Skip to Main Content

World of 1898: International Perspectives on the Spanish American War

Cuba in 1898

Image of the harbor of Santiago, Photographic History of the Spanish-American War, p. 182.

by José M. Hernandez

In 1898 Cuba was a geopolitical aberration. Lying only 90 miles from the Florida keys, astride the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, it was separated from Spain by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet Cuba remained one of Spain's two colonies in the New World. (The other was Puerto Rico.) It was governed from Madrid much as it had been governed since it was first occupied and settled by the Spaniards in 1511.

Not that Cubans were as compliant in 1898 as they had been during most of the colonial period, especially when the other Spanish Americans severed their ties with the mother country in the 1820s. At that time Cuba was evolving from a slowly growing colony into the world's leading sugar producer, a development that required the importation of steadily increasing numbers of African slaves. As a result, by 1840 there were in the island approximately 430,000 slaves, approximately 60 percent of the population was black or mulatto. Fearing a repetition of the upheaval that wiped out Haiti's white planter class in 1791, Cuban creoles (native-born Cubans of European descent) refrained from imitating their mainland counterparts and risk all in a bloody and ruinous confrontation with the metropolis' military might.

After the rest of the Spanish American empire disintegrated, nevertheless, Cuba's colonial government gradually turned more despotic. The members of the planter class and the intellectuals who had initially opposed independence then began to show their dissatisfaction. Some, favoring reform over revolution, opted for demanding self-government within the framework of the empire. Others sought annexation to the United States as a means of gaining political and economic freedom while preserving slavery. Neither movement made any headway. Annexationism became impractical after the U.S. Civil War. And the prospect of concessions from Spain faded out after the failure in April 1867 of the Junta de Información convened by the Madrid government to discuss the reforms demanded by the Cubans. Feeling the impact of increased taxation and an international economic crisis, a group of planters, cattlemen and other patriots raised the banner of independence on 10 October 1868.

Thus began the Ten Years' War. The Cubans were unable to overthrow Spanish power in the island, but nevertheless the old colony based on slavery and aristocracy passed away after the strife had ended with a "no-victors" peace in 1878. The long- established dictatorial government machine was dismantled, and, at least in theory, Cubans were assured representation in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament) and some elective institutions at home. An emancipation law was enacted in 1880, and six years later slavery finally came to an end. Cuban society then began to evolve gradually toward a more egalitarian pattern of racial relations, which were markedly less tense than in the United States. At the same time, owing to a great influx of Spanish immigrants (about 709,000 arrived between 1868 and 1894), Cuba's population underwent a process of intensive Hispanization, particularly noticeable in the principal cities.

Cuba's economy became even more closely linked with that of the United States than it had been earlier in the century. On the one hand, the tobacco industry was partially transplanted to the North American south. On the other, due to a sharp drop of sugar prices that took place from early 1884, the old Cuban "sugar nobility," unable to mechanize and cut costs, began to disintegrate and lose its dominant role in the island's economy and society. This facilitated U.S. penetration of the Cuban economy. Sugar estates and mining interests passed from Spanish and Cuban to U.S. hands, and it was U.S. capital, machinery and technicians that helped to save the sugar mills that remained competitive with European beet sugar. Furthermore, as the dependence of Cuban sugar on the U.S. market increased, the Cuban sugar producers were more and more at the mercy of the U.S. refiners to whom they sold their raw sugar. In 1894 nearly 90 percent of Cuba's exports went to the United States, which in turn provided Cuba with 38 percent of its imports. That same year Spain took only 6 percent of Cuba's exports, providing it with just 35 percent of its imports. Clearly, Spain had ceased to be Cuba's economic metropolis.

By this time the nationalistic spirit ignited and solidified by the Ten Years' War had brought forth an organized pro- independence movement such as had never been seen in Cuba before. It was a multiracial and multiclass movement, with a strong grass-roots character. Its leaders were no longer members of the creole elite, but men of modest social origin. Its inspirational guide and promoter was José Martí, a middle class poet and journalist. Sometime in 1894 Martí determined that conditions in the island were ripe for another bid for independence. The economic situation was critical as a consequence of the cancellation of a trade agreement with the United States. It had become clear, besides, that Spain's much heralded plans for ruling Cuba as just another Spanish province were mere "traps for the gullible." Fighting broke out again on 24 February 1895 with several uprisings in the east of the island. Blacks and mulattoes became the backbone of what subsequently came to be the Cuban liberating army.

The new war was still raging in 1898, notwithstanding the 220,285 men sent by Spain to choke it off, the largest army ever to cross the Atlantic until the Second World War. At first the rebels had been able to wage a successful campaign and push on from the east to the west, where the sugar heart of the island was located. But then Spain had bestirred itself and appointed as commander-in- chief ruthless General Valeriano Weyler, who regained the initiative with the support of substantial reinforcements. Seeking to starve out the rebels operating in the countryside, he herded the rural population into garrisoned towns, where bad and inadequate food and lack of sanitation brought death to thousands of peasants -- some 50,000 in Havana province alone. These extreme measures nevertheless failed to crush the insurrection, because the rebels retreated to rural areas in the eastern provinces and from there carried on guerrilla operations. The war thus settled down to one of attrition and destruction. Since the Spaniards were unable to defeat the rebels and the rebels lacked the resources to drive them from the island, no one knew for certain how long it would continue.

This is not what Martí (who was killed in one of the first skirmishes) had had in mind. Having lived for many years in New York as an exile, he knew that the United States had always coveted Cuba and was aware of the circuitous ways of North American expansionism. He feared that if Cuba's struggle for independence continued indefinitely without the imminent prospect of success it would create conditions leading to U.S. intervention and ultimately to the annexation of the island. At one point he even came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there existed an "iniquitous plan to put pressure on the island and drive it to war so as to fabricate a pretext to intervene in its affairs and with the credit earned as guarantor and mediator keep it as its own." For this reason, he thought that Cubans had to achieve a quick victory and then present Washington with their political emancipation as an accomplished fact. Otherwise, they could very well shed their blood merely to exchange one master for another.

Martí's fears would have been even greater had he had an inkling of how vulnerable to foreign penetration Cuba would be after three and a half years of devastating military operations. The island lay in ruins. The conflict, combined with the Spanish- U.S. tariff controversy of the 1890s, had destroyed two-thirds of its productive capacity. Close to 20 percent of its prewar estimated population of 1,800,000 had perished, and for those who survived the future was bleak indeed. Cubans had no capital and were heavily in debt. They lacked the resources needed for the reconstruction of the country. The poverty-stricken masses, which included a sizable (roughly 500,000) and even poorer black or mulatto minority, was inarticulate, largely illiterate (about 60 percent of the total), and apathetic. Whatever was left of the depressed sugar aristocracy had finally succumbed. Thus Cuba could no longer count on the stabilizing influence of a strong civilian elite.

It is true Cuba had developed a well defined Spanish type of society, and that a real national tradition had been in the making in the country for many decades. But the loyalist merchants, speculators, and government officials had also lost their preeminence, and many Cubans had come to hate and despise everything Spanish, thinking only of the corruption and oppressiveness of Spanish rule. There were, too, upper-class Cubans (and Spaniards, of course) who did not share the independentistas love of the fatherland and its symbols: flag and anthem. These elements thought of the rebellion against Spain as a racial and social struggle for control of the island, and predicted that upon the withdrawal of the Spaniards it would sink into anarchy, racial warfare, and perhaps a Hispaniola-like division into two parts, sought annexation to the United States as a means of preserving their wealth.

This attitude was partly due to the fact that among noncombatant Cubans there was none of any social standing capable of exercising some sort of leadership at the time. In the other Spanish American republics, during the critical transition to independent life, there had been at least one institution endowed with influence and authority: the Catholic Church. But since the bishops of the Cuban Church as well as many priests identified themselves totally with the Spanish side during the war, at war's end the Church was politically discredited as an institution. It had reached the nadir of its prestige. In 1898 consequently there was only one political force still operative on the Cuban scene, and that was that of the partisans of independence, of whom the most compact and substantial component was the liberating army. When Washington entered the Cuban struggle for independence and eventually destroyed the rebel military organization and the institutions it had created, Cuba became a tabula rasa politically once more.