an overview of Cuba

Originally posted on

“Esta es la tierra mas hermosa que ojos humanos han visto.” [This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.] – Christopher Columbus, upon arriving in Cuba, October 28, 1492

Cuba is more than the largest island in the Antilles. It is an intricate archipelago comprising the main island (two-thirds the size of Florida), the Isle of Youth, and 4,195 keys [cayos] and islets. Their combined surface area is some 42,854 square miles. The country sits at the mouth of the Gulf of México, 87 miles from the Bahamas, 91 miles from Jamaica, 90 miles from Florida and 130 miles from Cancún.


Cuba has more than 11,350,000 people, with 75 percent of them living in urban areas. The most heavily populated spots being the cities of Havana (2,198,000), Santiago de Cuba (1,023,000) and Holguín (1,021,000). The country’s official language is Spanish, although most Cubans working in the tourism industry can communicate in English.


Cuba’s climate is moderately subtropical and predominantly warm. The island’s average temperature is 77ºF and average relative humidity is 78 per cent. It also sees an average of 330 days of sunshine a year. Cuba’s two clearly defined seasons are the rainy season (May to October) and the dry season (November to April).


On October 27, 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the Cuban archipelago during his initial voyage to the New World. Between 1511 and 1515, Diego Velázquez led the Spanish colonization of the island and founded the country’s first seven townships: Baracoa, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, Santísima Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe (Camagüey) and San Cristóbal de La Habana (Havana). Spanish domination lasted four centuries and ended with the country’s military occupation by the United States in 1898, which continued until 1902 when a neocolonial republic was established. The island’s history has been marked by repeated struggles for independence. The first was on October 10, 1868; the last began on July 26, 1953 with the attack on the Moncada Garrison led by Fidel Castro. This revolution culminated in the establishment of the current republic on January 1, 1959.


Cuba is a socialist country wherein all the major industries are owed by the people and administered by their democratically elected government. The two pillars of the Cuban economy are tourism and mining. Other major industries are tobacco, coffee, rum, agriculture, citrus fruit, as well as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and healthcare delivery. Cuba has the world’s largest nickel deposits (some 34 per cent of global reserves). It also mines copper, cobalt and magnesium.


Education is provided free of charge at all levels and is compulsory through the ninth grade. In 1961 the country eradicated illiteracy through the National Literacy Campaign. Specialized polytechnic institutes, universities and other higher education centers exist in all the provinces.


Cuba’s primary health care system is considered unique in Latin America. Medical services are provided free of charge to all Cubans. It is organized around an extensive network of medical centers (442 polyclinics and 281 hospitals), as well as other specialized centers. Cuba is among six countries in the world that produce interferon. Its vaccines against meningitis B and C and hepatitis B are unique in the world. These achievements are possible thanks to the existence of 211 scientific research and production institutes. Life expectancy is 76.2 years for men and 80.4 years for women.


Cuba has produced major international figures in literature and fine arts, film, ballet, modern dance and theatre. The country is also renowned for its original rhythms such as the danzón, son, bolero, mambo, cha cha chá and more. Cuba’s prestigious cultural events attract international celebrities in dance, music, theatre and other arts. Among these events are the Casa de las Américas literary contest, the Havana International Ballet Festival, the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and the International Jazz Festival.


Every year, Cuba hosts numerous international sports events. A world sports power, the country is known for baseball, boxing and volleyball, and boasts stars in track and field, fencing, judo, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, chess and weightlifting. Cuba’s national sport is baseball!


The country’s Constitution guarantees total freedom of religion. The most commonly practiced religion is Santería, a unique Afrocuban belief system. Santería is a mix of the West African religion of Yoruba and Catholicism. Slaves from Africa adopted this form of saint worship so they could continue practicing their faith under a guise that placated their Catholic slave masters. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews are also represented.


Cuban cuisine is influenced by Spanish, African, indigenous and other cultures. The national dish is ajiaco, a stew of assorted root vegetables cooked with pork, poultry or beef. Other typical dishes are lechón asado (roast pork), fried green plantains (tachinos, chatinos or tostones), black beans, congrí (rice with red beans), moros y cristianos (rice with black beans), picadillo a la habanera (ground beef in tomato sauce), roast chicken and tamales among others. The Cuban sweet tooth ensures that each meal includes dessert.


The quality of Cuban rum is recognized internationally and comes in four distillations: refined, white, gold and aged. Gold and aged rums are better for drinking straight, while white rum (carta blanca or carta plata) is best for cocktails. Several of the world’s most famous rum cocktails are Cuban, and are served in most bars around the globe. Drinks include the Cuba libre, the mojito, the daiquiri, the Cubanito and the saoco.