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What Americans Need to Know About Cuban History

02/25/2015 02:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

This month I escorted 15 fellow mediators to Cuba. Since true tourism is not yet an option for American visitors, we traveled under a General Research License and much of our Cuban experience was focused on researching and debating the conflicts that drive a mediator's work as well as the Cuban existence. Ironically, even before we left, I started to learn some big lessons about Cuba and conflict. Suffice it to say that not everyone thinks it's cool to go to Cuba. If you want to know more about the negative reactions I encountered before my Cuba trip, take a look at my Feb 17 blog post.

Since our return earlier this week, everyone wants to know "how was Cuba?" Clearly, I only have a snap shot of a much bigger picture. We were in Cuba for six days and there are obvious limitations on what anyone can learn about a culture -- especially one that is still wrapped in secrecy -- in such a short time. My next blog post will give you my take on Cuba in 2015. But, first, in order to put things in perspective, I think its important to take a look at Cuba's history and the violence and oppression that have overshadowed its story. Here is what I think you need to know:

1492: Cristobal Colon (a/k/a Christopher Columbus) lands in Cuba and claims the island for the Kingdom of Spain.

1511: The first African slaves arrive in Cuba. (Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886 when economic conditions made it more profitable for owners to avoid year-round expenses, and hire the former slaves on a daily basis instead.)

1512-1548: The Ciboney and Taino people who inhabit the island become extinct due to infectious diseases, brutal enslavement, and the taking of Taino women by Spanish men. (Mestizo children are the result of unions between the Spanish -- who did not bring women on their early expeditions, and Taino women.)

1868-1902: Cuba fights for independence from Spain. In 1895, Jose Marti, an exiled dissident who founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, returns to Cuba and is killed during the battle of Dos Rios. His death immortalizes him as Cuba's national hero.

1902: The Spanish-American War ends with Cuba gaining conditional independence. Under Cuba's new constitution, the U.S. retains the right to intervene in Cuban affairs, supervise finances and foreign relations, and lease the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Cubans find this intrusive and humiliating.

1933-1958: Fulgencio Batista, a U.S. favored strong-man uses puppet presidents, the Cuban army and American mobsters to run his corrupt government. He carries out social reforms and creates an urban middle class. However, great disparities and a large underclass persist. Throughout the 1950s, revolutionaries (including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) plan an overthrow of Batista's dictatorship. Finally, on December 31, 1958, as unemployment, corruption, and political persecution abound, Batista is forced into exile. He flees the island without making provisions for the thousands of Cubans who worked with his regime. Ultimately, these Batista loyalists are prosecuted in military tribunals and executed in firing squads. When the island's hotel-casinos are nationalized and gambling is outlawed, gangster Meyer Lansky's moves his operations to Las Vegas.

1959: Fidel Castro becomes Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government. He names his brother Raúl Castro Defense Minister and gives Che Guevara a key role in the new government. (Guevara, an Argentinean by birth, left Cuba in 1965 to participate in other revolutions. In 1967 he was captured and executed in Bolivia.) According to Fidel, once political parties are formed, elections will be held. In the meantime, he nationalizes industries, confiscates farmlands, and forbids foreign land ownership. Castro grows closer to communist ideology and the USSR. He gets under the skin of American political leaders and U.S. policy toward Cuba focuses on his downfall.

1960-1962: More than 14,000 Cuban children arrive in the U.S. These unaccompanied minors are part of a mass exodus known as Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan). The children are sent to the U.S. by their parents who fear the Cuban government will take away their parental authority. Many of the children reunite with relatives in the U.S., others are cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau.

These are difficult years in Cuban-American politics. President Eisenhower approves a CIA plan to arm and train a group of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro's regime. On April 14, 1961, about 1400 Cuban exiles land at the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba's southern coast. They fail in their attempt to topple Castro. In response, Castro has Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev place nuclear missiles (pointed at Florida) in Cuba. When U.S. Air Force spy planes produce clear photographic evidence of the missiles, the U.S. establishes a military blockade to prevent further missiles from entering Cuba and demands that weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the USSR. Additionally, an Embargo, prohibiting commerce and trade with Cuba, is instituted in February of 1962. The missiles are removed and the blockade ends in November 1962. However, the Embargo remains and it has become the scapegoat for much of Cuba's economic ills.

1980: Internal tensions and a downturn in Cuba's economy, coupled with improved U.S.-Cuba relations, set the stage for the mass exodus we now call the Mariel Boatlift. During a six month period, Castro gives permission to approximately 125,000 Cubans to leave the island in boats provided by Cuban-Americans. President Jimmy Carter suffers negative political consequences when it was discovered that some of the exiles had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities.

1991-1993: Castro modeled Cuban Communism on the USSR's system. His Russian alliance was helpful until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was left to fend for itself. Still, the Cuban government did not allow American donations of food, medicines, or cash until 1993.

1994-today: Cuba has found allies and support in the People's Republic of China; with Hugo Chavez, the former President of Venezuela; and with Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. In 2008, Fidel stepped aside and Raul became President. In 2013, Cuba lessened travel restrictions for both those wanting to leave and those wanting to visit the island. However, the government continues to face dissent, and many believe that activists are still arrested and imprisoned.

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