Cuba is the largest and most populous island in the West Indies (Greater Antilles chain), located in the northern Caribbean region, at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Populated for many centuries by Amerindian groups like the Ciboney (Siboney) and Taino, Cuba was sighted by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage, and claimed for Spain. The island was subsequently colonized by Spaniards, who later imported slaves from West Africa to work their coffee and sugar plantations. It is from all these ethnic roots, and others, that Cuba derives its present kaleidoscope of peoples.
One major influence on the development of Cuba’s national identity has been its proximity to the US with the attendant cultural and political pressures coming from that giant neighbor to its north. Even in the mid 19th century, southern politicians in the US made plans to annex Cuba as a way of reinforcing their pro-slavery policies. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, control of the island was taken from Spain, and the US exerted much political and economic influence on the nation until the success of the communist revolution under Fidel Castro in 1959. Many middle- and upper-class Cubans fled the country and emigrated to the US in the wake of Castro’s revolution.
Cuba has many religious faiths, which reflects the island’s diverse cultural background. The Spanish colonists introduced Catholicism at the beginning of the 16th century, and this is the most prevalent professed faith. After the revolution, Cuba became officially atheistic and put severe restrictions on religious practices. Since 1991, most restrictions have been relaxed.
Catholicism is often practised in tandem with Santería, a mixture of Catholicism and traditional African belief systems. Santeria originates mainly from the Yoruba of Nigeria. There may be as many as 3 million adherents to Santeria and other cults which resemble Haitian voodoo.
Cuba only has two recorded living languages: Spanish and Lucumi. The latter, derived from a subfamily of Niger Congo tongues of Benin, Togo and Nigeria, is a secret language used exclusively in the rituals of Santeria.