On This Day: Cuba Gained Independence from the U.S.

When the United States drove Cuba’s cruel Spanish masters away by winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, the island’s people rejoiced: independence was at hand! A Cuban insurgency had been fighting for independence from Spain since 1895, and Americans had become increasingly upset with the harsh measures the Spanish military used to suppress the insurrection. But did the Americans really come as liberators?

Photo: Havana Cathedral, Cuba
Photo: Havana Cathedral, Cuba. Credit: Anagoria; Wikimedia Commons.

Some historians say the Spanish-American War was an honorable affair, fought by altruistic Americans to free the oppressed Cubans from the yoke of Spanish colonization. Others say this was America’s foray into imperialism: its first war fought not to consolidate its holdings on the North American continent but rather to gain overseas possessions.

Victory in the war turned over to the U.S. such Spanish possessions as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Cuba did gain its independence, but not in 1898; not fully, in fact, until 28 January 1909, when U.S. troops marched out of Havana and most of Cuba – retaining a foothold on the island by keeping the Guantanamo Bay naval base, which the U.S. still occupies today.

Cuba actually gained a tenuous independence on 20 May 1902, but American officials made sure that the new republic’s constitution guaranteed to the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. America also controlled the republic’s foreign policy and its finances.

Photo: Tomás Estrada Palma, first president of Cuba
Photo: Tomás Estrada Palma, first president of Cuba. Credit: Morena A. Loper; Wikimedia Commons.

Just four years later the U.S. used its intervention rights when there was a revolt against the American-approved president, Tomás Estrada Palma, in 1906. The U.S. re-occupied Cuba, appointed an American, Charles Edward Magoon, as provisional governor, and placed U.S. army officers in key governmental positions. The U.S. occupied and ran the country until José Miguel Gómez was elected president in the fall of 1908; American troops relinquished control on 28 January 1909.

Photo: José Miguel Gómez, second president of Cuba
Photo: José Miguel Gómez, second president of Cuba. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The following two newspaper articles are about Cuba gaining its independence. The first is an editorial lamenting that winning the Spanish-American War has stuck the U.S. with having to deal with the peoples of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines – people the xenophobic and racist editorial calls “disagreeable adjuncts” and “mongrel elements” that don’t deserve U.S. citizenship.

The second article is a thorough and thoughtful examination of the ramifications of Cuban independence, written by famed journalist and author Frederic J. Haskin.

An article about Cuban independence, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 28 January 1909
Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 28 January 1909, page 6

Here is a transciption of this article:


Once again the Cubans will be permitted to show whether they are fit to govern themselves. The precedents in their case are not encouraging: the things that have happened cause the people of the United States to be skeptical with respect to this new attempt of the Cubans to go it alone.

The presumption is that if this new experiment turns out badly, the government at Washington will end the whole business in a summary way, annex Cuba, and then make the disturbers down there behave themselves. It is ardently to be hoped that the Cubans will make a showing that will serve to keep them perpetually separate and apart from the United States. Already, American citizenship is overloaded with the disagreeable adjuncts, in the way of subjects of our government, in Porto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines.

These are mongrel elements out of which our kind of citizens is not going to be evolved; that has been demonstrated. These peoples, except as to the Hawaiians, are the miserable heritage of the war with Spain. That was a war which, with credit to ourselves, we could have avoided. Of course, we won the war. In view of the decadent foe we faced, we would have been the world’s laughing-stock if we hadn’t won easily. We gathered up the “spoils”; they amount to a nuisance.

In connection with the beginning of Cuba’s second stagger at it, in effort at self-government, a mass of information has been printed in the newspapers of the United States, in description of Cuba’s material resources. Sugar and tobacco are the island’s staples. All accounts agree on the proposition that for the cultivation of these in a successful way large capital is essential. Recent official reports assert that the soil of Cuba is admirably adapted to the raising of potatoes, onions, beans and the coarser vegetables.

But it is also reported that practically all the consumption of the islanders in the way of these food supplies is imported. By the way, it may be a serious question whether any people are fitted for self-government who have soil and climate well-adapted to raise their own vegetables but who are too thriftless or too ignorant to raise them.

Much of the current talk, in the way of information concerning Cuba, carries the suggestion that the island offers fine opportunities to United States farmers and gardeners. Hills are green far away; he is a sensible farmer who reckons that there is plenty of room and opportunity within this country’s mainland boundaries.

An article about Cuban independence, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 January 1909
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 January 1909, page 4

Here is a transcription of this article:

The Republic of Cuba.

The Future of the Republic.

By Frederic J. Haskin.

Today, in Havana, Gen. Jose Miguel Gomez assumes the responsibility of the presidency of the republic of Cuba, and, for the second time, the United States withdraws its protecting and directing genius from the administration of governmental affairs in the Pearl of the Antilles. The inauguration has been planned on a splendid scale. Havana is in the gayest of moods, and everybody today is making merry – nor is there one to “heed the rumble of the distant drum.” The president-elect of the United States is there to witness the end of the American intervention which he instituted. Many other distinguished Americans are there, and practically every distinguished Cuban, of whatever political faith, has some part in the ceremonies.

Second Experiment Begins.

Cuba begins today its second experiment in self-government as an independent nation. It knows that the United States is standing ready to come to Cuba a third time if the new government does not succeed in maintaining its authority. Cuba knows that the republic is an experiment. No people have ever possessed a greater ambition for an independent national career than the people of Cuba. Yet on every hand there is questioning and doubt. Today there is rejoicing and merrymaking, but tomorrow there will be problems to solve.

Persons who predict the future of Cuba are divided into two classes of pessimists – those who declare that the republic will fall and the island taken by the United States, and those who declare that the republic will live and the island will be taken by the negroes. The optimists, the Cubans themselves, do not predict. They assume that the second experiment is already a success.

Almost everybody, American or Cuban, agrees that a successful government in Cuba would be better for the Cubans themselves, better for the United States and better for the world. Cuba is large enough in territory, it has the richest soil of any country on the globe, and it will have the population if peaceful and liberal government is permanently established. No disinterested person finds any fault with the Cubans for the ambitions, and almost everybody wishes them success.

Yet the question everybody asks in Havana is this: “How long will it be before the Americans are back in charge of things here?” And the reply is invariably acquiescent, the time being set at anywhere from six weeks to four years. Rarely does anybody put off the next clash beyond four years, the period of the next presidential elections.

Gen. Gomez has a knotty problem to solve. If he can divide the public offices so that the two factions of his own party will be reasonably well satisfied so that he can depend upon the backing of his own party in congress, he will have the battle half won. That will assure the peace of the country for at least three and a half years. The Conservatives will not go into revolt under any ordinary circumstances, nor under any provocation which would not of itself bring about American intervention.

If, after three and a half years, Gen. Gomez will be strong enough to subordinate his own interests and vanity to the good of the country, if he will permit the elections to be held without interference and without intimidation, then the other half of the battle will be won. Gomez and his party probably will be voted out of office. But if Gomez will submit to that political defeat peaceably, he will have given the Cubans their first and greatest lesson in the vital principle of republics – submission to the will of the majority.

Reefs Ahead for Gomez.

Then there are dangerous reefs ahead for which Gen. Gomez must keep a sharp lookout. Immense corporations have vital interests in Cuba and they know how to play upon the mercurial temper of the people, as well as how to take advantage of the cupidity of leaders. If the Cuban republic shall offend one of these great corporations – dealing in sugar, or tobacco, or iron ore – then the government must be prepared for dissensions fomented by the use of money.

Men who have lived in Cuba for years do not hesitate to say that Cuba will be annexed to the United States just as soon as the big corporations desire it. Not that the trusts could control sentiment in the United States, but that they can cause so much trouble in Cuba that the Americans would be forced to take the island to keep the peace.

It is a fact that nine-tenths of the businessmen of Cuba hope for annexation. The businessmen are nearly all Spaniards, or other foreigners. They have but little faith in the ability of the Cubans to maintain a strong government, and they declare that the United States might as well take Cuba outright as to maintain the system of suzerainty now in force. Not only do they hope for annexation, but they believe that it is absolutely inevitable.

Many Cubans of the higher classes also believe that annexation is the ultimate fate of their island. Most of them regret it, but they are convinced that the experiment of national self-government will be a failure. They would not be willing to surrender their control of local affairs, but they believe that union with America may be effected under such conditions as would guarantee local self-government, and at the same time obviate the dangers of national disturbances.

The Cubans as a people are filled with ambition for a successful national career. They wish to keep their hard-earned freedom and to stand before the world as an independent nation. Yet while they all agree in this ambition, no leader or set of leaders will subordinate personal ambition for official honor and public salary to the needs of national peace.

The Cubans have had absolutely no training or traditions to fit them for a republican form of government. Until ten years ago they were ruled by absolute tyranny and had no voice whatever in the affairs of government. The experiment of Spanish autonomy was begun too late to be of actual importance, as it was cut short after two months by the Spanish-American war. As a matter of fact it was not until 1902 that the Cubans had their first taste of the joys, and their first sense of the weight of the burdens of self-government.

The members of the Cuban congress, then, as now, were most punctilious in their respect for the dignity of their office. Frock coats and silk hats were worn with religious regularity. But what the Cuban congressman could not understand was that he was expected to work. He wanted the office and the dignity and the salary, but he did not want the work. As the honor and dignity and salary were conferred upon him by his election, he did not think it was necessary to attend the sessions of congress. Therefore there was no quorum and the republic went to pieces.

It was found necessary, when the Cuban constitution was adopted, to continue the old Spanish laws until the congress enacted new statutes to make the provisions of the constitution effective. Under this arrangement President Palma was authorized to issue decrees having the force of law. As congress did not and would not meet, and did not pass the needed laws, President Palma exercised the same authority as did the Spanish captains general.

Under Governor Magoon’s administration a commission was organized to draft the needed statutes for the republic. They have been drawn up and the new congress will be able to pass them very quickly. If this be done, as it probably will be, Cuba will have for the first time a set of republican statutes. Many of these impose restrictions upon the executive which no Cuban governor has ever known. Congress will be compelled to do its work, or the work will go undone. It remains to be seen whether or not the new congress, after the excitement and pleasure of novelty has worn away, will buckle down to business.

Palma Tells Some Truth.

Some of the bravest and best of Cuban patriots have little faith in the future of the republic. President Palma may have been in a very pessimistic mood when he was forced by circumstances to ask for help from Washington, but there is much truth in the statement which he made upon retiring from office. Among other things he declared:

“I have always believed, since the time I took active part in the ten years’ war, that independence was not the final goal of all our noble and patriotic aspirations – the aim was to possess a stable government, capable of protecting lives and property and guaranteeing to all residents of the country, natives and foreigners, the exercise of civil and natural rights, without permitting liberty ever to become pernicious license or violent agitation, to say nothing of armed disturbances of public order. I have never feared to admit, nor am I afraid to say aloud, that a political dependence which assures us the fecund bonus of liberty is a hundred times preferable for our beloved Cuba to a sovereign and independent republic discredited and made miserable by the baneful action of periodic civil wars.”

That utterance of President Palma forecasts the annexation of Cuba to the United States. It may come, in time. But at any rate, the United States has given to Cuba a chance, a chance such as no other nation in like circumstances has ever had. If Cuba is strong enough to be free, there is none to deny it freedom and independence. The United States has proved by its course in Cuba that it is possible for a strong nation to deal justly with a weak one. Cuba is free today, and it is for the Cubans themselves to determine the future of the republic.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

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