Friday, October 10, 2008

140th Anniversary of "El Grito de Yara"

Today marks the 140th anniversary of the Grito de Yara, the start of Cuba's first War of Independence (1868-1878). This epic struggle claimed more lives than 30 American Revolutions but did not culminate in our independence because, then as now, our countrymen stood alone against the indifference and even hostility of the world. There was no France to provide reinforcements nor His Christian Majesty's Treasury to finance our revolution. Spain, which by then had already been ousted from all its other possessions in the New World except Cuba and Puerto Rico, clung tenaciously to the "Pearl of the Antilles," the revenues from which sustained it more than all its own exertions did. Spain was ready to sink all the gold of the Indies, acquired over 400 years, into the endeavor of retaining the last and most precious remnant of its colonial empire. The European powers, and principally Britain, sided with Spain, though they had condemned for 50 years the slave trade which Spain abetted and which the Cuban rebels ended by abolishing slavery as the first act of their revolution. Pope Pius IX, no doubt influenced by the fact that the Catholic Church was the largest landowner in Cuba, blessed Spanish troops before they sailed to subjugate Cubans and even called the war of genocide against them "a holy crusade."

Then there was the United States. The Cuban Revolution of 1868 was inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776, although the Cubans did not only proclaim in their Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal before God but before the law. Among the American people, the Cuban cause was wildly popular; for they rightly saw it as a continuation of their grandsires' own struggle. This did not, however, convince their leaders -- who had only 3 years earlier considered acquiring Cuba as a "dumping grounds" (in Lincoln's phrase) for America's recently emancipated slaves -- to extend recognition or belligerency rights to the Cuban rebels, most of whom were men of color. Instead, the U.S. used its Neutrality Laws to thwart the rebellion while a the same time allowing its arms merchants to sell Spain all the surplus from the Civil War. The U.S. State Department even hatched a scheme that would have compelled Cubans to purchase their independence from Spain with a loan contracted from U.S. banks with the island itself as collateral. "Independence," if you will, on the installment plan.

Despite the fact that 140 years ago Cubans were fighting against not just Spain but the combined malice of all the world, they managed to extend their struggle for 10 glory-filled years, till the island was decimated from one end to the other and the enemy defeated over and over again, only to have Spain buoyed and raised up by its allies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Céspedes and Aguilera did not survive the war to return to their Mount Vernons and Monticellos; they died penniless in the struggle, having financed the revolution with their own patrimony and finally consecrated their lives to it, but our prohombres bequeathed freedom to their slaves and to all of us the example of the purest and most disinterested patriotism.