Cuban War of Independence

Cuban War of Independence
Cuban War of Independence

In one of the Western Hemisphere’s most broad-based and violent struggles for independence, from 1895 to 1898, Cuba was embroiled in a massive, islandwide insurrection against Spanish colonial rule that ended with U.S. intervention and quasi-colonial status under U.S. domination.

In the words of one of Cuba’s preeminent historians, the Caribbean island’s War of Independence resulted in “self-government without self-determination and independence without sovereignty.”

The war’s outcome represented not only a thwarting of the desire of Cuban patriots for national sovereignty but also ushered in a period of U.S. suzerainty that lasted, some scholars argue, until the Cuban revoltion of 1959.


The origins of the War of Independence can be traced as far back as the early 1800s, when Cuba’s Creole elites balked at the prospect of risking their lives and properties in the face of a potential slave insurrection, as had embroiled neighboring Saint-Domingue (Haiti) after 1791—a reluctance reinforced by the arrival of upwards of 30,000 French exiles from Saint-Domingue who made Cuba their new home.

Through the 19th century, Cuban elites were divided into moderate reformists who advocated greater autonomy under Spanish dominion and annexationists who envisioned U.S. annexation.

Few were autonomists promoting outright independence. This changed from the 1860s, particularly in consequence of the Ten Years’ War in eastern Cuba, a struggle that inspired a new generation of leaders whose vision of Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) was at the heart of the insurrection launched in 1895.

The Ten Years’ War and its aftermath had also created a large exile community of Cubans in the United States, centered in Tampa, Florida, and New York City. From abroad, groups of Cuban patriots plotted and planned the final insurrection, at their helm the poet, scholar, and activist José Martí.

In April 1892, after more than two decades of organizing, Martí and his compatriots in exile formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC), dedicated to the creation of a free and independent Cuba. By this time, the Cuban economy was dominated by the United States. In 1894, for instance, the United States received 84 percent of Cuba’s total exports and provided 40 percent of its total imports. In that same year, the U.S.

Congress imposed stiff new tariffs on Cuban sugar imports, and Spain retaliated by imposing high tariffs on U.S. imports to Cuba. Meanwhile, the price of sugar dropped to less than two cents a pound, a historic low, while prices of imported foodstuffs rose dramatically. The combined effect sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin, negatively affecting all social sectors, including wealthy merchants and planters.

Emboldened by the turn of events, on February 24, 1895, the PRC issued the Grito de Baire (Cry of Baire) calling for independence. During the same month, autonomists launched several uprisings in different parts of the island. Most were crushed, though the uprising in Oriente Province in eastern Cuba took root and spread.

In April the PRC’s main leadership landed secretly in the island’s far southeast: José Martí, Máximo Gómez, and the brothers Antonio and José Maceo. On May 19, 1895, Martí was killed in a skirmish 10 miles east of Bayamo in Oriente Province.

Thus martyred, memories of Martí became a rallying cry for the rebel forces. By early 1896 the insurgency had spread to every part of the island, including the western provinces of Matanzas, Havana, and Pinar del Río, which had remained mostly quiescent in previous uprisings.

Scholars consider that the principal difference between the 1895 war and earlier rebellions consisted primarily in the coherence and inclusiveness of the nationalist ideology of Cuba Libre crafted by Martí and his compatriots in the years of organizing preceding the outbreak of hostilities and which came to be embraced by most Cubans during the war itself.

Propelled by a vision of racial equality, social justice, and equal rights for all Cubans, the 1895 War of Independence differed in fundamental ways from previous independence struggles. In the words of rebel army chieftain Máximo Gómez, the Ten Years’ War originated “from the top down, that is why it failed; this one surges from the bottom up, that is why it will triumph.”

Guerilla War

In common with almost all guerrilla wars in the modern era, by 1896 the rebel columns came to be supported by a vast network of noncombatant supporters and sympathizers who provided vital resources, especially food, shelter, and information on the strength and location of Spanish military units.

The war soon combined an anticolonial insurgency with a civil war pitting pro-Spanish elite landowners and sugar growers against landless and land-poor peasants and workers.

Insurgents systematically torched cane fields while prohibiting production and export of sugar, tobacco, and other commodities in a strategy designed to strangle the economy and thereby defeat the Spanish and their elite Cuban allies.

As the line between soldiers and civilians blurred, the Spanish responded by waging war against the civil populace as a whole. The acme of this approach came under General Valeriano Weyler, who from early 1896 launched his infamous reconcentration campaign.

As many as 300,000 rural dwellers from all walks of life were rounded up and compelled to move into specially fortified reconcentration centers. Emptying the countryside into these squalid resettlement camps, the Spanish destroyed crops, killed livestock, and destroyed thousands of homes and villages. From 1896 to 1898 tens of thousands of reconcentrados died of disease, malnutrition, and abuse.

In urban areas, Weyler and the Spanish jailed, deported, and otherwise terrorized thousands of Cubans of all social classes, from street peddlers and domestic servants to lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals.

From an estimated prewar population of 1.8 million, by war’s end the island’s population had dropped to around 1.5 million, a demographic decline of more than 17 percent in only three years.

Weyler’s ruthless counterinsurgency approach failed to stem the insurgent tide. In fact, it had the opposite effect, driving thousands of Cubans into the insurgent ranks. By 1897 it was clear that the Spanish were losing the military battle.

Many conservative Cubans, afraid of losing their privileged social position if the insurgents triumphed and increasingly dubious about Spain’s chances for victory, clamored for annexation to the United States.

In early 1898 as Spanish troops grew increasingly demoralized, the insurgent leadership planned their final assault on Spanish strongholds in the major cities. Rebel victory seemed only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the chain of newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst spearheaded what came to be known as yellow journalism, demonizing the Spanish as inhuman monsters slaughtering the childlike Cuban populace and clamoring for U.S. intervention.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment, which had long coveted Cuba, saw the rising tide of insurgent power as a direct threat to U.S. strategic and economic interests in Cuba and the wider Caribbean.

U.S. Intervention

An ideal pretext for U.S. military intervention came on February 15, 1898, when the battleship the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, killing over 200 U.S. sailors. Events moved swiftly thereafter.

In April 1898 newly inaugurated President William McKinley asked Congress for authorization to send U.S. troops to Cuba, and on April 25, Congress declared war on Spain. McKinley’s war message neither mentioned Cuban independence nor recognized the Cuban insurgents as a legitimate belligerent force.

In this way, the Cuban War of Independence became the Spanish-American War, with the United States elbowing out of the way the insurgent forces that had all but defeated the Spanish in more than three years of bloody conflict.

The United States quickly defeated the beleaguered Spanish forces in Cuba, as well as in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. The formal cessation of hostilities came on December 10, 1898, with the Treaty of Paris.

The negotiations leading to the treaty wholly excluded the Cuban insurgent forces, who were given no role in the U.S. military occupation that followed. Instead, the United States imposed the infamous Platt Amendment to the new Cuban constitution in 1901, which by a series of provisions effectively surrendered Cuban sovereignty to the United States, which dominated much of the island’s economy and politics until the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, under Fidel Castro and the 26 of July Movement.