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An excerpt from:
Liberty: The Story of Cuba
by Horatio S. Rubens

Chapter 1
The Preliminary Skirmish

Part One | Part Two

One day in the winter of 1893 cigar workers in Key West brushed tobacco dust from their hands and left their benches to go home and tell their kin that they had been called out on strike.

Thus began the preliminary skirmish of that Cuban revolution which held stubbornly against surprising odds until independence was won for the Island.

The Ten Years' War had failed to produce a Republic of Cuba. For Cubans in flight from their homes and Spanish penalties for the uprising, Key West quickly became a favored settlement. Many émigrés scattered, it is true, to other parts of the United States, and to all the Spanish-American countries as well. But great numbers gravitated to Key West for two very human, almost wistful, reasons. Homesick, they could stand on the shoreline and very nearly see their homeland. And the Florida climate, being similar to the Cuban climate, cheered their distraught hearts.

Key West began to grow conspicuously when Cuban cigar makers settled there. Each family of a skilled worker had a little house built of wood; it might be owned or rented. Employment on piecework was constant and remunerative. The workmen and their families were happy after a fashion, being able to live decently, safe moreover from Spanish dominion, able also to set aside something for a sort of Biblical tithe, to contribute to funds to support the next crusade to free Cuba.

Upon this felicitous situation the strike fell with cruel effect. Watchful Spanish agents were ready to take immediate advantage of the confusion. One of the strongest units of the Cuban Revolutionary Party admittedly centered in Key West; and the agents, believing the strike would definitely weaken the Party fabric, made haste to lure rapacious American politicians to sustained blows against Cuban solidarity.

Up to this time, no Spaniard had worked in a Key West cigar factory. Cunningly now, the agents used "the liberal hand," adding inviting promises of employment for Spaniards brought from Cuba. They caused the authorities to believe this would quickly restore economic peace in the town, and save the future moreover from importunities on the part of Labor. Naturally the factory owners wished matters settled quickly, so they cooperated.

A Committee of Key Westers briskly set sail for Havana to confer with the Captain General about rounding up enough Spanish cigar makers to replace the striking Cubans.

The Havana papers bristled with advertisements. Posters decorated hoardings with the tidings of free transportation promised to Key West, proper protection once there, guarantees of good living conditions, and the highest rate of pay ever earned by cigar makers. The visiting Committee had headquarters in the Hotel Roma. As applicants appeared, it seemed normal military restrictions governing permission to leave the Island. And in December, '93, the first group of Spanish replacements of the Cuban workers left Havana for Key West.

These were not simply strike breakers; they were, as well, bitter political opponents of the Cubans, a fact which made them a double menace once they reached Key West. Any such importation of Spanish workers clearly violated the immigration laws of the United States; yet local Federal authorities appeared to pay no attention, presumably because feeling had been artfully aroused which was proof against the outraged protests of the Key West Cubans.

Obviously prompt reprisals could be expected. To reduce the likelihood, the Spanish workers were removed from wharf to factory with great rapidity; there cots and kitchens had been set up. The escort from the wharf was fully armed.

Soon a second contingent came from Havana under like protection. The Cubans continued their bitter protests, but the local Federal authorities ignored them. Two Cubans were summarily picked up in the street, thrown into jail and held without bail. When they inquired what charges stood against them, their captors only looked enigmatic. The Cubans knew they had not committed any unlawful acts, and it soon became obvious that they were being held with a view to cowing the ardor of fellow Cubans, to the end that it might be considered "just as well" by the entire Cuban population of Key West not to retaliate for the replacement of Cuban by Spanish labor.

Clearly the law must be formally sought, to cope with the situation. Word was hastily dispatched to New York headquarters-to José Martí, leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Spain was thoroughly aware of the Party organization as it functioned throughout the Americas, and her diplomatic and consular service bristled with spies, especially where there were strong Cuban colonies.

Martí immediately telegraphed that counsel was to be engaged. He further suggested the precaution of selecting such counsel from another part of Florida inasmuch as it would be too much to expect a Key West lawyer to embarrass his local practice by getting into the inevitable fight.

But it was not easy to secure counsel even from a remote part of the state. Feeling had spread quickly through the state that the Key West Cubans had taken a stand it would be hopeless to try to uphold and that the authorities could successfully maintain their position.

At this time I had a law office in New York and Martí, whom I had met, came and explained to me in a few deft sentences these alarming developments. I had known him for about a year and was familiar with the projects of the Revolutionary Party. It was obvious the immigration laws had been violated and that Spanish laborers, contracted thus in Havana and fetched in such fashion to Key West, were legally subject to deportation.

Martí did not mince matters. The invasion of Cuban rights in Key West would cripple the Party organization and interrupt, perhaps even terminate the flow of money from that territory to the urgent campaign funds. His Key West supporters must be supplied with counsel immediately. He asked me if I would go down to take whatever legal steps were necessary to bring about the speedy deportation of the Spanish workers and further proper measures to protect his people.

I was glad to go, and said so.

"When can you start?" Marti asked eagerly.

"Tonight," I answered, and I shall not forget the expression of grateful relief that passed quickly across his fine features.

This, in the beginning of '94, I left for Key West on a trip which was my initial redemption of a promise I had offered Marti when I first knew him-to do all I could to help Cuba in her struggle for independence.

At Key West I found the wharves crowded with Cubans, come out of courtesy, not to mention curiosity, to see "the man Martí has sent." To them I was quite unknown, but I knew some of their histories.

It appeared immediately that I was assumed to know no Spanish. But as the steamer warped into her berth I listened with understanding to comments which might not have been made if it had been supposed I could comprehend them.

"He seems too young for this business," one said gravely.

Another said, hopefully, "Well, Martí sent him, and The Master knows."

Still another wondered dubiously if I had the stuff in me to resist enemy bribes. That suggestion, I was gratified to hear, received sharp rebuke from all sides. "What are you talking about!" one exclaimed. "Martí guaranteed this man. Take bribes? Impossible!"

Still some had misgivings. If I could not be bribed I might still be unequal to the situation in other ways.

"The 'conchs" will probably frighten him away." (Conchs is a colloquial name for people who live on certain Florida Keys.) Again, not without satisfaction, I heard a reply: "But Martí knows whom he has sent. You will see. He will not take money from the enemy, and he will not be afraid."

I was to deal with a committee familiar with the situation. Its members were Fernando Figueredo, José Dolores Poyo, Teodoro Perez, Miquel A Zaldivar and Manuel P. Delgado. Later Delgado was to perform most delicate detail work for me and receive special commendation from Martí.

As I left the boat and went along the wharf I was piercingly watched by hundreds of pairs of dark, appraising eyes. The crowd which followed at my heels fell back as I went into the appointed meeting place to confer with the committee, and waited outside with ill concealed anxiety to know what was going on behind the closed doors.

Rumor was liberally joined with fact in the report made to me. The story had it, moreover, that the jail was open and quite unguarded and that the two Cubans, still held without charges, were to be lynched that night. Obviously something must be done about them at once.

To properly understand the situation it should be remembered that the strike breakers had been brought to Key West ostensibly to end quarrels between labor and the factory owners; but the political enmity between the strike breakers and the Cubans was there for all to see and feeling was rising rapidly. There had been sharp encounters before I got there; no one had exhibited any taste for diplomacy and each faction had gone beyond the mere stage of bitterness and was now dangerously belligerent, being, in effect, an armed camp. Certainly it was very easy to see why Martí had warned me the situation might get out of hand.

Part One | Part Two

Antonio Maceo | The José Martí Timeline | An Article about Martí | War for Independence