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When Cuba and the United States were Friends

When Cuba and the United States were Friends

Posted by Leyden Figueredo on August 24, 2015

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, is the living witness of a historic reality: the diplomatic relations with the United States have not always been so distant and conflictive. There was a time when both countries had a close relationship and even the American giant helped the Cuban people to fight for their independence from Spain. It was 1898.  

Nowadays, when the talks between both governments are making the headlines and there is a relaxation in terms of American tourists traveling to the island nation, there is a must-visit historic place in this city that explains the events that took place over a century ago.

The hill of San Juan is the stage where Spain was first defeated by Cuba during the pro-independence war. It symbolizes a crucial moment in the history of the country that had repercussions in the history of Latin America.

The hill can be easily reached, since it’s only 5 meters away from Villa San Juan Hotel, managed by Isla Azul, where nacahuita trees protect the monuments from both sun and rain.

On April 20, 1898, United States declared that the Cuban people must and had the right to be free. On May 1, a special envoy from the US government, Lt Andres Rowans, met with Calixto Garcia, who was the highest-ranking officer in the Eastern region. Both officers coordinated joint actions against Spain, which brought about the participation of the United States into the war to support Cuba.

The results of such an alliance were already a fact by the end of May: on the 19th, the Spanish fleet headed by Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete arrived in the bay of Santiago de Cuba and took defensive positions.

The Spanish troops were deployed at the small fort on San Juan Hill, the highest point in the city at the time, with access to the bay. It was a strategic spot to defend the southeast region of the village, so it was very important. The defensive line was made up of 240 men and 12 cannons.

15 thousand soldiers and volunteers led by major general William Shafter battled Spanish troops near Santiago, including San Juan Hill, thus blocking the access to the city from the east. At least 205 US soldiers died and 376 were injured.

Roosevelt, who was a lieutenant colonel, quit his position as the undersecretary of the Army, volunteered to fight along with the Rough Riders and headed the action on San Juan Hill, which boosted his political career. The site is marked by the munitions and trenches where the combat took place.

For Americans the battle at San Juan Hill represented the beginning of an age of splendor. It also strengthened the image of Roosevelt as a president that was capable of achieving his goals.

But history is also made up of controversial elements. Grabiel Vargas Guevara,  Cuban History expert and a professor at the city of Santiago de Cuba, recalls in his conversation with PanamericanWorld that “some US academicians affirm that Cuban professionals put aside the books that reflected the contribution of the US army to speed up the independence of Cuba, and gave another version of history”. This alleged tergiversation of history contrasts with the presence of a statue to pay tribute to the volunteers of US infantry regiments 2nd and 9th and a monument to the fallen American soldiers. The documents also show considerable US casualties.”

Next to the zoo of the city, visitors find the Tree of Peace, as the Cuban people know it, where the capitulation of the city was signed at the end of the Hispanic-Cuban-North American War on July 17, 1898.

The tree that presently stands there is the stump of the original, which was brought down by meteorological events that are so common at the eastern region. The tree is surrounded by the Spanish rifles that were captured during the war, as well as some cannons. Furthermore, there are several bronze books that reflect some moments of the war and the names of the soldiers that fought it.

Another Example of North American Solidarity

After the rituals related to the capitulation, the US troops would enter the city in order to officially transfer the power.

The new authorities found a city devastated by war. Its economic pillars: agriculture and stockbreeding were destroyed; epidemics and starve were decimating the people.

The aspect of the provincial capital city, according to the testimonies, was horrific: numerous houses destroyed and plundered, there were dead animals and garbage piles everywhere. Both smallpox and yellow fever were severely damaging the people, while the city was crowned by clouds of smoke from funeral pyres: the corpses that couldn’t be buried were burned.

North American philanthropist Clara Barton, a founder of the Red Cross in her country, was an outstanding figure in the activities developed to ease the poverty of the people, as she began distributing food since July 18. The people of Santiago thanked her proverbial humanitarian help by building a monument dedicated to this woman, on Michaelson Avenue, right in front of the piers of the city.

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