The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba’s strategic location has meant that it has played a significant role in global political struggles throughout the 20th century and continues to occupy a prominent place in the Western popular imagination. The island was first occupied by Native American people known as the Taíno who populated the land until its colonisation by the Spanish in 1492. The Spanish ruled Cuba for almost 400 years, until a series of wars in the late 19th century, in which the exiled dissident and writer José Martí returned to lead a guerrilla war against the colonisers, eventually resulted in Cuban independence.
During the corrupt Batista years of the 1950s Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara began a guerrilla war against the government forces, eventually ousting Batista and setting up a revolutionary government who put into place communist reforms and nationalised many American owned industries. This prompted several years of intense Cold War brinkmanship on the part of the USA and the Soviet Union, culminating in the Bay of Pigs debacle, and beginning decades of economic sanctions. Castro still has a powerful influence over Cuban politics but has delegated ruling the country to his brother Raul who is introducing tentative reforms to the impoverished Cuban economy. The Cuban Revolution has prompted a variety of responses including Steven Soderbergh’s film Che, which documents the life of the iconic revolutionary.
Little survives of the original indigenous culture of Cuba, but the island has developed its own idiosyncratic synthesis of Spanish, American, and other influences, all refracted through the years of economic isolation. Cuban literature is amongst the most celebrated in Latin America and has produced formidable writers such as Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Nicolas Guillen, Zoe Valdes and G.Cabera Infante, many of which now live in exile. Ernest Hemingway made Cuba his home during the latter years of his life and set his classic Old Man and the Sea on the island. The Buena Vista Social Club has become internationally popular for their distinctive take on Cuban music, they are featured in the documentary film Buena Vista Social Club. Some other prominent films set in Cuba include Memories of Underdevelopment, I Am Cuba, and Lucia.