Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, about the size of England, and the most westerly of the Greater Antilles group, lying 145km (90 miles) south of Florida. A quarter of the country is fairly mountainous. West of Havana is the narrow Sierra de los Organos, rising to 750m (2461ft) and containing the Guaniguanicos hills in the west. South of the Sierra is a narrow strip of 2320 sq km (860 sq miles) where the finest Cuban tobacco is grown. The Trinidad Mountains, starting in the center, rise to 1100m (3609ft) in the east. Encircling the port of Santiago are the rugged mountains of the Sierra Maestra. A quarter of the island is covered with mountain forests of pine and mahogany.
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 In 1934 the amendment was repealed and the United States and Cuba reaffirmed the 1903 agreement which leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States.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. 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 deployed in 1990 were withdrawn by 1993.
Christmas became an official holiday in 1997 for the first time since the revolution, in response to Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, which raised hopes for greater religious freedom.
In June 2000, Castro won a publicity bonanza when the Clinton administration sent Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban boy found clinging to an inner tube near Miami, back to Cuba. The U.S. Cuban community had demanded that the boy remain in Miami rather than be returned to his father in Cuba.
In March and April 2003, Castro sent nearly 80 dissidents to prison with long sentences, prompting an international condemnation of Cuba's harsh crackdown on human rights.
The Bush administration tightened its embargo in June 2004, allowing Cuban Americans to return to the island only once every three years (instead of every year) and restricting the amount of U.S. cash that can be spent there to $50 per day. In response, Cuba banned the use of dollars, which had been legal currency in the country for more than a decade.
Hot, sub-tropical climate all year in Cuba. Most rain falls between May and October and hurricanes can occur in autumn (August to November). Humidity varies between 75 per cent and 95 per cent. Cooler months are January to April when the least rain falls.
After the revolution the arts were actively supported by the government: many theatres, museums and arts schools were founded, musicians were guaranteed a salary and a national film industry was established. The government has sought to redress the influence of North American mass culture by subsidising Afro-Cuban cultural groups and performing ensembles, which contributes to a proud and lively cultural identity.