Cuba: Small country, large symbol

(dpa) - Cuba is on all counts a very small country - with a population of 11.4 million people, a gross domestic product of about 39 billion dollars a year and an annual volume of trade of 9.3 billion dollars.

But it has for years projected itself far beyond these numbers.

Since 1959, under communist leader Fidel Castro who formally stepped down Tuesday after 18 months of illness, Cuba developed an oversize political influence during the 20th Century Cold War.

But it already had symbolic importance during the 19th Century, when it was still a colony of Spain. There were several conspiracies originating in the American South that sought the annexation of the island, and also formal attempts to buy it.

The US defeated Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, which led to the withdrawal of Spanish forces and the establishment of a US trusteeship in Cuba. The trusteeship was waived in 1901, but Washington retained a right to intervene in the island's affairs and access to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay now used as the controversial prison for terrorist suspects.

Cuba was the last of Spain's American colonies, and its loss became the symbol of the end of a 400-year-old empire. It had such profound psychological effect on the Spanish people that the Spanish phrase, "more was lost in Cuba," is used to dismiss the significance of any kind of failure in everyday life.

In a similar vein, the Cuban-American community in the US state of Florida, barely 900,000 people strong in a country of 299 million, has dramatically influenced the North American giant's foreign policy in the last few decades.

Cuba in fact has become used to living between its Spanish colonial heritage and its geographical proximity of only 150 kilometres to the US. The country was for decades divided between those who wanted to do away with Spanish control and those who feared that the space left vacant by the European colonial power might soon be filled by the nearby American neighbour.

When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the island was a playground for rich Americans and a centre of gambling with connections to the mafia. The revolutionary leader, who had not yet declared himself a communist, nationalised US-owned companies, closed the gambling industry - and provoked the US economic embargo that has hamstrung Cuba from development.

Castro looked for a large, powerful ally, and found none better than the Soviet Union. In the Cold-War scenario, Cuba again took on a significance that far outreached its actual size, and became an ideal point of origin for any hypothetical attack on the United States - even though it and its Soviet backers backed down from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Castro successfully projected his country's experience onto the world sphere. The Cuban Revolution and subsequent survival as a communist nation became an example for left-wing movements in Latin America and across the Third World. Indeed, the small island even sent troops to fight successful wars for the communist cause in countries as far away as Angola.

Culturally, Cuba influenced foreign writers such as Ernest Hemingway, and intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The island, with free education up to university level and compulsory schooling up to age 16, also contributed more than its fair share of locally-grown authors, such as Reinaldo Arenas and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

In sports, the small island has produced strong baseball players and competes as a key force in amateur boxing, athletics and other sports.

Fidel Castro, as the man who led the country nearly half a century and steered it along a complex political and economic path, could lay claim to being a champion for the cause of minnows, were it not for the harsh human rights violations he used to keep control of the country.

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