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The Search for Stability, Early Independence

sugar fields, colonos, Cuban politics, Moderate Party, voting fraud

The constitution adopted in 1901 provided for democratic selection of local, provincial, and national leaders. A president could succeed himself for a second term. A congress with two houses, modeled after the Congress of the United States, approved laws. The judicial system was separate from the executive and legislative branches. Tomas Estrada Palma, who had assumed the leadership of the Cuban Revolutionary Party following the death of Jose Marti, won election in 1901 as Cuba’s first president. He and his supporters had the task of repairing the damage of war and binding the wounds of disagreement between factions within Cuba.

Following the war, foreigners—largely Americans and Spaniards—bought land cheaply, and economic and political power began to concentrate in their hands. This created economic hardships for most Cubans. Cuban elites lost their lands and the poor lost their jobs as foreign laborers from Haiti and Jamaica, who worked for low wages, took the place of Cuban workers. Estrada Palma sought measures to stimulate the Cuban economy. The most lucrative opportunities lay with guaranteed purchases of Cuban sugar. In 1903 Cuba and the United States signed the Treaty of Reciprocity, which promised Cuban sugar growers 20 percent of the U.S. market without paying U.S. import taxes. In exchange, Cuba dropped taxes designed to protect its industries from U.S. imports. The Cuban market was opened to well over 400 American products that had previously been so heavily taxed that they were not affordable for most Cubans. As a result, the Cuban economy became dependent on the United States.

To counter growing opposition to his commitment to the United States, Estrada Palma organized the Moderate Party, which used local political organizations to control blocs of voters during the 1905 election. Although Estrada Palma won the election, opposition parties interpreted the use of these political organizations as election fraud and an abuse of presidential power. Rebellions broke out against his administration.

Estrada Palma and his cabinet resigned in 1906 and asked the United States to intervene to protect the Cuban treasury. A small corps of U.S. Marines landed in 1906. A provisional governor, U.S. bureaucrat Charles E. Magoon, assumed the task of restoring order and safeguarding American financial interests. Governor Magoon insisted that opposing parties disarm and agree to an election. He assured each side that the election would be fair. Magoon returned political control to a Cuban administration in 1908.

However, national trust in Cuban politicians had eroded as a result of the failure of Cuba’s first attempt at self-rule. Between 1909 and 1925, political parties became little more than a staging ground for gaining power and money. Opportunistic presidents curried favor in Washington and did little to build Cuba for Cubans. Holding political office often required payoffs to friends and foes alike, and the national treasury was at the disposal of dishonest officials.

Amidst political plunder and electoral opportunism, voices for social justice clamored to be heard. Between 1908 and 1912 a number of black political groups, such as the Independent Colored Association and the Independent Colored Party, organized to fight against racial discrimination in Cuban politics. Fearful that race would become a national issue, the Cuban Congress passed the Morua law, which prohibited political organization along racial lines. The Independent Colored Party responded with an armed revolt in 1912, and the U.S. government landed Marines at Guantanamo, Havana, and Manzanillo. Cuban president Jose Miguel Gomez repressed the rebels ruthlessly to demonstrate that his administration could avert civil unrest. The government executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black activists and sympathizers, putting an end to political organizations based on race.

Over the next decade, the United States continued to intervene directly in Cuba’s internal affairs. In 1917 the Liberal Party revolted after the Conservative Party candidate, Mario C. Menocal, assumed the presidency through electoral fraud. The United States sent Marines to Cuba’s largest ports, and the U.S. ambassador notified the rebels that the United States would not recognize leadership that came to power through unconstitutional means. With that, the rebellion subsided, and it became clear to all that Cubans did not control their political destiny.

The Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to revise the electoral code in order to deter voting fraud. They invited U.S. supervision of the 1920 elections, and U.S. general Enoch H. Crowder came to Havana. He oversaw the election of Conservative Party candidate Alfredo Zayas, which was relatively free of fraud. But after the Zayas administration took office, graft and corruption reached new heights. Crowder, who remained in Cuba as a special representative of the United States, tried to pressure Zayas into ending government corruption. Crowder succeeded in forcing budgetary, commercial, municipal, and electoral reforms on the Cuban government. He persuaded the government to pass laws eliminating fraudulent election practices and convinced Zayas to appoint an “honest cabinet,” which included a number of highly respected Cubans. This cabinet cut government spending, reduced the bureaucracy, and revoked several public works contracts that would have enriched government employees. At first Zayas cooperated with Crowder, but later he played to Cuban sympathy for sovereignty and won wide support among Cubans. He eventually succeeded in rolling back the reforms that Crowder had put in place.

Zayas presided over a period of economic boom and bust. Sugar had always been Cuba’s major export, but the years between 1909 and 1920 were ones of exaggerated growth. The price of a pound of sugar was 1.93 cents per pound in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I. By 1920 it was worth 22.5 cents per pound. The rapid rise of sugar prices led Cubans to invest in land and equipment to produce more sugar, mortgaging all they had for future profits. This vigorous investment came to a sudden halt in December 1920 when the sugar market collapsed. Prices plummeted to 3.58 cents per pound.

The sugar bust devastated Cubans of all classes. United States banks and individuals bought sugar estates for a fraction of their original purchase price when their Cuban owners could not keep up mortgage payments. By 1925, U.S. citizens owned half of all Cuban sugar lands and refineries, many of which were consolidated into even larger estates. The colonos (smaller sugar growers) could not compete with these large holdings. Most colonos were forced to sell their land. Some became tenant farmers on property they had once owned. Others moved into cities to seek work there or became day laborers working in the sugar fields. Formerly, peasants had owned or inhabited small parcels of land and sustained themselves with subsistence farming. As the sugar plantations expanded, many peasants lost their land and took jobs working for the sugar companies. Salaries for peasants were minimal and likely to remain that way because Cubans and laborers from other Caribbean islands vied for work in the sugar mills.

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