Cuba is unlike any other place on earth. What draws people to this fascinating Caribbean island is much more than beaches, sun, and cheap drinks, though there is plenty of all three for those who want them. One of the last Communist-bloc nations left, it doesn't suffer from the drab and desultory demeanor of its disappeared peers. Cuba's rich culture, unique political history, and continued survival through ongoing economic hardship make it one of the most eye-opening countries that experienced travelers can still discover. Seeing the best of Cuba means grooving to its intoxicating music, admiring at how Cubans improvise on a daily basis to make ends meet, and visiting a land in which the past 50 years seem to have passed by in some odd state of frozen animation.

Cuba is an ongoing and enduring enigma. By any conventional measure, this Caribbean island should be a speck in the global geopolitical ocean. Yet for more than half a century, this nation of 11.4 million people has commanded the world stage in a manner wholly incommensurate with its small size and economic insignificance. A former colony of Spain and playground of American high rollers, Cuba struck out on its own in the late 1950s, and the nation remains a hot topic in the corridors of the world's power brokers. Fiercely independent but rarely free, and the unlikeliest of major players, Cuba arouses passions like perhaps no other nation.

For decades, those inflamed feelings have focused on the Communist regime that one man, Fidel Castro, brazenly engineered. Hated and worshiped in almost equal measure, Fidel Castro defied critics, confounded pundits, and frustrated his own followers. His brother, Raúl Castro, who became president in February 2008, walks the same walk with Cuba's unique brand of home-grown communism. However, Raúl has inherited a crumbling economy during a global recession that has forced him -- and the government -- to review some of Cuba's socialist policies.

Slowly, though, the world is learning that Cuba is more than a coveted property in a high-stakes game of Risk. Wider exposure to Cuban culture (especially its music and dance), the island's colonial treasures, and the Cuban people has given rise to a love affair that transcends international politics.

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