The Revolutionary Era
Spain, however, continued to rule Cuba badly. Spain’s colonial policy, applied throughout its empire, was based on exploitation, with power centralized in Madrid, and politics practiced only for the spoils of office and to the benefit solely of peninsulares—native-born Spaniards. “The Spanish officials taxed thrift right out of the island; they took industry by the neck and throttled it,” thought Frederic Remington on his visit in 1899. Cuban-born criollos resented the corrupt peninsulares who denied them self-determination. No Cuban could occupy a public post, set up an industry or business, bring legal action against a Spaniard, or travel without military permission.
Following the Napoleonic wars in Europe, Spain’s New World territories were wracked by wars of independence led by Simón Bolívar. By 1835 only Cuba and Puerto Rico had not gained independence from Spain. Meanwhile, a new generation of young Cuban intellectuals and patriots began to make their voices heard.
In 1843, Miguel Tacón became governor. He suppressed patriotic sentiment and executed or exiled leading nationalists. Meanwhile, the island, says historian Louis A. Pérez Jr., “had achieved a level of modernity that far surpassed Spain’s, emphasizing the gap between the Cuban potential and Spanish limitations. Spain could not provide Cuba with what it did not itself possess.” Spain clung to its colony with despairing strength and the support of wealthy criollos (concentrated in western Cuba), who feared that abolitionist sentiments in Europe would lead to abolition of slavery in Cuba.
Uncle Sam Stirs
Annexation sentiment in the United States had been spawned by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Mississippi River became the main artery of trade, and Cuba’s position at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico took on added strategic importance. Thus in 1808 Thomas Jefferson attempted to purchase Cuba from Spain (he was the first of four presidents to do so). John Quincy Adams thought Cuba a fruit that would ripen until it fell into the lap of the United States.
Sentiment didn’t come into it. By 1848, 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar was sold to the U.S. market; manufactures began flowing the other way. Yankees yearned for expanded trade. Thus President James Polk (1845–1849) offered Spain US$100 million for Cuba. President Franklin Pierce (1853–1857) upped the ante to US$130 million. His successor, James Buchanan, tried twice to purchase Cuba for the same price. But Spain wasn’t selling.
The American Civil War changed the equation. With slavery in the United States ended, it became impossible for Spain to keep the lid on Cuba. In 1868 the pot boiled over.
The Ten Years War
The planters of western Cuba were determined to forestall the abolition of slavery in Cuba. But the relatively poor, backward, and criollo eastern planters had little to lose. Their estates were going bankrupt and falling into the hands of rapacious Havana moneylenders.
On October 10, 1868, a planter named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed the slaves on his plantation at La Demajagua, near Manzanillo, in Oriente. Fellow planters rushed to join him, and as the dawn broke over the dewy plantations of Oriente, they raised the Grito de Yara (Shout of Yara). Within a week, 1,500 men had flocked to Céspedes’s calling (they called themselves the Mambí, after a freedom fighter in Santo Domingo). For the next 10 years Cuba would be roiled by the first war of independence (the Ten Years War, 1868–1878), a bitter war in which white and black criollos fought side by side against 100,000 Spanish volunteers shipped from Spain with a virtual carte blanche to terrorize the people of Cuba.
Guerrilla warfare seized the island. Led by two brilliant generals—one a white, General Máximo Gómez, and the other a mulatto, Antonio Maceo—the rebels liberated much of the island and seemed on the verge of victory. However, the movement collapsed, and in 1878 the forces signed the Pact of Zanjón. The rebels were given a general amnesty, and slaves who had fought with the rebels were granted their freedom.
The Cuban economy had been devastated. Huge tracts of land lay abandoned. Amid the chaos, North American investors bought up ravaged sugar plantations and mills at ludicrously low rates. Meanwhile, the Spanish reverted to the same old recipe of tyranny. Independence, the one dignified solution refused the criollos, was the cause that united the population of Cuba.
The long, bloody war claimed the lives of 250,000 Cubans and 80,000 Spaniards. At least 100,000 Cubans were forced to flee; their lands were expropriated and given to loyalists. Among those arrested was a teenager named José Martí y Pérez. After a brief imprisonment, the young gifted orator, intellectual, poet, and political leader was exiled to Spain.
Following his exile, José Martí traveled to the United States, where he settled. Through his writings and indefatigable spirit he became the acknowledged “intellectual author” of independence. In 1892 he formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and led the movement.
In 1895 Martí joined General Máximo Gómez in the Dominican Republic. Together they sailed to Cuba. On April 11, they landed at Cajobabo at the eastern end of the island. Martí kissed the Cuban soil he had not seen for 16 years. From here, they linked up with the great Cuban general Antonio Maceo and his ragtag army. Together they launched the War of Independence (1895–1898).
Barely one month after returning from exile, Martí martyred himself on May 19, 1895, at the age of 42. His motto was, “To die for the fatherland is to live.” Martí’s death left Cuba without a spiritual leader. But the Cubans were determined to seize their freedom. Generals Gómez and Maceo led an army of 60,000 the full length of Cuba, smashing Spanish forces en route. Maceo’s brilliant tactics earned worldwide acclaim until he was finally killed in battle in December 1896.
After Maceo’s death, the struggle degenerated into a destructive guerrilla war of attrition. In a desperate bid to forestall independence, the ruthless Spanish governor, Valeriano Weyler, herded virtually the entire campesino population into concentration camps. The reconcentración campaign claimed the lives of 10 percent of Cuba’s population. In turn, the rebels torched the sugarcane fields until the conflagration licked at the fringe of Havana.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition