Prior to the development of an anti-colonial movement in Cuba, slave rebellions and other forms of slave resistance were an important part of the political landscape of Cuba (Pérez 2006: 55, 72-74; Foner 1962: 48-50). The conditions during slavery of extreme and brutal repression made impossible the development of a social movement, able to form organizations and formulate programs and ideologies. Nevertheless, slave resistance and rebellion was an important expression of a spirit of rebellion that emerged as an integral part of Afro-Cuban culture. And because of the high degree of cultural and ethnic integration in Cuba, the Afro-Cuban cultural characteristic of courage and audacious rebellion would become an important influence on the Cuban movement of national liberation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, there emerged in Cuba a number of intellectuals whose writings and teachings provided the foundation for Cuban national consciousness and identity, which as it evolved would unite two critical ideas: the independence of Cuba and the abolition of slavery. The most outstanding of these intellectuals was Father Felix Varela, a professor at San Carlos Seminary in Havana (Vitier 2006:5-41; Barcía, García, and Torres-Cuevas 1996:12-14).
The emerging Cuban nation, however, did not join in the Latin American independence movements of the early nineteenth century. Cuban landholders feared that an independence movement would unleash uncontrollable forces from below, as had occurred in Haiti from 1789 to 1805 (Castro 1990:5; see “Slave rebellion in Haiti” 12/9/2013; “Toussaint L’Ouverture” 12/10/2013; “The problem of dependency” 12/11/2013; “Toussaint seeks North-South cooperation” 12/12/2013; “Toussaint and racial conciliation” 12/13/2013; “Toussaint and revolutionary terror” 12/16/2013; “The isolation and poverty of Haiti” 12/17/2013; and “Lessons from the Haitian Revolution” 12/18/2013).
But a Cuban ethic, integrally tied to social and political movement and economic development, continued to evolve, an ethic that sought Cuban autonomy in accordance with universal human values. On this moral and spiritual foundation, the Cuban Revolution was launched on October 10, 1868, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a landholder and slave-owner in the Eastern province of Oriente, declared, at his plantation La Demajagua, the independence of Cuba and the freedom of his slaves, a gesture followed by other slave-holders present. Seeking to enlist the support of Western landholders to the independence cause, Céspedes called for the gradual and compensated, rather than immediate, abolition of slavery. Subsequently, landholders from the central provinces of Camaguey and Las Tunas joined the insurrection. On April 10, 1869, the Republic of Cuba in Arms was established in the town of Guáimaro in Camaguey. Its constitution declared the abolition of slavery (Barcía, García, and Torres-Cuevas 1996:25-52; Vitier 2006:42-45).
Thus, the independence war of 1868 was a revolution of national liberation and a democratic anti-slavery revolution. Although it was led by Eastern landholders, it inspired the popular sectors to active participation, including the rural and urban middle classes; revolutionary intellectuals; an emerging proletariat; craftsmen; slaves in the liberated zones; and free white, black, and mulatto farmers. It forged a common struggle, uniting popular sectors, overcoming divisions of class and race (Barcía, García, and Torres-Cuevas 1996:2-3; Castro 1990:6).
But in 1878, the Pact of Zanjón ended the war without conceding the independence of Cuba, and it granted liberty only to those slaves who had fought in the insurrectionist ranks. Various factors contributed to the failure of the Ten Years’ War to attain nationalist goals: the opposition to the struggle on the part of the Western landholders, who feared that the unfolding forces would unleash an uncontrollable revolution from below; divisions between the executive and legislative branches of the Republic in Arms, which led to the destitution of Céspedes as president in 1873; the deaths of Céspedes in 1874 and Ignacio Agramonte in 1873, the two principal leaders of the revolution; and a tendency toward regionalism and caudillismo in the revolutionary army (Barcía, García, and Torres-Cuevas 1996:94-96, 140; Vitier 2006:5-8, 45-69; Arboleya 2008:49-51; López Segrera 1972:112-15, 126-29; Pérez 2006:86-93).
José Martí, who had been imprisoned for his revolutionary sentiments in 1869 at the age of 16, and subsequently deported to Spain, learned from the divisions that had caused the failure of the Ten Years’ War. He led the national liberation movement in a second war of independence, launched in 1895, in which the unity being forged in practice by the popular sectors would be matched by the ideological clarity of the leadership. In this new phase, the Cuban Revolution would be led not by the Eastern estate bourgeoisie but by the revolutionary sector of the petit bourgeoisie. We will discuss this evolution of the Cuban Revolution in the subsequent posts.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Barcía, María del Carmen, Gloria García and Eduardo Torres-Cuevas. 1994. Historia de Cuba: La Colonia: Evolución Socioeconómica y formación nacional de los orígenes hasta 1867. La Habana: Editora Política.
Castro Ruz, Fidel. 1990. Informe Central: I, II y III Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. La Habana: Editora Política.
Foner, Philip S. 1962. A History of Cuba and its Relations with the United States, Vol. I. New York: International Publishers.
López Segrera, Francisco. 1972. Cuba: Capitalismo Dependiente y Subdesarrollo (1510-1959). La Habana: Casa de las Américas.
Pérez, Jr., Louis A. 2006. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vitier, Cintio. 2006. Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. La Habana: Editorial Félix Varela.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Cuban Revolution, 1868, Ten Years’ War