl taking his place.
It has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
This is mainly due to the ‘’year of education’’, a campaign launched by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that aimed to combat illiteracy by sending ‘’literacy brigades’’ to remote, rural areas to build schools and train teachers.
The government controls all the media.
Four national television networks, six national radio channels, several newspapers, and the internet are all tightly controlled and monitored by the Cuban government, the same way they have been for the past 50 years.
Cuba’s “Special Period” was a difficult time.
The harsh conditions and severe shortages in paper, fuel, and even food during the island’s economic depression in the 1990s led to this era becoming known as Cuba’s “Special Period in time of Peace” or ‘’Período especial.” The financial struggles were caused by the downfall of the Soviet Union and the following dissolution of the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance).
It has nine sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
These include the colonial fortifications of Havana, San Pedro de la Roca Castle, the historic centers of Cienfuegos and Camagüey, the landscapes of the first coffee plantations, the Viñales Valley and Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios as cultural sites. Additionally, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park and Desembarco del Granma National Park as natural sites.
An import ban made the people adapt and work to make sure their things still work decades later.
It’s hard to imagine Cuba without the presence of colorful old-school cars strolling by the oceanfront. But, have you ever pondered the reason why there are so many classic 1950’s cars in the country? It’s because Cuban authorities had implemented an import ban on cars up until recently. The ban was lifted in 2011. So those charming photos are just examples of Cuban ingenuity living under an oppressive regime.
The highest number of doctors worldwide are from Cuba.
Cuba has an impressive medical system and the highest number of doctors per capita in the world. In fact, Cuba has so many doctors that it has sent medical staff on international missions to over 40 countries. Cuban doctors played a significant role in fighting the Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Fidel Castro was a huge John Lennon fan.
Castro believed that Lennon was a real revolutionary in his own right. In 2000 he commissioned the construction of a statue of the famous singer of the Beatles in the famous John Lennon Park in Havana.
There were a record number of assassination attempts on Fidel’s life.
Fidel Castro probably did more to deserve the epithet ‘’cheater of death’’ than any other person ever has. Cuban officials claim the former leader survived more than 600 attempts – and that definitely wasn’t due to the plotters’ lack of imagination. Explosives, seductive women, cyanide pills, mob hits, a toxic dive suit, and even a poisoned milkshake were not enough to take down the hardcore politician, who proved to be a legendary survivor.
Cubans have very limited access to the Internet.
Only a very small percentage of the country’s population enjoys open Internet access. Most people who do are doctors, engineers, academics or journalists.
Bacardi rum was originally from Cuba
That’s right. The world-renowned brand of rum was made in Cuba, until it moved its facilities to Puerto Rico when Fidel Castro came to power, leaving Havana Club to claim the title of the most popular Cuban rum.