Part 1: 1492 – 1898
As the bus pulled away from Havana’s Jose Marti airport I realized that, although I was only a few miles from Florida, I was in a different world. The roads teemed with people even though we were far from the city. People were walking. Walking with purpose. These are people who live without Amazon Prime accounts or even smart phones. If they want something they have to go out and get it. If they want to talk to someone, they have to go over to their house. If they don’t have a car they have to walk. It’s all very 1950s which is when the old Cuba ended and the new Cuba began.
Cuba is strategically situated between North and South America which is its advantage and its curse. It is a beautiful and abundant island blessed with a benign climate marred by the occasional hurricane.
In 1492, as he sailed the ocean blue, Columbus mistakenly bumped into Cuba thinking it was Asia. He noted that the Arawak Indians lived an easy life in houses beautifully constructed with palm leaves and that they cultivated yuca root, tobacco, cotton, maize and sweet potatoes. Then he left. In 1493 the pope ordered the conquest of Cuba. After some resistance the first Spanish settlement was established in 1511. Three years later the Conquistadors controlled the whole island. The Spanish were interested in gold and quickly set the Indians to work finding it. The Indians didn’t take well to forced labor. Many were massacred, many more died from disease and exhaustion and the rest fled to the mountains. The Spanish were determined. They imported indigenous people from nearby islands and from Florida and Mexico, but they also succumbed to the same fate as their predecessors.
There wasn’t much gold and the Indians were dead, so most of the European settlers moved on to other colonies, leaving their animals behind. Left to their own devices and with no predators, the animals multiplied. Ranching became the main economy along with trade and shipping. Havana became the place where Spanish fleets gathered to sail back to Spain with their treasure. It was also at this time, the late 16th century, that the first sugar mills were established with the help of African slave labor.
In 1762 Britain conquered Havana. Although the British stayed for only 10 months, before swapping Cuba for Florida, they ushered in great changes. The British had for a long time had extensive trade with the elites of Havana, most of it illegal in the eyes of the Spanish Crown. With the new order, business soared. 4,000 African slaves were imported. The previous 250 years had averaged 160. Trade links were strengthened and used even after Spain regained control.
The sugar industry became even more important after the Haitian slave revolt in 1791 when French planters sought sanctuary and brought their expertise. The French planters didn’t usually make slaves of their own children; instead a class called mulattos had developed. These children of slaves and slave owners were often educated and given responsibilities even though they were never accepted as full citizens. Mulattos led the Haitian slave revolt but many fled with their fathers to Cuba. Unfortunately, the Cubans didn’t accept them at all and they were immediately relegated to slave status. At the time, the Cuban population was 60% black or mulatto and the white population worried that they too might be overthrown, which lessened their desire for independence from Spain, unlike most of Spain’s other American colonies. Instead of independence, the planter class played with the idea of joining the United States. The southern US states welcomed an additional slave state and proposed to buy it from Spain and if Spain refused to sell, seize it. In 1848 President Polk offered $100 million but Spain refused. The civil war put a hold on the idea.
In 1820, Britain and Spain had agreed to end the slave trade in the Spanish colonies. However, 600,000 African slaves entered Cuba in the 19th century. Most of them after 1820. Cuba became the main source of supply for Texas and the US southern states after slave importation was banned in the U.S in 1808.
In 1860, Cuba produced one third of the world’s sugar supply. After the American Civil War, American investment in the Cuban sugar industry increased and a huge mechanization effort ensued. Railroads were expanded and modern equipment and technology were installed. Even with increased mechanization manpower was essential. Since Britain and the US had banned the Atlantic slave trade, Spanish slave traders had to avoid British and American warships which slowed them down. 120,000 Chinese laborers, who were treated as badly as African slaves, were imported on 8 year contracts. All the Chinese laborers were male and so their offspring were of mixed race.
As Cuba prospered, Spain increased taxes, setting off The Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). An eastern planter, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, freed his slaves to fight. He was joined by a few other landowners and many farmers and laborers. His aim was to abolish slavery and to join the USA. The plantation owners in the west were afraid that independence could mean a fate like that of Haiti and so didn’t join in. Different factions with different goals formed within the revolt. The elites sought relief from Spanish taxes but wanted to keep the social system that gave them privilege, whilst the workers and freed slaves had much more radical ideas such as land reform, abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. The struggle didn’t make it to the west of Cuba and after ten years of internal bickering the rebels surrendered to Spain, which offered political and economic reforms, freedom for the slaves who had fought in the rebel army, and a general amnesty.
One of those taking advantage of the amnesty was the newly married, 25 year old, poet, playwright, novelist, painter and revolutionary Jose Marti. Marti was born in Havana to poor Spanish immigrants. At the age of 12 he found a mentor, Rafael Maria de Mendive, who financed his education and influenced his politics. He became an ardent champion of Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery. At 16, he was arrested and sentenced to 6 years hard labor for treason after writing a disparaging letter to a friend who had joined the Spanish army. Because of his age and ill health he didn’t serve much of his sentence; instead the authorities exiled him to Spain where he wrote, studied law and argued for Cuban independence.
In 1875, he moved to Mexico and then to Guatemala. In both places he became an influential member of the Intelligentsia and also made enemies within the political establishments.
On his return to Cuba, Marti met Juan Gualberto Gomez, who became his partner in planning the War of Independence. His stay in Cuba was brief. He was arrested for conspiracy and exiled once again. His next few years were spent in France and Venezuela before he settled in New York.
In New York, Marti wrote for several Latin American newspapers and also served as a diplomat for Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. In his writing he encouraged a Pan-American vision for the South American nations. He wrote about the positive aspects of the United States but also warned against US hegemony. He didn’t forget about Cuba and made contact with the Cuban diaspora in Florida. Cuban cigar manufacturers had started to manufacture in Key West in order to avoid tariffs. When the railroad was extended to Tampa, factories sprang up in Ybor City. In both places, a Cuban culture thrived and Marti was able to raise funds for his planned revolution, which he hoped would liberate his native land.
Although the Ten Year War had been unsuccessful, it had created some of the conditions for a successful revolution. It had nurtured military leaders, especially Maximo Gomez and Antonio Maceo. Juan Gualberto Gomez convinced the newly emancipated slaves that a republic would bring advantages to black Cubans. There had also been a seismic shift in the plantation economy. As well as the ending of slavery in 1886, there had been a worldwide drop in sugar prices due to the many European governments subsidizing sugar beet production. Many plantations went bankrupt and were taken over by American and European corporations. Former plantation owners and overseers were now disgruntled urban dwellers. Marti’s rallying cry in the Manifesto of Montecristi, which was also signed by Maximo Gomez, was “A republic with and for all.” He stressed that the war was to be fought by and should benefit both black and white Cubans and sympathetic Spaniards.
Marti recognized U.S. expansionary ambitions and only had to look at Hawaii for an example. In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalanai had been forced to abdicate by a group of white businessmen and planters with the help of the U.S. Marines. He was anxious to get his revolution underway before the U.S. got into the act. On Christmas Day 1894, he organized the Fernandina Plan which called for an armed force to leave the Florida town, Fernandina, pick up Maceo in Costa Rica and then to begin the War of Independence. A few weeks later the U.S detained three of the Cuban’s ships which were loaded with arms and supplies. Even with this setback, Marti left New York for Santa Domingo to meet Maceo. Maceo started the invasion on March 30 and Marti followed two weeks later. Marti met up with Maceo and Gomez on May 4. On May 9, he was killed in battle.
The rebels quickly took the Eastern region and declared the Republic of Cuba in September 1895. But the Spanish dug in. They brought in 200,000 troops and forced the rural population into concentration camps in the cities and towns. With their workers incarcerated even the planter elite began to side with the rebels. Tens of thousands died of starvation and disease. Both sides committed atrocities, but for the majority of Cubans, Spain became the enemy. In the U.S., anti-Spanish sentiment grew as accounts of these atrocities were published and pressure mounted on President McKinley to intervene. McKinley asked Congress for authorization. Congress realized that McKinley and his advisers planned to annex Cuba. This alarmed some members who feared an influx of Blacks and Catholics. In Colorado, sugar beet growers wanted to prevent competition from tariff free Cuban sugar and so Congress agreed to invade Cuba but added the Teller Amendment, which forbade the U.S. from annexing Cuba.
In February 1898 the U.S. invaded.