October ushers in Hispanic Heritage Month, so it’s a good time to study the Spanish American War and its impact on Cuba. I reflected on this as I watched the Ken Burns PBS special on the Roosevelt family; it kicked off with Teddy Roosevelt and his adventure in Cuba as a Rough Rider.
For those of you who know nothing about Cuban history, let me set you straight. Cubans were fighting Spain’s control over the island since at least 1868. The fight continued until the Spanish-American war concluded in 1898. The Americans fought the Spaniards for three months. The Cuban patriots, called Mambises, waged a three-decade war against the Crown. Ironically, none of the Cuban heroes were invited to attend the ceremonies between the Yankees and the Spaniards.
Bayamo lies under the shadows of the Sierra Maestra. One of its illustrious citizens was a plantation owner named Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. In October, 1868 this respected gentleman seized the town in the name of a movement claiming Cuba’s independence from Spain. He added that he was now independent Cuba’s ‘captain-general’ with the legal authority of a colonial governor.
Carlos Manuel de Cespedes
Earlier in the month, Cespedes had assembled family and friends at his small estate of La Demajagua, near Manzanillo, to make a formal declaration of an event recalled as the Grito de Yara. Cespedes was well-traveled, 49 years old and the grito sounded in Bayamo spread west to Puerto Principe (Camaguey) where the chief organizers were Salvador Cisneros Betancourt and Ignacio Agramonte, both from families of wealthy planters.
This grito launched a ten-year war both of a civil and racial nature. On one side were the wealthy white planters, their slaves and the free blacks forming the first inter-racial army in the Western Hemisphere.
Their opponents were the Spanish armies joined by recent white Spanish immigrants from Spain who banded together in killer battalions of voluntarios or ‘volunteers.’
Cespedes’ insurrection of 1868 was well timed. Queen Isabella of Spain had been sent into exile in September of that same year, the Spanish fleet had experienced defeats in Santo Domingo in 1865 and in Peru the following year.
So Cuban patriots continued to fight and to die, refusing to pay unjust taxes imposed by the Spanish Court. Mexican silver that had funded Cuba’s development had long disappeared. Now sugar-rich Cuba had replaced Mexico as Spain’s ATM machine, expected to finance the sagging Spanish empire.
The Bronze Titan, Maximo Gomez
Brave men like Maximo Gomez, the rebel general, and Jose Marti, Cuba’s spiritual leader, along with many others, saw their country laid waste, the economy in ruins, and Cuban independence restrained by the U.S. Platt Amendment and U.S. intervention and occupation.
This was the beginning of the American Empire as the United States defeated the Spaniards in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and in Cuba. But the Cubans fought bravely against Spain for decades – not simply for a summer adventure up San Juan Hill.