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Antonio Maceo Grajales — the greatest Cuban war general

By OSVALDO CARDENAS

Saturday, December 29, 2012    

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IT was with great pleasure that I read "Antonio Maceo: In Memoriam" in The Letters to the Editor, Jamaica Observer, December 17, 2012, written by Professor Franklin W Knight.

Professor Knight is the author of some of the finest historical and sociological research in the English Language on the Caribbean and particularly on Cuba, something for which most Cubans should be thankful to him.

The Association of Cubans Resident in Jamaica, together with the Cuban Embassy in Kingston, the Government and several institutions and personalities in Jamaica, have started working to restore the bust of General Antonio Maceo in the National Heroes Circle. They are also working to make more information widely available, especially to young Jamaicans, about this legendary black general who is one of the greatest heroes of Cuba and the Americas.

In the second half of the 19th century, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the last Spanish colonies in America, and Cuba was the largest sugar producer in the world, whose sugar production was based on slave labour. On October 10, 1868, the Cubans started a rebellion in Yara Town in the East Department, starting the 10-Year War. Two weeks after the uprising, Mariana Grajales Cuello, Antonio Maceo's mother, brought together her husband and 13 children and asked them to kneel in front of the image of Jesus Christ and swear to struggle until Cuba was independent or to die trying. Most of the male members of her family died in combat, prison or exile, inclusive of her husband. Mariana herself died in 1873 in Kingston, Jamaica.

Few blacks and mulattoes became generals in the 10-year War. Maceo did his transition from Colonel to Brigadier General with five bullets in his chest, and by 1877 he had become Major General, and the most successful of Cuba's generals, feared by the Spaniards and beloved by the Cubans. In 1878 the revolution was declining rapidly throughout the island, due to the regional divisions among Cubans, the concern of the white conservative sector of the revolution with the growing influence of black and mulatto officers, the inability to bring the war westward to the largest sugar plantation areas and also because of the astute policy of Spanish Captain, General Arsenio Martinez Campos.

The Cuban Provisional Government in Arms agreed to stop the war and sign the Zanjon Peace Treaty, which give amnesty to the rebel fighters and freedom to the slaves who were fighting on both sides.

Antonio Maceo with his brothers and a group of officers from the East Department met in Mangos de Baragua with Martinez Campos, and refused to stop the war without independence and the abolition of slavery. They called it a peace without honour — this historical meeting is known in Cuba as the Baragua Protest. They continued the war, although soon it was obvious they were totally isolated. To save Maceo's life, the Provisional Government sent him out of Cuba. This was Maceo's first visit to Jamaica, where he lived with his mother, his family and some of the officers that had joined him in the protest. When the war was over, Spain had in Cuba 200,000 soldiers and 70,000 volunteers in a country with a population of around 1.5 million people.

In 1879-1880, the Cubans tried to resume the war; they organised the uprising called The Small War, because it lasted only a few months. The project failed. One of the reasons for the failure was due to the Spanish Government's propagandistic campaign which labelled it a racial war reminiscent of the Haitian Revolution. For that reason the organisers removed General Antonio Maceo from the expedition that should have started the movement and the patriots that were waiting for Maceo lost confidence.

Antonio Maceo lived in Jamaica where he had the only son that survived him, in a passionate romance with the beautiful and mysterious Amelia Marriat. Historians still do not know if she was Jamaican or Cuban. Maceo also lived in Costa Rica, Panama and The Dominican Republic, among other territories. The Spanish secret service tried to kill him on several occasions and the Spanish Government exerted pressure on different Governments in the region to prevent Maceo's return to Cuba's shores.

Together with the great Cuban patriot and intellectual Jose Marti, General Maximo Gomez and other Cubans in exile, he organised the plan for the new rebellion. Maceo proposed and it was agreed that Maximo Gomez was to be the Chief of the Cuban Independence Army, and Maceo was appointed second in command. In April 1895 Maceo finally landed in Cuba. Within one month of his arrival, thousands of men had joined him and the War of Independence (1895-1898) was resumed. Gomez and Marti landed in May 1895 and Marti died in combat almost three weeks after.

Maceo and Gomez executed the greatest feat of the Cuban struggle for independence, the invasion from East to West, 1776 kilometres in 78 days, leading around 3,000 Cuban patriots against an army of 200,000 men with the latest weaponry and more than 42 Spanish generals. Most of the freedom fighters were from the East and had never been in the West, this was not guerrilla warfare, this was military tactics, strategy and courage. After going to the most western point and raising the Cuban flag, Maceo fought during months with little more than 1,000 men against 70,000 Spanish soldiers in Pinar del Rio, the narrowest province of Cuba.

Maceo died when two bullets struck him; these were his 25th and 26th wounds in combat, and he was on his way to meet General Gomez on his request, to deal with a political crisis in the leadership of the movement. He travelled with only his personal escort in order to avoid the Spaniards, he was at the time still recovering from wounds he had received in combat and was 53 years old.

Both Maceo and Marti understood the danger of United States expansionist and imperialist ambitions and their expressed desire to take over the wealthy and strategically positioned island of Cuba, and they both vigorously rejected this possibility. The United States Government never recognised nor honoured Cuba's belligerence and placed all types of obstacles and difficulties in the path of Cuba's independence struggle.

In the middle of the War of Independence they tried to purchase Cuba from Spain. In 1898 Spain was very weak, they were unable to continue the war much longer. One night mysteriously, the United States warship Main that was visiting Cuba, was blown up in Havana harbour. The United States Government refused any Spanish attempt to find a settlement and in that way started the Spanish American War that lasted 10 weeks. In Santiago de Cuba, the US Navy by sea and the Cuban rebels by land defeated the Spaniards. The Cuban revolutionaries were not allowed to enter the city of Santiago de Cuba; the Cubans were excluded from the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement and the transfer of Cuba from Spain to the USA. The United States Army took over the island from 1898-1902, the Cuban Independence Army and the Cuban Revolutionary Party were disbanded. The United States military government forged an alliance with the Spanish elite and the most conservative elements in the white sector of the revolution. Blacks and mulattoes were excluded and marginalised.

The United States military refused to leave the Island unless Cuba accepted the inclusion of the Platt Amendment in the 1901 Constitution, which made Cuba into a United States protectorate, inclusive of Guantanamo Bay.

Osvaldo Cardenas is vice president, Association of Cubans Resident in Jamaica.

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