Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, Cuba was home to Mesoamerican cultures, including the indigenous Guanajatabey and Taino people. The Guanajatabey were hunter-gatherers and fishers, and Taino communities also harvested yuca, cotton and tobacco. Spanish colonialist Bartolome de las Casas estimated that Taino populations in Cuba had reached 350,000 by the end of the 15th century.
By then, Christopher Columbus had landed in Cuba and claimed the land for Spain, naming it Isla Juana. In 1511, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar founded Baracoa, the first Spanish settlement in Cuba, and three years later what’s now known as Havana was built.
In 1902, after periods under Spanish, British and United States rule and involvement in the Spanish–American war, Cuba got its independence. Despite the economy booming, leaders at this time ruled through corruption and control. This was until revolutionary Fidel Castro led a 9000-strong guerrilla army into Havana in 1959, forcing military dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee. Castro became the leader and his brother, Raul, his deputy. What followed was an attempt by the United States to overthrow Castro’s communist rule at the Bay of Pigs, and tension and trade embargoes following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Standing alongside Castro as an equally prominent political figure, Che Guevara (although Argentinean) holds a very important place in Cuban history. A revolutionary, author, doctor and military leader, Guevara played a pivotal role in the guerrilla campaign leading up to the Cuban Revolution and the defence of the Bay of Pigs, as well as in diplomatic relations, up until his death in 1967. It’s impossible not to notice the reverence for Guevara when visiting Cuba, with street art, statues and museums dedicated to the man Cubans simply call ‘El Che’ found all over the country.
In April 2011 Fidel Castro was succeeded as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba by his brother Raul Castro. Cuba’s political relationship with other countries, including its close neighbours, is ever-evolving, with the US recently beginning to ease restrictions on trade, tourism and other industries. But a snapshot of 50 years of isolation remains in the cars, architecture, and culture that is a contemporary Cuban street.