With a total area of nearly 42,500 miles, the Republic of Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest island nation. From the rugged mountain ranges of the interior to lowland swamps, rolling farmlands and coastal beaches, Cuba has a varied terrain. The country’s multi-ethnic population hovers around 11.2 million, but with the exception of populous urban areas like the capital city of Havana, the island enjoys a relatively low population density.
Before Christopher Columbus claimed Cuba for Spain in 1492, various Mesoamerican tribes inhabited the island. Spain held a tight grip on its sugarcane-rich, income-producing Caribbean colony until the Spanish-American War brought about the country’s independence in 1898. Despite the young nation’s efforts to establish an autonomous democracy, the U.S. was motivated by its own strategic interests to be a domineering neighbor. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista successfully established a dictatorship that would endure until the Revolution, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, in 1959. In 1965, the Communist Party took control of Cuba and has since governed the country as a single-party socialist state.
Castro’s close alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War caused Cuba to fall out of favor once and for all with the United States and in 1962 President John F. Kennedy imposed strict economic sanctions that have remained in place until present day. Despite the crippling effects of the U.S. embargo and the fall of the allied Soviet Union, Cuba boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates, as well as arguably first-world education and healthcare standards.