Colonial Cuba

Cuba was in Spanish possession for almost 400 years (circa 1511-1898). Its economy was based on plantation agriculture, mining and the export of sugar, coffee and tobacco to Europe and later to North America. Havana was seized by the British in 1762, but restored to Spain the following year. The Spanish population was boosted by settlers leaving Haiti when that territory was ceded to France. As in other parts of the Spanish Empire, the small land-owning elite of Spanish-descended settlers held social and economic power, supported by a population of Spaniards born on the island and called Criollos by the Iberian born Spaniards, other Europeans and African-descended slaves.

In the 1820s, when the other parts of Spain's empire in Latin America rebelled and formed independent states, Cuba remained loyal, although there was some agitation for independence. Due to Cuba's loyalty to the Spanish government, the Spanish Crown gave the following motto to the island government "La Siempre Fidelisima Isla" (The Always Most Faithful Island). This was partly because the prosperity of Cuban settlers depended on trade with Europe, partly through fears of a slave rebellion (as had happened in Haiti) if the Spanish withdrew, and partly because the Cubans feared the rising power of the United States more than they disliked Spanish rule.

An additional factor was the continuous migration of Spaniards to Cuba from all social strata, a trend that had ceased in other Spanish possessions decades earlier and which contributed to the slow development of a Cuban national identity. Pirates were also still a problem and defense against them depended heavily on the presence of Spanish troops.

Cuba's proximity to the U.S. has been a powerful influence on its history. Throughout the 19th century, Southern politicians in the U.S. plotted the island's annexation as a means of strengthening the pro-slavery forces in the U.S., and there was usually a party in Cuba which supported such a policy. In 1848 a pro-annexation rebellion was defeated and there were several attempts by annexation forces to invade the island from Florida. There were also regular proposals in the U.S. to buy Cuba from Spain. During the summer of 1848 President James K. Polk quietly authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer Spain up to $100 million. While an astonishing sum at the time for one territory, trade in sugar and molasses from Cuba exceeded $18,000,000 in 1838 alone. Spain, however, refused to consider ceding one of its last possessions in the Americas.

After the American Civil War apparently ended the threat of pro-slavery annexation, agitation for Cuban independence from Spain revived, leading to a rebellion in 1868 led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy lawyer landowner from Oriente province who freed his slaves, proclaimed a war and was named president of the Cuban Republic-in-arms. This resulted in a prolonged conflict known as the Ten Years' War between pro-independence forces and the Spanish army, allied with local supporters. There was much sympathy in the U.S. for the independence cause, but the U.S. declined to intervene militarily or to recognize the legitimacy of the Cuban government in arms, even though many European and Latin American nations had done so. In 1878 the Pact of Zanjón ended the conflict, with Spain promising greater autonomy to Cuba.

The island was exhausted after this long conflict and pro-independence agitation temporarily died down. There was also a prevalent fear that if the Spanish withdrew or if there were further civil strife, the increasingly expansionist U.S. would step in and annex the island. In 1879-1880, Cuban patriot Calixto Garcia attempted to start another war, known in Cuban history as the Little War, but received little support. Partly in response to U.S. pressure, slavery was abolished in 1886, although the African-descended minority remained socially and economically oppressed, despite formal civic equality granted in 1893. During this period rural poverty in Spain provoked by the Spanish Revolution of 1868 and its aftermath led to even greater Spanish emigration to Cuba.

During the 1890s pro-independence agitation revived, fueled by resentment of the restrictions imposed on Cuban trade by Spain and hostility to Spain's increasingly oppressive and incompetent administration of Cuba. Few of the promises for economic reform made by the Spanish government in the Pact of Zanjon were kept. In April 1895 a new war was declared, led by the writer and poet José Martí who had organized the war over 10 years while in exile in the U.S. and proclaimed Cuba an independent republic — Martí was killed at Dos Rios shortly after landing in Cuba with the eastern expeditionary force. His death immortalized him and he has become Cuba's national hero.

The Spanish armed forces totaled about 200,000 troops against a much smaller rebel army which relied mostly on guerilla and sabotage tactics to fight battles, and the Spaniards retaliated with a campaign of suppression. General Valeriano Weyler was appointed military governor of Cuba, and as a repressive measure he herded the rural population into what he called reconcentrados, described by international observers as "fortified towns." These reconcentrados are often considered the prototype for the 20th century concentration camps. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Cuban civilians died from starvation and disease during this period in the camps. These numbers were verified by the Red Cross and U.S. Senator (and former Secretary of War) Redfield Proctor. U.S. and European protests against Spanish conduct on the island followed.

In 1897, fearing U.S. intervention, Spain moved to a more conciliatory policy, promising home rule with an elected legislature. The rebels rejected this offer and the war for independence continued.