Cuba profile - Overview
- 22 May 2015
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Cuba's Communist government has survived more than 50 years of US sanctions intended to topple veteran leader Fidel Castro. It also defied predictions that it would not survive the collapse of its one-time supporter, the Soviet Union.
Since the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba has been a one-party state led by Mr Castro and - since February 2008 - by his chosen successor and younger brother, Raul.
Fidel Castro exercised control over virtually all aspects of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its affiliated mass organisations, the government bureaucracy and the state security apparatus.
Exploiting the Cold War, Fidel Castro was for decades able to rely on strong Soviet backing, including annual subsidies worth $4-5 billion, and succeed in building reputable health and education systems. But, at least partly because of the US trade sanctions, he failed to diversify the economy.
The disappearance of Soviet aid following the collapse of the USSR forced the government to introduce tight rationing of energy, food and consumer goods. The economy soldiered on with the help of Canadian, European and Latin American investments, especially in tourism.
Controls were relaxed in the 1990s, with companies allowed to import and export without seeking permission and a number of free trade zones opening up.
Some of these economic reforms were later rolled back, with Fidel Castro denouncing what he called the "new rich".
However, after Fidel Castro was succeeded as president by his brother Raul, the pace of economic reform picked up once more.
Cuba has forged closer ties with China and with oil-producing Venezuela. The latter supplies cheap fuel, while the former is helping Cuba to develop its own oil industry.
But the money sent home by Cubans living abroad - many of them in the US city of Miami - is still crucial to the economy. Hardships have led to an increase in prostitution, corruption, black marketeering and desperate efforts to escape in search of a better life.
Cuba has fallen foul of international agencies, including the UN's top human rights forum, over rights abuses. The UN's envoy has urged Havana to release imprisoned dissidents and to allow freedom of expression.
The US leases the Guantanamo Naval Base on the eastern tip of the island under a 1903 treaty, and continues to send Cuba payment for it. Cuba under the Castros disputes the lease, saying that it was concluded under duress, and has refused to cash any of the cheques since the early days of the revolution.
Relations with the US showed signs of a thaw following the election of President Barack Obama. In December 2014 Mr Obama said the US and Cuba would end more than 50 years of hostility and were talking about restoring diplomatic ties. He said the policy of isolating Cuba had failed. President Castro said the island would not give up its socialist principles.
Russia has also taken steps to revitalise ties with its Soviet-era ally, and has signed agreements to explore Cuba's offshore oil deposits.
In 2014, Cuba won international praise for its response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, after Havana sent hundreds of front-line medical staff to help deal with the crisis.