Part I (1902-1940)
The Cuban Republic came into being after a War of Independence that resulted in the death of nearly a quarter of Cuba's population and the destruction of most of the island's infrastructure and economy. In addition to such internal problems, Cuba also had to deal with the intervention and occupation of the island by the U.S. after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1898), a minor but calamitous episode within the context of the greater Cuban War of Independence begun by José Martí (1895-1898).
The Cuban Republic succeeded despite the great obstacles placed in its way by U.S. imperialism at its birth. These obstacles Cubans never ceased to fight and eventually defeated long before Castro came on the stage to renew a conflict that had already been resolved largely in Cuba's favor.
Cuba's first democratically-elected president (1902-1906), Tomás Estrada Palma, defeated an American attempt to acquire not one but ten military bases on the island as well as the Isle of Pines (Cuban ownership of which was confirmed in the Hay-Quesada Treaty). He also insisted that the one base that was granted to the Americans be leased rather than ceded, which meant that Cuba still retained sovereignty over Guantánamo thereby setting the stage for its return some day to Cuban jurisdiction. In fact, Guantánamo Naval Base would have been returned decades ago if it had not been for Castro, as the Panama Canal was returned to Panamanian jurisdiction. President Estrada Palma was known as the "Honest President" because he broke with the tradition of graft and corruption introduced to Cuban political life by the Americans.
Estrada Palma was succeeded in the presidency, after an armed uprising quelled by the U.S. at his request and another brief U.S. occupation (1906-1909), by his democratically-elected rival José Gómez, whose administration (1909-1913) was characterized by both its corruption and the full recovery of Cuba's economy from the ravages of the recent war.
Gómez was succeeded in turn, also as a result of democratic elections, by Mario García Menocal, the first and only Cuban president to serve two consecutive terms (1913-1921). The major event of his administration was the First World War, which brought unprecedented prosperity to Cuba as the price of sugar climbed to astronomical levels never to be seen again. Although Menocal joined the Allied side in the War and even instituted a draft, he refused repeatedly U.S. requests to send Cuba's sons overseas to fight in Europe under the American flag. The war ended without a single Cuban casualty. Cuba also joined the League of Nations, which the U.S. did not. A Cuban, in fact, served as its president, which proved that the world as a whole accepted Cuba's sovereignty despite American intrusions on it.
Menocal was succeeded in democratic elections by Alfredo Zayas (1921-1925), a nationalist who also defied U.S. interests in Cuba. Zayas' administration was corrupt; but when the even more corrupt administration of Warren G. Harding sought to impose on him an "honest cabinet" of its own choosing, Zayas at first assented (to get the U.S. war ships threatening intervention to go home) and then immediately fired the U.S. puppets and appointed his own men. This was the first time that the U.S. had been openly defied in Cuba and the U.S. did nothing. This lesson would not be lost on the Cuban people.
Zayas was succeeded, yet again in democratic elections, by Geraldo Machado (1925-1933), the most popular Cuban president as well as the most unpopular. His public works programme transformed Cuba into a modern nation. He built the Capitol as well as the Central Highway, which ran the whole length of the island, among hundreds of other civil works projects. He was so popular that at one time all the Cuban political parties supported him. Machado had made a pledge when he was elected not to seek re-election. He kept this pledge by convincing Congress to prolong his presidential term, which it did gladly. The Cuban people did not receive this violation of Cuban democracy as gladly, however. This "prolongation of powers" led to Cuba's first popular revolution, which succeeded in ousting the democrat turned dictator. Machado believed that this revolution was abetted by the U.S. and before resigning made anti-American declarations for the first time in Cuban political history. The Machado opposition was even more nationalistic and anti-American in its rhetoric.
The Revolution of 1933, with its succession of provisional presidents, juntas and even a counter-revolution, nevertheless succeeded in abrogating in 1934 the Platt Amendment, which had been imposed in 1902 and gave Americans the right to intervene at will in Cuba to protect "our" (read their) interests. With the scrapping of the Platt Amendment Cubans exercised for the first time full national sovereignty. There would be no more American interventions in Cuba. Martí's dream and the dream of all Cuban patriots was finally realized thanks to Cuban resolve and another Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, which was itself the product of American experiences in Cuba.
If there is a revolution that Cubans should celebrate it is the Revolution of 1933, which was everything that a future revolution was not — nationalistic, progressive and brief. The 1933 Revolution endowed the Cuban people with social rights that no other people on earth enjoyed or would enjoy for decades, including paid maternity leave and a 35-hour work week (for which the employee was entitled to 40 hours compensation). It avoided, moreover, the fashionable extremes of the age, shifting neither to the right and fascism, nor to the left and communism.
Although the Generation of 1933 hated Machado and his cohorts no less than the Generation of 1953 despised Batista and his, the death penalty was not imposed on any of the collaborators of the regime: capital punishment for political crimes was then unknown in Cuba and the firing squad had not been used on the island since colonial times.
The greatest virtue of the 1933 Revolution — the reason for its success, if you will — was its exemplary brevity. In just three years (1933-1936) it had run its course and normality was restored to the island. The final act of the 1933 Revolution was the Amnesty Law of 1936 which freed all Machado officials held in detention (very few) and restored to them their full civil rights. In the elections also held that year many of them were returned to office, one even became Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In the 1936 presidential elections Josê Mariano Gómez, son of Cuba's second president, was elected its sixth constitutional president. In a further test of Cuba's reborn democracy Gómez was impeached for supposedly obstructing the functions of Congress and replaced with his vice-president Col. Fedérico Laredu Bru, the last veteran of Cuba's wars of independence to occupy the presidency. It was during this period that Cuba received nearly a half-million refugees from fascism and communism in Europe, the largest number per capita of any country in the world.
The Revolution of 1933 saw the rise to power of two men who would dominate Cuban politics for the next quarter century — Ramón Grau San Martín and Fulgencio Batista. The first was a professor at the University of Havana and the latter an army sergeant. On the same side in the wake of the 1933 Revolution both men would become bitter political rivals in its aftermath.
All parties and ideologies would coalesce, however, in 1939-1940 to create the greatest monument of the Cuban Republic, the Constitution of 1940, which became the model of France's Fundamental Law (1958) and other progressive constitutions.
Cuba was then about to embark on the most glorious period in its history, which saw it become the most democratic and prosperous country in Latin American with a standard of living which was comparable to Europe's.
In Part II we will discuss the the rise and fall of the Cuban Republic, which is all the more remarkable because Cuba reached its zenith and nadir at the same time.