Cuban War for Independence


For those Cubans who wanted independence, it was a long struggle. People on the island, mostly descendants of Africans, raised tobacco and sugar for export. Cuban sugar plantations supplied close to a third of the world\'s supply. The masses had little role in anything political. They were kept ignorant because a docile labor force was preferable. Within the planter class and the few who serviced it, there was a split opinion about independence. Most fared well by being part of distant Spain, which helped keep the masses in control. There were others who wanted to run their own affairs, which meant an independent Cuba. Cubans and US citizens led by Narciso López tried three times between 1849 and 1851 to launch independence movements. They were stopped the first time by US authorities. He landed on the island in 1850 but had to flee. Finally, in 1851, he and 51 US citizens were caught and executed in Cuba. Years later, in 1868, Málimbo Góme and Antonio Maceo began a revolt (the Ten Years\' War (1868-78) which failed when the upper class began to fear the lower classes. Some in the US advocated intervening to help the rebels but the US had its own problems such as Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 (which lasted until 1879). The Spanish tightened their control on their rebellious colony but conspiracies continued as rebels constantly sought some means to force the Spanish to leave. U.S. neutrality laws were constantly violated, for the rebels used Tampa and New York as conspiracy centers.


In 1895, José Martí founded the Revolutionary Party and, with Málimbo Góme and Antonio Maceo, started another independence revolt with Martí landing a small invasion force from the US and Góme and Maceo fighting elsewhere on the island. Martí was killed shortly after he began, thus becoming a martyr to the cause. The Spanish army, over 50,000 strong, could not defeat the 600-800 rebels because they stayed in the mountains except when they used his and run tactics. Spain poured more troops into Cuba, trying to preserve the last vestiges of its once enormous empire. It had been reduced to Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Morocco in Africa, and the Philippines in Asia. The fighting was nasty as both sides committed atrocities. By 1897, the rebels were winning. Although the Spanish had 150,000 troops on the island, they were stymied. Spain tried to buy the Cuban rebels off by granting the island more autonomy in October, 1897. By early 1898, Spain could no longer guarantee the safety of foreign nationals. The US sent a warship, the U.S.S. Maine, to Havana harbor to protect its nationals.


United States citizens interest in Cuba had fluctuated in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson had wanted it for his "Empire of Liberty." Pro-slavery forces in the Ostend Manifesto (1854) argued that Spain should cede the island to the US and that the US should make it into one or two slaves states. Some Cubans rebelled against the terrible rule of Queen Isabella II but lost. Spain promised to abolish slavery and make other reforms but Spanish rule had been so compromised that José Martí and others began plotting a new Cuban War for Independence. This war, a civil war, began in 1895.


As is usually the case with civil wars, the population was divided in its sympathies. Many people just tried to stay out of the way of the fighters. Conservatives supported Spanish rule, for either they benefitted from it or believed that established authority should be obeyed. The Spanish government counted on these two groups. Those who opposed the 50,000 Spanish troops under the command of General Valeriano "Butcher" Weyler often resorted to the hit and run tactics of guerrilla war. Because civilians often gave tacit support to the guerrilleros and it was difficult to determine which were combatants, Weyler resorted to the policy of reconcentrado (concentration camps) to isolate the guerrilleros from the population. The theory was that those not in the camps were guerrilleros and should be shot in site. (The US would adopt a similar policy with the Strategic Hamlet program of the Vietnam War.) Spain and its Cuban allied did not foresee that concentrating such large numbers of people