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Obama and Raul


By Rossana Favero-Karunaratna

It is important to learn the historical background of Cuba to better understand the changes in relations between the US and that country, especially in a post-Castro context. Cuba is made up of some 1,600 islands, islets, and cays located in the Caribbean Sea, 90 miles south from the state of Florida in the United States. This geographical position has shaped the political and legal history of more than 10 million people, 70% of whom live in main cities.

Cuba was the second site of arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who was searching for a new route to India in 1492. On October 27th of that year, Columbus, sponsored by Queen Isabel of Spain, arrived in the island known as Cubana, and inhabited by approximately 50,000 natives called Tainos, Siboney and Guanahatabey, where he would find different species of flora and fauna, some of them unique to the island. Columbus later renamed this land as "Juana", a name that would be changed again to "Fernandina" - names connected to the Spanish Royal family and its members. Columbus established the first Spanish settlement not in Cuba, but in the present Haiti and Dominican Republic territories (Hispaniola).

Economic importance

Thereafter, the Spanish crown would realise Cuba’s economic importance: this territory became known not only for sugar and coffee plantations but also as an important strategic military point for Spain—a gateway to the New World, discovered by Christopher Columbus, a consideration which is still politically much alive today. Havana became the capital of the island only in 1552. The present population of Cuba is a mixture of descendants of settlers from Europe, especially from Spain and black descendants of the slave population, who came from Africa, during the XVIII and XIX centuries. Asian-Chinese-immigrants also played an important role in relation to the ethnic composition of this land. The native population was virtually exterminated. Although there existed historical ties with Spain, in terms of religion, 50% of the population does not profess any faith: 40% are Catholics, 6% atheists, 3.5%Christians and 1.5% practice Afro-Cuban rites and Santeria.

The colonial period of the history of this island began in 1511 and continued till 1895, more than three hundred years of under the Spanish occupation. The Derecho Castellano (Castillian Law) underwent the impact of the different legal systems prevailing at that period: Roman Law, German Law, Canon Law and Justinian Laws. The system was also influenced by Arabic traditions, a political effect of the occupation of Spain by the Arabs. The legal system was based on the principle that "a recent norm prevails against the previous one in a subsequent order up to the eighth grade." This system entitled an individual to look for the correct norm to be applied for a particular case going backwards in a consecutive order up to eight places in order, to search for the most appropriate law to be implemented for the case in dispute.

The Spanish authorities designed an original system of administration, dividing the island through a political system of "encomiendas", which was to be applied as a model system to the rest of the territories under their domination in Central and South America. The Indians had to work for an "encomendero" (a Spanish official) who was expected to look after the Indians; however, the exercise of the powers assigned to this post resulted in the conformation of a privileged group whose abuses led to the killing of almost the entire native populations all over the Spanish settlements. People died due to harsh conditions of work and the physical abuse of the "encomenderos".

Ancient Civilization

Even though in Cuba there are no records of an ancient civilization, the natives certainly had their own language and practices, which were exterminated, not only through executions but also forced conversions. Cuban colonial society at the time was divided along colour and class lines: Whites of Spanish descent were either criollos (Cuban-born of Spanish parents) or peninsulares (Spanish-born of Spanish parents), while blacks were either slaves or liberated. The natives were considered ‘indios’ providing service and labour to races considered superior to them. That was the natural order designed by God, they were told. Religion was invoked to justify the prevailing discrimination; the natives and the blacks were considered mere instruments or providers of labour force for the economic gains and final benefit of the civilized.

Cuba, divided on racial origins, generated a new set of rights based on racial discrimination. Slavery was justified and actively promoted with the objective to develop the sugar and tobacco plantations. Although intermarriage was encouraged in certain circumstances by the Spanish Crown on the basis of economic and political interests, the relation with people of African origin was considered infra dig and, therefore, intermarriage with a slave was not accepted. The book written by Verena Martínez-Alier on Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, explains how the Spanish Crown enacted sets of rules in different periods to eradicate this type of marriage. The Royal Pragmatic Rule in 1778 was implemented in order to prevent intermarriage among unequals; disinheritance was the penalty for infractions. A system of licences of authorization was imposed. Legality of the union was based on the existence of a previous authorization given by the Crown with no opposition from relatives as such unions were considered "to tarnish the family honour". The age of consent for marriage was 25; however, in 1803 the age of consent was changed on the basis of gender: 23 years for men and 25 years for women. Martinez-Alier and Stolcke refer to a case that took place in Cuba in 1791. A white girl wanted to marry a pardo (mixed white and black) or mulatto. The sister of the girl opposed the marriage and the authorities proceeded to deny authorization.

The girl appealed to the King, whose advisors finally decided that the girl’s illegitimate origin offset the inferior colour of the suitor, and therefore they were allowed to marry. The girl was the daughter of a priest.

Rise of Cuban nationalism

Human rights abuses that were perpetrated against the slaves included abuses to women, and in a high number of instances rape and sexual violence were perpetrated by the aggressors. Interracial relations were promoted as a style of life for the white planters, and the presence of pirates also stimulated the encouragement of careless and highly sexual behaviour. Sexual relations with African women became part of the usual conduct in the plantations, where slaves were not seen as human beings but commodities to be sold and exchanged. Sex and sexuality were part of that trade. Discrimination continued to exist on the basis of colour and birth, and the legal system became more detailed in relation to land and property rights. Criollos could own land and acquire wealth; however they were prohibited from holding high administrative positions that brought the Peninsulares greatest prestige and wealth. In fact, much of the Peninsulares' wealth was appropriated from the Criollos.

Trading became another source of rivalry among the two groups and economic issues attracted different regional powers. Tobacco became a popular crop in Europe towards the end of the XVII century; as a consequence Spain prohibited the Criollo tobacco farmers from selling their production directly to Europe. The Spanish administration provided regulations in order to protect the interests of the Peninsulares. The criollos were forced to sell their product at lower prices to tobacco monopolies owned by Peninsulares, who then resold it for higher prices to Spain and other European nations. As a consequence of that regulation, the Criollos started smuggling in order to obtain some revenues. Such favouritism to Peninsulares, expressed in the regulations implemented by the authorities of the Spanish Crown, finally became a driving force for the beginning of a consciousness of Cuban nationalism and the need to create a force of resistance against Spanish military, legal and administrative control. This scenario repeated all over Latin American territories occupied by Spain, generating a movement which later fought for Independence.

1762, during the Seven Years' War, England attacked Cuba and held control of Havana for one year. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict, the island was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida. During those years many French citizens would arrive in Cuba. Some of them would leave but others decided to settle down and assimilate with the population. The struggle for Independence divided the population into different sectors, according to their loyalties and their expectations. One group was looking forward to continue the relationship with Spain considered their Motherland, while another wanted independence from Spain, considered oppressive. There was a current of opinion in favour of being a territory integrated to the United States. The fourth sector wanted full independence from any power.

Jose Marti, a lawyer and a poet, became the central figure and a symbol of the struggle for Cuban total independence, which finally united the criollos, mestizos and slaves - the oppressed - in this common plight. The war for Independence suddenly dragged in another party: the United States, as a result of the destruction of an American ship located in Havana harbour, an event recorded as a "self inflicted aggression" according to Cuban history and as a consequence war was declared in 1898. The war only lasted few months but had a terminal effect on the Colonial Spain. Under the Treaty of Paris, (10 December, 1898), Spain relinquished her hold on Cuba, which she had held for over 400 years. Beginning 1 January, 1899, the United States then occupied the island with their troops and appointed a military governor.

US involvement

This event added new territories to the United States; Guam and Puerto Rico were ceded to that country, and sovereignty of the Philippines was transferred to the United States for $20,000,000. Spain relinquished all claims to Cuba. The United States had earlier announced its intention through the Teller Amendment not to establish control of Cuba. However, their new political position gave them advantage to take over the government of Cuba, apparently as a temporary measure. The Platt Amendment was introduced restricting Cuba to enter into treaties, to be under the American administration and further allow the United States to purchase or lease land for naval stations, giving birth to what is presently known as the famous Guantanamo Bay military base, for perpetuity. The Island changed its name several times, even known as Ave Maria in the name of Virgin Mary. The natives continued to call it Cuba, name which would survive administrative nominations and continues to remain up to date.

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