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Colonial Cuba - Sugar, Prosperity, and Unrest

Throughout the nineteenth century, sugar as well as coffee became increasingly important in the Cuban economy. Large cattle estates were subdivided and sold to enterprising Spaniards for sugar or coffee cultivation. Aware of the profit possibilities, the Spanish crown encouraged and aided the subdivisions of land. Prior to this time, much suitable land was often part of large estates, the owners of which could neither divide nor sell the land because it had been granted to them for use, not ownership. The crown agreed in 1819 to consider landowners all those who could prove they had been on the land for the past forty years. This measure facilitated the breakdown of large estates, contributed to the growth of the sugar industry, and benefited a new class of proprietors. These new landowners could sell their land at a profit, become sugar producers themselves, or lease their land to other less fortunate and smaller planters, who did not receive title to a piece of real estate. In 1827 Cuba had 1,000 sugar mills, 2,067 coffee estates, and 5,534 tobacco farms. By 1860 it is estimated that there were about 2,000 sugar mills, the greatest number in Cuban history. A prosperous and large class of rural proprietors who based their prosperity on the cultivation of sugar and tobacco had emerged.

Despite its rapid growth, the sugar industry's development was not without serious problems and setbacks. Overproduction, fluctuations in price, competition from the British islands in the Caribbean, and the appearance of a dreaded competitor, beet sugar, in the second decade of the century depressed the sugar market and slowed down Cuba's sugar boom. These problems were further complicated by the British-imposed legal suppression of the slave trade in 1821. This action deprived the island of a continuous source of labor. Moreover, Cuba lacked an appropriate network of internal transportation that could facilitate movement of sugar to the mills and the ports of embarkation.

In the 1840s, however, two events renewed the acceleration of the sugar industry. Coffee, which had come to occupy an important position in the island's economy, was seriously affected by a fall in prices that almost ruined coffee planters. Capital and labor fled from coffee into sugar, and much land was shifted to the growing of cane. The second event was the introduction of the railroad. Cane could now be brought from remote areas to the mills and then to the ports for shipment. What started out as a relatively small business grew into a powerful, capitalistic enterprise based on large landholding, slave labor, and mass production.

In the early decades of the century, most Cubans seemed content with their status. The new aristocracy of wealth that had developed around the sugar industry enjoyed its recently acquired wealth and feared that a repetition in Cuba of the continental wars would upset the social order upon which its prosperity depended. This "plantocracy" was willing to tolerate a limited number of political and economic reforms, so long as the status quo was not endangered. The status quo meant the presence of a foreign power to protect their position against the possibility of a black rebellion similar to the one in Haiti.

At a time when Europe was undergoing profound intellectual changes resulting partly from the Enlightenment, their questioning of Spain's economic policies naturally led to the growth of a more critical attitude on the part of many Creole writers and intellectuals on the island. The desire for economic reforms was later translated into a desire for political and even social change. Intellectual activity flourished so intensely during the century that the period has come to be known as Cuba's Golden Century.

Many of the attitudes of prominent Creoles were influenced by ties with the international community and particularly by Spain's inability to satisfy the island's economic needs. It finally became clear that Spanish policy had little to offer in exchange for increased taxation, ineffective administration, and the exclusion of Creoles from responsible positions in government. The Cubans turned away from any hopes of reform and toward total independence for Cuba.

This trend appeared as early as 1810, when the first independence conspiracy, under the leadership of Román de la Luz, was discovered. The height of this movement was reached in the first years of the 1820's. Under the influence of the independence movements in Spanish America and of the constitutional period in Spain, in the Island proliferated all sorts of masons lodges and secret societies. Other two important conspiracies were discovered during these years: the Soles y Rayos de Bolívar (Bolivar's Suns and Rays), in 1823, in which the poet José María Heredia, one of the most outstanding representatives of the Cuban Romantic movement was involved; and the Gran Legión del Aguila Negra (The Black Eagle Great Lodge) supported from Mexico. In addition, during those years the work of Priest Felix Varela prepared the ideological basis to the movement for independence. Varela, a professor of Philosophy at the Catholic Seminary of San Carlos in Havana, was elected representative to the Cortes (the Spanish Parliament) in 1821 and was forced to escape from Spain when absolute monarchy was restored in Spain. Living in the United States, Varela began to publish the newspaper El Habanero devoted to spreading the independence ideals. In spite of his efforts, the circumstances and the conditions, both internal and external, were not favorable for the Cuban independence and it took long years to win independence.

In the following years, significant changes took place in the Cuban economy. Coffee production collapsed due to the clumsy tax policy of Spain, to the competition offered by Brazil that has a coffee of much better quality, and to the higher income-producing capacity of sugar cane. Even the sugar industry as forced to improve productivity in view of the mercantile thrust of the sugar beet in Europe. Depending more and more on one only production -- sugar -- and from the U.S. market, Cuba was in urgent need of deep socioeconomic changes, to which slavery and Spanish colonial exploitation posed enormous, almost insurmountable obstacles. The failure of the Board for Information called for in 1867 by the Madrid government to revise its colonial policy towards Cuba, meant a demolishing blow for the once more thwarted hopes of reform. However, the same circumstances helped the development of latent independence sentiments in the more advanced sectors of the Cuban society, favoring at the same time the organization of a vast conspiratorial movement in the central and Eastern regions of the country.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:32 ZULU