Cuba experienced two wars of independence during the second half of the nineteenth century. Both conflicts were responses to Spain’s refusal to allow Cubans the right to govern themselves concerning local issues such as taxation, public works, and trade policy. Cuban rebels in both conflicts used the impassioned political slogan Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) as they fought against Spanish soldiers.
The growth of a Cuban identity and nationalism was tied to the desire of the island’s economic elites to have more control over their own political and economic futures. The struggle created national heroes such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Antonio Maceo (the Bronze Titan) and the father figure of modern Cuba: José Martí.
The First War of Independence began on 10 October 1868, in eastern Cuba. The uprising failed in part because the rebels had weak leadership. Moreover, wealthy sugar plantation owners in western Cuba did not support the revolt. Plantation owners in the east were generally poorer and lacked both modern machinery and the funds to purchase large numbers of slaves. In fact, some had already experimented with freeing their slaves and paying them as contract labor during the zafra, the sugar harvest. They had not benefited from the vast wealth generated from the Cuban bumper sugar crops in the 1860s. Rebellion was seen as a way to increase their wealth.
From his plantation Cespedes issued his famous Grito de Yara - Cry of Yara - proclaiming Cuban independence and freeing his slaves to serve in his rebel army. Leaders in the eastern provinces formed a provisional government with Cespedes as the president. Rebel leaders insisted on a legislative assembly with the ability to check the power of the president and to abolish slavery. Maximo Gomez, a Dominican, was selected as the leader of the rebel military forces because of his expertise in military strategy, in particular guerrilla warfare. Gomez trained Antonio Maceo, who became the most important rebel commander in the field.
The colonial government was in no position to react decisively. Poorly informed of incidents in Oriente, and troubled by political turmoil in Spain, Captain General Lersundi paid little attention to news of the uprisings. Cespedes had time to increase his heterogeneous band by enlisting discontented Cubans and Dominicans with combat experience. He attacked and captured the town of Bayamo, temporarily silencing accusations of personal ambition and confirming himself as leader of the insurrection. News of Bayamo’s fall electrified the island and mobilized the Cuban population.
Although many factors worked against the success of the Cuban rebels, the dissension and lack of unity within the rebel leadership were probably the most crucial. Leaders were divided over the issue of slavery. Cespedes urged slaves to revolt and join the rebels, mambises. This created a backlash by some wealthy, conservative Creole landowners who wanted independence but did not want to end slavery. Cespedes was later removed from office by the revolutionary legislative assembly and was killed by the Spanish in Oriente Province. Afterwards the conservatives took control of the presidential office.
The rebel legislative assembly, now dominated by the more conservative Creole elites, was able to strip Gomez of many of his troops and prevent him from burning plantations in the prime sugar growing area of Cuba between Matanzas, Cardenas and Colon. Some rebel leaders were jealous of Gomez’s success and others resented the fact that a Dominican was in command of the rebel armies. Gomez was finally forced to resign his military post.
Spain controlled the sea-lanes and had a large number of troops in Cuba, thereby making it difficult for the rebels to win a major victory in the field. The rebels were largely limited to fighting a protracted, guerrilla war. The bulk of the war was fought in the eastern part of the island. The rebels controlled much of the eastern countryside while the Spanish controlled the cities. Neither side could win a decisive victory.
After General Campos’ offensive against the rebels, an armistice, the Peace of Zanjon, was finally agreed. Maceo refused to surrender. He wanted nothing less than Cuban independence and an end to slavery. Facing the brunt of the Spanish forces alone with his small army, Maceo realized he could not win. He traveled to New York and worked with Calixto García in organizing a new rebellion. This ‘little war’ ended in disaster. After ten long years of war, the Cuban people were not prepared to fight any more. The war drastically changed the political and economic landscape of Cuba. With slavery gone the Cubans no longer had any reason to be loyal to Spain.
A growing sense of Cuban identity and nationalism was heightened by both the Ten Years’ War and the realization by the Cubans after the war that Spain had no intention of allowing them to have any real say in its political and economic decisions. By the early 1890s, the Autonomous Liberal Party of Cuba had become frustrated with Spain’s lack of response to its demands for greater local control. Some Cuban nationalists, such as Martí, Gomez and Maceo, fled in exile to begin plotting their return and a new rebellion against Spain.
The three most important developments in the period between the Zanjon peace and the Second War of Independence were: the rise and decline of the liberal Autonomist party; the United States' displacement of Spain as Cuba's economic metropolis; and the formation and growing influence of José Martí's Cuban Revolutionary party. The opening of the Second War of Independence centered on José Martí, the man who forged the union of Cuban patriots and founded the Cuban Revolutionary party.
Cuba had no alternative but to turn to a more than willing United States for a market for its sugar and for capital. US investors quickly took advantage of the situation in Cuba. US companies acquired many Cuban and Spanish businesses, as well as many of the bankrupt tobacco and sugar plantations at rock-bottom prices. With this, the Cuban landed aristocracy — the Creole sugar elites — for the most part disappeared in the 1880s.
Seventeen years would pass between Cuba’s First War of Independence and its second. The brilliant José Martí was the chief organizer, propagandist, fundraiser, and political leader of the Second War of Independence He chose to start the war in eastern Cuba, where there was much popular sentiment for an uprising. Cubans shared their victory over Spain with American soldiers because the United States intervened and declared war against Spain. The Spanish-American War and the Second War of Independence ended shortly thereafter. Spain agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Cuba.
Martí, Gomez and Maceo arrived in Cuba to continue the rebellion against Spain. Estrada organized the Cuban exile community in the United States and began a public relations campaign to gain the support of the US government. Although a revolutionary government was created, most decisions were made by the generals in the field. José Martí was killed in a skirmish with Spanish forces near Bayamo. Making use of guerrilla tactics they had developed during the Ten Years’ War, Gomez and Maceo took the offensive into the west. Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler to Havana to take control of its forces.
Spain's basic strategy was similar to that of the Ten Years' War. Commanded once more by General Martinez Campos, who had defeated the Cubans in the last conflict, Spanish troops built a series of fortified lines to protect each province and impede rebel movements. This tactic enabled the Cubans to take the offensive. Maceo began his march to the west. Gomez awaited him with a small force in Las Villas. Having traversed the island in a brilliant campaign, Cuban forces were fighting in the vicinity of Havana with some of Cuba's richest zones wasted behind them. Campos was replaced by general Valeriano Weyler.
General Valeriano Weyler concentrated on trying to isolate Maceo in the west. He hired Cuban counter guerrillas to fight against the rebels. He devised a plan in which people were forced into internment centers throughout the island and anyone outside these centers was considered to be a rebel. Local Spanish commanders were given the power to execute rebels and anyone who refused to relocate to these centers. This strategy worked, but also invited American intervention, because of Spanish actions perceived by the Americans as atrocities.
General Fitzhugh Lee, the US consul general in Havana and a nephew of General Robert E. Lee, sympathized with the rebels and actively pushed for US intervention in the war. General Weyler’s reputation in the United States as a butcher appeared to make intervention likely. General Weyler resigned and was replaced by Ramon Blanco. President William McKinley was open to the change in Spanish policy and a political settlement in Cuba. Fate intervened however: an American ship blew up in Havana harbor and the United States declared war on Spain. President McKinley, desperately trying to avoid war, offered to buy Cuba from Spain for $300 million. Spain refused and McKinley capitulated to those who supported US intervention.
The Spanish-American War lasted less than four months. Cuban troops already had control over most of the island. The US Army attacked Spanish positions on San Juan Hill just east of Santiago de Cuba. The battle was bloody. Spain and the United States signed a peace treaty in Paris, thereby ending the Spanish-American War. The Cubans were not invited. The treaty included US annexation of three Spanish colonies: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Only the Teller Amendment prevented the Americans from annexing Cuba. The United States placed Cuba under military occupation instead. The occupation lasted four years.
Cuba was placed under US military occupation led by General John Brooke and then under General Leonard Wood. The US occupation had three interrelated goals: to maintain political stability; to rebuild the primary economic infrastructure of the island to attract US investments; and to keep Cuba within the sphere of influence of the growing political and economic power of the United States. The judicial branch of the Cuban government was reorganized and an electoral system was established that gave the vote to male property owners.
Cuba became an independent republic on 20 May 1902, when its people elected Tomás Estrada Palma the first president of the Republic of Cuba. The United States withdrew its military forces from the island after the election. By this time, the United States had already replaced Spain as a point of reference for most Cubans. Cuba was now independent, but the stage was set for the United States to dominate the political and economic processes of the island and to reshape its politics, economics, society, culture and identity.
José Martí, a literary figure, poet, revolutionary and freedom fighter, is considered to be the father figure of modern Cuba. He was exiled to Spain for his pro-independence activities. He studied law, traveled to Mexico and in New York he established the Cuban Revolutionary Committee of New York. It was Martí who laid the groundwork for Cuban independence through his intense opposition to the idea of US annexation of Cuba and his distrust of the Autonomistas. He returned to Cuba and died in a small battle, becoming a martyr for the Cuban independence cause.