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José Martí: Apostle of Cuban Independence



Cuba Libre

Freedom NOW!
As I am driving across south Florida on my way from Tampa to Miami, I pass by fields of young pine trees and remember a conversation I once had with a bar owner in Merida, Venezuela. As he served me up a Cuba Libre "Free Cuba" (a drink made with rum, cola, and a hearty dose of fresh lemon), he prompted me with a riddle. "Why is this drink a contradiction, Esteban?" he asked. I shot him a confused look and he replied, "Because the drink isn't really Cuban, and Cuba isn't free!" I stared down into my drink and thought about how true those words really were. And now here, passing by young pine trees, which symbolized the birth of a new Cuba more than a hundred years ago, I start to think about those words again.

At the end of 19th century, with thoughts of alcoholic beverages pushed to the back of his head, Jose Marti, like my Venezuelan bartender friend, did not think Cuba was free either. In fact, he was just about sick of Spain's colonial rule over his land, and was ready to fight for his freedom and become a martyr for independence and leadership throughout the Americas. <
Budding Pines...the symbol of a new Cuba

To galvanize support for his plans for a Cuban revolution, Marti traveled throughout the Cuban exile communities in South Florida. When he was in Tampa, he gave a speech to a crowd of Cuban exiles and compared them (i.e. Cuban nationals living abroad) to the baby pine forests he had seen on his travels through South Florida. Actually, his speech went a little something like this:

"As I crossed the dreary afternoon on my way to this faithful town [Tampa]...amidst the shredded clouds, a pine tree defied the storm and thrust the stately trunk upwards. Suddenly, the sun broke through a forest clearing, and there, by a swift flash of light I saw, rising from the yellowed grass amidst the blackened trunks of the fallen pines, the joyful shoots of the new pines. That's what we are: new pines!"

Following Jose Marti's inspiring revolutionary campaigns, Cubans were in support of independence from Spain, but their struggle wasn't as immediately successful as they had planned. As it became clear that Cuban revolutionaries were not going to defeat the Spanish military alone, Cubans began to consider the possibility of accepting foreign support for their cause. The Teller Amendment, adopted by the US Congress, pledged that the US would not annex the island nation and convinced Cubans that accepting assistance from the nearby nation in their war against Spain would not threaten their future sovereignty as an independent republic.

Cartwheeling through Miami Beach
Cartwheeling through Miami Beach

Enter the United States.

As Cuba was struggling for independence, the US was laying the foundation for becoming a world power. Do you remember the Monroe Doctrine? If not, here's a refresher: It was President Monroe's foreign policy plan that implicated the US as the protector of the independent nations of the Americas against the encroachment of any European power. At this point in history, the Monroe Doctrine had already become a political manifesto that the US used to pave the way to a hemispheric empire.

Although there were some voices of dissent, public opinion in favor of intervening in Cuba's revolution was at a max. The influence of the US news media successfully tapped into the American public's sympathy for the Cuban revolutionaries, who like the American rebels a century before, were fighting for their liberation. While the American public had a humanitarian view of involvement in Cuba, American investors and businessmen favored intervention as a means for accessing Cuba's resources and its new commercial markets.

The imperialist motives of American businessmen supported the logic of politicians like Presidents Cleveland and McKinley who favored intervention as the only means to prevent the development of a Black republic! Both presidents actually wrote speeches explaining their fear that if Cuba were to defeat Spain without US assistance, Cuba's ethnic population would become the leaders of the new nation.
Freedom Tower marks Miami's military sites during the Span-Am War
Freedom Tower marks Miami's military<BR>sites during the Span-Am War

And so, the Spanish American War began.

The US enters the war on Cuba's behalf, defeats Spain in three months, and hooray (!), everybody is happy, sovereign, and free. Right? WRONG! Cuba wasn't free and neither were Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Philippines--three Spanish colonies shuffled over to the US as part of the Treaty of Paris.

After the armistice, the US military pretended that the Cuban revolutionary movement did not even exist. When Spain surrendered, for example, Cuban officials were not allowed to confer on the surrender or to sign it. Rebels were not even allowed into the capital of Santiago, and the old Spanish authorities appointed by the Queen were left in charge of their respective municipalities. Defeating the Spanish, then, brought little change to Cuba beyond the massive and constant influx of American enterprises ripe with desire to exploit Cuba's raw capital. By the end of US military occupation, almost 80% of Cuba's mineral exports were in US hands.

Isn't Stephen a little too bundled up for the beach?
Isn't Stephen a little too bundled up for the beach?
With growing resentment, the Cuban population began massive strikes in hopes of forcing the US out of the country. However, the US military refused to leave without the ratification of the Platt Amendment as a part of the new Cuban constitution. The Platt Amendment was written to grant the US the right to intervene in Cuban government affairs whenever US interests were involved. To the American public, the Platt Amendment revealed that they had betrayed Cuban independence. It was agreed upon at the time that the Platt Amendment was like handing the keys to your house over to a stranger and letting them come and go as they please. Cuba refused to ratify the amendment of course, but continued military occupation eventually forced Cuban nationals to comply. Though it would not become an official US colony, the island nation was well within the US sphere of influence and susceptible to its imperialist whims. With the ratification of the Platt Amendment, any hope for an independent Cuba was destroyed.

It seems obvious now that the Spanish American war was fought over Cuba and not for it. The US entered the war under the guise of securing Cuban independence. Instead however, the country was only securing access to foreign markets and resources, while maintaining a racist foreign policy. After hearing that riddle from the Venezuelan bartender, is it really any surprise that I've never been able to enjoy another Cuba Libre?


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org







Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Sure, Puerto Ricans want a state. Of independence
Jen - The first U.S. president … of Nicaragua.
Neda - A little taste of the Philippines - at the mall food court
Stephen - The Great Panama Canal Grab