Republic of Cuba

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Republic of Cuba

Type of Government

The Republic of Cuba has been, since the adoption of its constitution in 1976 a socialist republic, governed by the National Assembly People’s Power, a legislative body that selects a Council of State as the nation’s executive branch. The President of the Council of State is the head of state and head of government of Cuba. Since 1976 the president has been Fidel Castro, who has been Cuba’s ruler in name or fact since the Revolution of 1958–59.


The island nation of Cuba is located at the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea, less than 100 miles south of Florida, immediately north of Jamaica and west of the island of Hispaniola. The island has, by far, the largest land mass in the Caribbean, accounting for about half the land in the West Indies. Cuba was one of the islands explored by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) on his first trip to the New World, in 1492. At that time the island’s native inhabitants were the Ciboney and Taíno Native American tribes.

The first European settlement in Cuba came in 1511, when the Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465–1524) established a colony on the eastern end of the island. The Spaniards soon forced the natives into service; as in other areas of the Caribbean and South and Central America, the native population soon dwindled due to the new settlers’ abuse, as well as the exotic diseases the Spaniards brought with them from Europe. By approximately 1523, the colonists began importing slaves from Africa to maintain the island’s labor pool for the hard work of growing coffee and sugar cane.

Cuba’s proximity to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico made it an ideal hub for Spain’s activities in the region. Conquistadors such as Hernando de Soto (c. 1500–1542) and Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) embarked on their assaults on the mainland from Cuba, and when their expeditions were successful, the boats loaded with riches would stop in Cuba on their way back to Spain.

Spain’s power began to ebb in the late eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth century its empire in the New World disintegrated. By 1819 the Spanish were forced out of Florida and had lost control of their colonies in Mexico and South America, but they maintained control over Cuba.

In October 1868 the Ten Years’ War, a guerilla conflict between Spanish loyalists and Cuban nationalists, began. This revolutionary movement was ultimately stifled, but not before it motivated a young Cuban intellectual living in exile, the poet and journalist José Martí (1853–1895), to begin planning his own independence movement. Establishing a base of operations in New York, Martí spent more than a decade marshalling his forces and building up the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC) in preparation for a new war against Spain.

In February 1895, Martí issued his call to arms, and his force of expatriate rebels landed in Cuba. Less than three months into the war, however, Martí was killed in a battle with Spanish forces at Dos Rios. The rebels continued the war without him, making little headway in three years of fighting.

Martí’s war led indirectly to Cuba’s independence from Spain. In February 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine—docked in Havana harbor to protect American citizens who might get caught in the fighting—was rocked by a mysterious explosion, leading the United States to declare war on Spain in what became known as the Spanish-American War. Unlike the Cuban revolutionary efforts, the conflict between the United States and Spain was resolved rather quickly, leaving the United States in control of Spain’s colonies: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba.

Liberation by the United States was not the independence from Spain that Martí’s nationalists had had in mind. The American occupiers set up a provisional Cuban government almost immediately, and they also made many improvements to the island’s sanitation and infrastructure. By 1901 Cuba had a new constitution establishing a republican government; however, independence from the United States came with strings attached. The new constitution gave the United States the right to establish a naval base on the island and permission to intervene in Cuba’s affairs as it saw necessary. These provisions, along with a noteworthy increase in American business interests on the island, fostered resentment among Cubans toward their liberators.

In the two decades after independence, the United States staged military interventions to suppress rebellions and protect U.S. business interests in 1906–09, 1912, and 1920. After this period of instability, the nation came under the rule of the dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales (1871–1939) from 1925 to 1933, and then under the control of Colonel Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973), the soldier who led the coup against Machado’s administration. Batista controlled Cuba through a string of puppet presidents until he ran for president himself in 1940. Batista was ousted in the 1944 elections by a former political ally, only to restore himself to power eight years later in a military coup.

Batista’s 1952 coup prompted a young attorney and fledgling politician, Fidel Castro Ruz (1927–), to form his own revolutionary movement. On July 26, 1953, a small force led by Castro attacked an army barracks near Santiago de Cuba. The attack was a total fiasco—about half of Castro’s guerillas were killed, the other half captured—but Castro made such a spectacle of his subsequent trial that it earned him international fame. Freed from jail through a general amnesty in 1955, Castro was exiled to Mexico, where he gathered supporters for another attempt to depose Batista. This group—which included Castro’s brother, Raúl (1931–), and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967)—established itself in the Sierra Maestro Mountains in December 1956. The rebels’ presence drove the Batista administration to increasingly oppressive measures, which eventually eroded the regime’s international support. Even the United States, with whom Batista had enjoyed good relations, began to turn away from him. On New Year’s Eve 1958 Batista abdicated his office, leaving Castro’s rebels in control of the government.

Government Structure

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Castro’s coalition of opponents to the Batista regime ruled by decree. During this period, surviving Batista loyalists were summarily executed and private property was expropriated, with Castro acting as the interim state’s premier—essentially, an autocratic head of government.

Cuba did not become a Marxist state, however, until 1961, when Cuba’s deteriorating relationship with the United States spurred Castro to seek the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, which was the leading proponent and exemplar of communism, an ideology developed by the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883). Castro’s declaration of Marxism did not change the Cuban government’s ways of doing business, except to the extent that industries which had merely been controlled by the Castro regime were now officially nationalized.

A more formal structure for the Castro government was created by the constitution of 1976. Under that constitution, Cuba’s legislative power is vested in the National Assembly of People’s Power. Since 1993, the members of the Assembly have been directly elected to five-year terms in national elections with universal suffrage for all Cubans over the age of 16—as long as they have never applied to emigrate from Cuba. However, elections occur within a single-party system—in the 2003 elections, all of the candidates approved by the PCC won seats in the Assembly.

The Assembly, in turn selects a thirty-one member Council of State, which can exercise legislative power between sessions of the Assembly. The Council of State’s president is both head of state and the head of government in Cuba. Six of the remaining members of the Council of State are selected to serve as vice-presidents to the president, who has, since the institution’s inception, been Castro. In addition to being members of the Council of State, the president and vice-presidents also head Cuba’s Council of Ministers, which is in charge of the executive branch of the government.

The judicial branch of the Cuban government is headed by the People’s Supreme Court. Although the judiciary is technically an independent branch of government, all judges are selected by the National Assembly. Trials in Cuba are not heard by juries, but rather by mixed panels of judges composed of certified professional judges and lay judges.

Political Parties and Factions

The only legally sanctioned political party in Cuba is the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). The PCC effectively controls the government through the National Assembly. On a local level, the party exercises control over the people of Cuba through Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). These committees function on a neighborhood level, reporting “counterrevolutionary” activity, and often take it on themselves to harass or intimidate any citizens suspected of disloyalty to the regime.

A substantial, and very politically active, Cuban expatriate community exists in the United States, particularly in the state of Florida. This community is extremely active in U.S. politics, influencing America’s policies toward Cuba and supporting economic sanctions and trade embargoes against the Castro regime. The expatriates also influence events within Cuba, providing financial support to family members left behind on the island and giving aid to the many illegal dissident organizations operating within Cuba.

Major Events

Castro’s Cuba soon ran afoul of the island nation’s most powerful neighbor, the United States. The United States initially granted the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, but throughout 1959 and 1960 diplomatic relations deteriorated as the Cuban government increasingly confiscated property owned by American citizens and corporations, while the U.S. government retaliated by cutting sugar imports from Cuba, until, by October 1960, Cuba had nationalized all American property on the island and the United States had imposed a trade embargo against Cuba. Cuba increasingly came to depend upon assistance from the Soviet Union, first as a trade partner, and later as an ally against the United States.

In January 1961 the U.S. government cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba, and in April, a U.S.-supported group of Cuban expatriates invaded the island. The invasion was planned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), but put into action shortly after the inauguration of his successor, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). Kennedy’s administration was more concerned than his predecessor’s about negative publicity should their involvement in the invasion become public. When the force of 1,500 expatriates landed at the Bay of Pigs, they did so without promised American air support to protect them from the Cuban air force. In a matter of days the invasion was repelled and the expatriates were captured.

The failed invasion deepened the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Within eighteen months of the invasion, the Soviets had built nuclear missile installations on Cuba, precipitating the international incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For two weeks in October 1962 the United States and Soviet Union threatened each other with nuclear war while Cuba was “quarantined” by the U.S. Navy. Disaster was averted when the Soviets agreed to withdraw their weapons in return for the dismantling of similar American missile installations in Turkey, along with a commitment that the United States would not invade Cuba.

Even after the crisis was averted, Cuba continued to be an important strategic asset to the Soviet Union, and the Soviets subsidized the Cuban economy by purchasing Cuban sugar at above-market rates. In return, Cuban soldiers fought in Soviet-sponsored wars around the globe during the 1970s and 1980s. For example, Cuban military assistance was key to the victory of the communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1976.

In the early 1990s, however, the disintegration of the Soviet Union meant an end to Cuba’s subsidies and led to the collapse of the Cuban economy. Relations with the United States did not improve, and the U.S. embargo continued, as did the Castro regime’s repression of dissent within Cuba.

Twenty-First Century

The Cuban economy has never recovered from the loss of Soviet sponsorship, thanks in large part to the U.S. trade embargo. There is severe rationing of food for most of the population, and after a brief period of openness in the 1990s, the government has spurned foreign investment.

Going forward, the biggest questions surrounding Cuba have to do with its leader since 1959, Fidel Castro. As Castro approaches his 80s, many wonder whether the Cuban government will be sustainable after he dies. Castro’s participation in Cuba’s day-to-day governance has been greatly curtailed since he underwent intestinal surgery in August 2006; nonetheless, he continues to be Cuba’s leader, and the party leadership continues to insist that he will stand for re-election despite his infirmities. Castro has concentrated so much of the regime’s power upon himself, and stifled internal opposition so effectively, that his eventual death may leave a vacuum that no one in his government will be able to fill.

Hudson, Rex A., editor. Cuba: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 2002.

Zanetti, Oscar, and Frank Wright. Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837–1959. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

The Web Site of the Government of the Republic of Cuba, (accessed August 6, 2007).