The Caribbean is a sea with a group of islands having a relatively modest role in international affairs. Most of the islands are small, their economies are relatively weak, and their history is usually traced back merely to the end of the 15th century when one of the tiny islands now belonging to The Bahamas happened to be the first land reached by Christopher Columbus and his expedition. The Caribbean, however, is an amazingly diverse region - a true crossroads of races, nations, religions, and civilizations.
The fact that the Europeans discovered the region in 1492, of course, does not suggest that it did not have any history prior to this date. The islands were populated by a group of Native American tribes traditionally known as the Arawak (recently also called Taino). Immediately upon their discovery, all major Caribbean islands (including Cuba, Hispaniola, Trinidad, Jamaica and Puerto Rico) were proclaimed the property of the Spanish dominion. The Spanish took an effort to settle the islands, either assimilating or pushing away the natives. The diseases the Europeans brought with them caused disastrous epidemics that swept away thousands of lives of indigenous inhabitants of the islands.
The Spaniards who conquered vast areas in South and North America were not able to maintain effective control over all of the islands in the Caribbean, and many of these were soon overtaken by other powerful seafaring nations of the time such as Britain, The Netherlands and France. By the end of the 16th century, all three nations had fortresses, ports and colonial administrations in different parts of the Caribbean region. This largely shaped the subsequent history of the Caribbean for centuries to follow. The Dutch claimed the southern part of the region, along the Venezuelan coast, on the islands of Curacao, Bonaire, and Aruba, as well as some tiny islands in the Lesser Antilles Archipelago. The British took over Jamaica and Trinidad, along with a number of smaller islands such as the Cayman Islands, Saint Kitts, Barbados, and Grenada. The French established a foothold on the island of Hispaniola (now known as the Republic of Haiti), Martinique, Guadeloupe and a few other tiny islands. The Spanish retained Cuba and Puerto Rico.
During colonial times, the basis of the island economy across the Caribbean was the cultivation of sugar cane. Labor force in huge numbers was necessary for that, and all the European colonial powers started bringing in slaves from Africa, in very much the same fashion as did what would later become the United States of America. The people of African descent now comprise a high percentage of population in every island nation in the Caribbean. In some of them (Haiti, Jamaica, The Bahamas) they are the absolute majority. African music (such as reggae), African crafts, and African religious beliefs (particularly voodoo in Haiti) are still a prominent part of the modern Caribbean culture.
Haiti became the first independent nation in the region following the Haitian Revolution that lasted from 1791 to 1804. Encouraged by the ideals of the Great French Revolution of 1789, the Haitians abolished slavery and proclaimed a republic. As the Spanish colonial empire entered the era of decline in the 19th century, Cuba and the Dominican Republic became independent nations with help from the U.S., which was interested in further weakening the Spanish influence in the Americas. Puerto Rico, in turn, chose to become a nation associated with the United States - the status it maintains today.
Many other smaller nations in the Caribbean gained independence, mostly from the UK, in the 1960s and 1970s. Among them are Barbados, Grenada, the Bahamas, and others. The islands that belonged to the Netherlands and France preferred to maintain ties with their former colonial centers. The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have the status of the “overseas departments” of France while the former Dutch colonies are self-governing entities within the Kingdom of The Netherlands.
Another major event that placed the Caribbean island of Cuba into the epicenter of world politics was the Communist Revolution in Cuba in 1953-59, under the leadership of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. This caused the long-lasting U.S. embargo against Cuba, and peaked during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The intention of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev was to install nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, which put the world on the brink of World War III.
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