Claiming Cuba

Tomorrow I am leaving for Cuba, but instead of poring over travel brochures, I feel I have to open the book of its past to better understand its present and perhaps, also its future. I shook the dust off War with Spain and the Philippines (1900), a monumental volume which barely fits on my working table.

On 11 April 1898, two months after the “USS Maine” was blown up at Havana harbor, Pres. William McKinley sent a message to Congress announcing the reasons the USA should intervene in Cuba: The “cause of humanity” demanded it and to put an end “to the barbarities, starvation, and horrible miseries.” There was evidence that the Spanish colonial government was “hamletting” Cubans who were fighting for their independence and some Americans were inadvertently maltreated.

The anti-colonial revolution against Spain was a bane to American investors who were already established in that Caribbean island. Sugar and coffee barons with surnames like Brookes, Wilson, McKinley, Ramden, Mason, etc., had vast estates and international commercial enterprises. With its mines, forests, rich black soil, varied climate and natural harbors, Cuba was the “new Klondike,” the most productive spot right at the USA’s doorstep. The revolution was much too close for comfort.

Relations between Spain and the USA were somewhat strained even before the battleship incident; Congress was feeling the winds of war so it placed $50 million at the disposal of President William McKinley, so he could upgrade the army and navy, and start recruitment when needed. Not a soul objected. Moreover, Congress gave McKinley the authority to intervene immediately, ostensibly to help Cuba establish a stable independent government (the revolutionaries had one), capable of maintaining order and observing international obligations. That sounds so familiar!

Pres. McKinley could not seem to decide, so on 20 April 1898, Congress issued a Joint Resolution declaring that the Cubans had a right to be free and independent, so Spain should immediately relinquish its authority over the island and withdraw its land and naval forces. Five days later, diplomatic relations with Spain were severed and US Congress unanimously declared war.

The War book has dozens of photos of American military and naval officers and volunteer regiments from various American states; they must have been sent here after the “splendid little war” in Cuba. On 18 July 1898, Gen. W. R. Shafter reported to the US Secretary of War that Cuba was already “under our rule.” What happened to the Cuban revolutionaries? Weren’t they fighting side-by-side the American troops against Spain? Weren’t they promised an independent government?

I came across a letter of General Calixto Garcia who fought in the 10-year war for Independence against Spain. He wrote a polite letter to Gen. Shafter: “On 12 May, the government of the republic of Cuba ordered me, as commander of the Cuban Army in the East, to cooperate with the American Army, following the plans and obeying the orders of its commander [Gen. Shafter]. I have done my best to fulfill the wishes of my government…” He continued to say that he had carried out to the best of his ability all of Shafter’s instructions, but when the city of Santiago was taken over by the American Army, Shafter did not even have the courtesy to inform him.

Gen. Garcia was truly aggrieved and with good reason; he was not even informed about, much less included in the negotiations for the terms of capitulation of the Spaniards. “The important ceremony of the surrender and the taking possession of the city by yourself took place later on, and I knew about both events from public reports. Neither was I honored with a kind word from you inviting myself, or any officer of my staff to represent the Cuban Army on that memorable occasion….”

To add insult to injury, the victorious Americans did not remove Spanish officials who were holding key positions in the colonial government. “The enemies of the independence of Cuba, “as Gen. Calixto called them, were still in power, thanks to the Americans. “I would give my warmest cooperation to any measure you may have deemed best under American military law to hold the city and preserve peace and order until the time comes to fulfill the solemn pledge of the American people to establish in Cuba a free and independent government.” But decried that the appointees of the Queen Regent of Spanish remained in office.

Gen. Calixto Garcia ended his letter this way: “A rumor too absurd to be believed, General, ascribes the reason for your orders for bidding my army to enter Santiago, for fear of massacres and revenge against the Spaniards. Allow me to protest against even the shadow of such an idea. We are not savages, ignoring the rules of civilized warfare. We are a poor, ragged army, as ragged and as poor as the army of your forefathers in their noble war for Independence, but, like the heroes of Saratoga and Yorktown, we respect much too deeply our cause to disgrace it with barbarism and cowardice.”

I wonder if Gen. Calixto Garcia ever found out that the same thing happened to his Filipino counterpart, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, in August, 1898.