Front Door to Cuba

The War for Cuban Independence

by Jerry A. Sierra

Intro | Before The War | The War Begins | U.S. Intervention | After The War | Sidebars | References

1. Before The War

The dream of Cuban independence had existed for over one-hundred years before the final war for independence from Spain began in February 1895.

It wasn't until the British occupation of Havana in June 1762 (shortly after England declared war on Spain) that Cuban planters were able to sell their goods on the open market. Under traditional Spanish rule, they sold their goods to the Spanish government, who set the prices and was their only legal customer. The government then sold the goods on the open market and kept the profits.

The Cubans found it much more agreeable to sell their products to many buyers at competitive prices, and when the British and the Spanish traded Havana for Florida in 1763, Cuban businesses were forced back to the old oppressive system. Thus began the dream of Cuban independence

By 1825, most of Spain's colonies in the new world had achieved their independence, and only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained. Reacting to the prospect of a united Mexican-Colombian military expedition to help liberate Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1824, the U.S. government (with the backing of England) issued a series of threatening notes to Mexico and Colombia, declaring that the U.S. would "not remain indifferent" to the freeing of Cuba.

The U.S. diplomat who delivered the threats wrote a revealing letter to his boss, Secretary of State Henry Clay, stating, "What I most dread is that that blacks may be armed and used as auxiliaries. This country prefers that Cuba and Porto Rico should remain dependent on Spain. This Government desires no political change of that condition."

The threats worked. The expedition was stopped before it began. Simón Bolívar told a delegation of Cuban revolutionaries, “We cannot set at defiance the American Government, in conjunction with that of England, determined on maintaining the authority of Spain over the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico…”

In 1868 landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes gave the legendary “Grito de Yara” (Cry of Yara) in which he freed his slaves and started the first war for Cuban independence, known as the Ten-Year War. Soon, the army of Mambises (as the rebels were called by the Spaniards) had become a legitimate guerilla-style army, with many victories and popular support.

In time, however, the failure to successfully organize all aspects of the revolutionary effort, and the fact that the U.S. would sell the latest weapons to Spain, but not to the Cuban rebels, led to a stalemate in 1878 known as the Pact of Zanjón. The Pact ended the war, providing a general amnesty to anyone who fought and freeing the black slaves who fought on either side. Many were disappointed with the Pact, however, calling it a false promise that would never be kept. Their warnings would soon be proved truthful.

In 1880, as the U.S. government prepared for overseas expansion, wiping out Native American resistance in the West and building an offensive Navy, U.S. investment in Cuba increased rapidly. While six percent of Cuban exports went to Spain, a whopping eighty-six percent went to the U.S. It was at this time that La Guerra Chiquita (The Little War) was fought. Led by Major Calixto García, a well-known leader of the Ten-Year War, and José Maceo, the new struggle for independence was crushed within months

By 1894, less than 20% of sugar mill owners in Cuba were Cubans, and more than 95% of all Cuban sugar exports went to the U.S.

José Martí and The Cuban Revolutionary Party

Photo of Jose Marti

Cuba’s second war of independence began in 1895, after years of meticulous planning by José Martí, who united some of the surviving veterans of The Ten Year War; Antonio Maceo, Máximo Gómez, Calixto García and others. Under Martí’s guidance, the rebels were organized into a cohesive, connected force that included a civilian government that would take over after the war.

From the early months of 1892 Martí devoted himself exclusively to the cause of Cuban independence, soliciting and receiving financial support from Cuban exiles in all walks of life, and organizing every detail of The Cuban Revolutionary Party.

At the end of March 1894, Martí began to push for immediate revolutionary action, writing letters to Maxímo Gómez and Antonio Maceo. In a detailed and informative account of the conflict, titled: The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, historian Philip S. Foner sheds light on his urgency:

“Martí’s impatience to start the revolution for independence was affected by his growing fear that the imperialist forces in the United States would succeed in annexing Cuba before the revolution could liberate the island from Spain.”

Martí had noticed a frightening new trend of aggressive U.S. “influence,” evident by Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s expressed ideals that all of Central and South America would some day fall to the U.S.

“That rich island,” Blaine wrote on December 1 1881, “the key to the Gulf of Mexico, is, though in the hands of Spain, a part of the American commercial system… If ever ceasing to be Spanish, Cuba must necessarily become American and not fall under any other European domination.”

Blaine’s vision did not allow the existence of an independent Cuba. Foner writes, “Martí noticed with alarm the movement to annex Hawaii, viewing it as establishing a pattern for Cuba…”

On the very day that Martí's revolutionary expedition was to set sail from Florida in January of 1895, the U.S. government confiscated three ships (the Amadis, the Lagonda & the Baracoa) loaded with weapons and supplies that had been difficult and costly to obtain. They promptly alerted the Spanish government.

Not to be dissuaded, on March 25 Martí presented the Proclamation of Montecristi (Manifesto de Montecristi) which outlined the policy for Cuba’s war of independence:

  1. the war was to be waged by blacks and whites alike;
  2. participation of all blacks was crucial for victory;
  3. Spaniards who did not object to the war effort should be spared,
  4. private rural properties should not be damaged; and
  5. the revolution should bring new economic life to Cuba.

By the end of March, Antonio Maceo returned to Cuba, ready to resume his vital role in Cuba's struggle for independence. On April 11 he was joined by Máximo Gómez, the military leader, and José Martí. They landed on the eastern shore of the island and joined bands of guerrilla forces that awaited their arrival. (Six decades later, Castro and his followers reenacted Martí's plan of battle in the Sierra Maestra, the very same mountain range.)

Next: The War Begins

Return to Timetable - 1895