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Cuban wars: 1868-1897

As two slave-owning societies, both Cuba and Puerto Rico are much affected by the great issue of the mid-19th century, the emancipation of the slaves. The decade of the Civil War in the neighbouring great power, the United States, leads to violent times in both islands. There is a liberal revolt in Puerto Rico in 1868. This is soon suppressed. But the same year sees the beginning of an uprising in Cuba which leads to a long and full-scale war.

The Ten Years' War of 1868-78 begins when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes declares Cuban independence and the emancipation of the slaves. His revolutionary government wins considerable support in the eastern half of the island, which becomes the scene of ruthless guerilla warfare between rebels and Spanish troops.

It is calculated that as many as 200,000 Cubans and Spaniards die during the ten years of the war. Eventually, in 1878, peace is restored when the Spanish government promises extensive reforms including the abolition of slavery. This is granted in stages during the 1880s, but other promises are broken.

Discontent mounts again, and becomes intense when the American slump of 1893 results in a drastic reduction in the export of Cuban sugar. The Cuban leaders from the recent war take up arms again for a renewed attempt at independence. Spain sends an army of 200,000 troops. And this time the brutalities are even more extreme.

The Cubans set about destroying the plantations which are the source of the Spanish revenue from the island. The Spanish governor, Valeriano Weyler, responds with a policy aimed at the civilian population. Rounding up families and enclosing them in hastily constructed and insanitary detention centres, he invents the horrors of the concentration camp (which reappear in the Boer War before their most notorious use in Nazi Germany).

Thousands die in the care of Weyler's guards. An international outcry causes the Spanish government to recall their governor in 1897 and to abandon this particular policy. But the news of his camps is partly responsible for escalating the conflict, to Spain's great disadvantage.

Spanish-American War: 1898

The brutal Spanish repression of the Cuban independence movement, including the details of the concentration camps, is vividly reported in the American press. Humanitarian outrage, combined with instinctive sympathy for a colonial people fighting for freedom, leads to popular demand for US intervention. This is resisted by two American presidents, Cleveland and McKinley, but war becomes unavoidable after an incident in February 1898.

The US battleship Maine is in Havana harbour, on standby to protect American citizens and property, when an explosion sinks her with the loss of 260 lives.

It is assumed in the US that a mine of some kind is responsible. The Spanish insist that it was an accident (and indeed a fire in the ship's coal bunkers spreading to the ammunition store could well be the reason), but President McKinley now demands Cuban independence as the price of peace.

Spain cannot yield this much and by the end of April the two nations are formally at war. On May 1 an American squadron steams into the harbour of Manila, in the Philippines, and sinks the Spanish warships riding at anchor. American troops arrive in the Philippines in August in sufficient numbers to occupy the city of Manila.

Meanwhile another Spanish fleet has been destroyed off the shores of Cuba. Some hard fighting brings the Americans into Santiago, after which the Spanish garrison on the island surrenders. At the same time an American force occupies Puerto Rico, which has recently been making its own strenuous efforts to win independence.

In the resulting treaty, signed in Paris in December 1898, Spain cedes to the USA the islands of Puerto Rico, the Philippines (for a payment of $20 million) and Guam in the Marianas. Cuba is 'relinquished' to the USA specifically in trust for its inhabitants, to whose independence America is already committed.

Cuban independence: from1902

After three years of American military rule, Cuba becomes independent in May 1902. From the start a close continuing relationship with the USA is expected and accepted. The terms of independence have included the Platt Amendment, which pledges the Cubans to continue the public health improvements started by the military government (such as the eradication of yellow fever) and allows the USA to intervene if there is a threat to Cuba's independence or good government.

The Platt Amendment also arranges for the leasing of certain facilities to the US navy (the deepwater harbour of Guantánamo Bay remains to this day in American hands).

The instability of Cuban political life, characterized by corruption and putsch, means that the USA intervenes to restore order on three separate occasions in the first quarter of the century. By the late 1920s the country is under the brutal control of its first outright dictator, Gerardo Machado.

In 1933 a combination of events (a general strike, US pressure and above all loss of support in the army) forces Machado into exile. A man closely involved in the army's change of heart is the 32-year-old Fulgencio Batista. As yet he is only a sergeant, but the events of 1933 begin his long period of involvement in Cuban politics.

Later in the same year Batista leads a coup which overthrows the provisional government of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (whose father proclaimed Cuban independence in 1868). By the end of the year Batista is army chief of staff.

Batista contrives to rule through a succession of puppet presidents until 1940, when he is himself elected to the post. He withdraws at the end of his term, in 1944, and leaves Cuba. But he returns to seize power in 1952. The coup itself is bloodless, but Batista's corrupt and dictatorial regime soon provokes violent opposition. Prominent among his radical opponents is a young lawyer, Fidel Castro.

This History is as yet incomplete.