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Colonial Cuba - Administration and Economy

As soon as the conquest was completed and the Indians subjugated, the crown began introducing to the island the institutional apparatus necessary to govern the colony. The governor, the highest representative of the crown on the island, ruled Cuba with almost complete authority over administrative, political, and judicial affairs. The governor was technically subject to the audiencia in Santo Domingo and to a viceroy in New Spain, the highest royal official in the New World. In practice, however, he exercised great autonomy, particularly after the wealth of Mexico was discovered, diverting the crown's interests away from Cuba and its lack of resources.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Island, with a population of 30,000, was divided into two governments, one in Havana and the other in Santiago de Cuba. Havana was appointed as the capital city. Slowly, the economic activities grew and diversified. Cultivation and production of tobacco and sugar cane developed. Steadily, new villages were founded, generally far from the coasts, and the first seven villages grew. The first seven villages became wealthier and showed a more comfortable life-style, offering frequent distractions ranging from games, gambling and balls to bull fights and religious feasts and ceremonies. Important religious buildings remain as an evidence of the strong religious activity, dominant in the social life. Among these buildings, mention must be made of the magnificent building of the Santa Clara Convent.

The ascent of the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne at the beginning of the 18th century brought an updating of the mercantile concept presiding over colonial trade. Instead of weakening, the monopoly diversified and manifested in the economic life of all the colonies. In the case of Cuba, the monarchy implemented the monopoly on tobacco, already the most important produce in the Island, aimed at controlling not only the production but also the trade in its own benefit. Producers and merchants resented the measure, which gave way to several protests and revolts. The third of these revolts of tobacco growers was violently repressed with the execution of eleven tobacco planters in Santiago de las Vegas, a town close to the capital. Unable to beat the strict control of the monopoly, the wealthiest class decided to participate and benefit from it. In 1740, they, in association with Spanish merchants, managed to make the King interested, and obtained his permission to create the Real Compañía de Comercio de La Habana. For over two decades, this organization monopolized all the commercial activity in Cuba.

Nominally responsible for the collection and expenditures of revenues and all financial affairs, the governor delegated these functions to several royal officials (oficiales reales-see Glossary) appointed directly by the crown. At first the seat of government remained in Baracoa, the first village founded by Velazquez. In 1515 it was transferred to Santiago, and finally in 1538 to Havana because of Havana's geographic location and excellent port. In 1607 Havana was formally established as the capital of Cuba, and the island was divided into two provinces with capitals at Santiago and Havana. The governor-captain general at Havana ruled in military matters over the entire island, but the governor at Santiago was able to exercise considerable political independence.

Although the governor-captain was nominally subject to the viceroy of New Spain, the viceroy exerted little control over the affairs of the island. Of more direct influence, and a powerful check on the governor, was the audiencia of Santo Domingo. This tribunal heard criminal and civil cases appealed over the decisions of the governor. But it soon, as in Spain, became more than a court of law; it was also an advisory council to the governor and always exercised its right to supervise and investigate his administration.

At the local level, the most important institution was the cabildo, a town council, usually composed of the most prominent citizens. The alcaldes (judges) acted as judges of first instance, and, in the absence of the governor or his lieutenant, presided at meetings of the cabildo. They also visited the territories under their jurisdiction and dispensed justice in rural areas.

As royal government became better organized and more entrenched in Cuba, the powers and prerogatives of the cabildo were progressively curtailed. By the end of the colonial period, few responsible citizens wanted to become involved in local government. Those who did were more interested in their personal well-being than in the affairs of the colony. Peninsular Spaniards, or peninsulares, who bought their offices sought rewards for their investments and enriched themselves at the expense of public funds. Creoles (criollos) , Spaniards born in the New World, also joined the Spanish bureaucracy in order to gain wealth and participate in other opportunities controlled by Peninsulars. They looked to local government as one of the few potential areas of employment in which they could succeed. Very few Creoles ever attained a position of importance in the political hierarchy of the island. As the bureaucracy grew in the colonial period, a latent hostility developed between Peninsulars and Creoles-a hostility that erupted into hatred and violence during the wars for independence in the nineteenth century.

In the early years, cabildo members were content to eke out an existence until such time as new opportunities might arise for them to migrate to better lands or until mineral wealth that would bring them instant wealth might be discovered in Cuba.

Those who expected to enrich themselves from Cuba's mineral resources were greatly disappointed. The island did not enjoy the large deposits of gold and other minerals that were later found in Mexico and South America. Gold found in the river banks did not represent any great wealth, although washing the gold did require a large labor supply as well as costly equipment. A handful of Spanish entrepreneurs controlled the business and used Indians as a labor supply. The crown was also involved from the earliest times in controlling mining operations. The Spanish monarchs took one-fifth of all production as a tax for the right of mining, especially when Indians in an encomienda arrangement did the mining.

Under strict mercantile principles and rules, the Empire's trade developed as a closed monopoly managed by the Casa de Contratación of Seville. Very soon, other European nations became jealous and anxious to participate in such a prosperous commerce. Thus, French, Dutch, English corsairs, privateers attacked and plundered Caribbean villages, towns and cities, and captured the ships that sailed in the area. Cuba was not spared. For over a century, Jacques de Sores, Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, to mention a few, was a real danger for the Island and its inhabitants. On the other hand, wars and piracy had also some advantages. To safeguard its trade, Spain decided to organize a system of large fleets that would have a mandatory stop in the port of Havana, a well-protected natural harbor strategically situated in the Gulf Stream. The crowd of travelers and merchants that visited Havana and the workers permanently working in the construction of fortresses became an important source of income for the country. In addition, the soldiers stationed in the fortresses like Morro Castle that protected the city from pirate's attacks were an important source of revenue.

The people in far away regions, who did not enjoy similar benefits, appealed to a highly profitable illegal trade with the same corsairs and privateers. Tight commercial monopoly from Seville was outwitted in a less aggressive way through smuggling. However, colonial authorities, bent on suffocating the illegal trade, clashed with the neighbors, most of all with those from Bayamo. The uprising of the village in 1603 is an early evidence of the differences between "the people from the country" (those who had been born in the Island), and the government of the metropolis. Shortly afterwards, in 1608, on of the contraband incidents served as an inspiration for the poem Espejo de Paciencia (Mirror of Patience), one of the very first works in the history of Cuban literature.

Once the Spanish domination was reestablished in the Western part of the Island, King Charles III (1759-88) and his "enlightened" ministers adopted a series of measures favoring development. The first was to increase and improve the system of fortifications aimed at defense, of which the most outstanding example would be the magnificent, imposing, and extremely costly, Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña. Other constructions would come after the fortress, this time several civil constructions, like the Palace of the General Captains (seat of the government), and religious, the Cathedral of Havana, which would become symbols within the scenery of the city. Also foreign trade was increased and extended, at the same time domestic communications were improved. New towns like Pinar del Río and Jaruco were founded and developed. Other steps were aimed at the renovation of governmental management, especially to the creation of the Intendance (or Superintendence) and Revenue Administration. Within the framework of all these measures, the first census (1774) was made, showing a population of 171,620 inhabitants.

Foodstuffs were an important part of the economy. The Indian agricultural practices were taken over by the Spaniards, who continued to grow some of the native foodstuffs, particularly yuca. New crops and new grains from the Old World were also brought to the island. Sugarcane, which had been grown by the Spaniards in the Canary Islands, was also a part of the island's economy. As early as 1523, the crown instructed the Contracting House (Casa de Contratacion) to lend money to settlers in Cuba to help finance the construction of a sugar mill. Other similar loans were made in later years, but it was not until the eighteenth century and particularly the nineteenth century that sugar assumed any importance. Lacking large amounts of capital, an adequate labor supply, and official encouragement, the sugar industry remained overshadowed in importance by the more lucrative and important business connected with the cattle industry and its derivative products.

Cattle-raising became one of the most prosperous businesses, especially in the seventeenth century. Although the activity called for daring horsemanship, it required no sustained effort, for Cuba's abundant pasture lands facilitated breeding. The cattle were let loose on Cuba's savannas, where they multiplied rapidly. They were used as a means of transportation as well as for feeding purposes. Salted meat became an important item sold to the Spanish ships that called at Cuba's ports. Perhaps the chief value of cattle lay in the hides. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as demand for leather grew in Europe, cattle hides became Cuba's chief export, yielding considerable profit.

Tobacco also made some modest gains, particularly in the seventeenth century. Because it was not too bulky and commanded high prices in Europe, tobacco was a favorite item for smuggling. By the eighteenth century, it became an important export item to the French. Throughout this period, the tobacco business remained in private hands. But under the administration of Charles III (1759-88), it was converted into a government monopoly. The crown advanced money to the growers, who sold their crops to the government at a fixed price. In the early nineteenth century, the value of tobacco as an export began to decline. By then the price of land had increased tremendously, partly as a result of the growth of sugar estates. Tobacco growers found themselves either squeezed out of their lands or selling them to the sugar capitalists. The crown's emphasis on coffee and sugar growing was also detrimental to the tobacco industry. In desperate need of capital, the Spanish monarchs encouraged the more lucrative sugar business as a source of revenue.

The economy was oriented toward importing the bare necessities, with little or no provision for domestic manufacturing. Spain followed a thoroughly mercantilist economic policy, encouraging Cuba's dependence on outside sources of supply for its needs and looking at the island as a producer of raw materials to satisfy the needs of the mother country.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:30 ZULU