Friday, May 20, 2022

Cuba Independence Day 2022: A reflection on the first 530 years

 Before the arrival of the totalitarian darkness

Independence Day in Havana, Cuba on May 20, 1902

One hundred and twenty years ago today at noon the flag of the United States was brought down and the Cuban flag raised over Havana as Cuba became an independent republic. However, when looking at Cuba one should look back over the past 530 years and where it is situated today to gain greater understanding of the unfolding tragedy.

Cuba is just 90 miles south of the United States with a population of approximately 11 million people. It is 780 miles long and has a land area of 40,369 square miles and is the largest island in the Caribbean and 17th-largest island in the world by land area.

Columbus’s second stop in the New World was on October 28, 1492 when he landed in Cuba. (The first place he landed on October 12 was the Bahamas). Cuba was a Spanish colony from Columbus’s landing in 1492 until 1898 when Spain lost Cuba in the Spanish-American War.

Cubans engaged in two protracted wars of independence. The first was the 10 Years War that took place between 1868 and 1878 and the second took place between 1895 and 1898 ending with U.S. intervention and a 4-year occupation that ended on May 20, 1902. Cuba's first president was a Cuban exile named Tomas Estrada de Palma.


Future first Cuban president Tomas Estrada de Palma on way to Havana

There are many important figures and entities that emerge in the 19th century but for the sake of brevity will mention Father Felix Varela, Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo, Maximo Gomez and the Bacardi family.

Father Varela was a catholic priest who is said to “have taught the Cubans how to think” and entertained ideas of independence that led to his exile to the United States. 

Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez were Cuban generals that played important roles in both wars of independence. Antonio Maceo was of a mixed racial background: part Spanish and part African.

Maximo Gomez, was an experienced military man of Dominican origin who oversaw the overall military campaign in the second war of independence and of the three previously mentioned was the only one who survived the war to see the arrival of the Republic.

José Martí and Antonio Maceo

Jose Marti was a journalist, poet and revolutionary who organized and advocated for the 1895 war of independence and spent most of his adult life exiled in the United States in New York City.

The Bacardi family, began their world famous Rum business in Santiago de Cuba. Don Facundo Bacardí Massó and Don Emilio Bacardi founded Bacardi Limited on February 4, 1862.

Emilio Bacardi Lay, son of one of the two founders of Bacardi, Don Emilio Bacardi, "was a field officer for Gen. Antonio Maceo in 1895 during the invasion of Cuba by independence forces, and reached the rank of colonel by the age of 22," according to his obituary in The New York Times on October 16, 1972 when he died at the age of 95 in exile in Miami.  

Emilio Bacardi Lay

The family would also play an important role in civic life in Cuba, especially Santiago over the 20th century, and were constant opponents of dictatorship, political corruption and remained ardent Cuban nationalists over several generations. 

Forced into exile by the Castro regime the Bacardi family has maintained the traditions of the Cuban Republic celebrating independence day, carrying on the family business and continuing the fight for a free Cuba.

The beginning of the Cuban republic on May 20, 1902 had an asterisk – The Platt Amendment: which allowed the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs if U.S. interests were threatened. This Amendment was gotten rid of in 1933 but left a bad taste in the mouth of Cuban nationalists.

Between 1902 and 1952 Cuba progressed socially and economically but faced challenges on the political front. For example in the late 1920s Gerardo Machado, the democratically elected president did not want to leave power becoming a dictator. He was driven from office and into exile in 1933 by a general strike

This was followed by a revolution led by university students and enlisted men in what became known as the sergeants revolt. This put Fulgencio Batista into the national spotlight and by 1934 he was the strong man behind the scenes even though democratic formalities were restored.

In 1940 all the political tendencies in Cuba met to draft what became known as the 1940 Constitution and a presidential election was held and Fulgencio Batista elected. He served out his term as president from 1940 to 1944. Due to a clause in the new Constitution he was unable to run for re-election. 

In the election of 1944 the opposition candidate, Ramon Grau San Martin, won and served a term as president from 1944-1948 and in the election of 1948, Batista’s political party again lost at the general elections and Carlos Prios Socarras was elected president.

Cuba's republic during this democratic period played an important role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations and the establishment of the UN Human Rights Commission.

This democratic renaissance was brought to an end within days of the 1952 presidential elections, when on March 10th Fulgencio Batista organized a coup against the last democratically elected president.

A little over a year later on July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro organized an armed assault on the Moncada Military barracks that was a military disaster but a public relations success. Although most of the men involved with Fidel Castro in the assault were killed, Fidel Castro became a national figure at his trial for organizing the attack. At the trial he portrayed himself as a democrat that wanted to restore the previous democratic order and attacked the Batista dictatorship for its usurpation of the democratic order.

How the totalitarian darkness arrived in Cuba

Upon Batista’s departure from Cuba on January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro began his triumphal trek across Cuba to Havana where he began to consolidate power while continuing publicly to claim that he was a democrat but privately began to infiltrate his movement with communists, alienating many who had fought with him, and began to approach the mass media threatening them with violence if they reported anything critical. As the months passed all independent media were taken over. Mass televised executions imposed fear in the populace.

Ramiro Valdez oversaw the installation of the totalitarian communist apparatus in Cuba beginning in 1959. He is now probably doing the same thing in Venezuela.  It was on his watch that the East German Stasi trained Cuban State Security.

This is how the darkness of totalitarianism took over Cuba and 63 years later remains entrenched there. Cuba gained its independence on May 20, 1902 after centuries of Spanish colonial rule and four years of U.S. occupation following the Spanish American war.

Half of Cuba's post colonial history, thus far, has been under the boot of communist caudillos whose father, ironically, fought for the Spanish crown in the war of independence.


José Martí
What would José Martí say? 

José Martí was killed in battle against Spanish troops at the Battle of Dos Ríos, near the confluence of the rivers Contramaestre and Cauto, on May 19, 1895. He is buried in the Santa Efigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba. Cubans the world over honor his memory and Cuban independence follows a day later. Seven years and one day after Martí's death Cuba formally obtained its independence on May 20, 1902.

Cubans across the ideological divide claim José Martí as their own. The claims of the dictatorship led by the Castro brothers that Martí is the intellectual author of their political project is ironic considering that the life and writings of this Cuban patriot is the antithesis of the Castro regime.

José Martí believed that "Peace demands of Nature the recognition of human rights." A 63 year old dictatorship that rejects fundamental human rights is the antithesis of what the Cuban independence leader fought and died for.

Furthermore, José Martí proclaimed the idea that: "One just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army." 

A principle shared not only by dissidents in Cuba today but also echoed by Vaclav Havel, one of the dissidents who had an important role in ending Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 said: "I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions."

On this Cuban Independence Day we observe that Cubans have lived without democracy for 70 years, and rededicate ourselves to the struggle for a free Cuba. 

May 20, 1902 the Cuban flag is raised and the Republic born

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