Encompassing the largest Caribbean island and several smaller ones, Cuba was once the premier vacation spot in North America. With the easing of international trade restrictions in the past 20 years, it is rapidly recovering this reputation.
Cuba was one of the first islands visited by Christopher Columbus in 1492, when it was inhabited by Arawakan Native American groups. It was quickly colonized by Spain, and developed an economy centered on sugar, coffee, and, of course, tobacco. During the wave of Latin American revolutions of the 1800s, Cuba remained loyal to Spain, despite popular support for independence. An 1895 rebellion prompted a brutal Spanish reaction, which escalated into the Spanish-American War following the mysterious destruction of the USS Maine in 1898. Cuba briefly became a US protectorate afterwards, before being granted independence in 1902. Political turmoil and resentment of corruption and organized crime in the new republic fueled the cause of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Led by Fidel and Raul Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, it resulted in sweeping social changes and the implementation of a state based on Marxist philosophy; although the Revolution succeeded in creating internal stability, it also severely complicated the country’s relationship with the US, and forced it to adopt closer ties with the Soviet Union. At no time was this more evident than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; however, the nations continued to butt heads throughout the Cold War over differing political interests in other countries, most notably Angola and Grenada.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a drastic blow to the Cuban economy, which had subsisted for decades on Russian subsidies and trade. The US, in an attempt to further weaken Castro’s support base, further tightened its existing embargo on Cuba. Warming ties with Europe, China, and other American countries, however, has allowed the flow of trade and foreign assistance to resume, and provided a substantial boost to tourism, making this industry the country’s largest source of foreign exchange. In addition to the time-honored tradition of enjoying Cuba’s many beaches, warm weather, and local color, medical tourism has grown substantially in the past few years, owing to Cuba’s excellent health care standards and low prices.
Traveling to Cuba is much easier than it once was–except, of course, for US citizens, who are only allowed to visit Cuba under certain circumstances, with a special permit. However, numerous US travelers have found creative ways to navigate these rules. There are a few volunteer organizations, and although jobs may be available, wages are very low; however, Cuba boasts several high-quality educational institutions, which are probably the best excuse for a long-term stay. In particular, the Latin American School of Medicine attracts a huge international student community with its reputation for excellent instruction and state-subsidized tuition, even for foreigners (even from the US!).
Cuban Spanish is noted for its distinct accent and a few unique pronunciation features, and may take a little getting used to for speakers of other dialects. English is fairly well understood in tourist areas. The second most common local language is Haitian Creole, spoken by a large immigrant population, their descendants, and neighbors.