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Colonial Cuba - Annexation

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Cuba continued to prosper. The progressive changes known as the Bourbon Reforms, initiated throughout Latin America by Charles III (King of Spain, 1759-88), quickened economic and political activities and started a complete transformation of Cuban society. Population increased, agricultural production and profits expanded, and contacts with various Spanish ports as well as with the rest of Europe became closer, leading to the introduction of new ideas into the colony. The old order began to decay. To the forefront of Cuban society came a new and active class of Creole hacendados (hacienda owners) and entrepreneurs, who based their prosperity on sugar, coffee, land speculation, and the slave trade.

It was only natural that members of this group would make their point of view felt concerning economic and social matters. As the century progressed and their power increased, they began questioning Spanish mercantilist policies. Their primary focus concerned their immediate economic interests.

Several events abroad contributed to the development of the Island. The first was the War of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies in North America, during which Spain -- participant of the conflict -- authorized trade between Cuba and the fighting Americans. The importance of this market, so close geographically, became evident a few years afterwards, during the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon's Empire, in which Spain was also involved with great damage for Spain's colonial communications. Under these circumstances, trade with 'neutrals' - meaning the United Sates - was authorized, and as a consequence, the economy of the Island experimented a dramatic and rapid growth with the favorable opportunity that was the slave revolution in Haiti for the prices of sugar and coffee. The criollo planters became richer and their newly acquired power materialized in Institutions that, like the Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País (Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Country) and the Real Consulado (Royal Consulate) paved the way for implementing their influence in the colonial government. Under the leadership of Francisco de Arango y Parreño, these criollo potentates managed to benefit from the unstable political situation in Spain. Once the Bourbon dynasty was restored in power in 1814 obtained important concessions, like the free trade, lifting of the monopoly on tobacco and the possibility of legalization of their agricultural possessions.

However, such progress was based on the terrible increase of slave trade. Starting in 1790, in only 30 years, more African slaves were imported in Cuba than in the century and a half before. By 1841, when the population was over a million inhabitants, the society of the Island was highly polarized, on one side, an oligarchy of creole landowners and large-scale Spanish merchants, and on the other side the slave masses. In between, there were the middle classes of the freed blacks and mulattos and the poor whites that worked in the countryside and the cities. These last ones were increasingly reluctant to work as hand laborers, because it was considered humiliating and proper for slaves. Slavery was to become a major source of social instability, not only because of the frequent demonstration of rebelliousness from the slaves - both as individuals and as groups - but also because the rejection against it gave way to conspiracies which purpose was to abolish slavery. Examples are the conspiracy headed by the black José Antonio Aponte, a former slave, discovered in Havana in 1812, and the so-called Conspiracy of la Escalera (the Ladder) in 1844. Because of this last one, a cruel repression was unleashed, in which many slaves and free blacks and mulattos were killed. Among them was the mulatto poet Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido).

The development of the colony sharpened the differences of interests with the metropolis. To the undoubted signs of an emergence of a Cuban nationality that appeared in literature and other cultural expressions during the last quarter of the 18th century, followed defined political trends with various proposals and possible solutions for the problems of the Island. The cautious reformism of Arango and other wealthy creoles, found equally liberal reformists followers in José Antonio Saco, José de la Luz y Caballero and other intellectuals of prestige related to the sector of the rich Cuban planters and landowners. The rapacious and discriminatory Spanish colonial policy towards Cuba after the loss of the rest of the colonies in the American Continent was to frustrate several times the expectations of reform.

This entire situation favored the development of still another political trend, which hoped to solve the Cuban situation by annexation to the United States. In this trend were found the group of slave owners and landowners and another group of individuals with democratic feelings. The first group sought annexation as the possibility for the continuation of slavery, with the support they would find on the part of Southern slave owners and planters; the latter with the hope of finding freedom in the North American democracy as compared with the Spanish despotism. The first, grouped in the "Club de La Habana", favored the several intents by the government in Washington to buy the Island, as well as the possibilities of a "liberating" invasion under the leadership of a US General.

By the 1840s, there was real concern about preserving Cuba's colonial status. Still fearful of a slave rebellion, or even an actual end to slavery forced on a weak Spain by Britain, the plantocracy looked toward the United States for a possible permanent relationship. Painfully aware of the problems in the British Caribbean since the abolition of slavery and its impact on sugar production, the property owners saw in the United States, particularly in the southern states, a slave-owning society similar to Cuba's own plantation economy. A series of slave revolts in Cuba in the early 1840s increased apprehension and the desire for a permanent relationship with the United States.

United States interest in Cuba and in its strategic location grew, particularly after the war with Mexico and the acquisition of California. In the 1840s and 1850s, Presidents James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan attempted unsuccessfully to purchase Cuba from Spain. In 1854 three United States ministers to Europe signed a secret report, later known as the Ostend Manifesto, which called for the United States purchase of Cuba or, if this failed, the forceful wresting of the island from Spain.

The Ostend Manifesto was the high watermark of United States interest in acquiring Cuba peacefully in the 1850s. Other efforts, however, proved bolder. During the administrations of Zachary Taylor (president, 1849-50) and Millard Fillmore (president, 1850-53), pro-slavery elements were discouraged by the lack of official support. Some turned to filibustering expeditions, hoping that they might lead to the overthrow of Spanish power on the island. The principal filibusterer was Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan-born Spanish general. He lived in Cuba and became involved in a conspiracy and various expeditions to the island in an attempt to annex Cuba to the United States. Narciso Lopez, after serving several years in the Spanish army, got involved in the conspiracies. Lopez was the leader of two expeditions into Cuba, but both of them failed. In 1851, during the second expedition, he was captured and shot by the Spanish authorities.

The failure of Lopez's expeditions and his death in 1851 and the United States Civil War ended, at least temporarily, the clamor for annexation. The abolition of slavery in the United States deprived Cuban slaveholders of the reason for wanting to tie themselves permanently to their northern neighbor. Abraham Lincoln's coming to power also had a significant effect on the Cuban policy of the United States, for Lincoln and his advisers were willing, as long as Spain remained non-aggressive, to allow Cuba to stay under Spanish control. The expansionist attempts of the 1840s and 1850s thus gave way to the less aggressive era of the 1860s. The proponents of the acquisition of Cuba were not defeated, however, only silenced. What their brethren were unable to achieve in mid-century, the expansionists of the 1890s accomplished at the turn of the century when the United States occupied Cuba during the Spanish-American War and later exerted considerable political and economic influence over the affairs of the island.

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