Turn of the Century

Cuban War of Independence w. Louis Perez Jr.

January 26, 2021
Turn of the Century
Cuban War of Independence w. Louis Perez Jr.
Show Notes Transcript

“Free Cuba” means different things to different people. For some, it’s about fighting western imperialism. For others, its about being anti-communist or anti-Castro. And for many thirsty adults, a “Cuba Libre” simply means a “Rum and Coke.”

But at the end of the 1800s, Cuban freedom was about overthrowing the Spanish Empire. Local revolutionaries campaigned to end Madrid’s despotic rule over the island. And they succeeded!

But nothing is ever that simple when you’re less than 90 miles from the United States…
Cuba would grow to become one of the most influential, and contested, islands in the world. How did we get here? Caribbean History Professor Louis Perez Jr. explains the roots of the Cuban revolution. What were Cubans soldiers fighting for? And why did the North Americans decide to get involved?

Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and the Director of ISA. His most recent books include Rice in the Time of Sugar: The Political Economy of Food in Cuba (2019) and Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba (2017) Pérez's principal teaching fields include twentieth-century Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba. Research interests center on the nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean, with an emphasis on Cuba.

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Editing and production by Jordan Hawthorne

"Dill Pickles Rag" by Charles Johnson

"The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin





Joseph Hawthorne:

Cuba libre! Welcome to turn of the century, a podcast about the turn of the 20th century. I'm Joe Hawthorne and today we're talking about the Cuban war or wars of independence. A free Cuba means different things to different people. For some, it's about fighting Western imperialism. For others, it's about anti Communist or anti Castro sentiment, and for many thirsty adults, Cuba libre simply means a rum and coke. But at the end of the 1800s, North and South Americans had some more unified ideas about Cuban freedom. This was about overthrowing the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean, local revolutionaries campaign to end Madrid's despotic rule over the island. And they succeeded. But nothing is ever that simple. When you're 90 miles from the United States, Cuba would grow to become one of the most influential and contested countries in the world. How did we get here? Caribbean history professor Luke Perez, Jr. explains the roots of the Cuban Revolution before Castro before us intervention. What were the Cubans fighting for? And why did North Americans decide to even get involved? This week, we look at the roots of Cuban liberation.

Louis Perez Jr.:

The by the 1890s, Cuba had developed

Unknown:

a fairly sophisticated cosmopolitan culture. And in this sense, I'm referring principally to the principal cities with Havana, and the provincial capitals in Santiago in my dances in San Diego's provincial cities, that had developed an urban culture of some sophistication of some high culture, of music of art, theater of literature. Sugar had made this a very cosmopolitan Island, again, certainly from the from its urban focal points. It was very much a, certainly Havana was very much in Atlantic City, in the, in the in the world in world markets, the trade with the United States in Europe, increasingly, a city at a nation that was coming into its own and beginning to aspire to independence that had been repeatedly tried in the early part of this century. But in point of fact, it fail. So when we get to the 1890s, when the historian looks at Cuban 1819, one sees a series of contradictions that, on one hand, a highly cosmopolitan, engage country, on the other hand, a very poor country, country in which the racial hierarchies continue to perpetuate racial structures and racism. Cuba just come out of slavery in 1886. So there is considerable amount of racial tension in this country. And at the same time, a country that was now beginning to articulate a sense of national identity and a sense of itself and beginning to prepare for what would be the next war for independence that we break out into 95 at 95.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so I'm glad you mentioned the wars as well. And you brought up so many different topics about economy, culture, identity, politics. And so looking at the kind of state craft, what was Cuba in the 1890s? You know, how did Cubans think of their island in the 1890s.

Unknown:

But it's difficult to make a generalization and how Cubans you know, we are in a sense, it would be best to identify Cubans who are, who have an out outward looking and Cuban to have an inward looking perspective. Cubans engage in the world Cuban tweets, a mostly white Cuban middle class Cubans, professionals, white collars, teachers, attorneys, physicians, are enormously enormously engaged in the world, many of them have educated abroad, many educated in the United States, that includes physicians and trade and commerce and industry. So there is that part of Cuba to sell white middle class and I'm not talking about in this sense, the the tactic class or the producing classes of control most of the wealth I'm talking about an increasingly large with by today's standards, we call a white collar, middle class. And then increasing vast numbers of Cubans of color blacks and Latinos, who are now beginning to emerge in the first generation ex slaves or multi generations of ex slaves were beginning to articulate a politics of incorporation into human society. So on one hand, you have a population that is seeking to establish a place of security and well being within the country. And then you have another another group of humans who are looking to establish themselves with respect in the family of nations of the world that is an independent sovereign Republic. So you have these two tendencies, two forces that are acting on each other, and in many ways, shaping the direction that the humans will for independence will take.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so how does that? And so how do those two directions or multiple directions affect the fact that Cuba at this point is still a colony is still part of the Spanish Empire? What's the kind of relationship or dynamic there?

Unknown:

That's the question. The short answer that as the worst for independence sweep across Spanish America in the early 19th century, it happens that Cuba had just entered the world of sugar production, as a result of the collapse of the of sugar in what will become hating the Haitian Revolution, for all intents and purposes, produces a collapse of what was one of the world's largest, most productive, most barbaric slave systems in the Western world. That means the opportunity for Cubans to move into sugar production presented itself with the turn of the century. That is, at the time that independence movements were breaking out all over the Western Hemisphere, starting with the United States, then Haiti, then Mexico and then of course, Mexico, all the way to Argentina. Bad timing for the Cubans. Because this was worse for independence, in which the Cuban creels so Cuba whites certainly shared many of the grievances that distinguish their counterpart to the mainland. But the idea that Cubans would opt at this time for independence was counterintuitive. The island was filling with hundreds of 1000s of slaves between the early 1800s and 1840s. And the idea that the Cubans would then risk their new prosperity newfound prosperity, with a war for independence, that would also be possibly the feared precipitate a slave uprising, for all intents and purposes locked Cuba into Spanish colonialism as a means of well being and security, to defend Spanish sovereignty and colonial administrations as a means for the protection of property of racial hierarchies of production and privilege. So from the beginning of the 19th century, to the end of the 19th century, we have a the elite the plant the class to producing classes, both Creole and Spanish, who were very much fearful of independence and who very early associated independence with the with chaos calamity race war that became fixed in the popular imagination of the the producing classes of Cuba. So you have that thing you have this bifurcation of the middle classes who are beginning to look forward into looking forward to independence. And the producing classes very linked to defend to Spanish sovereignty is a means of security for property and privilege.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So what changes then, you know, it sounds like it's a, it sounds like one of the main things to change is that you have a planetary class you have more Creole or Spanish descendants that are starting to become more skeptical the Spanish Empire. But what starts to change in the 1870s, the 1890s.

Unknown:

It begins changing mid century begins to change is the idea of sovereign nationhood, enters the Cuban popular imagination. The king has always had grievances against Spain, those grievances never disappeared, they wax in the wane, they intensified were not. And so through the 19th century, as more and more Cubans obtain the opportunity to study abroad to visit the United States to visit Europe to travel. The more ideas of change, go back to my earlier comments about a cosmopolitan society that is increasingly well read well informed. It travels, this huge Cuban community that takes place that develops in Florida in Tampa and Key West. Lizard traffic back and forth between Florida and Cuba. Cubans in New Orleans, Cubans and Savannah, Cubans in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington. Hogan here to be educated who gone there to get some of this even primary secondary education, professional training, then the word Cuba becomes aware of a larger world. And increasingly, the fact that the Cuban economy is tied to the North American economy means that there's a kind of bifurcated colonialism. One is the political colonial rule of Spain executes from from from Europe, and then increasing human dependency in American markets, American technology American industry, to subsidize its expanding economy. In other words, that what Cuba needs to sustain economic growth cannot be found in Spain, and increasingly, the Cubans turn to Europe, and especially the United States to subsidize all by way of saying is that the Cubans become familiar with a wider world. And this is a time of, of people, of increasing political ideologies of socialism of anarchism or various types of utopian socialism, of Cubans seeing witnessing this the suffrage movement in the United States and our interest at the time, the second half of the 19th century, becomes a time of kind of political awakening for many people in the world, and especially the Cubans who are present, who are present in this country and watching this unfold before the very eyes. So this idea of nation of sovereignty of self determination slowly begins to insinuate itself into political calculus of what it means to be cubic. Then somewhere in the 19th century in we could think historians may disagree about when but anywhere between the 1860s and the 18 in the 1890s. Cubans get it into their head that they have a right to claim Aspire and exercise, sovereign nationhood self determination, national independence, which becomes the ceiling idea that begins to galvanize increasing numbers of Cubans working class and middle class alike and including me and some members of the planter aristocracy, blacks and white men and women. What makes the Cuban independence movement of the latter years of the 19th century, different from the independent movement to the beginning of the 19th century, is that the Cuban concept of of national independence was never defined as an end, it was always a means. They invested an extraordinary amount of expectation in a nation that would address the maladies and the afflictions that affected human society that the new Cuba would address and deal with racism that the new Cuba free and independent Cuba would deal with inequity and poverty that the new cute And sovereign Cuba would address the issues of democracy. In other words, there is a social agenda to what is emerging in the 1880s and 90s. In Cuba. This is not simply separation for Spain as and then this is separation from Spain as a means.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Gotcha. And so then going to a kind of scene on the ground, how does 1895 unfold? How does the most recent I guess we'll say, we're gonna rephrase that, how does this newest conflict, this newest warfare and defend it? How does this newest war for independence unfold? And what happens in the years from 1895, up to 1898.

Unknown:

And then falls away many of the other wars began. And in fact, it builds on the war of 1868, which was known as the 10 Years War builds on another revolution of 1879 80, which is known as a little war. And then between 1880 and 1895, there are a series maybe a half dozen 10, stillborn rebels, rebellions, some lasting a matter of days and weeks and lasting months. But this kind of continued repetition, continued efforts to mobilize. And in 1895, by which time, this movement now had established very firm roots in exile communities, immigrant communities in the United States, bound together in what is probably, I think it's important to look at the Cuban war for independence. 1895 is the beginning of the 20th century. This is when we could clearly identify as the first war of national liberation, what will become so common in the 20th centuries, or as the anti colonial movements. So Cuba, under the leadership of Jose arti creates a Revolutionary P rty, the Cuban Revolutionary arty that begins to coordinat and prepare for war and to h ve a political leadership o the revolution. And you h ve a military leadership o the revolution, acting, acti g in concert, sometimes ore, sometimes less. to direc the war that began in February 895. It begins in the East End into the island, and by the e d of the first year, by the end 895, has expanded deep int the western provinces, and ha now the Spanish government o its heels. The presence o the Spanish of the Cuban forc s in western Cuba send shock aves throughout the throughout S

Joseph Hawthorne:

you mentioned us connections several times talking about economic, political, I think there's also military angles we can look at too. So just as you're in a little bit on this more, how would you describe the nuanced relationship between the United States and Cuba going into the 1890s in 1898?

Unknown:

I'm not so certain that it's so nuanced. I, it's important to to contextualize what is happening in Cuba, to to set in some larger frame, Cuban expectations, as I said a moment ago, somewhere in the 19th century, even got into their head, that they had a right to self determination and national sovereignty, in a word independence, Cuba for Cubans, a nation that would address the Cuban woes and afflictions and grievances and complaints, on one hand. And on the other, you have an American policy that may very well be one of the most consistent one of the most consistent policies that are followed by the Americans, from the time of Adams in Jefferson, through Cleveland, and McKinley. That is to say, from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the 19th century. And that is that, under no circumstances could the United States acquiesce to the existence of a free, sovereign, independent Cuba? There is no policy that I shouldn't say no, no, there are a few policies in American certainly international relations, diplomatic history that are so consistently hewed to by successive political administrations in the 19th century as the proposition that Cuba cannot Translated by Spain to any other power. With the acquisition of Louisiana and what was 18, three, with the acquisition of Florida in 1821, the American, the United States had expanded southward. And suddenly the United States looked at it what the Americans perceived to be its southern frontier. And that was Cuba. And the recognition that if a hostile power were to establish a presence on the island of Cuba, that hostile power could threaten American strategic interests in the Gulf of Mexico, and especially through that 90 mile stretch of water that separates the United States Key West, from the north coast of Cuba. So under no circumstances, and this is consistent, this is persistent, where the Americans are perfectly have accommodated to the presence of Spain in Cuba, because Spain is perceived to be a non threatening power. But the Americans make it very clear, starting from Jefferson, and all the way through McKinley, treatment of McKinley, that the United States will not allow, and would not permit Spain to transfer sovereignty of Cuba to a third power. So what we have here is two people, two countries on an absolute straight Collision Course, where the Cubans are, are hell bent, and the last half of the 19th century, to secure a national independent and sovereignty and the Americans equally hell bent to prevent people from coming a to prevent Spain from transferring the sovereignty of Cuba to another power. And let me add, that typically historians read this as that they would not the United States would not allow Spain to transfer Cuba to France, to crusher or to England. Okay. And that's the conventional interpretation of this. But in point of fact, that also implies and indeed activates the proposition that Cuba is far too important for American national interest to allow the Cubans to assume sovereignty over the argument, the logical conclusion is that the United States will not allow Spain to transfer the sovereignty of Cuba, not even to the Cubans. And so what we have again, and again through the 1820s through the 1890s, the American saying repeatedly, that so the the the the warning that the the Americans will not allow Spain to transfer the sovereignty or possession of Cuba to a third power is backed is backed by a thread. And that thread is that news that Spain contemplated transferring the sovereignty of Cuba to a third power would be an encoding a mid century, mid century Secretary of State said wouldn't be am, I think I'm quoting correctly, would be the instant signal for war. And some, the Americans threaten war, to prevent Spain from ceding sovereignty of Cuba to another power, it was unacceptable that Spain would allow the island of Cuba to pass under the control of any country other than the United States. And through the 19th century, the Americans periodically made an offer to buy Cuba two or three times in the Spanish refused. So then we have this, this and have this this extraordinary, you know, standing on top of a mountain and seeing two cars coming at each other. You see, the Americans on one hand and the Cubans in the other, the Cubans aspiring to to Cuban seeking to make good an aspiration that the Americans have said is will never happen. And that's where we are when the Cuban war for independence enters its second or third year.

Joseph Hawthorne:

How do Cuban leaders manage or try to manage the United States interests? How are they trying to get support from the US but also not just be invaded by the United States.

Unknown:

The Cubans in Cuba are not unduly concerned with the United States. States as far as the conduct of the war is concerned, they have the strategies. They have the policies, they have the politics, they have the methods. There is a whole group of Cubans operating the United States that are providing moral support material support, we're sending what are known that the time expeditions of arms and medicines and clothing and supplies and equipment that are being run out of the United States, many of them intercepted by the American by the American Treasury Department. And the Cubans, the Cubans have taken the position that they will rely on their own resources. And many of the most prominent leaders in Cuba who are engaged on the fields of combat, have had indicated on several occasions that as far as they're concerned, they would be perfect, they would prefer the Americans do not get involved. What they would want was kind of recognition of belligerency status, they would appreciate it. But in point of fact, they were prepared to complete complete a war with the resources available to them, and secure by force of arms Cuban independent.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so as we start to wrap up this look at Cuba in the 1890s in the war for independence, what do you think would have happened if the US hadn't been involved? Or how were events proceeding? Right up before the USS Maine in 1898.

Unknown:

The Spanish unleashed a an extraordinary war effort against the Cubans. A tremendous question themselves 10s of 1000s of Spanish soldiers, officers and men perished not necessarily as a result of battle in combat, but 10s of 1000s succumb to yellow fever, and malaria, and dysentery and all sorts of affirmatives and illnesses that operate who that attend operations in, in the Caribbean in the tropical country. Spain was prepared to bankrupt itself to the Thank you. And as we move into 18, the end of 1897 97, t e war had taken a wicked turn b cause the Spanish General, G vernor General had determined t at it was necessary to remove t e entire civil population out o the countryside, into the c ncentration camps to deny C bans the support of the p asant population. Again, let m let me repeat what I said e rlier, this is this is a this i a first war. This is the f rst guerrilla war of national l beration. These were the p licies that the Americans used i Vietnam, with a quota for to f ght Hamlet's move other people o t of the countryside, want to d prive the insurgents of the s pport and intelligence and f od and medicine that the c untry folk provide. And to m kes it very easy. Anybody w o's outside the fortified c nters of the concentration c mp, so ipso facto, the enemy, s it's a clear kind of back and w y. And so hundreds of 1000s of c min, but to call pacificus the p asant population to move out o the countryside 102,000, and w don't know how many died, you k ow, it could have been, could b 100 200 300,000 Cubans p rished in these camps. And so t e war had taken a sort of w cked turn, and the Cubans in a ms were undeterred and whose c mmitment was undiminished. And s this wall goes into 97 98. And y 97 98, the cost of the war in Spain is coming home to roost. We now enter what is probably the most controversial in terms for the debate of historians is to get them to respond to your question is what is the state of the human war in 1898 begins and the the main is chugging away toward Havana harbor in Jenin guests. He gets there in late January, early February, February. Human historians have insisted that the fewest were winning the war, that the Cubans were, in fact, would have won the war with one more rainy season. One more tropical summer would have dealt the Spanish Army a serious blow. The Cubans were persuaded. And that would have been the end of Spanish sovereignty and culminating in Cuban independence. The vast majority of American historians with safe some exceptions, would argue the Cuban tour on hard times, they would not have won the war. And then the United States came in and delivered. The final blow, which is correct, delivered the coup de gras to a sagging Spanish effort. Were the Cubans winning a war would the Cubans have won the war was another three months, four months, five months of combat. We do not know what we do know what we do know. And we can document and we can verify is that that consensus of opinion at the time, and let's say the time being from January 1 1898, to the declaration of war in April, they can. And before the consensus of opinion, who American diplomats in Cuba, and that is when I say diplomats I mean the US Consul General Havana and all the vice Council in the smaller cities, American business people, American visitors. The Cubans, of course, and increasing numbers of Spaniards are reaching the conclusion that Spain cannot restore its sovereignty, that the days of Spanish sovereignty in Cuba are numbered. And the numbers are few. In other words, what we have, what we conduct where we can document is the perception, the perception that Spain cannot hold on, that Spain cannot sustain and continue a war that it is losing. Or at least certainly not winning, that the Spanish, the Spanish public opinion, is already turning against a war that the politicians in Spain are beginning to turn against the war. Again, let me stress that guerrillas do not have to defeat guerrilla armies to not have to defeat the adversary, they need not win, they just have to make sure they do not lose. Because this is a war that's for as much on the battlefield as it is in politics. And by 1898. The Cubans are now draining Spanish morale to sustain continued current military operations in Cuba. It is at this point, it is at this point that American officials now come to the realization This is get back to the earlier discussion. That the demand to the war for independence may very well be Cuban, independent, in other words, that Spain may be forced to cede sovereignty of Cuba to the Cubans. In which case, that kind of triggers that warning that if Spain, if there were prospects of Spain, Tran to transfer the possession of Cuba to a third party, in this case, the Cubans that would be the instance signal for war. And indeed, in April, when the Cubans would not make peace with the Spanish, the United States declares war. And what's kind of overlooked in these discussions is that the United States declares war. And it's in the company's message, a war of hostile constraint on both parties, not just Spain. But both parties. This was a war that the United States declared to neutralize two competing claims of sovereignty as a means to establish a third one. So the idea that is that is that is that is so prominent, so prominent, the theme and American historiography of the United States. And certainly historiography of us diplomatic and foreign relations, that the United States went to war against Spain to help Cuba win its independence is to use to use the vernacular of today, that false history and, and so, the American purpose in 1898 was point of fact, to preclude the Cuban claim for independence and make the key is to to obstruct the human rise and establish a sovereign nation.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So I think that is a good transition. That's an excellent transition for our second conversation. If you enjoyed this interview, I highly recommend coming back to hear about the legacy of 1898 and us intervention in the years to come. Thank you so much, Professor Perez.