When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba on October 27, 1492 and his ships sailed for forty days along the north east coast of Cuba, he was able to appreciate, along with the charms of nature, the expression of peaceful and naive indigenous people who offered him cotton and little pieces of gold in exchange for trinkets.
Two years later, while exploring the southern coast of Cuba on his second voyage, the Admiral became aware of the diversity of these natives, since the aboriginals of the eastern region that accompanied him could not be understand the inhabitants of the western part.
Certainly, the settlement of Cuba had begun four millennia earlier, with the arrival of several migratory currents: the first probably coming from the north of the continent through Florida and, later, successive waves from the mouth of the Orinoco to along the Antilles archipelago.
Among the approximately 100,000 natives who populated Cuba at the beginning of the Spanish conquest, there were groups with different levels of socio-cultural development. The oldest and most backward, almost extinct in the fifteenth century, lived from fishing and gathering and made their instruments from the shells of large mollusks. Another group, not disliking the shell, possessed polished stone instruments and, along with the gathering activities, practiced hunting and fishing. More advanced groups, those from South America belonging to the Arauco tribe, were farmers and with their main crop, yuca, made the cassava, a food that could not only be eaten immediately but could also be preserved. They made ceramic objects and vessels and possessed a varied instrument of shell and polished stone. Their houses – los bohios – made of wood and branches of guano palms, grouped in small aboriginal settlements, would constitute during several centuries a fundamental element of the habitat of the Cuban peasantry.
The conquest of Cuba by Spain began almost two decades after the first voyage of Columbus, as part of the occupation process that spread to the various Caribbean lands. Diego Velázquez, one of the richest settlers of La Española, was ordered to subjugate Cuban territory, which began in 1510 with a long reconnaissance operation and conquest plagued by bloody incidents. Alerted of the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in the neighbouring islands, aboriginals in eastern Cuba resisted the Spanish invasion led by Yahatuey or Hatuey, a fugitive cacique – leader – from La Española, who was finally captured and burned alive as a warning.
The movement exploded on October 10, 1868, when Bayamese lawyer Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, one of the main conspirators, rose in arms, who in his ingenious La Demajagua proclaimed independence and gave freedom to his slaves. The uprising, seconded later by the conspirators of Camagüey and Las Villas, managed to assert itself, despite the ruthless Hispanic reaction. While the Spaniards of the cities, grouped in the volunteer corps, sowed terror among Cuban families, becoming an influential factor in political decisions, the colonial army was advancing over Bayamo, the insurgent capital, which the Cubans would have to abandon, but not without first reducing it to ashes as an expression of unwavering revolutionary will. In such difficult conditions, the independence movement managed to unify, approving in Guaimaro the constitution that gave rise to the Republic of Cuba in Arms.
The Cuban liberation army, after months of hard military training, achieved an offensive capability that would be evident in the invasion of the rich region of Guantánamo by General Máximo Gómez and the brilliant actions fought in the savannahs of Camagüey by the cavalry commanded by Ignacio Agramonte. But this military advance was weighed down by political differences in the revolutionary camp which led to the deposition of Cespedes as President of the Republic (1873) and prevented the much needed support in the arms and means of the emigre patriots. An equally negative influence was exerted by the policy of hostility towards the Cuban revolutionaries adopted by the United States government that, in the face of the independence struggle, chose to stick to its old policy confident that Cuba’s fate would inevitably gravitate towards north American rule.
The Cuban military thrust reached its zenith between 1874 and 1875, first with the campaign of Máximo Gómez in Camagüey, marked by victorious battles of La Sacra and Palo Seco and the battle of Las Guásimas where the Cuban army defeated a Spanish force of more than 4,000 men and the subsequent invasion of Las Villas by the mambisas troops under the command of the great Dominican general. However, the transcendental strategic progress was again distorted by the internal dissensions that, by obstructing the arrival of vital reinforcements, enabled the invasion to be slowed down without achieving its objective of carrying the war to the rich western territory of Cuba.
The weakening of the independence effort coincided with the recovery of the Spanish political and military capacity, when the monarchical restoration of 1876 put an end to the violent upheavals that had characterized the life of the peninsula after the “glorious revolution” (1868) and with the later Proclamation of the republic. The unfavorable bias of the correlation of forces and wear and tear in the insurgent camp made it possible for an important section of the independence movement to accept the proposals of the Spanish General Arsenio Martínez Campos. The peace without independence signed in the Zanjón (1878) did not obtain the consensus of the mambisas forces and in particular was rejected by General Antonio Maceo, head of the forces of the most eastern part of Cuba, who, despite his humble origin, had climbed the highest hierarchy of the Liberation Army by force of courage and combative capacity.
Although insurrectionary military actions could not be sustained for a long time, the Protest of Baraguá, staged by Maceo and his troops, who embodied the most popular sectors of the revolutionary movement, was the major evidence of the irrevocable will of the Cubans to continue the struggle for their independence.
In the 1880s, Cuba would go through a process of great economic and social changes. Slavery, which had already been broken by the Revolution of 1868, was finally abolished by Spain in 1886. This was accompanied by notable changes in the organization of sugar production, which definitively reached an industrial stage. Cuba’s dependence on the United States would be practically absolute, and American capital began to invest increasingly in various sectors of the economy.
The island bourgeoisie, far removed from independence aspirations, had given rise to two political formations: the Liberal party, later called the Autonomista, which took up the old tendency to achieve reforms of the Spanish colonial system to form self-governing formulas; and the Constitutional Union party, a reactionary expression of the sectors interested in the full integration of Cuba into Spain. Independence, reaffirmed in its popular base, would be encouraged especially since emigration. A first outbreak, called “Guerra Chiquita” (1879), brought the Cubans back to the battlefield in the eastern and Villarean territories, but was stifled after a few months because of their poor organization and weak political coherence. There would be periodic outburts, conspiracies and uprisings, almost always headed by the military leaders of the Guerra de los Diez Años who were aborted or suffocated by the Spanish authorities given the inability to articulate their actions with a broad and united mass movement. That would be the work of José Martí.
Delivered from his adolescence to the ideal of independence, José Martí y Pérez (Havana, 1853) was imprisoned and exiled during the Guerra de los Diez Años. His links with subsequent conspiratorial movements allowed him to understand that the Cuban revolution had to be based on new programmatic and organizational bases, a task to which he was entirely surrendered. Gifted with exquisite poetic sensibility and brilliant oratorical faculties, Martí also possessed deep political thought, enriched by the experience of his years in Spain, the United States and different Latin American countries. His work of enlightenment and unification, centered in the nuclei of Cuban emigres, mainly in the United States, but with wide repercussion on Cuba crystallized in 1892 in the constitution of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.
Conceived as the unique organization of all Cuban independentistas, the party had to obtain the material and human means for the new emancipatory enterprise, and to invest the military leaders with the indispensable political authority to unleash the “necessary war”.
This one exploded on the 24th of February 1895 with Martí landing in Cuba accompanied by Máximo Gómez, leader of the Liberation Army, who died soon after in action at Dos Ríos. In spite of this irreparable loss, the revolution took place in the province of Oriente, where Maceo, arrived in an expedition from Costa Rica, had assumed command of the mambisas forces and soon spread to Camaguey and Las Villas. Reunited in Jimaguayú, the delegates of the Liberation Army elaborated the constitution that would govern the destinies of the Republic in Arms. The assembly elected President Salvador Cisneros Betancourt from Camagüey and appointed Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo as General in Chief and Lieutenant General of the Liberation Army, respectively.
This war continues, and Jose Marti the architect of that war is involved and in the end Cuba is liberated from Spain, many Cuban patriots gave their life, among them Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo, Máximo Gómez, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes the Father of the Homeland and others. In 1902, the first Cuban president, Don Tomás Estrada Palma, emerged.