- Historic Sites
Sexy and melancholy, festive and forlorn, the island has always heated the Yankee imagination. The author visits there in the late afternoon of a straitened era and looks back on four centuries of passionate misunderstandings.
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
Over the years Cubans seemed to waver between ardent love and bitter hatred for the United States.
No one argued that Castro’s complaint was untrue. Most of us Americans were concerned only that Castro was, or might become, a Communist. He had come to New York in the uniform of a guerrilla. He and his delegation had chosen to stay in a hotel in Harlem, from which they seemed to thumb their noses at the power and splendor of midtown Manhattan. He had publicly hugged the ruler of the Soviet Union. He was a revolutionary, and he would undermine our power in the Caribbean and turn the rest of the Western Hemisphere against us and against democracy. Fear of Cuba choked us like blind rage.
Our fear, exaggerated as it seemed, was real enough. Its historical roots went back to the founding of the English-speaking settlements in North America, when Spain was the enemy of England and the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were older, richer, and considerably stronger than the struggling Anglo-Saxon outposts in Virginia and Massachusetts. Cuba was the base from which the Spaniards had invaded and conquered Mexico. Cuba could become the base from which the Spaniards might attack the English colonies. Long after Spanish power had declined, leaders of the vulnerable young American republic were haunted by anxiety that Cuba might be captured by some hostile foreign power—France or Britain in the nineteenth century, Germany or Russia in recent times.
Then, too, there was the problem of piracy. For two hundred years predatory buccaneers roved from the Bahamas to Central America, looting towns, murdering garrisons, and helping themselves to other people’s ships. Most of the buccaneers were British or French. Their name came from the smoke ovens (buccans) of Santo Domingo, and their refuge was the island of Tortuga, but it was Cuba that grew rich on their privateering and their illicit trading, and it was Cuba that was remembered for their crimes. Bucanero, one of the leading beers in Havana, is labeled with the face of a snarling pirate in a three-corned yellow hat.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, while Britain was losing its North American colonies and France was rumbling with revolution, the European powers continued to meddle in the Caribbean, hoping to break Spain’s rigid control of trade with its colonies. The United States, newly independent, adopted a cautious attitude toward the continued presence of Spain in the New World. President James Monroe’s so-called Monroe Doctrine of 1823, stating that we would consider any extension of European power in the Western Hemisphere “dangerous to our peace and safety,” was intended primarily to warn other countries not to capitalize on Spain’s weakness. As for Cuba, the last remaining jewel in the Spanish crown, Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, thought the island would eventually gravitate peace- fully and naturally to the North American Union.
There always were Americans who hoped to speed the process. The acquisitive President James Knox Polk, after annexing Texas and California, offered Spain a hundred million dollars for Cuba. (No deal.) And in the decade before the Civil War, self-appointed liberators from the American South launched a filibustering expedition to bring the blessings of civilization to the Caribbean and add a few more slave states to the Union. With similar intent our minister to Great Britain, James Buchanan, who was later to be President, joined the American ministers in Paris and Madrid in 1854 in signing the notorious Ostend Manifesto, which, to the delight of pro-slavery expansionists, urged the United States to acquire Cuba, by purchase if possible and by force if necessary. Down in Dixie, people figured Cuba could be divided into at least two new slave states.
The Civil War put the issue temporarily out of our minds. Encouraged by Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves of his enemies, Cuban separatists rebelled against their Spanish governor and fought from 1868 to 1878 for national autonomy and a gradual end to slavery. The United States, exhausted by its own struggle, looked the other way. The Cuban rebellion ended with the promises of amnesty, obedience, and reform, but within a few years the promises were dust and most of the rebel leaders were back in exile, conspiring again to overthrow the Spaniards.
Although they were nationalists rather than social reformers, the nineteenth-century rebels remain the historical idols of Castro’s socialist dictatorship: Floating above the others like the icon of a martyred saint is the gentle poet José Martí, who was killed in a Spanish cavalry charge a few weeks after he returned to Cuba that from years of lecturing, organizing, and pamphleteering in Europe and the United States.