Cuba and the Florida Keys have been umbilically connected since way back when

Map of Cuba


Cuba lies just 90 miles to the south of the Florida Keys. This has made it possible for trade between the inhabitants of both groups of Islands since the early Native Indians. They were ocean travelers.

Indians called their island Cubanacan. The early inhabitants were hunters, fishermen and farmers. They grew yucca, fruits , maiz, squash, peppers, peanuts and tobacco.

The Spanish were looking for gold when they invaded this island. They found very little. What they did find was agriculture.

Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, was named governor-general. He was sent by King Ferdinand to colonize the island. He killed the chief and burned him on a cross. After that, they had little resistance from the natives.

He colonized the natives and turned them into a labor force for the agriculture . The Indians were leaving the island. More labor was needed. Slave trade begun by the Spanish in 1513 and it continued until 1886.

Jose Marti

Havana was the main port. It became the capital of the new world. Trade with other countries was not allowed. But ships from other countries were allowed into Havana for food and water on their return trip to Europe. They all used the same route to go north. They used the Gulfstream. This is why there are so many shipwrecks in the waters of the Florida Keys.

Havana was taken by the English in 1762. It remained under English rule until it was traded back to Spain in exchange for Florida in 1763. Both countries claimed the Florida Keys as part of their country. Spain demanded that the Florida Keys were islands of Cuba and not part of the deal.

Havana’s population was growing in 1817. It had 70,000 citizens. The whole islands population had reached 553,000 citizens.



Cuban Cigars from Cuba A former Colonel in The Royal Spanish Army had plans to overthrow the Spanish Government in Cuba. The government found out about his revolt. He made tracks to the U.S. He rallied local Cubans to join his campaign. This was the first invasion from U.S. soil, and it failed. He beat feet back to the U.S. and organized another invasion. He rallied 450 sympathizers. They landed in Cardenas but had no support from the local citizens. He returned to Key West.

Spanish/Cuban relations were frayed. The Spanish began taking land from the citizens. Many prominent Cubans hightailed it to Key West. War broke out. It lasted 30 years and claimed 200,000 lives combined from both sides.

San Carlos Institute

This was the beginning of cigar manufacturing in Key West. The first cigar factory soon opened.

The San Carlos Institute was dedicated in Key West on January 21, 1871. It was named after Carlos M. de Cespedes. He was one of the first to scream “Cuba Libre” in 1868. His son was elected mayor of Key West in 1876.

Key West supported the civil unrest there . It became a political and financial center for the cause. The US Government was to occupied trying to recover from the Civil War in 1865 to try and stop the money flowing to the island nation.

Jose Marti Drive


Jose Marti Drive in Key West is named for Jose Julian Marti who was credited with rallying the military leaders, raising funds and organizing campaigns for the revolution in 1895. He raised most of these funds in Key West. The Cuban citizens became defiant. The US asked Spain to mediate the unrest but Spain refused. The US battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898. This caused the US to declare war with Spain.

After a few months Cuba was given up to the US in trust for its citizens with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. Spanish rule ended. The US ruled until May 1902.

They elected their first President on May 20, 1902. Four years later there was another revolution. A provisional government was set up by the US. Harmony was restored to the island. The provisional government was in place for three years.

The next ten years showed prosperity due to the sugar cane industry. This industry began to slide. The President was blamed and revolts once again broke out.

Plaque on San Carlos Institute

A new President was elected in 1925. He became the first outright dictator. Martial law was declared. He took away the citizens freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Once again the citizens went to the streets and ran the President out of the country. This was 1933.

Several other Presidents came and went. They were all owned by the Colonel of the Army, Batista Zaldivar. Unrest continued and of course the US was blamed. In 1940 Batista became President. During WWII he allied with the USSR. The people continued to be unhappy and elected a new President in 1944.

The price of sugar fell and took the Cuban economy with it.

In 1948 another new President was elected. He was overthrown by Batista in 1952. Then he staged a coup before a new election could be held. Batista was again elected President in 1954. During these years lots of US Citizens enjoyed traveling to Cuba. Henry Flagler's Railroad was completed all the way to Key West. Boats here were kept busy taking passengers back and forth on the 90 mile crossing.

Becky's father in Havana, Cuba Castro’s first attempt to overthrow the Cuban Government was in 1953. It was unsuccessful. Castro was caught and put in prison, then he was exiled to Mexico. He returned to Cuba in 1956 to lead another revolution. He joined forces with “Che” Guevara who was an idealist and hated Yankee imperialism. Che Guevara was also very popular with the Cuban citizens. Castro led Cuba to overcome US opposition including assignation attempts, the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, the Freedom Flights that lasted from 1965 to 1973, the 1980 Marial Boatlift, with Castro dumping his criminals and mentally insane on the US, and again in 1994 when Castro allowed anyone to leave that wanted to go in a boat or on a raft. He also had victory in 2000 when Elean Gonzalez was returned to Cuba to live with his father.

Policies have changed many times over the years concerning refugees from this island nation. At present time we have a wet foot dry foot policy in place. If a Cuban is picked up at sea or while walking in water toward shore, they will be sent back to Cuba. If they make it to shore, they will then be given the opportunity to apply for political asylum. Which means they get to stay in the US.

Throughout the Florida Keys you’ll notice the Latin flavor. It has very much influenced our food, drink and culture here. I think it would be safe to say that you can travel thru any neighborhood in the Keys and find at least one family that made the risky passage from Cuba to the Florida Keys.



Return from Cuba to History of the Florida Keys

Return from Cuba to History of the Florida Keys