Cuba has survived more than 40 years of US sanctions intended to topple the government of 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 anointed successor, younger brother Raul.
Fidel 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 US-Soviet 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.
Politics: Communist leader Fidel Castro led the one-party state for nearly 50 years; his brother Raul took over as leader in 2008
Economy: US economic embargo has been in force since 1961; since collapse of USSR and loss of Soviet aid, there have been several tentative moves towards economic liberalisation
International: US, EU have pressed for democratic change and criticise the state of human rights; Venezuela under Hugo Chavez is an important ally
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 bodies, 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, who in April 2009 said he wanted a new beginning with Cuba.
Russia has also taken steps to revitalise ties with its Soviet-era ally, and in July 2009 signed an agreement to explore Cuba's offshore oil deposits, which are believed to be substantial.
Raul Castro, the world's longest-serving defence minister, took over as president in February 2008, succeeding his ailing brother Fidel, who had been in power for five decades.
Raul Castro picked up the reins of power from his brother Fidel
Raul Castro became acting president 18 months earlier when his brother was incapacitated by ill health, and was formally named as president by the National Assembly days after Fidel announced his retirement.
Fidel Castro, a devotee of Marxist-Leninist theory, brought revolution to Cuba and created the western hemisphere's first communist state. His bearded figure, long speeches, army fatigues and defiance of the United States earned him iconic status across the globe.
Raul, 76 at the time of this appointment, has been his brother's trusted right-hand man and was once known as an iron-fisted ideologue who executed Fidel Castro's orders - and enemies - ruthlessly.
Under his leadership, Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces became one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Third World with combat experience in Africa, where they defeated South Africa's army in Angola in 1987.
Fidel Castro outlasted no fewer than nine US presidents
Known as a good administrator, Raul Castro substantially cut the size of the army after the collapse of Soviet Communism threw Cuba into severe economic crisis. He introduced Western business practices to help make the armed forces self-sufficient. The military has a large stake in the most dynamic sectors of the Cuban economy, including tourism.
Raul Castro has also eased some restrictions on personal freedoms by lifting bans on mobile phones and home computers, and has promised to consider allowing Cuban citizens to travel abroad as tourists.
Following the election of US President Barack Obama, he said he was willing to respond to overtures from Washington and enter into dialogue with the US administration, but insisted that Cuba's communist system remained non-negotiable.
The Cuban media are tightly controlled by the government and journalists must operate within the confines of laws against anti-government propaganda and the insulting of officials which carry penalties of up to three years in prison.
Private ownership of broadcast media is prohibited, and the government owns all mainstream media outlets.
Cuba is the only country in the Americas not to allow a non-state independent press, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Official media "serve first and foremost to transmit propaganda for the regime".
The US tries hard to reach Cuban audiences. Washington-backed Radio-TV Marti says it provides "balanced, uncensored" news for Cubans.
Citing UN data, Internetworldstats.com says there were 1.7 million internet users by December 2011.
US-based NGO Freedom House says most users are connected to the "closely-monitored" government intranet, and not the internet proper. A small but vibrant band of bloggers faces harassment and intimidation, it adds.
Cuba is one of RSF's "Enemies of the Internet". Connection problems are also the result of restrictions under the US embargo, says the press freedom group.
Granma - Communist Party newspaper, website in five languages including English
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