Cuba's Struggle for Independence

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Cuba's Struggle for Independence

The Spanish-American War, fought from April to August 1898, was a short but brutal war between Spain and its colony of Cuba, which was supported by the United States. It was a continuation of Cuba's Second War for Independence, which had begun in 1895. Cubans sought freedom from Spain and the right to govern themselves to improve their lives economically and socially.

Initially the United States stayed out of the conflict in Cuba. Still recovering from an economic depression that had begun around 1893, the United States depended upon good foreign relations to promote international trade and revive its economy. Outraged by newspaper articles describing Spain's brutal treatment of Cuban civilians, however, a majority of the American public came to favor war with Spain. U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry in Biographies section) found it hard not to resist these wishes after an American battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, mysteriously blew up in a Cuban harbor on February 15, 1898, killing more than 250 of the soldiers aboard. After prominent U.S. business leaders signaled their support for war in March 1898, McKinley agreed.

After entering the conflict on Cuba's side in April 1898, the United States fought against Spain in land and sea battles in the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines until the two countries called a truce in August 1898. Having defeated Spain at almost every turn, the United States dominated the peace negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States assumed control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines and established influence over newly independent Cuba. The former colonies's residents were not allowed to participate in crafting the treaty.

Near the end of hostilities, John Hay (1838-1905), the American ambassador to Great Britain, called it a "splendid little war." While this assessment may have reflected popular opinion at the time, it ignored the horror that war is. Around 5,500 Americans died, mostly from yellow fever and other diseases caught in the tropical battle zones.

In addition to the Cuban struggle for independence and the battles and bloodshed, the Spanish-American War is the story of how the United States officially became an imperialist nation. Imperialism is the act of exercising governmental control over foreign people. Although it had spent the nineteenth century conquering Native Americans, the United States officially spoke out against imperialism in favor of democracy, which means governmental control by the people being governed. By acquiring Spain's remaining colonies, the United States abandoned democracy in order to govern people who lacked representation in their nation's capital. The story of the war began on a beautiful Caribbean island whose people wanted to break the shackles of Spanish imperialism and undertake local self-government.

Spain's Cuban colony

Cuba is part of the Antilles island chain, which stretches in an arc around the Caribbean Sea. Located ninety miles south of Florida, "the pearl of the Antilles" was home to a favorable climate and rich soils that made it valuable for farming. In 1492, Cuba's inhabitants were descendants of natives from South America, including tribes such as the Arawaken (called the Taino in Cuba), Guanahatabey, and Ciboney. Cuba hosted a native population of around fifty thousand when Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus, 1451-1506) arrived on October 27, 1492, and seized the island for Spain.

Cuba first served as a base for Spain's exploration of the New World, as the Americas were formerly called. Over the next fifty years, the conquistadors's expeditions, disease, and mistreatment of the natives reduced the island's population to around five thousand by 1550. For the next century and a half, disease, piracy, and competition between Spain and other European invaders continued to plague Cuba. During the eighteenth century, Spain increased the island's agricultural output, primarily sugarcane production. By importing human beings from Africa and forcing them into slavery on the sugarcane plantations, the Spanish motherland planted the seeds of revolution.

In the nineteenth century, sugarcane production began to be mechanized by technology created during the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a period beginning around 1760 during which raw materials such as iron and steel and energy sources such as coal and electricity led to the replacement of human handiwork by automated machines. Wealthy emigrants from Spain controlled both these new means of production as well as Cuba's colonial government, resulting in policies and taxes that oppressed small landowners, laborers, and slaves. Meanwhile, from 1810 to 1825, Spain's remaining colonies in the New World revolted against the empire and achieved their independence, leaving only Cuba and Puerto Rico under Spanish control.

The Ten Years' War

In 1842, Cuba's population of around one million included 436,495 black slaves, 152,838 free blacks, and 448,291 whites. The white population had two main social classes—the Peninsulares and the Creoles. Peninsulares were Spanish natives who had settled in Cuba. Creoles were people of Spanish descent who had been born in Cuba. Generally speaking, Peninsulares controlled commerce, held most positions in the colonial government, and were naturally loyal to Spain. Creoles were primarily landowners, farmers, and professional people.

Spanish taxes and restrictions on trade with other countries oppressed the Creoles. Corrupt government by the Peninsulares for the benefit of Spanish industries also dissatisfied the Creoles. Although they wanted more political influence and economic freedom, they relied on the government and the military for a different kind of oppression—the maintenance of slavery. This dependence prevented the Creoles from mounting a serious movement for independence until the 1860s.

By 1865, the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) in the United States showed that slavery could be defeated. Meanwhile, economic and social unrest in Cuba worsened, causing Spain to create a Colonial Reform Commission to discuss proposals for reform (improvement of economic and social policies) in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Opposition to reform by the conservative element of Spain's legislature in Madrid—the Cortes—caused the reform efforts to fail. Then in 1867, Spain enacted new real estate, income, and business taxes in Cuba, adding to the already excessive customs duties—government charges on goods coming in and out of the colony. Spain simply refused to stop using its colonies for its own economic benefit.

In response to the hardship, revolution broke out on Cuba in October 1868 with the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara). Led by military leaders such as Máximo Gómez y Báez (1836-1905; see entry in Biographies section) and Antonio Maceo (1845-1896), the rebels fought for independence for the next ten years. Busy with its period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) following the Civil War, the United States chose not to get involved. Instead, America hoped Spain would decide to sell the colony.

Cuba's first revolution for independence failed for a number of reasons. Racism prevented many rebels from rejecting slavery and welcoming blacks into the struggle. Similarly, the revolutionaries could not agree on whether they were fighting for complete independence or just political reform. Furthermore, many of the twenty thousand mambises, as the rebel forces were called, fought only with machetes (large knife with a wide blade), while the Spaniards used modern rifles.

An ongoing military stalemate (deadlock), however, made it necessary to end the war in 1878 with a truce called the Pact of Zanjón. Famously, Maceo refused to sign the pact, largely because it failed to end slavery in Cuba. Over two hundred thousand people had died during the uprising.

Spanish General Arsenio Martínez de Campos (1834-1900), who had led the defense in Cuba starting in 1876, became the premier, or prime minister, of Spain after signing the Pact of Zanjón. Many hoped he would introduce reforms that would end Cuba's revolutionary problems, as he had promised to do when negotiating with the rebels for peace. Resistance to reform by the conservative members of the Cortes, however, prevented Martínez de Campos from keeping his promise.

Many rebels who had signed the Pact of Zanjón launched another revolt in August 1879 on the eastern end of Cuba, where the poorest communities were located. Spain quickly ended this revolt, giving it the name Guerra Chiquita, or Little War. In December 1879, Martínez de Campos's government failed, leading to his replacement by Premier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1828-1897), a conservative who ended hopes for a solution to Cuba's troubles.

Preparing for independence

By the early 1890s, Cubans began organizing for another revolution. In New York City on January 5, 1892, exiled Cuban poet and philosopher José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853-1895) helped form El Partido Revolucionario Cubano, the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The party's council operated from New York to organize support for the coming revolution. Martí also launched the newspaper Patria, meaning Fatherland, to spread information supporting Cuba's right to be free.

Although the Cuban Revolutionary Party sought financial and philosophical support from Americans, Martí and others wanted the revolution to be at the hands of Cubans alone. Martí had watched pineapple producers in Hawaii grow interested in United States's control of that island republic. He was well aware that American businesses had invested around $50 million in Cuba and engaged in $100 million of trade annually with the colony. Martí feared that the United States might want to replace Spain as the foreign power controlling his homeland. "Cuba must be free from Spain and the United States," said Martí, according to Ivan Musicant in Empire by Default.

After getting the party up and running, Martí set out to organize military leadership for the revolution. In September 1892, he asked Ten Years' War veteran Máximo Gómez to be the rebel army's general. Gómez agreed, receiving his official appointment to the position in January 1893. Later that year, in June, Martí approached Antonio Maceo. Called the Bronze Titan, Maceo was living in Costa Rica, and he initially resisted joining the party for fear of another failure. After learning how well Martí had organized everything, however, Maceo agreed to join him.

By late 1894, Martí was anxious to launch his revolution. Some rich planters in Cuba offered their support if the rebels would delay the fighting until after the sugarcane harvest. Martí did not believe this promise of help, however. saying, again according to Musicant, "the rich people will never enter the Revolution."

Economic conditions in Cuba continued to worsen for the middle and lower classes. The United States had enacted a steep tariff—or tax—on sugar imported from Cuba into America. In response, Spain raised tariffs on American goods sold in Cuba, raising the already oppressive cost of living in the colony. The growing wealth gap there made revolution seem inevitable.

Cuba's second revolution begins

Led by former slave Juan Gualberto Gómez, the revolution began with the Grito de Baire, or Outcry of Baire, on February 25, 1895. Named for the small town in which the fighting began, the Grito de Baire initially looked like it might turn into another little war. Spanish authorities crushed the revolutionaries and captured their leaders quite easily, leading to small press reports in Spain and the United States that the revolt would lead to nothing.

Things changed, however, after Maceo reached Cuba on March 31 and Martí and Gómez reached the island on April 11. These three leaders finally met on May 4 at La Mejorana to formulate a strategy for reviving the revolution. Gómez announced a scorched-earth policy for military conduct. Believing that the inequality of wealth created Cuba's troubles, Gómez said the solution was to strike at that wealth by destroying sugarcane plantations and other wealthy businesses. This strategy would deplete the Spanish revenue that came from taxing the businesses. Gómez felt that making the war expensive for Spain would even the rebels's odds against the large, well-equipped Spanish army.

Back in Spain, as the government planned its response to the rebellion, a scandal involving newspaper criticism of the Spanish military forced Premier Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (1825-1903) to resign. His replacement, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, decided to send Ten Years' War veteran Arsenio Martínez de Campos to be Cuba's governor and military general. Martínez de Campos intended to end the revolution while implementing new laws to give minimal relief to Cuba's political and economic concerns.

Martínez de Campos planned a military strategy similar to the one that he had used in the Ten Years' War. First, he divided the army into two parts. One part remained in the cities and towns to defend them against rebel attack. The second part roamed the countryside to engage the rebels in battle. Using Spanish trochas—fortified barriers that at one point crossed the entire island between Mariel and Majana—Martínez de Campos hoped to corner, surround, and then overwhelm the rebel army with large numbers of Spanish troops.

The rebel army, which was strongest on the poorer eastern end of the island, set out to dominate the countryside with its scorched-earth policy. With support from rural residents, the Cuban rebels planned to break through the main trocha, spread over the western end of the island, and starve the country to death with economic destruction. Fighting without Martí, who died in his first battle on May 19, 1895, the rebel army implemented this strategy in June of that year. Gómez ordered his soldiers to kill plantation owners and workers who resisted the army's economic tactics. He also prohibited the transportation of goods, such as leather, wood, tobacco, coffee, and honey, into towns held by the Spanish army.

By January 1896, the Liberating Army, as the rebels came to be called, had achieved its greatest military success. Forces led by both Gómez and Maceo had broken through the main trocha and spread westward. Martínez de Campos declared a state of war in Cuba's capital of Havana, which faced threats from rebel forces.

Spain had deployed 186,000 soldiers to fight rebel forces that roamed in bands of hundreds and thousands of men. Despite this huge numerical advantage, the Spanish army faced a military stalemate (deadlock) due to its soldiers's poor marksmanship, its habit of withdrawing into town garrisons (military posts) after victories to avoid ambushes, and especially the tropical summertime diseases of Cuba. When asked to name his best generals, Gómez identified June, July, and August, according to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism.

Enter "the butcher"

Back in Spain, discontent with Martínez de Campos had reached the breaking point. Many felt he was being too easy on the rebels. Faced with this pressure, Martínez de Campos resigned on January 17, 1896. Premier Cánovas replaced him with General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930), whom the Chicago Times-Herald called "the most brutal and heartless soldier to be found in a supposedly civilized country."

Soon after arriving in Cuba, Weyler issued the first of many reconcentración, or reconcentration, orders. His strategy was to starve the rebels of the food, shelter, and other support they received from civilians living in the countryside. Weyler ordered the pacificos, as the non-rebels were called, to leave their homes and move into Spanish-occupied cities and towns. The Spanish army then destroyed the food and shelter the pacificos had left behind.

Weyler's reconcentration policy turned out to be an international public relations disaster for Spain. Food and shelter already was scarce in the cities and towns occupied by Spanish troops. The relocated pacificos ended up hungry and dirty, living in filthy conditions that spelled death for hundreds of thousands of them. The American press, already tending to support the Cuban rebels, criticized Weyler's inhumane policies and called him "the butcher." Yet the media usually failed to condemn the inhumane tactics used by the rebel army. Such biased coverage helped to generate public support in the United States for its eventual war with Spain.

In the Cuban countryside, Maceo's dwindling army kept the Spanish forces on the run. Maceo complained to the revolutionary government, however, that he was not receiving his fair share of arms and ammunition, a problem he blamed on racism. Maceo managed to last for almost one year against Weyler's forces. Then, on December 7, 1896, after crossing around a trocha by sea, Maceo's rebels faced an unusual nighttime battle at San Pedro de Hernández. Sleeping in a hammock and weak from many war wounds, Maceo was unprepared to fight because the Spanish usually retreated into the safety of their garrisons at night. Battling while atop a horse, Maceo received two bullets that ended his life.

Without Maceo, who led the most effective assaults on Spanish-occupied towns during the revolution, the war continued to be a military stalemate. Weyler controlled the cities, ports, and military forts. Gómez and the rebels controlled the countryside. As early as October 1896, there was pressure in Spain to recall Weyler, who was generating bad international press while failing to end the revolution.

In August 1897, Premier Cánovas died by an assassin's bullet. The queen regent of Spain soon put the liberal Sagasta back into the office of premier, and Sagasta replaced Weyler with General Ramón Blanco y Erenas (1831-1906). Under Sagasta, the Spanish government eventually agreed to end the reconcentration camps, stop fighting, and make Cuba a free unit of government under Spain. Cuba, however, wanted complete independence, and events in early 1898 brought Spain to war with the United States.

For More Information

Collins, Mary. The Spanish-American War. New York: Children's Press,1998.

Dolan, Edward F. The Spanish-American War. Brookfield, CT: MillbrookPress, 2001.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Gay, Kathlyn, and Martin K. Gay. Spanish-American War. New York:Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File, Inc.,1995.

Graves, Kerry A. The Spanish-American War. Mankato, MN: Capstone Books, 2001.

Langellier, John P. Uncle Sam's Little Wars: The Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1902. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2002.

Linderman, Gerald F. The Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

O'Toole, G. J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic-1898. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.

Smith, Angel, and Emma Dávila-Cox, eds. The Crisis of 1898: Colonial Redistribution and Nationalist Mobilization. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1999.

Somerlott, Robert. The Spanish-American War: Remember the Maine! Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Wukovits, John F. The Spanish-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853-1895)

Cuba's famous revolutionary patriot was born in Havana on January 28, 1853. His parents, Leonor Pérez Martí and Mariano Martí y Navarro, were Peninsulares. Peninsulares were natives of Spain who had settled in Cuba. Young José's father taught him to be strictly loyal to Spain in honor of tradition. The boy, however, chose a different path.

Around 1865, Martí met Rafael María de Mendive, a teacher, principal, and poet at the Havana Municipal High School for Boys. Mendive became Martí's mentor, teaching him that Cuban independence was the only acceptable solution to the troubles caused by Spain's economic policies. When Cuba's First War for Independence—the Ten Years' War—broke out in 1868, Martí wrote revolutionary poetry and formed a boys' club to support the rebels.

When the authorities found one of Martí's poems while searching Mendive's house in January 1869, they threw Martí in jail. He remained there for nine months before facing charges. At his trial, Martí said Cuba had a right to be free from Spain and to operate its own government. Convicted of disloyalty, Martí faced six years of hard labor in a limestone quarry while imprisoned at Havana's Presidio (Spanish military post).

Martí never finished his sentence. Herniated, half-blind, and scarred with whiplashes, he was exiled from Cuba, first on the nearby Isle of Pines and later in Spain, arriving there in 1871. In Spain, Martí continued his education and writing, receiving degrees in law and philosophy from the University of Zaragosa in 1874. He then spent a few years in France, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba (using a different name), Spain, France, New York City, and then Venezuela before finally settling in New York City in 1881. During this time Martí continued political writing and activity that would lead to Cuba's second revolution for independence in 1895. In 1890, for example, Martí and Rafael Serra formed La Liga (The League), a club for poor, black Cuban exiles. Martí believed poor people should lead the coming revolution.

On January 5, 1892, Martí created El Partido Revolucionario Cubano, the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The party's goal was to generate and organize support and sympathy for an independent Cuba. At first, the party focused on organizing within Cuban communities in the United States, especially in Florida. Later, it attracted support from the American press and labor organizations. Martí opposed efforts within the party to discriminate against blacks and socialists—people who believe that income and property should be distributed by society instead of market forces. When serving as the party's leader, Martí chose to be called delegate instead of president.

When Cuba's Second War for Independence broke out on February 25, 1895, Martí traveled with General Máximo Gómez y Báez (1836-1905) and others to fight in Cuba, where they landed on April 11. Some supporters felt Martí would better serve the revolution as an organizer in the United States. Critics wondered whether the skinny man was up to fighting. In a letter written on the eve of his departure for Cuba, according to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, Martí said, "I called up the war; my responsibility begins rather than ends with it.… But my one desire would be to stand beside the last tree, the last fighter, and die in silence. For me, the hour has come."

The hour came sooner than Martí probably expected. Fighting atop a white horse in Don Rios in his first battle, on May 19, 1895, Martí was shot and killed, becoming a martyr to inspire the rebels. A hymn written for the revolution in November 1895 by Enrique Loynaz del Castillo began, "The adored memory of Martí/Presents Honor to our lives."

Martí's inspiration lives on in his essays and poems about freedom. These include Versos libres, a collection of poetry written between 1878 and 1882, and Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Cuban Struggle for Independence, an English translation of Martí's writing published in 1978.