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.
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To better illustrate the Cuban situation, we must include this island in a larger picture of nineteenth-century geopolitical changes. After continuous decline, the once-mighty Spanish Empire stood on legs of glass in Latin America. It relinquished power over all major possessions in the Western Hemisphere except for Cuba.
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International developments also encouraged those willing to fight for independence. Spain's lack of success in the Dominican Republic, which she occupied in 1861 and abandoned in 1865, and the failure of Napoleon III in Mexico, convinced many Cubans that the European powers, and especially declining Spain, could be defeated by determined national resistance.
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Tired of being exploited, the Cubans chose revolutionary paths toward independence. They followed the approach of Simon Bolivar, the South American political leader who played a key role in the liberation of Spanish South American possessions and who participated in the foundation of the first republic of Colombia.
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Adamant to retain Cuba or otherwise entirely lose any significant presence in the Western Hemisphere, Spain chose to refuse Cuban independence. Unlike earlier, however, Spain had to deal with another vital factor. The arrival of the new imperialistic force from the north, the United States, entirely changed the geopolitics in the Caribbean. Eager to see the Spanish gone forever, the Americans willingly supported the Cuban anti-Spanish rebellion.
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Wars for independence are often precipitated by the desire of economic and political elites to have greater control over their own destinies. These wars are typically associated with the growth of nationalism and they tend to create heroes that are venerated by subsequent generations. Wars for independence also often come with unanticipated consequences. All of these characteristics fit Cuba Libre, the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain.
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.
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The tremendous damage done to the economic infrastructure and the elimination of the island’s primary economic elites, the Creole sugar oligarchy, had the unanticipated outcome of making it possible for the United States to expand its economic presence. Ultimately the US would expand its political and cultural dominance over the island. Cuba freed itself of Spain but not of the United States.
Colonization of Cuba
At first, Cuba did not receive much attention from Spain, because it had only small deposits of gold. Occasionally, Spanish expeditions visited the island in search of able-bodied Indians to work as slaves. The Arawak, however, fought back. Diego de Velázquez, a wealthy landowner in western Hispaniola, led the conquest and early settlement of Cuba.
- Richard A. Crooker, Zoran Pavlovic, Cuba, 2nd Edition, Infobase Publishing, New York, 2010
- Clifford L. Staten, The history of Cuba, Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, New York, 2005
- Leslie Bethell (editor), Cuba: A short history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, Transferred to digital printing: 2007