Cuba: Those who opened the way

Photo: Archive


The story goes that upon hearing the questions of several patriots about how to obtain weapons for the struggle, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes responded forcefully, “They have the arms,” that is the Spanish soldiers, in a call to take them from the enemy.

This would, in fact, be the strategy Cuban forces followed once and again in the conflict that was about to begin, and those that came later.

Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, during the centenary commemoration of October 10, emphasized that the “heroic war” had been initiated “without resources of any kind, by a practically disarmed people, who from that time on adopted the classic method of obtaining a supply of weapons, taking them from the enemy.”

In 1868, among all conspirators, Céspedes was the most committed to an uprising against the Spanish colonial power. While others advocated waiting for another sugar harvest, he successfully argued for the idea that waiting longer would put the revolution in danger, and during the dawn hours of October 10, at his sugar plantation La Demajagua, he gathered his slaves, declared them free, and called upon them to join the struggle for Cuba’s independence.

This transcendental episode was followed by the Cry of Yara, the taking of Bayamo, and the establishment there of the Republic in Arms’ first capital.

After the uprisings in Camagüey and Las Villas, he was elected as President by the Guáimaro Assembly.

In an era when more than a few patriots were seeking support from the United States, or in favor of annexation, he devised the intentions of the nascent empire. “With respect to the United States, perhaps I am mistaken, but in my mind what its government hopes is to take possession of Cuba without dangerous complications for their nation, and in the meantime, that we do not escape Spain’s domination,” he wrote in a letter to José Manuel Mestre, in July of 1870.

On October 27, 1873, as a result of deep differences with the House of Representatives, Céspedes was removed from office.

Like many of the wealthy planters who led the war, he died in absolute poverty, February 27, 1874.

More than 20 members of his family gave their lives for Cuba’s independence, including his son, Amado Oscar.

The young man had been captured by the Spanish and condemned to death after a rapid meeting of the War Council.

The Spanish Captain General, nonetheless, sent a message to Carlos Manuel, calling on him to leave the country in exchange for his son, who had, in fact, already been executed.

Despite the pain, the Mambi leader’s response was firm, “It is hard for me to believe that a dignified and respected soldier like your Excellency would allow such vengeance, if I do not fulfill your wishes. But if this is the case, Oscar is not my only son, as all Cubans who die for our national liberty are as well.”


Photo: Archive


On May 11, 1973, during an event to mark the centenary of Ignacio Agramonte’s death in combat, Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro recalled that the consolidation of an armed uprising in Camagüey was his unquestionable accomplishment.

Without this, he noted, “The uprising in Las Villas might not have taken place, and surely Spain would have been able to crush the patriots in the East, in a relatively short period of time.”

Herein lies the importance of The Major, as his soldiers respectfully called him, in a war that would last ten years.

He was born in Puerto Príncipe, December 23, 1841, into the heart of a rich, illustrious Creole family, and had studied Law at the University of Havana.

He was a founding member of Camagüey’s Revolutionary Junta, and participated in the conspiracy that led to the uprising, November 4, 1868.

Agramonte played a decisive role opposing tendencies which supported annexation to the United States, forces with significant strength in the region. “Stop the lobbying once and for all, the stupid delays, the humiliating requests. Cuba has no other road to conquering its freedom than pulling away from Spain with armed force!” he insisted November 26, 1868, during the Paradero de Minas meeting.

Once, amidst the scarcities of all kinds imposed by the war, he was asked with what means he continued the struggle. He responded energetically, “with the dignity of Cubans.”

Leading the forces in Camagüey, he was recognized for his skill as an organizer. Although he had no formal military training, he knew how to create discipline and train the troops under his command, with his contagious spirit and example.

Martí defined him as “The one who, with no more military science than the talent, organized the cavalry, remade a broken Camagüey, maintains war workshops in the woods, combines and directs victorious battles, and makes use of his renown to serve the prestige of law.” During the three and a half years he participated in the war, Agramonte fought in more than 100 battles.

The most extraordinary of all was his rescue of General Julio Sanguily, October 8, 1871.

His death would be a hard blow to the independence cause, but his example and legacy remain alive among Cubans, along with those immortal words, “May our cry always be for independence or death!”


Photo: Archive


It has been estimated that Antonio Maceo took part in 600 combat actions, among them some 200 of significant importance. Nonetheless, the act that most contributed to his great stature did not take place on the battlefield.

It was 1878, and while he and his men won a resounding victory against the infamous San Quintín Batallion near Camino de San Ulpiano, being signed in Camagüey was the Zanjón Pact with the Spanish.

Neither Maceo nor his troops had been consulted about the adoption of the peace agreement without independence. Thus, after hearing the news, he called his officers together, listened to their opinions, and decided to formally express his disagreement to the same Spanish authorities who had negotiated the Zanjón Pact.

He went on to lead what Martí described as one of the most glorious acts in Cuban history, the Protest of Baraguá.

With this effort, Fidel said, Maceo “reached his highest point, the patriotic, revolutionary spirit of our people,” adding that “without Baraguá, Yara would not have been Yara.”

The Titan went on to survive the productive truce and the conflict of ’95, in which he and Gómez led what many consider the most audacious military action of the century.

The scars on his body evidence the legendary Mambi’s grit, while his place among the Revolution’s most important figures is clear.

He was a man of battle, but of ideas, as well. “Attention must be paid to what he says, because Maceo has as much strength in his mind as he does in his arm,” Martí would say.

The lucid letter Maceo wrote to Liberation Army Colonel Federico Pérez, from El Roble camp in Pinar del Río, is eloquent, “Expect nothing from Spain. They have always disregarded us and it would be undignified to think anything else. I don’t expect anything from the U.S. either. We must all trust in our efforts. It is better to rise or fall without their help, than to contract debts of gratitude with such a powerful neighbor.”

Like Martí, he did not think solely of Cuba’s freedom, insisting that once independence was won on this island, he would seek permission to struggle for that of Puerto Rico, “I do not wish to lay down my sword, leaving this portion of America enslaved.”


Photo: Archive


November 4, 1868, is not a date much mentioned in Cuban history, but events on that day had a profound impact on our wars of independence.

Around noon, at a place known as Tienda del Pino, a Mambi group of some 40 men, commanded by the Dominican Máximo Gómez, led the first machete charge of the war.

The enemy suffered an estimated 200 casualties, confirming the effectiveness of the machete as a weapon in battle.

Gómez, who was an officer and knew of its use in military conflicts in his land, made a contribution of great value to the cause. From that point on, combining the machete with cavalry would wreak havoc on enemy troops.

Given the shortage of firearms and ammunition, the machete became a constant throughout the wars of independence, and the symbol of Cuban rebellion and determination.

Gómez, known as the Generalísimo, would make the cause of Cuba his own, and in the war of 1868, thanks to his intelligence and talent as a military strategist, he became one of the principal leaders of the Liberation Army. In the war of 1895, he would be the General-in-Chief of the Mambi command.

Along with Maceo, he was one of the architects of the East-West invasion, leading critical battles and forcefully denouncing the dire situation facing the Cuban people under Spanish colonialism.

“When I got to the bottom, when I put my hand over the pained heart of the working people and felt the wound of sadness… I was indignant and fully committed against the country’s higher classes,” he wrote in a letter to

Colonel Andrés Moreno.

He never demanded any personal benefit or placed conditions on his participation in the struggle for a free Cuba.

When Martí called on him to join the Necessary War, he did so honestly and humbly, writing, “I offer you… this new task, although today I have no compensation to provide you, other than the satisfaction of your sacrifice and the probable ingratitude of men…”

“From this moment, you can count on my services,” Máximo Gómez answered without hesitation.


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By October of 1868, when the war of independence began, two of Mariana Grajales’ children had already died.

The other 12 would leave home to struggle for the freedom of Cuba in the conflict. The men to the battlefield and the women holding down the rearguard, caring for children and attending the wounded.

The story goes that, before the entire family left for the scrub, Mariana took a crucifix from her room and ordered them to kneel and swear, before the image of Christ, that they would free the homeland or die in the attempt.

A few months later, Marcos, her husband, would be the first to fall, and following him were four of her sons, in the Ten Years War.

Despite the pain, Mariana continued helping to save lives in improvised hospitals and doing whatever she could for the cause.

Martí would note, “She was on foot, the entire war,” adding, “If anyone trembled, when about to face the country’s enemy, he would imagine Maceo’s mother with her kerchief on her head, and put an end to that tremor.”

Historians agree that her greatness did not lie solely in having “borne heroes,” but in having taught them love for their land.

After the end of the war, she departed to Kingston, Jamaica, where visiting her home became a pilgrimage for Cubans.

At that time, Martí would write, Mariana would “recount, wrestling with the words, the years of war… and loved, as the best of her life, those years of hunger and thirst, when any man who arrived at her door of palm, could bear news of the death of one of her sons.”

Historian Eusebio Leal notes that the Apostle visited her two times, pointing out that he said of those encounters, “I was impressed by her character, her kindness, the bright light in her eyes, and how she rose from her chair to recall the days of glory, wandering through the house, perhaps surrounded by the memory of all that the struggle had lost, and of her feverous desire to return once again to struggle and fight.”

She never again returned to Cuba, dying in 1893, in Jamaica, holding tight the dream of a free homeland, for which several of her sons would again take up arms. She was 78.

Upon hearing of her death, Martí published, in the newspaper he had founded to organize the Revolution, a beautiful image of her and a text that concluded, “Homeland, on the crown we leave at the tomb of Mariana Maceo, place one word: Mother!


Photo: Archive


In September of 1953, during the Moncada trial, the young Fidel Castro made clear in his self-defense that none of the era’s leaders had anything to do with the rebel assault.

“No one should worry about being accused as the intellectual author of the Revolution, because the only intellectual author… is José Martí.”

It was the year of the Apostle’s centenary and his ideas were as relevant as ever. The dream of a free Cuba, for which he fought tirelessly until his death in battle at Dos Ríos, continued to inspire Cubans of goodwill.

Martí was the connection between the men of ’68 and those who renewed the battle. With unmatched skill, he united forces and convinced those who had survived the horrors of war to return to the fight and take to the scrub.

To do so, he founded a newspaper and a party, raised funds and gave speeches.

“Before desisting in the effort for a free and prosperous homeland, the sea of the North and the Sea of the South will merge, and a serpent will be born from an eagle’s egg,” he said.

Cuba was his passion, but he did not think only of his own land. In the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s foundations, he insisted on the necessity of promoting the freedom of Puerto Rico, as well.

Shortly before his death, in a letter to Manuel Mercado which he was not able to complete, he goes farther, making clear his Latin Americanist vocation and warning of an enemy even more powerful than the Spanish, “I am now in danger everyday of giving my life for my country, and for my duty… to impede in time, with the independence of Cuba, that the United States extends itself through the Antilles and falls, with this added strength, upon the lands of our America.”

Thus, Martí symbolizes not only the continuity of a project that had been left incomplete at Zanjón, but was also a reference for the struggles that would come later.

Che recognized him in 1960, on the 107th anniversary of his birth, saying, “Martí was the direct mentor of our Revolution, the man whose word was always consulted to find an accurate interpretation of the historical phenomena we were living, and the man whose word and example were necessarily recalled every time we said or did anything transcendental in this homeland.”

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