When I first arrived in Havana I knew nothing of the Cuban War of Independence. I had a hazy recollection of learning about the sinking of the USS Maine, and that Cuba had played some part in the Spanish-American War (note: no mention of Cuba in the title). I remember, with no small degree of shame, asking my Spanish teacher here who José Martí was. She was rightfully horrified. At the second-hand book market in Havana’s Plaza de Armas I found a beautiful illustrated copy of Martí’s children’s book La Edad de Oro, and became fascinated by his writing. I kept reading. I learnt about his exile; his fearless campaigning for freedom; his years in America; and his death, shot down while charging the Spanish lines wearing his trademark black dinner suit, atop a white horse. A poet, political visionary, and hero throughout Latin America, you cannot begin to understand Cuba without knowing this man, and certainly without knowing of Cuba’s passionate, bloody and desperate struggle for freedom in the late 19th century.
Whether you realise it or not, you are steeped in this era from the moment you land in Havana. Every time you pass along ‘Paseo de Martí’, ‘Avenida Antonio Maceo’, or through ‘Parque Céspedes’ you’re experiencing Cuba’s homage to the heroes of the War of Independence: namely José Martí; Lt. General Antonio Maceo, second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence, also known as the Bronze Titan; and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a poet and sugar-plantation owner. Céspedes called for the abolition of slavery in 1868 by releasing his own slaves, and proclaiming the Grito de Yara, a cry for liberty that began the Ten Years War (one of three wars, spanning thirty years). These men dreamt of a post-racial society of “no whites, no blacks, only Cubans,” a revolutionary sentiment in the 19th century.
A good place to start is the Museo de la Revolución, housed in the impressive former Presidential Palace. It might not offer the most objective view of history, but a good portion is dedicated to the independence wars. After filling in some gaps, take a walk along the Malecon and spot the monuments to Máximo Gomez, Antonio Maceo, General Calixto García, and to the Victims of the USS Maine. Perhaps most interesting is the Memorial a José Martí in Plaza de la Revolución, an epic monument (the tallest structure in Havana) with a 17m marble Martí sitting reflectively in front. On the ground floor is a museum covering his life and works, including his founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (1892). A visit to the Museo Casa de Natal de Jose Martí in Havana Vieja, where Martí was born, also gives a human touch to the story.
But Santiago de Cuba is where the struggle reached a head. US war fever hit hysterical levels after the sinking of the USS Maine, blamed on the Spanish but later understood to be an accident. Rallied by a rabid pro-imperialist press championing Cuba’s cause and America’s interest in the island, the US declared war on Spain in 1898. One of the key land battles was fought on a low-rise hill in what is now an upscale residential district in the city’s east. Soon-to-be president Teddy Roosevelt charged alongside his Rough Riders (the first United States Volunteer Cavalry) and seized Loma de San Juan, now a park you can visit. At the foot of the hill find the Arbol de la Rendención (Tree of Surrender), where the Spanish surrendered to the US general, and nearby is the poignant Tomb of the Unknown Mambi (rebel fighter). Santiago de Cuba was the last Spanish stronghold. In the central square here the Spanish officially surrendered to America, a ceremony that Cubans were barred from attending in what signalled the start of the US occupation. The tragedy of this ending, of course, is that after hundreds of thousands of Cubans lost their lives for liberty, power merely shifted from Spanish to Americans hands.
While the relatively modern history of the Cuban Revolution has left a more pertinent stamp on our collective consciousness, knowledge of these earlier times in history is the only way to truly understand the complex and troubled relationship between Cuba and America today.
Originally published on Insight Cuba, the leading specialists for US-Cuba travel.