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New York City’s Freedom Fighters

Where did the Cuban revolution really got started?

September 12, 2001

Where did the Cuban revolution really got started?

By the late 1800s, the great Yankee metropolis — long intimately involved in Cuba’s commercial affairs — had increased its presence on the island after the last great upheaval against Spanish rule. The Ten Years War of 1868 to 1878 had bankrupted many Cuban planters and opened the way to substantial investment by wealthy New Yorkers, including Henry Havemeyer’s Sugar Trust.

By the mid-1890s, U.S. investment in Cuba alone surpassed $50 million, ten million more than Carnegie’s annual profit from steel. And, by 1898, U.S. capitalists had sunk $350 million into the Caribbean and Central America.

In Latin America as a whole, New Yorkers were in a strong position. The city had long imported substantial quantities of Caribbean and Central and South American goods, which had been carried northward by generations of shippers from the Griswolds to Grace.

By the end of the century, families in the New York metropolitan area were consuming one pound of coffee per week. Bananas had become a customary delicacy, and the city’s parlors and Palm Rooms were festooned with tropical products.

After the upheavals of the 1870s, many Cuban rebels had fled to exile in Manhattan, where they joined Irish, German and Russian immigrants in plotting the overthrow of their respective home-country governments. Since his arrival in 1880, the leader of the Cuban exile community had been poet and writer José Martí.

Taking up quarters in a boardinghouse at 51 West 29th Street, Martí supported himself as a journalist. He filed insightful copy on norteamericano culture and politics, especially New York City’s, to various Latin American newspapers.

Martí also built a revolutionary movement based on the growing Cuban cigarworker communities in U.S. cities — particularly New York, where the cigar trade was booming. By 1894, its 3,000 factories (500 of them owned by Hispanics) provided jobs for the Cuban immigrants who settled into Yorkville and Chelsea boardinghouses. Many of these workers joined Martí’s Partido Revolucionario Cubano, bought its newspaper Patria, and flocked to Clarendon Hall to listen to the eloquent apostle and his colleagues.

In January 1895, Martí issued the order for an uprising, smuggling it down to Havana rolled inside a cigar. Although he was frail and ill, Martí himself headed south, ending his long New York exile, and was killed in action that May. Despite this and other setbacks, the rebellion soon established itself in Santiago Province.

It launched an effective guerrilla campaign that torched mills, ranches and plantations, some of them American-owned. The Spanish empire struck back by herding farm families off the land into concentration camps and cities, where thousands died of disease and malnutrition.

Back in New York City, the insurgent government established a junta to generate U.S. support for the war effort. It was led by Tómas Estrada Palma, who worked out of the Wall Street-area office of a sympathetic and prominent New York lawyer.

The junta organized mass meetings (including a week-long Cuban-American Fair at Madison Square Garden in May 1896). It cultivated contacts with investors, merchants and politicians. And it issued news releases, many of which prettified the struggle for American readers or fabricated guerrilla triumphs out of thin air.

To raise money for the war, the New York leadership also set up a Cuban League for local supporters. Militants like future U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and Charles A. Dana of the Sun newspaper were members, as were conservative businessmen like J. Edward Simmons, former president of the New York Stock Exchange, railroad chief Chauncey M. Depew, and John Jacob Astor.

Americans were receptive to the junta’s message. Schoolbook accounts of inquisitors and conquistadors had convinced many of the inherent depravity of Spaniards. Others equated the Cuban struggle for freedom with the United States’ own War of Independence.

Particular interests had particular reasons for urging American involvement. The American Federation of Labor, led by Gompers’s Cigarmakers Union, called for support short of war. Metropolitan sugar and shipping interests, appalled at the damage to their property and disruption of their business, sought to end the fighting, either by pressuring Spain into conceding autonomy or by annexing the island outright.

One in the family? Even usually reserved, leading Wall Streeters, such as Frederick R. Coudert, admitted that “it makes the water come to my mouth when I think of the state of Cuba as one in our family.” At the same time, many metropolitan businessmen remained wary of being pulled into war.

September 12, 2001

Adapted from “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898”
by Edwin Burrows & Mike Wallace. Copyright © 1999 by Edwin
Burrows & Mike Wallace. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.