The Republic (1898–1959)

views updated

The Republic (1898–1959)


Cuba ceased being a Spanish colony, only to become a protectorate of the United States. After the devastating War of Independence, the country was left in a lamentable condition. The war destroyed the economic base and casualties claimed a large part of the population, owing especially to epidemics and famine brought about by the decrees of General Valeriano to relocate the rural population.

One of the first measures of the new military government was to proceed with the country's reconstruction. A public administration was organized and an educational system established. Measures were taken to strengthen the economic base of the island, and tariffs on U.S. goods were unilaterally reduced. Despite the approval of the Foraker Amendment in 1899, which prohibited concessions to U.S. firms for the exploitation of Cuban natural resources, U.S. investments were on the rise.

The general disarmament of the Cuban populace in January 1899 gave way to the dissolution of the Liberation Army. Tomás Estrada Palma already had dissolved the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1898. Even so, during the government of John R. Brooke, anti-annexationist sentiment was evident in Cuba. Brooke, who became known as a moderate, was replaced in less than a year by Leonard Wood, who had annexationist ideas. But economic and political forces in the United States remained opposed to annexation.

A Constituent Assembly was convened in July 1900, and the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was signed 21 February 1901. A commission was formed within the Assembly to deal with relations between Cuba and the United States. Criteria to define these relations was sought as an appendix to the constitution, but the U.S. government pushed instead for a congressional accord, proposed by Senator Orville Platt, creating the basis for them. Known as the Platt Amendment, its third article established the principle of U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Cuba. One condition of its approval was the removal of occupying military forces. Despite strong opposition, a small majority of the commission approved the Platt Amendment on 12 June 1901.

Landowners and financial corporations advocated commercial reciprocity, which was of vital importance to reconstruction. A treaty to this effect was signed in December 1902 and approved by the U.S. Congress in December 1903. Cuban commodities received a tariff 20 percent lower than that of their counterparts from other countries, while the tariff on U.S. commodities was between 25 percent and 40 percent lower. This raised the value of U.S. exports to Cuba by 45 percent. The first elections were held on 31 December 1901. Tomás Estrada Palma was the sole candidate after Bartolomé Maso's withdrawal. On 20 May 1902 the Cuban flag was raised in El Morro and Leonard wood handed over the government to Estrada Palma, the new president, who returned from the United States upon his election.

The first years of the Republic were characterized by power struggles between liberals and conservatives. Despite the fact that almost all of the political leaders had been part of the struggle for independence, fraud, shady business deals, and dishonesty were rife among them. Estrada Palma, however, was one exception. Attempts to remain in power provoked political battles and power struggles that made consolidation difficult. Racial and labor disputes aggravated the unstable situation. From an economic viewpoint, the country was experiencing an accelerated process of reconstruction and population growth. Thousands of immigrants, primarily Spanish, who were attracted by employment possibilities, contributed to the latter. Agriculture relied more and more exclusively on sugar, due to the dependence on the U.S. market.

By 1905 U.S. companies owned twenty-nine sugar mills, which were responsible for 21 percent of Cuba's total production. The process of land acquisition by U.S. interests had begun with the first intervention, and by 1905 an estimated 13,000 U.S. colonists lived in Cuba, primarily on the Isle of Pines (now called the Isle of Youth), whose status had not yet been determined. There were also U.S. investments in mining, tobacco, and the railroad. After World War I, control of the economy remained in the hands of U.S. monopolies, in alliance with the domestic bourgeoisie. The 1920–1921 crisis strengthened the financial domination of U.S. banks and further increased U.S. land holdings. Estrada Palma's reelection in 1906 produced an armed movement of liberals, led by José Miguel Gómez. Unable to control the situation, the president requested U.S. intervention, and Charles E. Magoon headed a provisional government from 1906 to 1909. To the already critical situation of a country in reconstruction were added the effects of the international economic crisis of 1907. There were numerous strikes centered on demands for better pay and an eight-hour workday.

José Miguel Gómez took power as elected president in 1909. Although he did not especially favor U.S. business, he ignored the hopes of Cubans and continued with the administrative corruption that had begun with Magoon. In 1912 there developed a racial movement opposed to the prohibition of organizations based on race, known as the Independents of Color. The movement's leaders, Pedro Ivonet and Evaristo Esternoz, perished in the struggle. U.S. troops landed, but the Cuban government opposed this intervention. That same year the lease turning over Guantánamo Bay to the United States for an indefinite period was signed.

The new president, Mario García Menocal (1913–1921), capitalized on the economic upswing that drove up sugar prices during World War I. Investments in sugar by U.S. monopolies, courted by the administration, continued to increase. Menocal was reelected through fraud, and the liberals returned to armed struggle in the 1917 movement known as La Chambelona. Again U.S. troops landed, and Enoch Crowder was sent as a mediator. The U.S. government announced that it would not recognize a government that had taken power through violence, and the movement failed.


Following the war, Cuba experienced the "dance of the millions." An abrupt rise in sugar prices caused euphoria and speculation. But the subsequent rapid drop in the price by over 70 percent from 1920 to 1921 resulted in a grave crisis in which vast amounts of capital were lost and the domestic banking industry was broken. Small businesses went under, savings were lost, and thousands were left unemployed. The years 1920 to 1925 can be considered a period of consolidation of civil society and the national conscience, marking a historical turn. The crisis had demonstrated the consequences of such an extreme dependence on sugar and on the U.S. market. The loss of domestic capital in favor of that from the United States reinforced anti-imperialist sentiment throughout society. Likewise, General Crowder's intervention in internal affairs during the administration of Alfredo Zayas (1921–1925) accentuated an attitude of rejection of U.S. policies toward Cuba and deepened nationalist sentiment.

In 1923 movements with a new orientation appeared on the political scene, in which intellectuals, youth, and students seeking solutions for national problems took an active role. These movements distinguished themselves from the traditional political parties, which until then had been involved in a struggle for power and privilege. Among them was the Cuban Junta for National Renovation, led by the outstanding intellectual Fernando Ortiz. Its manifesto highlighted national woes. Arising out of the so-called Protest of the Thirteen—a group of young intellectuals, led by Rubén Martínez Villena, who challenged the fraudulent business practices of the Zayas administration—was the Minorista Group (Grupo Minorista), which united the vanguard of the Cuban intelligentsia. The Veterans' and Patriots' Movement was organized, and the First National Congress of Women, proposing equality of civil and political rights and the protection of children, was celebrated. Merchants, industrialists, and financial corporations also organized in defense of their interests.

Students became an important force in political life. Their struggles for university reform began in 1922. Out of them arose the University of Havana Student Federation (FEU), of which Julio Antonio Mella was an outstanding figure. The movement's strength earned it a participating role in the University Assembly, whose agenda was reform. With an anti-imperialist agenda, the First National Revolutionary Congress of Students was held in 1923. The Anti-Imperialist League, with Rubén Martínez Villena and Julio Antonio Mella at its forefront, was founded in 1925. That same year, the United States ratified the Hay-Quesada Treaty, which recognized Cuban sovereignty over the Isle of Pines. This treaty had been signed in 1904, and its ratification had been demanded by Cuban organizations ever since.

The labor movement was unified at the Third National Workers' Congress in 1925. The National Confederation of Cuban Workers (CNOC) also was formed, and a small group, including Carlos Baliño and Julio Antonio Mella, founded the country's first Communist Party in 1925. Outstanding social scientists such as Enrique José Varona, Fernando Ortiz, Emilio Roig De Leuchsenring, and Ramiro Guerra pointed out the evils of large landed estates, monoculture, foreign interests, and extreme dependence on the United States. Progressive intellectuals played an important role in public life; they also cofounded and taught at the José Martí Popular University.

The sugar industry had begun a modest recovery when the United States adopted a protectionist policy and raised the tariff on sugar. From 1926 to 1929 the price of sugar and volume of exports declined, resulting in a decrease in the value of the harvests. Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression caused an increase in U.S. protectionism, and Cuba was forced to reduce production. Exports in 1932 were only 18 percent of what they had been in 1922–1923. Cuban sugar's share in the U.S. market dropped from 52.2 percent in 1922–1926 to only 25 percent in 1933. A policy restricting sugarcane harvests was put into effect. The 1932–1933 harvest was half of what it had been in 1922. Sugar revenues dropped about 80 percent.


The dictatorship of Gerardo Machado began with his triumph at the polls in 1924. His government promoted a demagogic program and practiced political assassination and repressed civil-rights movements. Two labor leaders, Enrique José Varona and Alfredo López, were slain and various communists jailed, Mella among them. He engaged in a hunger strike for nineteen days and, once freed, went to Mexico, where he was later assassinated.

Machado implemented his promised public-works plan, which turned into a very profitable business for him and his collaborators. With financing by Chase National Bank of New York and the Warren Brothers Company, both fronts for public officials, the cost of the central highway reached ten times its true value. U.S. investments in Cuba had increased from about $200 million in 1911 to $1.5 billion in 1927. Actual cash investments are thought to have been around $500 million. The rest were government subsidies, especially for the railroad, and reinvested dividends. Introduced in 1927 was a timid protectionist tariff reform which had no effect on U.S. interests but did aid the development of certain areas of production for the domestic market.

In order to remain in power, Machado applied what was known as cooperativism, with the backing of a group of politicians. Opposition parties were prohibited. The 1901 Constitution was reformed in 1928, and the presidential term of office extended to six years. The only candidate in the 1928 elections, Machado served a second term from 1929 to 1935. Public reaction was immediate. The Great Depression further exacerbated political contradictions. Thus began the convulsive period known as the Revolution of 1930. Resistance against the dictatorship involved diverse organizations and various social strata and assumed various forms, including strikes, public demonstrations, and armed insurrections.

Martínez Villena organized a general strike in March 1930. In a student demonstration on 30 September, Pablo de la Torriente Brau was wounded and Rafael Trejo killed. In reaction to the repression, the student movement was radicalized. The Student Directorate was formed to fight the dictatorship. From this the Student Left Wing split off in 1931. The government intensified its repression, using regular police and military forces as well as paramilitary groups. The opposition parties set up underground organizations. One such group, the Revolutionary Union, was formed by Antonio Guiteras in 1932. It was anti-imperialist and oriented toward armed struggle.

At the height of the revolutionary movement in 1933, Sumner Welles was appointed U.S. ambassador. His mission was to mediate between the dictator and the opposition. Negotiations were interrupted by the strikes in August, which began in the Havana bus system and developed into a general strike. The result was the overthrow of the dictatorship, and Machado fled to the Bahamas on 12 August 1933. The new president, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (Junior), was deposed in a 4 September military coup, dominated by then Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. An administration called the Pentarchy was formed, and on 10 September Ramón Grau San Martín assumed the presidency.

The so-called government of a hundred days had as its secretary of the interior Antonio Guiteras, who promoted various measures beneficial to the rank and file, including an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, legalization of unions, restitution of the university's autonomy, and nationalization of labor—a work guarantee for Cubans that challenged the control of jobs by Spanish employers. But as chief of the army, Batista repressed the popular movements. Lack of unity among the forces that had overthrown the dictatorship made the situation very difficult for the government. Batista took advantage of these circumstances and led another military coup, deposing the new administration and installing Carlos Mendieta as president. In order to strengthen his position, Batista obtained the abrogation of the Platt Amendment, and a new treaty of relations between Cuba and the United States was signed in 1934. A plan for sugar quotas was approved, and a new treaty of trade reciprocity reducing the tariff on sugar was signed. The number of favored U.S. products increased, and tariffs on several other Cuban products were reduced. This affected industries that had sprung up in the period of tariff reform. Labor and peasant struggles continued, and Antonio Guiteras formed Young Cuba, which advocated further armed conflict. A strike in March 1935 was put down violently, and on 8 May Guiteras was assassinated. These events brought to a close the Revolution of 1930.


A series of ephemeral governments followed. A 1940 Constituent Assembly provided Cuba with one of the most progressive constitutions in Latin America, a sign of the maturity the republic had achieved. Elected president in 1940, Fulgencio Batista abandoned his populist policies. His party lost to Ramón Grau San Martín in 1944, thus beginning a period of governments of the Authentic Cuban (or Revolutionary) Party, which abandoned its nationalist program and became characterized by corruption, scandalous fraud, and the repression of workers and students.

Standing out during this period is the figure of Eduardo Chibás. One of the original rank and file who had founded the Cuban People's Party, he launched an active campaign against the rampant political corruption. His suicide in 1951 brought increased popularity to the party, which had been favored to win in the election of 1952. Batista aspired to the presidency with the United Action Party. Knowing that he would lose in the election, he led a 10 March 1952 military coup that deposed President Carlos Prío Socarrás.

During World War II, the economic situation had improved. Harvests were brought in at profitable prices. But the 1950s saw a decline in sugar's share of the national product. Cuba began to nationalize the sugar industry and U.S. capital investment declined by $713 million. Sugar no longer yielded the tremendous profits it had in the early years, leading U.S. companies to sell their sugar holdings to Cuban interests. Although the overall economic pattern did not radically change, a process of diversification had begun. Between 1947 and 1958 national revenues increased by 31 percent, the gross national product by 32.6 percent, and per-capita income by 27.2 percent, to one of the highest in Latin America. Production other than sugar increased 20 percent over the 1953 level, and the value of sugar harvests increased 27 percent from 1955 to 1958. Nevertheless, sugar's share in national revenues dropped to 28 percent and agricultural revenues in general dropped to 27.9 percent, indicating growth in other areas. These economic indicators can be misleading, however. Although attributed to economic factors, the 1959 Revolution in fact stemmed from the political crisis reflected in the hardships of the poorest Cubans.

The adoption of constitutional statutes in April 1952 unleashed a struggle for the implementation of the Constitution of 1940, which was joined by all levels of society. A group of young people from the Orthodox Party, led by Fidel Castro, attacked the Moncada military quarters in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. This offensive was a military failure: Several of the insurgents were killed and a period of repression bringing about a national movement against the dictatorship followed. An underground struggle was organized in the cities, and in 1955 the popular movement obtained amnesty for Fidel Castro and his cohorts, who emigrated to Mexico. The student movement produced the Revolutionary Directorate, led by José Antonio Echevarría. The underground organization, especially in Santiago de Cuba, organized by Frank País, aided the return from Mexico of Castro and others on the small yacht Granma on 2 December 1956. The guerrilla front dug in in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto ("Che") Guevara were the leaders of the invasion that moved through Camagüey and Las Villas. In 1957 a coalition comprised of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, the Revolutionary Directorate, and the People's Socialist Party was born. Despite failures in the strike of 9 April and the attack on the presidential palace on 13 March, the conflict intensified. The war entered its final stage in November 1958, when strategic military points and important cities were occupied. December brought the decisive Battle of Santa Clara, and Batista fled at dawn on 1 January 1959. Attempts were made at establishing a government of compromise, but a general strike enabled the Rebel Army to take power.

See alsoCuba, Revolutions: Revolution of 1933; Cuba, Twenty-Sixth of July Movement; Estrada Palma, Tomás; Fleet System: Colonial Spanish America; Guantánamo Bay; Platt Amendment; Slavery: Spanish America; Sugar Industry; Tobacco Industry.


Ramiro Guerra, Historia de Cuba, 2d ed. (1922–1925), Manual de historia de Cuba (1938), and Azúcar y población de las Antillas (1976).

Leland H. Jenks, Our Cuban Colony (1928).

Ramiro Guerra et al., eds., Historia de la nación cubana, 10 vols. (1952); Havana, Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad, Revalorización de la historia de Cuba por los congresos nacionales de historia (1959).

Oscar Pino-Santos, Historia de Cuba: Aspectos fundamentales, 2d ed. (1964).

Julio Le Riverand, Economic History of Cuba (1967), and La república: Dependencia y revolución, 3d ed. (1973).

Fernando Portuondo Del Prado, Estudios de historia de Cuba (1973).

José Luciano Franco, Ensayos históricos (1974); La república neocolonial (Yearbook of Cuban Studies), 2 vols. (1975–1979).

Lionel Soto, La revolución del 33, 3 vols. (1977).

Louis A. Pérez, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Bronfman, Alejandra. Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Dye, Alan. Cuban Sugar in the Age of Mass Production: Technology and the Economics of the Sugar Central, 1899–1929. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Fuente, Alejandro de la. A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

García González, Armando, Raquel Alvarez Pelaez, and Consuelo Naranjo Orovio. En busca de la raza perfecta: eugenesia e higiene en Cuba (1898–1958). Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1999.

Guerra, Lillian. The Myth of José Martí: Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Helg, Aline. Our Rightful Share: the Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Ibarra, Jorge. Prologue to Revolution: Cuba, 1898–1958. trans. Marjorie Moore. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

Montejo Arrechea, Carmen Victoria. Sociedades negras en Cuba, 1878–1960. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales: Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Cultura Cubana Juan Marinello, 2004.

Moore, Robin. Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920–1940. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Shaffer, Kirwin R. Anarchism and Countercultural Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Whitney, Robert. State and Revolution in Cuba: Mass Mobilization and Political Change, 1920–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

                                 Fe Iglesias GarcÍa

About this article

The Republic (1898–1959)

Updated About content Print Article