Cuba in 1912 was a completely different country that we have come to know today. In those times, Cuba was a young republic, barely starting again, after the previous president, Tomás Estrada Palma, decided to take his ball and go home (an insurrection against his second term was the reason). This opened the door for a second intervention by the United States and a pseudo-president that would take over in the meantime. In 1908, the “Pearl of the Antilles” got a second shot at self-government and elected the massively popular liberal, Jose Miguel Gomez.
This general from Sancti Espíritu had taken part in the Independence War of 1895–1898, was the governor of Santa Clara and took part in the revolution that made Estrada Palma quit (Palma through violence had ignited this). Moreover, he is considered by some as the first populist of the republic, running on the wishes of the masses and even bringing back to the country cockfighting and the lottery. El tiburón (the shark), as many Cubans referred to Gomez, had done some positive things for the popular masses, like opening 150 schools and a healthy economy, but behind their backs, provided more to the rich and his close friends. There was an old saying in Cuba, “the shark bathes, but splashes”. This was because of Gomez’s big bites of the government budget and his corrupt dealings with British and American businessmen.
The year of the “tyrant” made some sectors of the country unhappy, including his vice president and fellow liberals, Alfredo Zayas, and Gerardo Machado (who resigned over the big fights between the Miguelistas and Zayistas). Gomez went hard against those who dared to confront him, firing judges, imprisoning journalists, killing without trial members of the military who were deemed as traitors, among other things. Another highlight of his term was the strange murder attempt against his top general, Pino Guerra, who decided to step off and clear the path for General Jose de Jesus Monteagudo to take charge and bring with him the rural guards and incorporate them to the army (as we’ll see later, this was a big factor against the black insurrection).
It seemed that no scandal could stop the popular Gomez. He was expected to not run for reelection, but his hatred for his former ally, Zayas, got him to reconsider. How could Gomez run again without becoming a looking-glass of his previous foe Estrada Palma? The key laid in the uprising of the Independent Party of Color, which had its main leaders previously imprisoned by Gomez himself in 1910. The debate whether the insurrection was a conspiracy by Gomez or the opposition (the conservatives or the US itself) is still going, but the main facts are the following: the insurgents did not act alone and things in the summer of 1912 got out hand quickly for Gomez.
Blacks in Cuba had a complex situation going into the revolts of 1912. In the 19th century, the two main black leaders in Cuba were the writer and martyr of the revolution, Jose Martí, and arguably the greatest general to ever grace the revolutionary fronts, Antonio Maceo (because of his stature and renown war tactics, he was called “The Bronce Tytan”). After these icons of the revolution passed away, the blacks of Cuba felt ignored, sidelined, and forgotten.
Hugh Thomas, the famous historian of many Spanish Civil War books, lays it all out — or at least he tries — in his three-volume books, Cuba: The Fight for Liberty. In them, Thomas argues and reports that blacks had lost almost half of their population between 1887–1899. Many of them participated in the war, especially in Oriente (east of Cuba), where there was a huge population of blacks. Their religious practices, especially African traditions, were banned and only got to practice some portion of them if they could argue that the Catholic church approved them. The massive migration of Spaniards to the island (in 1908 almost 200,000 Spaniards had immigrated to Cuba) also brought the prejudice and the hardline racism that many blacks weren’t accustomed to with their fellow Cubans. In education, over half of the black population was illiterate, while 26% of Cuban whites were. Finally, and this would standout after 1912, black participation in politics was dim and almost non-existent.
This line of thought was the motor that made Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonett found in 1907 the Independent Party of Color. For some time, these black activists raised the racial questions that affected their community on the island — some writers of the era and in the present argue that this was because of the opportunism of the founders. General Gomez would play off these comments and would over-promise in his 1908 campaign. But as his liberal populism showed, he didn’t deliver and preferred to help the people of Santa Clara and his close friends. Estenoz and Ivonett continued their agitations and as Charles E. Chapman in his 1926 book, The History of the Cuban Republic showed, Gomez went ahead and imprisoned both leaders of the party of color.
To add more salt to the injury and proving lightly why Gomez was sometimes called the “Tyrant”, the president passed a law that prohibited the organization of political parties on the island based on race. The biggest spin of this part of the story is that the senator that passed the law, Morúa Delgado, was one of the few black politicians in the senate. In fact, Morúa knew how racism manifested itself, even in the highest positions of Cuban politics, when former president Estrada Palma refused to receive and have dinner with his wife.
With the insurgence leaders in prison, it would have seemed that the dangers of another revolution in Cuba were under control. But as the title of this essay suggests, that line of thinking came crashing down. Out of nowhere, Ivonett and Estenoz were released from jail. This was followed by several meetings with the president himself. As Chapman assets in his book, many writers of the time thought that Gomez was letting the party of color reorganized itself to agitate a revolt that he could control and later run for a second term behind such achievement.
O n May 20, 1912, the day that the first Cuban republic was born, the revolts started with protests across the country. This didn’t alarm Gomez who thought that he could easily repel the rebels. He needed them to rise up, to strike fear in the Havana (mainly among whites) and among Cubans. But on June 2, another member of the party who Chapman explains, “was not in the Gomez-Estenoz plot”, burned down La Maya sugar mill. This was big because it had touched a delicate institution of Cuba at that time, American enterprises.
This put Gomez on a thought position, primarily because on May 31, the United States had already sent solders to Daiquiri for “prevention” and the protection of American businesses. Moreover, the president at the time, William Taft, sent a telegram through his secretary of the state, Philander Knox, informing about this disembarkment and probable “assistance” in fighting the insurrection without asking the authorization of the Cuban president. Gomez replied that he was indeed going to control the situation and that in fact, the US was once again intervening in Cuban affairs. To add more heat to this boiling tea, the presidential hopeful of the conservatives, Mario García Menocal, offered 10,000 of his men to repel the insurgents.
This left no other option for Gomez, who got permission from congress to declare martial law, while his general, Monteagudo, suspended any constitutional guarantees. This was at the start of June, and by mid-July, General Monteagudo with the son of Jose Martí, Jose Francisco Martí, and his guards of Oriente massacred almost all of the rebels (3,000 of them) and their leaders. As Thomas explains, “the revolt ended almost as mysteriously as it had begun”.
For Gomez, the alleged gamble didn’t pay off and he decided not to run for reelection. He would later support the candidate of the opposition, Machado, that had to offer him during the revolt 10,000 men (ironically, this pact would later found Gomez imprisoned by Machado). His liberal foe (and future president), Zayas, would lose the upcoming elections, ending the reign of the liberals of Cuba for a few years. The revolt was an astonishing uprising that was never mentioned again until half a century. Even with Gomez offering government jobs, blacks didn’t show up for those positions and remained largely a minority in the political sphere. The black revolt of 1912 shows that once in his long career, the shark might have lost some teeth for biting more than he could chew.
Emmanuel Figueroa Rosado lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He’s a Ph.D. student in History of the Americas from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. He also holds a M.A. in Educational Neuroscience from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico and a B.A. in Pedagogy from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamón.