Cuba: A Little History

A guest post from Asombra:

A Little History

The following is my translation of a passage by an eminent Cuban historian, the late Carlos Ripoll:

“Once independent, Cuba was excessively generous. Due to weariness with so much fighting, and the intrusion of foreign elements made hasty by greed, Spain’s crimes went unpunished. Martí had promised in the Montecriti Manifesto that, during and after the war, Cuba would be compassionate with those who repented, but relentless against vice, crime and inhumanity. But, as it turned out, Cuba was unable to punish vice, crime and inhumanity, and there was no need for compassion for the repentant because, since there was no punishment, there was no repentance. Consequently, many of those who had opposed a free Cuba were able to hold positions of power [in independent Cuba] and to continue being influential in commerce, the press and education. Indiscriminately, without excluding war criminals or others guilty of abuses during Spanish rule, the Treaty of Paris [of 1898 between Spain and the US] obligated Cuba to respect the rights of Spaniards on the island, including all property rights and the right to pursue industrial, commercial or professional activities. Seeing justice thus handcuffed, Cubans were frustrated and discouraged, which wound up encouraging political mismanagement and corruption during the 57 years of the Republic, ultimately leading to a much worse post-Republic situation which has already lasted half a century. The founding fathers of the United States had better foresight: after their war of independence, the guilty were punished, and those who had been enemies of American freedom were barred from public positions for life, prompting many of them to emigrate.”

If only Cuba had forbidden the immigration of Spanish soldiers who fought against Cuba’s freedom, like Fidel Castro’s miserable father! Alas, that was a foretaste of the disastrous folly to come., Ripoll helps clarify why the Spanish got away with everything, but it wasn’t all due to the provisions of the Treaty of Paris (which infamously excluded Cubans from the negotiations, as if they’d been inconsequential bystanders). The vast majority of non-black Cubans were of Spanish descent (both of Martí’s parents, for instance, came from Spain). Blood ties will tell, and Cubans were and have remained exceedingly sentimental about that sort of thing. As Ripoll notes, people were also tired of conflict after 30 years of struggle, and it was simply easier and tidier to “turn the page,” especially since they were legally blocked from doing otherwise. Insisting on justice would have required considerable determination, seriousness and fortitude, and probably would have led to further armed conflict and disruption–in other words, it must have seemed too difficult and impractical. Unfortunately, ignoring the claims of justice always has bad consequences eventually, not least because giving the guilty impunity only promotes continued or future wrongdoing. The Spanish, evidently, learned little or nothing, except to resent the US for “stealing” their colony, and they retained their old sense of entitlement. They certainly gave no sign of repentance or shame, but just went on about their business–which in many cases held native Cubans back or shut them out.

Back in Spain, it was quite telling that General Valeriano Weyler (known in Cuba as “The Butcher”), responsible for a veritable genocide of Cuban civilians (including women, children and elderly) herded into concentration camps (the original precursors of Nazi camps), was never disgraced, let alone punished. He held various government posts, including Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish Army, and died of very old age in 1930. Weyler, by the way, had only been taken out of Cuba (in 1897) to placate the US, which had not yet entered the war but was raising a big stink about Weyler’s atrocities. In other words, Spain was trying to keep the US out of the picture, not spare Cubans from further annihilation by Weyler, whose tactics were considered a justified means to keep Cuba under Spanish control. What such tactics meant for Cuba per se was simply beside the point. And yes, to this day there are public places in Spain named after Weyler. The Spanish socialists, so excruciatingly sensitive to anything honoring Franco, ignored those honoring “The Butcher.”

Yes, this was a long time ago, but “aquellos polvos trajeron otros lodos.” Things can have delayed and/or prolonged consequences, which may not be recognized or understood till considerably later. The question that all of this raises, at least in my mind, is what kind of justice is to be observed in Cuba once it is free from totalitarian darkness? The island is crawling with people guilty of “vice, crime and inhumanity” of all sorts and degrees, especially within the vast and pervasive government apparatus, at every level. They will neither vanish into thin air nor magically transform into decent, righteous human beings–though they may certainly pretend to do so. What is to be done about them and their guilt? That is an extremely serious, pressing and critical question, and we would do well to learn what we can from the experience of Eastern European countries after they became free. What we absolutely should not do is blow off the matter as too problematic and do nothing, which will mock and violate justice and inevitably backfire sooner or later. Perfect justice is not feasible due to the enormous scope of the situation, which has lasted over half a century, but the best possible justice should be sought and pursued with determination and diligence. There has been SO much infamy and evil, so much criminal abuse and wrongdoing, that if we effectively “sweep it under the rug,” Cuba will never be free of the stench of festering filth.

Ripoll, who happened to be one of the greatest authorities on the life and thought of Cuba’s “Apostle,” Martí, recalls the episode of Jesus forcefully casting out those who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem, and he makes a provocative analogy: Cuba is our Temple.



7 thoughts on “Cuba: A Little History

  1. Very good points. I hope I live to see these people brought to justice. I’m sure someone (you, Asombra?) is writing things down and keeping a catalogue. It must be huge by now.

  2. That should have read Montecristi (with an “s”), the name of the place in the Dominican Republic where the document was signed in 1895 by José Martí and Máximo Gómez.

  3. As far as I can tell, Spain never came clean on Weyler’s horrific death toll (the conservative, low-ball estimate is around 100,000 Cuban civilians, meaning non-combatants). The Spanish response to this genocide amounted to something along the lines of “War is hell. Deaths happen. Mistakes may have been made. Bad luck. Collateral damage. Deal with it and move on.” The horror was either rationalized away or aggressively (and defensively) justified as just trying to take care of business–meaning keeping Cuba a Spanish colony by any means necessary. But it’s not just the number of dead or the terrible way they died (starvation and disease); it’s what the whole thing says about how Spain saw Cuba and Cubans. No matter how you slice it, it’s seriously nasty shit, and it still stinks to high heaven, even now.

  4. Every opportunity I get I remind folks that the inventor of the concentration camp was this miserable son-of-a-bitch Weyler, and that his first victims were mambises, like my great-grandparents.

  5. “Ignoring the claims of justice always has bad consequences eventually, not least because giving the guilty impunity only promotes continued or future wrongdoing.” Clean the Temple.

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