Front Door to Cuba

On the Importance of Oriente Province

The Sierra Maestra Mountains

[What was once Oriente Province today includes the provinces of Granma, Holguín, Santiago and Guantánamo. This article will refer to the Oriente province as it was during the events depicted.]

Oriente was the heart and soul of the independence movement, and here race relations seemed much more relaxed and "Cuban" than in the rest of the island. It was in Oriente, at Dos Ríos, that Martí died in battle. It was in Oriente, near Bayamo, that Carlos Manuel de Céspedes gave the historic Grito de Yara that freed slaves and launched the armed struggle for separation from the Spanish empire.

During the Ten Year War, most of the rebel victories were in Oriente, and during the 2nd War for Cuban Independence that began in 1895, the rebels practically owned the province.

The symbolic importance of Oriente seems to amplify with the passing of time. The province also features the principal mountain ranges in Cuba, with Pico Turquino serving as the highest point on the island, and the Sierra Maestra Mountains as the place where numerous battles for Cuban independence were fought over the centuries.

According to the legend left by Father Bartolomé de las Casas, Hatuey was burned to death near Baracoa in 1523, after establishing himself as Cuba's first guerilla-style warrior. 350 years before the Ten Year War, Hatuey's Taínos used the Sierra Maestra Mountains to stage their attacks on the conquering Spaniards.

Oriente is full of Cuban history. Santiago is Cuba's oldest city, and the first capital of the island. A village about 50 kilometers outside of Santiago, Baire, marked the beginning of the War of Independence on February 24 1895.

Oriente is also the home to the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay, the oldest U.S. naval station outside U.S. territory.

"Between 1887 and 1899," wrote Louis Pérez in The Hispanic American Historical Review, "years during which all of Cuba suffered a 10 percent population decline, Oriente experienced a 20 percent population increase: from 272,379 residents to 327,716."

After the war, Oriente was a place where Afro-Cubans felt they could start new lives. The Afro-Cuban population in Oriente increased by 22.4 percent. "Oriente was a place of parity and proportion," wrote Pérez, "of equity and equality."

In the census of 1899 by the U.S. Military Government, Oriente featured the highest number of individual landowners and the highest number of renters. Afro-Cubans were working and cultivating 26% of the land (the highest percentage of Afro-Cuban participation in the country). Of the total land owned by blacks in Cuba, 75% was in Oriente.

In the previous two centuries, Oriente had seen a variety of crops, including bananas, Cacao, fruit orchards and coconut groves, vegetables and tobacco. There were also a number of cattle ranches. When U.S. businessmen started eyeing the island looking for bargain basement prices, Oriente was a very attractive "opportunity."

Soon the business and political environment began to favor the powerful companies and moneyed interests scoping out and scooping up the island. Local planters and businessmen, for example, had a difficult time borrowing the money they needed to get their properties back in shape after the very destructive war of independence.

The big sugar companies were buying up as much land as they could, but many owners had difficulty producing official titles for their land, and the courts consistently ruled against the local interests.

"More than simply a transition from the traditional to the modern," wrote Robert B. Hoernel in Latin American Studies, "Oriente's society underwent revolutionary change as a result not only of foreign influence but also of foreign control and design calculated to produce both modernization and 'Americanization'."

As sugar production increased, so did land concentration, and as foreign investment grew in Oriente, the number of farms and landowners diminished. By 1912, the sugar estates in the Guantánamo Valley belonged to 10 sugar mills, all foreign.

"Oriente's revolution in sugar was a foreign undertaking," wrote Hoernel, "carried out by foreign finance and worked by predominantly imported labor, while the province was not a colony, but an important part of the new republic."

In 1899 Oriente province was more native (96% Cuban-born) and more rural than any other Cuban province. Its agriculture was more diversified than in any other Cuban province. "From this basis," wrote Hoernel, "might have developed a balanced economy capable of producing not only primary goods for export and domestic consumption but also manufactured secondary products. But this was not to be." He points out "the area of Oriente under cultivation in 1899 (205, 761 acres) was considerably less than the area owned by a single plantation in 1919 (331,600 acres).

According to the census of 1899, Oriente had the largest number of farms of the smallest average size, and the racial distribution of farm owners was more equitable than anywhere else on the island. 45% of the owners of small farms were Afro-Cuban. At this time, Oriente was "the only province which even came close to reflecting racial composition in its land tenure," said Hoernel.

When investors learned about the great values to be found in Oriente, the province began to change at a rapid pace. In the Civil Reports of General Wood: 1902, are accounts of sales for as little as $3 an acre. In 1902, the United Fruit Company purchased 200,000 acres at $1 an acre.

"Most of the American-owned Cuban land was not held by homesteaders but by large corporations or small groups of wealthy men," wrote James H. Hitchman in the Journal of Inter American Studies and World Affairs. "Absentee land ownership was the common method of United States agricultural investment."

"In spite of the sugar expansion," wrote Hoernel, "Oriente's agriculture remained reasonably diversified during the first decade of the century."

The 1907 census reveals that 40 percent of the total population of Oriente is under 15 years of age. By 1912, 50% of the population was under 15 years old. Wrote Hoernel: "the province which perhaps gave most and longest to the cause of independence seemed to gain least from it. In 1907, it was still the poorest area in Cuba, and its Afro-Cuban inhabitants, who had filled the ranks of the Liberating Army, suffered most of all."

In May 1912 a massive demonstration broke out in which large groups of Afro-Cubans burned and looted foreign-owned property. This is often referred to as a "race war," even though there were no violent engagements other than the burning of property and the slaughter of Afro-Cubans by the Cuban Army.

By 1914, thirty-five Centrales controlled 802,428 acres. Over half (428,361 acres) belonged to U.S. mills. By 1919, sugar production had increased four times what it was in 1907, and almost ½ million acres of Oriente was used for cane. By this year Oriente had become Cuba's most populated province, with an increase of over 60 percent since 1907.

Race in Cuba
Opening | Introduction | End of Slavery | Race Fear | After the War | SUGAR | Race War | Race War Timeline | José Miguel Gómez | Morúa Delgado | Fernando Ortíz | Julián Valdés Sierra | Oriente Province | Martí on Race | Bibliography

The Sierra Maestra |

Photo of the Sierra Maestra by Shawna Scherbarth

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