The prodigious native Amerindian population of Cuba, known as the Taino, began to decline shortly after the European discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
In fairly short order Cuba became a Spanish colony with a few Spanish settlements founded in the very early 16th century, and Havana established in 1515.
To help in their aggressive search for gold, the Spanish enslaved an estimated 100,000 Taino. In addition, the Spanish brought infectious diseases with them, like measles, and within a few years the indigenous people were virtually wiped out.
Cuba remained a Spanish possession until the end of the 19th century. Its economy was mostly agricultural-based, with an emphasis on coffee, sugar and tobacco production. Like other islands across the Caribbean, large numbers of African slaves were imported to do the work.
The small group of land-owning elite held the power, and they were supported by a growing population of European whites. In 1820, the population reached 700,000, including nearly 250,000 black slaves.
The trouble was that Spanish rule, marked initially by neglect of the slaves, became increasingly repressive, provoking an independence movement by slaves and occasional rebellions that were being harshly suppressed.
In 1868, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a sugar planter, and known today as Father of "Cuban Homeland," declared the nation's independence from Spain. He freed his slaves to help with the fight against Spain.
The Ten Years' War followed and nearly 200,000 people died, a severe depression covered the island of Cuba, and the war ruined the very profitable coffee and sugar industries. Isn't war grand?
In 1892, another war was just around the corner as an exiled dissident named Jose Marti (Cuba's national hero) founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York in 1892. He died in 1895 as his rebel army was just beginning the fight.
Greatly outnumbered by the Spanish army, the rebels fought back with guerrilla tactics. Eventually the Spanish military governor of Cuba imprisoned much of the rural populations in fortified towns (or concentration camps) and over 300,000 died from starvation.
Pressure to help was mounting in the U.S., and on January 25, 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine arrived in Havana to offer (it said) protection to the American residents and workers on the island; the Spanish saw this as intimidation.
On February 15, 1898, the Maine blew up in the harbor, killing 252 crew. This tragic incident was investigated by U.S. authorities and it was determined that the ship was destroyed by a mine placed in the harbor by Spain.
The Spanish–American War began in 1898, and in the end the Americans were victorious, and that victory finally overthrew Spanish rule in Cuba.
After the Spanish-American War, Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris; the U.S. would now (by treaty) control Cuba, and in addition Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the United States.