Independence movement

Towards the end of the 18th century, Cuba began its transformation into a slave plantation society. After the French Revolution, there were slave revolts in the French colony of Haiti, which became the first independent black republic. French sugar planters fled what had been the most profitable colony in the Caribbean and settled across the water in Cuba, bringing their expertise with them. Cuba soon became a major sugar exporter and, after 1793, slaves were imported in huge numbers to work the plantations. The island was under absolute military control with a colonial elite that made its money principally from sugar. The tobacco monopoly was abolished in 1816 and Cuba was given the right to trade with the world in 1818. Independence elsewhere in the Spanish Empire bred ambitions, however, and a strong movement for independence was quelled by Spain in 1823. By this time the blacks outnumbered the whites in the island; there were several slave rebellions and little by little the Creoles (or Spaniards born in Cuba) made common cause with them. On the other hand, there was also a movement for annexation by the USA, Cuba's major trading partner, supported by many slave owners who had a common interest with the southern states in the American Civil War. The defeat of the South and the abolition of slavery in the USA ended support for annexation.

By the 1860s Cuba was producing about a third of the world's sugar and was heavily dependent on African slaves to do so, supplemented by indentured Chinese labourers in the 1850s and 1860s. Although Spain signed treaties under British pressure to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade in 1817 and 1835, they were completely ignored by the colony and an estimated 600,000 African slaves were imported by 1867. Independence from Spain became a burning issue in Cuba as Spain remained intransigent and refused to consider political reforms which would give the colony more autonomy within the empire.

On 10 October 1868, a Creole landowner,
Carlos Manuel de Céspedes
, issued the
Grito de Yara
, a proclamation of independence and a call to arms, while simultaneously freeing his slaves. The first war of independence was a 10-year rebellion against Spain in the eastern part of the island between 1868 and 1878, but it gained little save a modest move towards the abolition of slavery. In 1870, the
Moret Law
freed all children of slaves born after 1868 and any slave over 60, but complete abolition was not achieved until 1886. In 1878, the
Convention of Zanjón
brought the civil war to an end. This enabled Cubans to elect representatives to the Spanish
cortes
(parliament) in 1879, but did not suppress the desire for independence. Many national heroes were created during this period who have become revolutionary icons in the struggle against domination by a foreign power. Men such as de Céspedes, Máximo Gómez and the mulatto General Antonio Maceo have inspired generations of Cuban patriots and are still revered with statues and street names in nearly every town and city on the island. One consequence of the war was the destruction of much agricultural land and the ruin of many sugar planters. US interests began to take over the sugar plantations and the sugar mills and, as sugar beet became more important in Europe, so Cuba became more dependent on the market for its main crop in the USA.

From 1895 to 1898, rebellion flared up again in the second war of independence under the young poet and revolutionary,
José Martí
, who had organized the movement from exile in the USA, together with the old guard of Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez. José Martí led the invasion but was killed in an ambush in May 1895 when the war had barely begun, and Maceo was killed in 1896. Despite fierce fighting throughout the island, neither the Nationalists nor the Spanish could gain the upper hand. However, the USA was now concerned for its investments in Cuba and was considering its strategic interests within the region. When the US battleship
Maine
exploded in Havana harbour on 15 February 1898, killing 260 crew, this was made a pretext for declaring war on Spain. Spain offered the independence fighters a truce but they chose instead to help the USA to defeat the colonial power. American forces (which included Colonel Theodore Roosevelt) were landed, a squadron blockaded Havana and defeated the Spanish fleet at Santiago de Cuba. In December 1898 peace was signed and US forces occupied the island. The Nationalists had gained independence from Spain but found themselves under
US military occupation
for four years and then with only limited independence granted to them by the USA.

During the occupation, the USA put the Cuban administration and economy back to rights. It eliminated a famine, introduced improved sanitation and helped to eradicate yellow fever with the scientific discoveries of a Cuban doctor, Carlos J Finlay. State education was introduced, the judiciary was reformed and an electoral system for local and national government was introduced. In 1901, an elected assembly approved a liberal constitution which separated Church and state and guaranteed universal adult male suffrage.

The
Republic of Cuba
was proclaimed in 1902 and the Government was handed over to its first president,
Tomás Estrada Palma
, the elected candidate of José Martí's Cuban Revolutionary Party, on 20 May. However, the new Republic was constrained by the
Platt Amendment
to the constitution, passed by the US Congress, which clearly made it a protectorate of the USA. The USA retained naval bases at Río Hondo and Guantánamo Bay and reserved the right of intervention in Cuban domestic affairs, but granted the island a handsome import preference for its sugar. The USA intervened several times to settle quarrels by rival political factions but, to quell growing unrest and a reassertion of pro-independence and revolutionary forces, repealed the Platt Amendment in 1934. The USA formally relinquished the right to intervene but retained its naval base at Guantánamo. (The lease on Guantánamo Bay expires in 2033.) Resentment against the USA for its political and economic dominance of the island lingered and was a powerful stimulus for the Nationalist Revolution of the 1950s.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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