Cuba (Republic of), tropical island republic in the Caribbean Sea, west of Haiti, east of the Gulf of Mexico, north of Jamaica, and 90 mi (145 km) south of Key West, Fla. Cuba is the largest island in the West Indies, occupying 42,804 sq mi (110,860 sq km), including the Isle of Pines and other offshore islands. The capital is Havana.
Land and climate
Cuba has 3 main mountain ranges: the Sierra de los Organos in the west, the Sierra de Trinidad in the center, and the Sierra Maestra in the southeast. Cuba's upland areas generally go from east to west, cover only about 25% of the island, and are so spaced as to break up its surface into a series of clay and limestone plains, separated by gently rolling slopes. Over half of Cuba is flat or slightly undulating. Because Cuba is narrow, it has few big rivers; the longest is the 155-mi (249-km) Cauto, which rises in the Sierra Maestra and flows west across the lowlands of Oriente Province. It has deep bays on the coast that serve as fine natural harbors. Lying just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Cuba has a warm climate with temperatures between 71° and 82° F (22° and 28° C), though frosts occur in winter on some mountains. Rainfall is generally plentiful, and Cuba is prone to severe hurricanes.
Forests of pine, cedar, oak, ebony, and mahogany still clothe much of the mountains, though only scattered royal palms and silk-cotton trees remain in the lowlands, now largely cleared for farming. Grasses and shrubs grow in sub-soil savanna areas, covering about a quarter of the island, and mangrove forests fringe some of the coast.
Around three-quarters of the population is of European, chiefly Spanish, descent. About one-sixth of the population is mulatto, and one-eighth black, a legacy of the West African slave trade. The aboriginal Native Americans are extinct. The distinction between blacks and Cubans of European extraction remains a divisive force in society despite the government's proclaimed policy of equality of opportunity of all. The Cuban blend of racial and ethnic elements has produced a rich national culture renowned for the rhythmic vitality of such dances as the conga, habanera, mambo, and rumba.
Cuba is dependent upon one crop, sugar; tobacco is the second most important export. The island's agriculture has been further diversified by the production of coffee, citrus fruit, and rice crops. The largest mineral resource is iron ore, and there are also deposits of nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. Before 1959 industrialization was limited; after a period of rapid development (1959–63) it has progressed slowly. Neglected for almost 20 years, tourism began to grow in the late 1970s. All trade, commerce, and industrial production is nationalized, and most of the cultivated land has been reorganized as state cooperatives.
Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492, and it became important as the base for Spanish exploration of America and as a harbor for Spanish treasure ships. The Native Americans, decimated by ill treatment and disease, were replaced as a work force by West African black slaves, particularly in the 18th century, when the sugar plantations developed rapidly. In the 19th century Spain's colonial policy led to a series of nationalist uprisings, and after the Spanish-American War (1898) Cuba became an independent republic, though under U.S. military occupation (1899–1902, 1906–9). Between 1924 and 1959 Cuba was under virtually continuous dictatorship. Fulgencio Batista, who had come to power in 1940, was overthrown by Fidel Castro, aided by Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1959. Castro, as premier, established a socialist state and instituted sweeping land, industrial, and educational reforms. After U.S. firms had been nationalized, the United States supported the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and enforced an economic blockade. Thereafter, the USSR and the communist bloc replaced U.S. trade and provided great economic support. In 1962 Cuba's acceptance of Soviet nuclear missiles led to a major confrontation between the United States and USSR until the missiles were withdrawn. The Organization of American States (OAS) expelled Cuba in 1962 but lifted its sanctions in 1975. Despite many setbacks, the social policies have in general benefited the island. Castro became president in 1976. In the late 1970s a certain rapprochement between Cuba and the United States took place, and reestablishment of diplomatic ties seemed close. Cuban involvement in Africa and in Latin American revolutionary movements, however, strained the relations in the 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet support fell away and Cuba had to face a severe economic crisis. In the 1990s many Cubans left the country, either legally or illegally. The number of tourists increased.