Columbus had never been farther south than Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the West Coast of Africa, but he had studied geography from a mix of biblical stories and medieval writings that still spoke of the earth as being flat. And now he was sailing uncharted seas, looking for a path to the Indies – the name 15th century Europeans gave to the Orient.
Columbus and his crew endured nearly two months of rancid water, rotten food, vermin, intestinal disorders, insufferable living quarters, and storms, but he was vindicated when Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on duty on the Pinta cried “Land Ahoy!” On October 28, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on Baracoa beach, on the northeast coast of Cuba, and claimed the island for the Spanish Crown, writing in his diary: “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes ever beheld.”
He then added: “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands came to capture them, and they defended themselves as best they could. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. “
The Spanish proceeded to enslave all of the indigenous people of Cuba, burning alive those who resisted conversion to Christianity. They forced men, women and children to work from sunrise to sundown. The potentially “good and skilled servants” had grown up sleeping on hammocks, making cassava bread, reaching up to trees laden with guavas and mangos, and harpooning fish with sharpened twigs before barbecuing it.
Within a century more than one hundred thousand natives whose forefathers had inhabited Cuba for over one thousand years died from malnutrition, measles, smallpox, and venereal diseases contracted as a result of the treatment they received at the hands of the Spanish.
Once the Spanish ran out of natives to enslave and ill treat hundreds of thousands of African slaves were imported to Cuba from the Ivory Coast. For exactly four hundred and six years Cuba, the so-called “Pearl of the Antilles”, was subjugated to an occupation that was at best paternalistic and at its worst criminal. Cuba’s frail economy was based primarily on sugar – 40% of the world’s supply in mid-19th century, and reliance on the back-breaking work of more than as quarter million slaves, while thrtere hundred thousand Spanish settlers held all the economic power.
On December 27, 1868 an uprising, led by the Cuban landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who issued a decree abolishing slavery, led to the Ten Years War. In 1878 it ended in an uneasy peace, with Spain “promising” greater autonomy to Cuba.
Spain was hands-down the most draconian, brutal, repulsive and repressive colonial power in Latin America, and of all of Spain’s colonies, Cuba was the one possession the Spanish Crown was determined to keep at all costs. But while the rest of the colonies seceded from Spain, Cuba rumbled like a sleeping volcano under the seemingly peaceful surface that gave it the Spanish motto of “Always Most Faithful Island.”
Cuban-born people outlived their Spanish-born parents and grandparents as strong nationalism and anti-Spanish feelings rose even among the Cuban-born, lily-white “criollos” to whom Spain offered a certain measure of stability and protection. The unrest was shared by a nascent middle class tinged with a white and black olor palette and proud to be Cuban and all shades of brown.
A large contingent of Cuban-born mulattos, the children of Spanish and African mothers and fathers once grown into adulthood were rising up and tragically fighting against their parents who remained on the fence or on the opposite side. The hatred reached a peak especially among the liberated Black population.
The once idyllic island was becoming a powder keg of rage and defiance.
The first of three insurrections began In October 1868, led by a white, first generation Cuban landowner, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. He declared that slavery was abhorrent and abolished, and liberating his slaves welcomed everyone into his army.
White Cubans called it the War of Independence, but it was also a war of black Cubans fighting against the white Spaniards who had enslaved them. Antonio Maceo, the son of slaves and a gigantic man that Cubans named The Bronze Titan, joined Céspedes and quickly became second in command, giving the Spaniards the fight of their lives.
Spain had endured overwhelming defeats up and down the South American continent, and Cuba had become the last bastion of Spanish presence in the Americas. The obdurate occupiers were hanging on for dear life to the island they grandiloquently called “The Pearl upon the Royal Spanish Crown.” That war continued for 10 years, but liberation from Spain was still beyond Cuba’s reach. Spain made promises for reforms, but they never came, and although Céspedes had declared freedom for slaves, Spain was still in charge, and their emancipation was still not recognized by the occupier.
The second of those hostilities, led by Calixto García, took place from 1879-1880, and was referred to as the “Little War,” although in many ways it was a continuation of the previous war. García traveled to New York, where he gathered a group of Cuban exiles determined to liberate their country. They composed a manifesto, and returned to Cuba to fight the good fight. Though determined, they were on their own with no allies and few resources.
The ten-year, two back-to-back struggles left Cubans exhausted, with few weapons and little ammunition. With only the aging García’s leadership, they were again defeated by the Spanish.
Although now twice defeated, Cubans had remained defiant. The centuries-old fight-to-the-death resolve of their forefathers and the determination of African-born slaves to finally be free spurred them on.
For a third time, a loosely-knit insurrection began at the end of 1894, and by April 1895, armaments from the United States to aid the rebels were coming by the boatload, mostly into the largely wide-open northern coast of Cuba.
Cubans had gained the sympathy of the United States, which certainly was a factor that would lead to the Spanish American War. On January 28, 1898 the United States sent a battleship “to offer protection to American residents in Cuba.” On the evening of February 15, 1898, the U.S. Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, killing or maiming most of its 260 crew members.
A board of inquiry reported that the Maine had been destroyed by “a double magazine set off from the exterior of the ship, which could only have been produced by a mine.”
Spain and the United States declared war on each other. The Spanish–American War was the result of the United States entering the ongoing Cuban War of Independence when U.S. expeditionary forces disembarked in Oriente. After barely two months American forces obtained an immediate and unconditional surrender and Madrid sued for peace, finally losing its last outpost in the American continent.
At the end of the Cuban War of Independence in 1898, Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris, under which Spain received $20 million U.S. in exchange for giving up all territorial claims to Cuba. During the Spanish-American War, the United States had maintained a military arsenal in Cuba to protect U.S. holdings. In 1899, President McKinley decided to occupy the island, fearing chaos and the possible rise of a revolutionary government in Cuba.
Some good was done during the American occupation in an effort to turn Cuba into a “self-governing colony.” The United States created sanitation systems, installed a trolley system and set up health care centers. Voting rights were given to all literate, adult, male Cubans with property worth $250 or more, but this resulted in the exclusion of the Afro-Cuban population and the creation of an all-white, all-male, all-wealthy voting majority.
The Platt Amendment was introduced to Congress by Senator Orville H. Platt (R. Connecticut) on February 25, 1901. The Platt Amendment defined the terms of Cuban-U.S. Relations, ensuring U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs, giving legal standing to U.S. claims to several territories on the island. It restricted Cuba in foreign policy and commercial relations, and demanded that Cuba sell or lease such lands to the United States as deemed necessary for the development of naval stations. It imposed a tariff that gave Cuban sugar preference in the U.S. market.
The United States quickly replaced Spain in its role of dominant power over Cuba’s territory.
On May 20, 1902 the Republic of Cuba was born. President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew federal troops from the island, but Cuba was forced to sign a treaty perpetually leasing Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. After the U.S. built a naval base there, American dominance of Cuban affairs became a fact of life. The 1940 Cuban Constitution eliminated the Platt Amendment, but it could not nullify the long-term lease of Guantánamo Bay, which remains to this day in violation of the 1969 Vienna Convention.
Tomás Estrada Palma, a respected veteran of Cuba’s Ten Year War, served as the nation’s first president between 1902 and 1906, during which he made substantial improvements to the depleted infrastructure of the country. Charles Magoon was appointed Cuba’s temporary Governor. Barely four years into its infant democrac, Cuba was already enduring another U.S. intervention.
After a few months, independence was restored, and José Miguel Gómez became Cuba’s second president, but one still facing the threat of another civil war and U.S. intervention, when the Independent Party attempted to establish a separate black republic in Eastern Cuba. President Gómez’ repression was swift and brutal: 6,000 black and mulatto men were massacred by the all-white Cuban Army.
I grew up in an unstable, topsy-turvy country, one blessed with a population of well-meaning, talented, patriotic people who loved their country beyond words, and remained at all times sanguine about the future prospects of their young country, one born out of imperialistic paternalism and cursed by yet another neighbor to the North with an ever watchful eye on things Cuban.
The myopia of the new occupiers prevented them from seeing the Castro juggernaut heading towards Havana in the late 1950’s, yet another wolf in sheep’s clothing that still continues to rule the Pearl of the Antilles and still keeps the black population of roughly 9% living in substandard conditions and out of important positions.