Cuba is the largest and westernmost of the islands of the West Indies and lies strategically at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, with the western section only 90 mi (145 km) S of Key West, Fla. The south coast is washed by the Caribbean Sea, the north coast by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the east the Windward Passage separates Cuba from Haiti. The shores are often marshy and are fringed by coral reefs and cays. There are many fine seaports—Havana (the chief import point), Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Cárdenas, Nuevitas, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo (a U.S. naval base since 1903). Of the many rivers, only the Cauto is important. The climate is semitropical and generally uniform, and like most other Caribbean nations Cuba is subject to hurricanes.
Cuba has three mountain regions: the wild and rugged Sierra Maestra in the east, rising to 6,560 ft (2,000 m) in the Pico Turquino; a lower range, the scenic Sierra de los Órganos, in the west; and the Sierra de Trinidad, a picturesque mass of hills amid the plains and rolling country of central Cuba, a region of vast sugar plantations. The rest of the island is level or rolling.
The origins of the population include Spanish (over 35%), African (over 10%), and mixed Spanish-African (over 50%). Spanish is spoken and Roman Catholicism, the dominant religion, is tolerated by the Marxist government. Santería, an African-derived faith, is also practiced, and there are a growing number of Protestant evangelical churches. The principal institutions of higher learning are the Univ. of Havana (founded 1728), in Havana; Universidad de Oriente, in Santiago de Cuba; and Central Universidad de las Villas, in Santa Clara.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.