- 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
In the thirties, forties, and fifties Havana could be smelled and felt and tasted like a tropical fruit.
Havana got so rich selling sugar in World War I that Cubans called the times the Dance of the Millions.
It is JosÉ MartÍ whose life-size marble bust stands at the door X of every school in Cuba, and the fight that he stirred up in 1895 is well remembered, both in Cuba and in the United States, although the significance and even the name of the conflict are different in Key West and Havana. Here it is called the Spanish-American War; there it is called the Second War of Independence, part of a ninety-year “revolution” that continued from 1868 to 1959.
The American version of the war story is that the Cuban rebels had been fighting against entrenched, experienced, well-armed Spanish forces for three agonizing years and were pleading for help. Almost a quarter of the Cuban population had been killed. Thousands more were dying of dis- ease and starvation. To a few Americans it appeared that we had a moral duty to rescue the Cubans; but most of us preferred to stay out of foreign wars, even the wars of tiny neighbors. The peaceable President William McKinley reluctantly sent the battleship Maine on a “friendly visit” to Havana, miles away from the fighting, to nudge the Spaniards toward a settlement. On the night of February 15, 1898, three weeks after her uneventful arrival, the Maine blew up in Havana Bay, killing 260 officers and crewmen.
Irrationally, but opportunely, we blamed the Spaniards for causing what was probably an accidental explosion in a coal bunker. (In Castro’s Havana it is widely believed that Americans blew up the Maine and sacrificed its crew to give us an excuse to invade Cuba.) In three months we stripped Spain of its colonial possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
Our attack on the ghost of a dying empire was in fact pure imperialism, but most Americans believed at the time that the war had served the interest of the Cubans as much as it had served our own. Proud of our role as liberators, we took over the old Spanish forts and barracks in Havana and occupied them for three years. We closed the bullfights, cleaned the filth from the streets, built roads and schools and sewers, and set the Cubans to work drafting a constitution for themselves, modeled on our ideas of representative government. Most important, we sent a team of Army doctors who eradicated the mosquito that carried yellow fever. Seeing ourselves as generous caretakers soothed whatever guilt we felt about that brief but ugly war.
In 1902, professing that we wanted no territorial gains—and imposing on Cuba an agreement (the Platt Amendment) that would allow us to maintain military bases on the island and to interfere in Cuban affairs if anyone smelled trouble—we withdrew our troops. A few years later the first Cuban president called back our Army to put the lid on a new rebellion; but we kept our word, recalled our soldiers, and thereafter ran our Caribbean colony (which called itself an independent republic) on a system of moral neglect and economic exploitation.
Havana got so rich selling sugar in World u I War I that the Cubans called the times the JL, JL. Dance of the Millions. Sugar daddies (the term may have originated here), Cuban and American, built pink marble villas in the new suburb of Miramar and booked entire floors of hotels when they went to Paris to shop. Before long, competition and overproduction knocked the props out from under the world price of sugar, the sugar daddies went broke, and Havana was suddenly poor again and eager to sell itself for Yankee dollars.
By the late 1920s the quintessential Habanero had become a New York businessman in a starched white collar and a striped cravat, a doublebreasted navy blazer, white flannels, and black-and-white wingtip oxfords. He owned a hotel, a string of ponies, a power plant, a sugar mill, a piece of the Havana Jockey Club. As he saw it, Prohibition had taken all the fun out of America, and Havana was now the international playground of blithe spirits. An energetic dictator named Gerardo Machado, known in Cuba as el gran carnicero (“the great butcher”) was maintaining law and order and sprucing up the streets. He ran a secret police force called the porra, which specialized in kidnapping students and torturing them until they confessed to having rebellious intentions. American tourists were warned to wear hats and speak English so they would not be taken for students and muscled off to jail.