In a speech in Santiago de Cuba last Jan. 1, Cuban President Raul Castro – the younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro – described the period 1959-2009 as “the most intense and fruitful half century” in Cuba’s history. The Cuban leader was referring to the 50 years since the victory of the Cuban Revolution, which toppled the US-supported dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista and eventually istalled a socialist government in the country.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
In a speech in Santiago de Cuba last Jan. 1, Cuban President Raul Castro – the younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro – described the period 1959-2009 as “the most intense and fruitful half century” in Cuba’s history.
The Cuban leader was referring to the 50 years since the victory of the Cuban Revolution, which toppled the US-supported dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista and eventually istalled a socialist government in the country.
July 26, 1953 is commonly viewed as the “official” start of the Cuban Revolution. This was the date when some 160 armed anti-dictatorship fighters attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, as well as the barracks in Bayamo, Granma.
But Cuban Ambassador to the Philippines Jorge Rey Jimenez, in an interview, described the Cuban Revolution as having its roots in earlier struggles for independence.
Cuba became a colony of Spain in 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. The island had been inhabited by the Taino and Ciboney peoples for an estimated 6,000-8,000 years before Columbus came. Columbus claimed the island for Spain on Oct. 12, 1492 and named it Isla Juana, in honor of Prince Juan.
Through the over 400 years that Spain held sway over Cuba, a small landowning elite of mostly Spanish descent held social and economic power. The island had an economy based on plantation agriculture, mining, and the export of coffee, sugar, and tobacco to Europe and, eventually, North America.
The period 1866-1867 saw an economic crisis sweeping across Cuba, and a colonial government increasingly mired in corruption and mismanagement of funds. At the same time, majority of the Cuban people were deprived of civil and political rights. These gave rise to discontent even among the wealthier sections of Cuba’s population.
On Oct. 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes – a lawyer and landowner from Oriente who had freed his slaves – declared war against Spain. This was the start of what is now known as the Ten Years’ War.
“After some defeats, because of divisions among Cubans in those times, we had to agree to a truce between Cuba and Spain,” Jimenez said.
The Ten Years’ War officially ended with the 1878 Pact of Zanjon, in which Spain promised greater autonomy and economic reforms for Cuba. Spain, however, reneged on these promises.
In 1879, Calixto Garcia, one of the generals of the Ten Years’ War who did not sign the Pact of Zanjon, started what is now known as the Little War. But this campaign for independence, which in many ways was a continuation of the Ten Years’ War, received little support and ended in defeat in 1880.
A new independence struggle, now known as the War of Independence, started in April 1895, led by poet Jose Marti. Spain responded with a campaign of suppression, herding villagers into concentration camps, which he called reconcentrados.
In 1897, Spain, fearing intervention by the US – which was already making its presence felt as an emerging imperial power – offered home rule with an elected legislature to the Cuban revolutionaries. The revolutionaries rejected this offer and continued the war.
On Jan. 25, 1898, the US battleship Maine docked at Havana, supposedly to protect Cuba’s some 8,000 American residents. On Feb. 15 that same year, the Maine exploded at the Havana harbor, and 266 people were killed in the blast. The US Congress passed a resolution calling for intervention, which then President William McKinley soon implemented.
“Already the Spanish forces were defeated…because the Cubans fought very hard,” Jimenez said. “And then the North American troops came in and stole the victory. At the moment of Spain’s capitulation to the US, the US troops did not allow the Mambises – the Cuban rebel army – to enter Santiago de Cuba. The Spaniards surrendered to the US, because they refused to surrender to the Cubans.”