Spanish settlers established sugar cane and tobacco as Cuba's primary products. As the native Indian population died out, African slaves were imported to work the plantations. Slavery was abolished in 1886.
Cuba was the last major Spanish colony to gain independence, following a 50-year struggle begun in 1850. The final push for independence began in 1895, when Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, announced the "Grito de Baire" ("Call to arms from Baire"). In 1898, after the USS Maine sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15 due to an explosion of undetermined origin, the United States entered the conflict. In December of that year Spain relinquished control of Cuba to the United States with the Treaty of Paris. On May 20, 1902, the United States granted Cuba its independence, but retained the right to intervene to preserve Cuban independence and stability under the Platt Amendment. In 1934, the amendment was repealed and the United States and Cuba reaffirmed the 1903 agreement which leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States. The treaty remains in force and can only be terminated by mutual agreement or abandonment by the United States.
Until 1959, Cuba was often ruled by military figures, who either obtained or remained in power by force. Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant who established himself as Cuba's dominant leader for more than 25 years, fled on January 1, 1959, as Castro's "26th of July Movement" gained control. Castro had established the movement in Mexico, where he was exiled after the failed July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada army barracks at Santiago de Cuba. Within months of taking power, Castro moved to consolidate his power by imprisoning or executing opponents. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.
Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961. For the next 30 years, Castro pursued close relations with the Soviet Union until the advent of perestroika and the subsequent demise of the U.S.S.R. During that time Cuba received substantial economic and military assistance from the U.S.S.R.--generally estimated at $5.6 billion annually--which kept its economy afloat and enabled it to maintain an enormous military establishment. In 1962, Cuban-Soviet ties led to a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the installation of nuclear-equipped missiles in Cuba, resolved only when the U.S.S.R. agreed to withdraw the missiles and other offensive weapons. Soviet subsidies ended in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union. Former Soviet military personnel in Cuba--numbering around 15,000 in 1990--were withdrawn by 1993.
Russia still maintains a signal intelligence-gathering facility at Lourdes and has provided funding to preserve the still uncompleted thermonuclear plant at Juragua.