An early history of Cuba – from Columbus to Castro – and how I fell in love with a country and its people
By Jenny Cressman
In January of 1959, Fidel Castro and his crew of rag-tag rebels marched into Havana, Cuba’s capitol, and declared triumph for their revolutionary forces. Nine months later, I was born. I don’t think my parents were celebrating Castro’s victory but the significance of that year gave me something in common with the controversial little country long before it was on my personal radar.
Before I tell you how my affection for Cuba developed, let me first give you an overview of the historical highpoints of this small archipelago during a crucial time in its development. Let’s start with its so-called discovery.
When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, before he set foot on other “new world” shores, he stumbled upon the largest island in the Caribbean. In claiming it for Spain, he initially dubbed it “Juana” to honor a member of the Spanish royal family, and raved about its beauty and potential for gold and other riches.
The Spaniards eagerly moved in, bringing with them disease and destruction, much to the dismay of the numerous tribes of indigenous people who were already living there, peaceably farming and fishing. As part of this aggressive colonization process, many of the island’s natives were brutally massacred.
A Taíno cacique (tribal chief) named Hatuey decided to organize a guerilla-style resistance campaign to fight the invaders. He tried to rally other tribes, showing them a basket of gold and jewels and telling them: “Here is the god the Spaniards worship. For these, they fight and kill; for these, they persecute us…They tell us…they adore a god of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land, make us their slaves. They speak…of an immortal soul…eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters.”
Eventually, Hatuey was captured and, in February of 1512, he was tied to a tree and burned alive. Just prior to lighting the fire, a priest offered him salvation; if he would accept Jesus, he could go to heaven. Hatuey famously asked if there were other Spaniards like the priest in heaven. When he was told there were, the chief replied he would rather go to hell.
The heroic story of this early rebel has become a cultural legend in Cuba, and he is known as the nation’s first martyr in its long struggle for independence. Cuban history is rich with rebels and martyrs. Travel anywhere in the country and you’ll see public parks and roadsides freckled with their faces on murals, statues and busts.
Virtually every city or town will also have streets and squares named for national heroes, such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, another early rebel. He was a landowner and lawyer who became known as the Father of the Country. He was given this title because he declared Cuba’s independence from Spain and launched the Ten Years’ War, which subsequently led to other wars and, eventually, to freedom from Spanish tyranny.
As the story goes, de Céspedes rang the bell at his sugar plantation in Bayamo, on October 10, 1868, to summon his slaves. When they had assembled, he announced that they were thereby freed; then he invited them to join him and other conspirators in revolting against the Spanish, who had ruled Cuba almost continuously since Columbus claimed it in 1492. De Céspedes felt it was time to take a stand against them. [It’s worth noting that, around 1762, Britain briefly held power in Cuba but soon returned the island to Spain in exchange for Florida.]
Within six months of launching his revolution, de Céspedes was named the President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms. Four years later, he was deposed and killed by Spanish troops. However, his legacy of freeing slaves in Cuba and rebelling against the Spaniards lives on, as well as his musicianship.
He is credited with helping to compose a romantic song about a woman in his hometown. It’s called “La Bayamesa,” which is not to be confused with another song by the same name that became Cuba’s national anthem. The Bayamo anthem was written by Perucho Figueredo as a call to arms at the start of the Ten Years’ War; this stirring version romantically encourages martyrdom for the motherland.
The next significant war in Cuba created even more significant martyrs, and José Martí is at the top of the list. He was a prolific writer who founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892, while in New York. Martí often traveled internationally to promote his views and vision for Cuban independence.
When yet another war with the Spanish broke out in late February of 1895, Martí hurried home. He arrived in Cuba on April 11 and was killed in battle on May 19, at the age of 42, and he was almost immediately immortalized.
Considered one of the greatest turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals, Martí was not only a revolutionary philosopher and political activist, he was also a journalist, publisher, essayist, poet, professor and professional translator. He excelled in many cerebral fields but, unfortunately, didn’t fair so well on the battlefield. Nonetheless, his death became a rallying cry for Cuban independence from Spain and helped unite his previously factionalized countrymen.
One of his poems was later adapted to become the lyrics for the iconic Cuban patriotic song, “Guantanamera.” Busts of Martí, with his prominent forehead, big mustache and small chin, are as ubiquitous in Cuba as 1950s American cars. In the late 1800s, though, when the Cubans were fighting for their freedom, the U.S. was more inclined to send troops and ships, rather than cars.
Since Cuba’s war with Spain was heating up, the U.S. sent a military vessel named the Maine to protect American interests on the island. In February of 1898, soon after her arrival in Havana’s harbor, this ill-fated battleship blew up, and sank into history. The cause was never determined. Although the Spanish did not take responsibility, many people blamed them – particularly two powerful U.S. media magnates, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who used their newspapers to fan the flames of war.
Some investigations suggested that the Maine’s demise was not politically fuelled but, instead, was simply fuel related. Apparently, a more volatile form of coal was being used than the ship had been designed to burn, setting the stage for a catastrophic explosion.
Cuban officials, conversely, argued that Americans covertly sank the ship in order to create a pretext for military intervention. One prominent Cuban historian stated: “Americans died for the freedom of Cuba, and that should be recognized. But others wanted to annex Cuba, and that should be criticized.” Indeed, five U.S. presidents had tried to buy Cuba during the Spanish reign.
The U.S. and Spain declared war with each other a few months after the Maine sank, thus giving the Spanish-American War its name in many history books – even though Cuba was the key battleground and that country’s independence was at stake. When I was studying history in the U.S., where I grew up, we were taught that future president Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders bravely galloped in to save the poor Cubans during the war’s pivotal battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba. Cuban historians, understandably, have a different take on it; essentially, others did the heavy lifting but Teddy got the glory.
When the Treaty of Paris was signed in December 1898, ending the relatively brief Spanish-American War, Cuba was freed from Spanish rule but the U.S. was granted temporary control of the archipelago. At first, the pros and cons of annexation were hotly debated. When the Platt Amendment to the American Army Appropriations Act went into effect in 1903, however, Cuban sentiment shifted. The U.S. clearly wanted to maintain dominance and was reluctant to withdraw its troops, which didn’t sit well with independence-seeking Cubans.
[Although the U.S. occupation was undesirable from the Cuban perspective, it’s worth noting that, during this period, the Americans did lay the foundation for the system of education and public healthcare that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government significantly expanded after 1959.]
Cuba was also required to amend its own constitution, as part of a Treaty of Relations with the U.S., and to agree to potential American military intervention, should the U.S. become dissatisfied with how the Cubans were running their own country. As well, the treaty authorized the U.S. to lease land for two naval bases; one of these was located at Guantánamo Bay.
This treaty, in fact, was used as justification for further U.S. occupation from 1906 to 1909. During this period, future president William Taft, who was then the U.S. Secretary of War, declared himself the Provisional Governor of Cuba; this was ratified by Teddy Roosevelt, who was president by then. The Cuban-American political salsa has a long, complicated history, and the dance goes on!
At this point, Tomás Estrada Palma was serving as Cuba’s first president. Like many other important political figures, he was from Bayamo. He had worked with José Martí and, after Martí’s death, became the leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He had also been Cuba’s diplomat in Washington and, while there, had tried to broker a deal with an American banker to buy his homeland from Spain.
Estrada Palma was responsible for signing the treaty that leased Guantánamo to the U.S. in perpetuity, and he was clearly pro-American in other ways. Even so, he had to step down when Taft stepped in to govern Cuba.
When a new Treaty of Relations between Cuba and the U.S. was signed in 1934, most Platt Amendment provisions were repealed, but not the Guantánamo lease. This deal can only be terminated if both parties agree to do so; in over a century, the U.S. government has not been inclined to agree. Thus, it remains a bone of contention that is being gnawed on to this day.
Throughout the early 1900s, the U.S. kept stirring the pot in Cuba, sometimes openly intervening and, at other times, using more surreptitious means to maintain involvement and shift the political tide. General unrest was growing, however, particularly among students and workers in the sugar industry, which was key to Cuba’s economy. Uprisings and strikes rocked the island.
Another Bayamo native, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada – the son of the Father of the Country – became president in August 1933, but he didn’t retain the position for long. The following month, he was overthrown in a military coup known as the Revolt of the Sergeants, led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. It was, in effect, a practice run for this ruthless ruler’s subsequent takeover.
Although other non-commissioned officers were involved in the Sergeants’ Revolt, Batista was soon at the helm of the Cuban government and, for most of the next 25 years, he remained either directly in charge or pulling strings from behind the scenes. Ramón Grau San Martin and his protégé, Carlos Prío, held office for a few years but didn’t really stand a chance against power-hungry Batista in the long run. After running unsuccessfully against Prío in 1952, Batista simply ignored the legitimate election results, staged another coup and seized the presidency.
To the outside world, Batista probably looked presidential; by all accounts, he was a handsome man. Nicknamed “El Mulato Lindo” (the pretty mulatto), he was of mixed Spanish, African, Indian and Chinese descent – a true Cuban racial blend. However, he was also widely called “Bloody Batista,” which was equally apt given the brutality and violence that characterized his corrupt regime, especially in latter years.
Interestingly, Batista had been legitimately elected as president of Cuba in 1940 and remains the only non-white to have held the office. During that four-year term, he is credited with implementing some social reforms and several pro-union policies. For this, the Communist Party of Cuba endorsed him, even though he supported capitalism and openly admired the U.S. [It should be noted that this Party was started in the 1920s; Fidel Castro was born in 1926.]
After he left office in ‘44, Batista went to the States, where he said he felt “safer.” He spent time in New York City and at a home he owned in Daytona Beach, Florida, and he spent money, some say, which he had taken from the vaults of the Cuban treasury. If so, then this was also merely practice; he completely emptied the national coffers when he fled the country in ’58, as his dictatorship was crumbling.
While living in the U.S., Batista continued to be involved in Cuban politics from afar and, in 1948, was elected to the country’s senate in absentia. His failure to win back the presidency legitimately in ‘52 only served to galvanize his resolve to gain and retain power by any means, which was a goal that at least some Americans seemingly agreed with. Soon after overthrowing Prío, Batista’s government was formally recognized by the U.S., despite the documented corruption and escalating police and military violence.
Once back in control, Batista banned the Cuban Communist Party, which had supported him, and suspended Cuba’s constitution. He then began aligning himself with the country’s wealthiest landowners and sugar plantation operators, as well as forming alliances with powerful U.S. politicians and businessmen, many of whom had known Mafia connections.
As his reign progressed, he and his accomplices grew increasingly corrupt, and the gap between the rich elite and the poor populace widened. To silence the discontented voices, the repressive Batista government resorted to torture and public executions. Some historians estimate that, during his regime, as many as 20,000 people were killed in Cuba.
Economically, the country was doing reasonably well on the global market by the early 1950s, mainly due to the export of sugar and other produce. Most Cubans, unfortunately, were uneducated and illiterate, and about a third of the population lived in abject poverty with no running water. Adding to the wealth disparity, the island had become a hotspot for tourism, particularly those who wanted an unrestricted playground where they could freely drink and gamble, use women and drugs, or indulge in any vice imaginable. Thanks to the growing involvement of organized crime, brothels and casinos flourished and American money flowed freely through the doors.
Mafiosos Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano had set up shop in Havana and were great pals with Batista, whom they had wooed during his first term in office and while he resided in Florida. The Cuban president reportedly took a large cut of all proceeds from each and every hotel, racetrack, casino, cabaret, nightclub or other mob-backed enterprise. Some estimates put the average take at the larger casinos at over $1 million (USD) per day; armed bagmen hauled the cash to owners and business partners on a nightly basis.
Meanwhile, Batista also continued to massage his allegiance to the United States government and legitimate businessmen. Flights and ferries regularly ran from Miami to hedonistic Havana, or “Little Las Vegas.” In their heydays, the popular Tropicana nightclub and high-class hotels like the Nacional hosted many international celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Eartha Kitt, Nat King Cole, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway (who lived in Cuba for many years), along with cigar-loving John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill, to name but a few.
Beyond the well-heeled circles of Havana’s elite residents and guests, lethal trouble was brewing. Following the ’52 coup, young attorney and political activist Fidel Castro had tried his best to petition and mount constitutional arguments to oust Batista. When legal means to remove him failed, however, Castro chose another route. Along with his younger brother Raúl and numerous others, he formed a paramilitary organization called “The Movement” and began stockpiling weapons and recruiting followers. On July 26, 1953, they officially launched the Cuban Revolution by attacking government military installations in Bayamo and Santiago.
The assault on Santiago’s heavily fortified Moncada Barracks, in particular, was a dismal failure. It’s unclear exactly how many of the Movement’s men and women died directly as a result of the combat and how many died later, during information-seeking torture sessions and retaliatory executions. Batista proclaimed he would execute 10 rebels for every soldier killed in the attacks. Once he began doing so, though, the public outcry was so strong that he had to back down. This may have saved Fidel’s life.
The Castro brothers were among the 26 imprisoned survivors of the original 160 rebel fighters. They had escaped execution but they would have to stand trial, and would be facing life in prison. During his trial, Fidel acted in his own defense and spoke fervently for nearly four hours, concluding with: “Condemn me, it matters not. History will absolve me.” The young lawyer’s historic speech was later published and circulated to rally support for the Movement, which added July 26 to its official name.
In 1954, U.S. Vice-president Richard Nixon visited Cuba and urged Batista to step down. Instead, the dictator staged a sham election and officially became the country’s president once again. As CIA reports had predicted, Batista was willing to do anything necessary to retain power. When riots and unrest continued to grow, though, it became judicious for him to release the remaining rebels from prison.
While Fidel and his July 26th Movement (or M-26-7) companions were still in jail, other rebels began taking the lead in preparing for revolution, including numerous women. Celia Sánchez Manduley was one of them, but she had her own intensely personal reason for becoming a revolutionary fighter.
Celia was the daughter of a prominent country doctor from Media Luna, a small town between Bayamo and Pilón. With her father, she traveled throughout that rural area, now known as the Granma province, and assisted him in his practice. On one of these occasions, she helped him with a very difficult birth and is credited with keeping the sickly baby alive during the tenuous hours following the birth. Because of her connection with this child, María Ochoa, Celia remained close to the little girl as she grew up.
In those days, under Batista’s ruthless rule, young women and girls were often stolen by Mafia lackeys and put to use as sex toys for clients in their posh Havana hotels. In 1953, when 10-year-old María was kidnapped, raped and murdered because a wealthy gambler had requested a “young girl” for his pleasure, Celia’s world shifted. She vowed to do whatever she could to help rid Cuba of Batista and his vile regime.
She walked away from her genteel life in Pilón and began actively working to recruit and train guerilla fighters in the surrounding Sierra Maestra Mountains. Since Celia knew the countryside well, and the peasants knew and respected her, she proved quite adept at rallying their support, as well as leading them in battle. Due to her exploits during the next two years, she gained the attention of both Batista, who put a price on her head, and Fidel Castro, who was languishing in prison.
In May 1955, Fidel and other rebels were released in a general amnesty some say was forced on Batista by the U.S. government. The following month, for his own safety, Fidel fled the country. Although they had exchanged secret notes while he was imprisoned, Fidel and Celia did not actually meet until he returned to Cuba in December 1956, aboard an overloaded yacht named the Granma.
This 60-foot cabin cruiser had been designed to comfortably accommodate a dozen or so people but, when it left Tuxpan, Mexico, it had 82 men aboard and was loaded to the gills with food, fuel and munitions. Besides the Castro brothers, passengers included fellow Cuban rebel Camilo Cienfuegos and their new best friend Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Their boat was registered in Florida, where it been purchased with funds raised, in part, by former Cuban president Carlos Prío, who may have had a personal interest in seeing Batista overthrown.
Crossing the Gulf of Mexico took much longer than expected for the heavily laden, leaky craft and it ended up virtually crash-landing in an isolated stretch of mangrove swamp, west of Pilón. This was not quite where Celia Sánchez and her welcoming party had envisioned.
Batista’s forces quickly learned of the landing and began hunting down the Granma crew. Most were killed within three days. The approximately 20 survivors dispersed into the mountains. With the assistance of local peasants, they eventually regrouped and made their way east of Pilón to La Plata, deep within the Sierra Maestra mountain range. This became Castro’s secret official headquarters for the remainder of the revolutionary war.
Two years later, despite their limited personnel and armaments, the rebels succeeded in defeating Batista. By January 1, 1959, Fidel and his forces were marching triumphantly to Havana.
That brings the story back to me, and to the lovely, historic Cuban province of Granma. When I first visited this magnificently scenic region, where two Cuban rebellions were born, I had no idea of the area’s significance. I didn’t know that Granma’s capitol is Bayamo, one of the country’s seven oldest and most important cities. I just wanted to go to a sunny beach and briefly escape the Canadian winter. Cuba wasn’t even on my bucket list, but the place was cheap and off the beaten track.
This was also the first time I had ever been to an all-inclusive resort, and I was a bit apprehensive about what to expect. I definitely did not want to be confined to a tourist-only complex! I wanted to be able to explore the surrounding community and interact with the local people. Fortunately, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, which is just down the road from Celia Sánchez’s home in Pilón, is different from larger resorts. The beach is public and the fishing village of Marea del Portillo is within walking distance, so it is easy to meet people who live close to the resort. The accessibility of nearby communities and the friendliness of the people are some of the main reasons I keep returning to this remote part of southern Cuba.
In October of 2009, I ended up visiting Marea del Portillo a second time, somewhat by fluke. On that trip, I had some amazingly candid conversations with people there and began to understand how important the resort is to the local economy, since it is the area’s single largest employer. My mental wheels began turning.
The following year, I began to offer group trips to this little out-of-the-way place and, every time I visited, my love for the community and admiration of the Cuban people grew. I now lead groups there twice a year and, with the help of those traveling with me, have taken many bicycles and suitcases of clothing, shoes, toiletries and other necessities that are hard to get in that area. Bikes are probably the most important gifts we take, since they are essential modes of transportation in Cuba. Thanks to the “bike shepherds” in my groups, we’ve been able to take about 70 good-quality reconditioned bikes (as of 2016) and, in this simple way, make daily life a little bit easier for many families.
The ideal bikes for Cuba are basic 26” mountain bikes with sturdy frames, reasonably wide tires and simple shift/brake mechanisms. North American manufacturers have begun shifting away from the traditional 26” models but they’re still the norm on the island. Classic bikes will probably ride the rugged roads of Cuba for decades, just like the classic ‘50s cars!
My “JennicaCuba” Facebook group and website (www.jennicacuba.com) have a wealth of information and photos about my small-scale humanitarian work and my group trips. If you would like to support what I’m doing to assist people in this isolated part of Cuba and/or want travel with me, please don’t hesitate to send an email or call. I’m always happy to talk about “Cubita bella” – beautiful little Cuba, as Celia Sánchez called her country.
Muchas gracias, mis amigos!
Thanks for your time!