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Cuba entered the world's imagination thanks to Christopher Columbus, who in 1492 described the Caribbean's biggest island in the following terms: "I have never seen a more beautiful country, with palm leaves so big they can roof a house, with thousands of shells on the beach, with such limpid water, and always the same deafening symphony from the songs of birds."

Cuba remains the same wonderful island, replete with breathtaking scenery, idyllic beaches and amazingly fertile land. Mysterious and inscrutable, Cuba would be shaped by human hands in the course of a tumultuous history. If a land can determine the character of a people, it is easy to imagine how this occurred in Cuba. The plains that cover most of its territory would give colonists and slaves alike the docile attitude, the goodness and the human warmth so characteristic of the Cuban people -- traits that allowed Spain to hold onto Cuba long after its other colonies had rebelled. On the other hand, the high mountains, covered with abundant and sometimes impenetrable tropical vegetation, would shape the rebellious side of the Cuban character; the mountains were the refuge of the mambises, the 19th-century fighters for independence, and of the cimarrones, the black slaves who managed to flee and embrace freedom. It was this rebelliousness that allowed the island's inhabitants to take control once and for all of their homeland's destiny. The palme real, or royal palm, the official emblem of the country, symbolizes Cubans' unshakable pride, so often tested but rarely triumphed over.

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