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Cuba, 1898-1959

by Wesley Wolfe

The final years of the nineteenth century shaped the Cuba that entered the twentieth century as a United States economic dependent and political protectorate. The actions and events of these years and the resulting conditions contributed heavily to the political, social and economic disarray manifested as virulent Cuban nationalism and anti-Americanism throughout the new century. Before reviewing some factors that shaped Cuba after 1880, we will briefly examine some of the geographic, cultural, demographic, political, and economic factors that were important to Cuba's development.

Geographically, Cuba is an island nation in the northern Caribbean. At its northernmost point, Cuba is less than 100 miles from the southern tip of Florida. It stretches southeasterly 750 miles from the eastern Gulf of Mexico through the northern Caribbean and generally measures fifty to eighty miles wide. The highest elevations in Cuba exceed 6,000 feet in the Sierra Maestra mountain range of southeastern Oriente Province. Except for three small areas, the western lowlands range below 600 feet elevation and cover 60 percent of the island. [Carlson, p. 443]. Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba on his first voyage in 1492. Successive expeditions used Cuba as a staging area.

Culturally, Cuba's development followed closely that of other Latin American nations—Spanish conquerors claimed the lands for the crown, subordinated the indigenous population to European governors, exploited minerals and agricultural resources, and imported African slaves to support agriculture or mining. Cuban exceptions or variations included remaining a Spanish colony much longer into the nineteenth century, abolishing African slavery much later, failing to develop close ties to the Catholic Church, and developing a landless working class instead of a peasantry. Cuba also failed to develop the strong Indian culture common to many Latin countries because the effects of the European invasion eliminated the indigenous population in the sixteenth century.

Demographically, Cuba is a racially-mixed, Spanish-speaking society with an estimated 1996 population of eleven million. The racial makeup is approximately 40 percent black, 30 percent white and 30 percent mixed. The importation of 600,000 Africans into Cuba between 1800 and 1865 and heavy importation of black labor from Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the early twentieth century explains Cuba's large percentage of black and mixed-race persons. [Skidmore, pp. 254-55]

Politically, Cuba was less important to Spain during the early years because it lacked the mineral wealth that drove Spanish imperialism. It was important as a staging area for the exploration and then conquest, and, subsequently, as a guardian of the entrance to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Economically, Cuba developed primarily as a single-crop, export-import, agricultural society based on African-slave labor. Cubans began sugar production in the early nineteenth century and by the 1860's were producing one-third of the world's sugar supply. U.S. investors plunged into this sugar-based economy and quickly concentrated land and mills in American ownership. The sugar boom and American investment created an economy almost wholly dependent upon sugar exports and closely tied the welfare of the island to the erratic, world sugar market.

This volatile economic market had both immediate and long-term effects on Cuba. First, the sugar trade played a significant role in starting the 1895 Cuban Revolution and the Spanish-American War that followed in 1898. Second, the economics of the sugar trade eliminated small farms and, by doing so, eliminated or prevented development of a peasant class, a fact that would become important to Castro's Revolution.

In 1891 the U.S. Congress removed the tariff on most imported sugar and negotiated trade agreements with Spain that increased Cuban sugar exports to the United States. This newly opened market increased Cuban dependency on the U.S. market and supported continuing increases in Cuba's sugar production capacity. However, in 1894, the Congress reversed itself and reinstated the tariffs on sugar. The economic whiplash effect of the rapidly changing U.S. sugar policies devastated the Cuban economy and led to the economic and social upheavals that set the stage for twentieth-century Cuba and the end of Spanish dominance.

The last four years of this period, 1895-98, were those of greatest political and social upheaval. In 1895, José Martí and Cuban rebels renewed their efforts to make Cuba "economically viable and politically independent" with the Cuban War for Independence. Martí's philosophy that "[a] people economically enslaved but politically free will end by losing all freedom, but a people economically free can go on to win its political independence." They killed Martí in the revolution but he left a martyr's legacy to modern Cuba. Accomplishing Martí's philosophy has remained a Cuban dream until this day, though neither he, the rebels nor their successors have attained that dream.

The Cuban Rebellion was a brutal and bloody war with atrocities common to both sides as each practiced "scorched-earth warfare." Examples include the Spanish reconcentrado policy and Cubans shooting Spanish sailors swimming away from burning ships. The reconcentrado required all peasants to move to a Spanish-held city or be declared rebels. The peasants flocked to the cities, without food or means of production, and the Spaniards failed to provide for them. Other claims of cruelty arose against both sides; some proved and some the possible creations of the yellow journalism of the Hurst and Pulitzer organizations. [Leckie, p. 544]

Emerging imperialistic sentiment in the U.S. combined with biased journalism to promote sympathy and support for the Cuban rebels against the Spanish government. President William McKinley's position was that sentiment and sympathy would not push the U.S. into war. However, the mysterious explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, created an American animosity that overcame his intentions. Despite the fact that the cause of the explosion was unexplained and that Spain conceded to every U.S. demand except Cuban independence to avoid war, the Maine was the cause of the U.S. declaration of war on April 25, 1898. [Leckie, pp. 544-46]

It was a short war, lasting only eight months from declaration to a settlement that totally excluded Cuban involvement. The Spanish-American War signaled the end of the Spanish empire in the western hemisphere. The war also established a four-year period of U.S. military occupation followed by sixty years of U.S. dominance of essentially corrupt, unstable, brutal, and incompetent Cuban governments.

President McKinley appointed General John Brooke military commander on January 1, 1899, but gave him little guidance. Brooke and his subordinates began by taking care of the people whose lives had been shattered by a civil war. He fed them and returned reconcentrados to their lands. The army then began a drive to improve sanitation, discipline, the judiciary and administrative services. Brooke created considerable Cuban ill-will when he kept many former Spanish administrators in place.

The Cuban rebel forces did not rebel against the U.S. occupation as the Filipino Insurrectos forces had done after the same war on the other side of the world. The rebels created problems for Brooke by refusing to disband until they paid them. General Máximo Gómez, to his detriment accepted $3 million to pay and disband the rebels. This payment amounted to $75 each for "[t]hose who could prove that they had fought." [Langley, pp.17-19]

General Leonard Wood succeeded Brook as military commander on December 23, 1899. Wood, despite being a hard-nosed military governor, gained respect for his methods and accomplishments if not for his attitude toward lower- and middle-class Cubans. Wood kept Brooke's staff but replaced Spanish civilian government officials with Cubans. His occupation forces continued the improvements begun under his predecessor and expanded them to include public education, roads, bridges and harbors. It was Wood who created the Rural Guard, permitted creation of new political parties, and planned the constitutional convention that began in November 1900. He also "ended the last vestiges of Spanish mercantile policy in Cuba and set the stage for the almost complete domination of the island's trade by the United States by reducing taxes on U.S. imports and eliminating Spanish preferences." [Benjamin, p. 10]

It was also Wood who, with Secretary of War Elihu Root, realized a need for what later became the Platt Amendment. Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut offered the amendment to the Army Appropriation Act of 1901. It required the Cuban government to: "maintain a low public debt; refrain from signing any treaty impairing its obligation to the United States; to grant to the United States the right of intervention to protect life, liberty, and property; validate the acts of the military government; and, if requested, provide long-term naval leases." [Langley, p. 21]

The Platt Amendment further agitated the Cubans. So much so, they sent a delegation from the constitutional convention to Washington to oppose the amendment, only to find that McKinley had already signed the bill into law. The Platt Amendment, along with its economic counterpart, the Cuban trade reciprocity treaty, established the framework of U.S. dominance in Cuba, the source of almost sixty years antagonism between the U.S. and Cuba. [Benjamin, p. 12]

Afterward, delegates to the constitutional convention tried to modify the Platt Amendment before adding it to the Cuban Constitution. This failed as Wood refused to allow modifications and threatened that U.S. soldiers would remain in Cuba until the convention enacted the amendment. [Langley, p. 19]

Cubans adopted the proposed constitution and the limited Cuban electorate chose Tomás Estrada Palma to take office as Cuba's first president in 1902. Estrada, like most of Cuba's elite, was a pragmatic proponent of U.S. annexation of Cuba, as he saw "little advantage and no future for an independent Cuba." Although Estrada was not anti-American, he generally accepted American intervention into Cuban affairs, thus drawing the ire of Cuban nationalists who wanted to remain free from "Yankee dominance." [Skidmore, p. 256] Estrada did show anti-Americanism by purging Americans from government jobs wherever possible. [Langley, p. 34] There was little else he could do as he was laboring under the administrative machinery put in place by the American-style constitution, including the requirements of the Platt Amendment.

Mid-term congressional elections in 1904 were violent and fraudulent and resulted in the Liberal party's boycott of the new congress. The results of the 1904 election set the stage for a 1906 presidential election between Estrada and Liberal candidate, General José Miguel Gómez. Estrada was elected to a second term in a violent and fraudulent election in which the Rural Guard and police forces intervened for Estrada.

The Liberal party's refusal to accept the outcome of the 1906 election resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt assigning William H. Taft, former Governor of the Philippines governor and future U.S. President, as his representative to Cuba. Taft's analysis confirmed the fraudulent election and resulted in measures that required Estrada to accept a caretaker role while awaiting new elections. Estrada and his cabinet, refusing to accept this role, resigned unexpectedly, leaving Cuba without a government. Roosevelt named Taft U.S. Governor of Cuba on September 29, 1906, and immediately ordered 2,000 marines into Havana to begin the second U.S. military occupation of Cuba. [Skidmore, p.413] Internal violence, besides the election quarrels, also contributed to the intervention. [Langley, p. 43]

Fourteen days later, Roosevelt named Charles Magoon, a former governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Governor of Cuba. The Cubans who accused him of "allowing liberal politicians to raid the treasury" held Magoon, unlike Wood, in low regard for "opening Cuba to 'Yankee adventurers'." [Langley, p 42] The Army of Occupation under the Magoon governorship also drew Cuban ire for its heavy-handed control of the populace. Magoon's most notable accomplishment was the establishment of a commission to organize and compile Cuban law, previously a morass of Spanish codes, military orders, and public decrees, into a single canon. His most disreputable accomplishment was the creation of the Cuban Armed Forces in 1908; an armed force that "was ultimately politicized and became a curse for twentieth-century Cuba." [Langley, p. 48]

Magoon served until January 28, 1909, when José Miguel Gómez entered office as the second Cuban president and quickly encountered another form of U.S. intervention. Following the second U.S. military intervention, president Taft and Secretary of State Philander Knox feared that Americans would not support a third intervention. Their solution was to opt for a "preventive" [Langley, p. 65] interpretation of the Platt Amendment that would allow earlier U.S. diplomatic intervention in hopes of avoiding military intervention.

This interpretation violated Elihu Root's 1901 promise of a narrow interpretation of the Platt Amendment, a promise that made the amendment more palatable to the Cubans in 1901, and the new interpretation less pleasing to them in 1909. Gómez' first challenge came when he signed a contract that the American minister opposed and Gómez immediately canceled the contract.

The "colored revolt" threatened G´mez' government in 1912 when Cuban Negroes excluded from much of Cuba's national life, organized into the Independent Colored Party. Although, Gómez gave them government jobs in the Rural Guard and the army, as members of these organizations, they were unable to participate in politics. They could trace much of their emotion to their exclusion from national activities after they fought Spain in the rebellion. The rebellion was primarily restricted to Oriente province and Gómez dispatched troops there to quell the fighting. Gómez dispatched 2,000 soldiers to quell the revolt and Knox, after five days of fighting, ordered American marines to Daiquirí to protect American property in the area.

Mario García Menocal succeeded Gómez as president in 1913 and was reelected in 1917. The 1917 election caused an American intervention of a sort as the Liberals revolted on the assumption that the United States would intervene to force a new election as in 1906. García Menocal hastened the revolt, partly with the revocation of his announcement not to seek office and partly by claims of fraudulent election practices. However, World War I was on the horizon and the U.S. was concerned with more serious issues. However, U.S. Marines put ashore at Guantánamo and their presence soon quieted the rebellion although they were never involved in the fighting. [Lazo, p. 55]

Little has been written about U.S.-Cuban relations during the war years although what is written seems to show that relations seemed to converge on a common goal—the war effort. However, shortly after the war, economic crises coupled with political tensions in Cuba soon demanded the attention of President Woodrow Wilson's administration.

García Menocal's protege, Alfredo Zayas, won the Cuban presidency in a fraudulent election and, the Liberals, refusing the results, called on Washington to supervise new elections. García Menocal's threats to destroy American property should the U.S. intervene were ignored as President Wilson sent General Enoch Crowder to Cuba to mediate the crisis. Crowder forthrightly dictated the characteristics of the Cuban president that would be acceptable to the U.S. and impressed upon the proper judicial tribunals to rule upon the question of new election. The tribunal ruled for new elections would be held in March 1921. Zayas was elected in the second election, although not without complaints of voter fraud.

World War I brought prosperity to Cuba as the U.S. and its allies purchased each year's entire sugar harvest. They made this possible, partially, by the 1902 reciprocity treaty that gave Cuban sugar preference in the American market and allowed it to compete more favorably in the world market and, partially, by the increased wartime demand. Trouble lay ahead, however, as in 1920 sugar prices rose to 22 cents per pound, in an era known as "The dance of the millions," and quickly plummeted to less than four cents per pound. [Langley, p 111]

The impact of "The dance of the millions" era had significance to the new Cuban president. Plummeting sugar prices and García Menocal's poor management caused Zayas to assume leadership of a bankrupt government during an economic panic. With U.S. support, Zayas immediately began an austerity program and to work for a fifty million-dollar loan from J.P. Morgan & Co. The loan was subjected to severe constraints dictated by Morgan bank and Crowder, who had been invited, by García Menocal, to advise Zayas on legal and financial matters.

Zayas has been credited with pulling the Cuban government from a two million-dollar deficit in 1921 to a surplus when he left office in 1925. He also reaped a personal fortune estimated from two to fifteen million dollars, a matter said to have made the Zayas administration the apogee of corrupt government in Cuba. Fortunately, the latter came after Crowder was named Ambassador to Cuba and was unable to maintain tight control over Zayas while the first was a credit to Crowder.

Cuban nationalism became the cry as 1924 elections approached. One of those crying it to gain office was General Gerardo Machado. Machado had served as a cabinet official for under Gómez, held an army command, and managed the General Electric Company that had bought up Cuban public utilities. He supported a move to revise the Platt Amendment and "favored social and administrative reform in Cuba." He promised little that had not been promised by García Menocal, but with a better political organization he gave a "fresh significance to José Martí's cry, 'All for Cuba, and Cuba for All'."

These cries were enough to win the election for Machado; but Machado was a chameleon. He was a Cuban nationalist in Cuba. Machado was pro-American in the United States. On a trip to the United States before he took office, he impressed both businessmen and government officials as man with a businesslike attitude.

Machado used the same skills that conned the Cuban voters and the U.S. government and business officials to take over the Cuban government. The congress first extended the president's term in office, then adopted these resolutions as constitutional amendments. Congress then called upon Machado to "accept a new term of office." Next, all political parties endorsed his candidacy to elect him to a new and extended six-year term. He not only controlled the congress and political parties during this continuismo, he also gained approval of President Coolidge and Secretary of State. [Benjamin, p. 52]

Machado would shortly become the most hated man in Cuba and one of two Cuban presidents overthrown by popular revolt. The sugar depression forced him to take repressive measures against the working classes, the students, and the labor movements. It was under Machado that the leftist organization, including the Communist Party, made their first substantial inroads in Cuba. This was to become very important in just a few years. Franklin Roosevelt took the oath as president on March 15, 1933, and began to deal with the pressing domestic problems of the great depression. Shortly thereafter, problems in Cuba confronted his administration as the Cubans began their efforts to oust Machado. Cuban nationalism reflected a general bitterness over the Cuban-American relationship embodied in the Platt Amendment, the overall economic dependence on the U.S., and the effects of the depression. More critical to the attempted overthrow was the brutality and corruption of the Machado regime.

Roosevelt appointed Sumner Welles, a friend and experienced Latin American diplomat, as his Cuban ambassador in April 1933. Welles spent the next sixteen months engaged in a political chess match with Cuba's president Machado and his opposition. Welles, working under instructions to avoid U.S. military intervention and pursue policies that would lead to Cuban economic development, gradually moved from a position of moderate support to one of hard-line opposition to the Cuban president-come-dictator. Welles attempted to mediate the dispute but, in reality, ended up coordinating events associated with the overthrow of Machado. The events that led to Machado's resignation included student and labor opposition and declining support from the U.S. government and the Cuban military. Machado resigned and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was named president on August 12, 1933.

Known as the Revolt of the Sergeants, this change set the stage for a turbulent time in Cuban politics as seven presidents and one committee would officially govern the country in a 40-month period. In reality there was essentially one power, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, who would directly or indirectly, rule Cuba for twenty-five years. A period of turmoil followed the coup as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes held power for three weeks, followed by a five-day interregnum when a Council of Five (The Pentarchy) ruled. Ramón Grau San Martín, leader of the Pentarchy, assumed the presidency for a four-month period on September 10, 1933 with the support of Batista and his sergeants. Grau, a University of Havana professor, was the hero of the student leftists and longtime enemy of Machado. He declared a socialist revolution with the simple mission to fulfill "the dream of 1898." [Langley, p. 143] One of his first actions was to unilaterally annul the Platt Amendment. He also passed new labor legislation limiting work days to eight hours and requiring 50 percent of all employees in Cuban industry and commerce to be native, new land distribution laws, abolished Machado political parties, and granted women the right to vote.

Washington reacted by Grau's actions by putting ships on-station of the Cuban coast and U.S. intervention seemed near. [Skidmore, p. 262] Grau's short administration has often been overlooked as a 'pseudo revolution' but it created a new nationalism in Cuba. Over the next eleven years many reforms made in Grau's short administration were institutionalized in Cuba's government and society. Although they formalized these advances as part of the 1940 Cuban constitution regarded as one of the most advanced in Latin America, Grau made enemies with his programs. With each new move he alienated another faction. Reduced support for the Grau government and increasing disorder caused Batista and reduced. We know now that the revolution of 1933 was a spark to the Castro revolution of 1959.

The progressiveness of the revolution did not extend to the political system. Batista used de facto or actual presidential powers to quickly change Cuba. A most important change transferred the military from civilian to military control. Batista institutionalized the military into his presidency and used it to consolidate his power. This led to a liberal-conservative split between Grau and Batista and essentially ended any cooperations between the two factions. Batista used this split further to consolidate his power as he espoused a conservative, nationalistic line.

While others held the presidency, Batista was the power behind the presidencies of Carlos Hevia (January 15-18, 1934), Manuel Márquez Sterling (January 18, 1934!), Carlos Mendieta Montefur (January 18, 1934-December 11, 1935), José A. Barnet y Vinageras (December 11, 1935-May 20, 1936), Miguel Mariano Gómez Arias (May 20-December 24, 1936), and Fédrico Laredo Fru (December 24, 1936 - October 10, 1940). Batista ruled in his name from 1940 until 1944 and, counter to many claims, he ruled as a constitutional president, not a dictator. This was to come later.

Batista moved in the background again from 1944 to 1952. Grau San Martín returned to the presidency for the 1944-48 term but, under Batista's power, he was not the idealist that they overthrew in 1934. Carlos Prío Socarrás succeeded Grau and Batista returned to the presidency in a 1952 coup. Afterwards he ruled as a dictator until they overthrew him in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Batista's regime was brutal and corrupt and the Cuban national psyche reached its greatest depths. The stage was set for the Castro revolution of 1959.

July 26, 1953, marked the first public activity of the most pending revolution. It was on this day that a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro Ruz attacked the Cuban army barracks at Moncada. Castro was the talented and well-educated (lawyer) son of a successful peninsular who chose to use his talents to revolutionize Cuba. Castro had been deeply involved in student politics and exposed to nationalism, leftism and revolutionary thought. They have described Castro as "strong-minded, articulate, and ambitious." He was "[p]assionately nationalistic" but he "steered clear of the communists who were the best organized of the student groups" [Skidmore, p. 263].

Following graduation, Castro traveled through Latin America to meet other revolutionaries and to learn their politics. His first direct contact with revolution came in 1948 in Bogotá, Colombia. He was in Bogotá when the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán triggered two days of rioting which led to city authorities abdicating. Castro is said to have recognized the possibilities of and gained a "taste for the possibilities of popular mobilization" while in Bogotá [Skidmore, p 263].

Castro spent the next five years traveling, learning more about revolution, and raising funds to recruit and train revolutionary soldiers that he led in the ill-fated Moncada barracks attack. One-half of the attackers were killed, wounded or captured and the government acting quickly, executed many. Castro and his brother, Raúl Castro Ruz, were captured, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. At his trial, Castro gave his long, passionate and rambling "History Will Absolve Me"speech that later became the doctrine of the revolution.

Castro was fortunate. Batista, whose regime was coming under fire for its brutality, granted amnesty to many political prisoners to "court public opinion and improve his dictator's image" [Skidmore, p. 264]. It was a tactical error that allowed Castro to flee to Mexico to plan and organize the revolution.

In Mexico, Castro gained partial support of former Mexican and Cuban Leftist presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas and Carlos Prío Socarrás. He returned to Cuba in 1956 with Raúl and Ernesto "Che" Guevara as leaders of the 86-member "26th of July" revolutionary movement. The invasion was supposed to be part of an anti-Batista uprising. When the expected revolutionary uprising failed to develop, Castro and his surviving revolutionaries fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains to regroup and build a base for traditional guerrilla warfare against the Batista regime.

While in the mountains Castro gained "international status overnight" and Batista was placed on the defensive by a series of New York Times' articles by Herbert Matthews. The articles appeared in 1957 when Batista was claiming Castro was dead and the revolution destroyed. The publicity did what Castro had hoped. It helped erode Batista's foreign support. It also gave new hope to Cuban Leftists and helped Castro recruit. As he built up his revolutionary army, Castro moved to a conventional guerrilla warfare, one that depended upon the support of the rural people for subsistence, protection, and intelligence.

The revolution gained new hope in 1958 when the U.S. government placed an embargo on arms shipments to Batista forces and the Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter calling for a "government of national unity." However, when a planned general strike failed to materialize, Castro changed his strategy to that of traditional guerrilla warfare. Batista responded to this goading in the expected manner, striking at any target and increasing Castro's support with each strike.

Batista called an election for November 1958 in a last ditch effort to placate his opponents. The voters abstained and the U.S. support waned. After his defeat, Batista did not plan to ride out a losing cause. On the last day of December 1958, Batista designated a successor and exiled himself to the Dominican Republic. The move caught the rebels by surprise but on January 1, 1959, on Castro's orders, Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos entered led the rebels into Havana. Castro did not enter Havana until January 7, after he had become a worldwide, revolutionary hero.

U.S. concern and worldwide debate focused on the issue of the kind of revolutionary government Castro would ultimately establish. Castro initially established a triumvirate with Manuel Urrutia as president, José Miro Cardona as prime minister and Castro as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The triumvirate was destroyed in February when Miro Cardona resigned because of a lack of real power. Castro formally assumed the duties of prime minister and commander-in-chief.

Castro increased the armed forces from 50,000 to approximately 600,000, one-half active and one-half reserve, and made plans to conduct one national mobilization each year from 1959 to 1963 [Morley, p. 367]. Castro turned to the problem of the Batista supporters. Over 500 were executed in a six-month period of "ordinary justice" administered by revolutionary courts. This created concern within and without Cuba, especially in the United States. Castro, however, had clearly established his power over the nation.


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