Iván García, 24 May 2017 — May 20 of this year with mark the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Republic of Cuba. In the Throne Room of the Palace of the Captains General, a building which now serves as the City Museum, Tomás Estrada Palma — born in Bayamo in 1835, died in Santiago de Cuba in 1908 — would go down in history as the first popularly elected president of the republic.
With heat bouncing on the asphalt so intensely that even stray dogs seek shelter under covered walkways, I go out to inquire about the May 20 anniversary.
Four pre-university students in their blue uniforms have skipped class to go to Córdoba Park, a free wifi zone in the 10 de Octubre district. They want to check out their Facebook wall, chat with relatives in Miami and read the latest soccer blog from the Spanish newspaper Marca.
Though the heat is stifling, the young men do not even notice it. They are eating ice cream cones, joking, gesturing and shouting at each other. Striking up a conversation with them is easy. They are seventeen-years-old and all four of them say that they hope to go to college when they finish high school. When I ask them if they know on what date the Republic of Cuba was founded, they hesitate and look at each other, trying to come up with a correct answer.
“January 1, right?” two of them respond simultaneously.
“You guys are so dumb,” says another, mocking his cohorts. “Independence day is 10 October, when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves.”
Another justifies his ignorance with the excuse that he does not like history. “That subject is a drag. You mechanically learn to answer exam questions like that, but the next day no one remembers the dates or what they commemorate.”
A man selling popcorn, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, sums it up by saying, “There are a lot of opinions on this topic. Whether it was January 1 or October 10. But I think it was 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the island.”
It seems only academicians, professors, students of history and well-informed citizens can explain the significance of May 20, 1902 in the context of national history. Most Cubans are unaware of it. Keep in mind that around 70% of the current population was born after 1959.
For people over the age of sixty-five like Giraldo — from his wheelchair he asks people walking along the side streets of the nursing home where he lives for cigarettes and money — the date brings back fond memories.
“It was the most important day of the year,” he says. “The tradition was to debut a new pair of shoes and a change of clothes. Cuban flags were hung from balconies. I would go with my parents and brothers to Puerto Avenue. In Central Park there were public concerts by the municipal band. The atmosphere was festive. But this government erased it all from popular memory. Now the dates that are celebrated are those that suit them.”
While Cubans living in Miami enthusiastically celebrate May 20, in Cuba it is a day like any other. That is how the military regime wants it.
Dictatorships have a habit of manipulating events. Just as the official narrative would have us believe that José Martí was an admirer of Marxist theories, so too does a military confrontation take on aspects of science fiction. This is what happened in 1983 in Granada. According to the Castros’ version of events, during the invasion of the country by U.S. forces, a group of Cuban workers sacrificed themselves while clutching the Grenadian flag.
For Cuba’s ruling military junta, the past is something to be erased. Economic, urban infrastructure and productivity gains achieved in the more than half century that the republic existed do not matter.
In an article published in Cubanet, independent journalist Gladys Linares recalls that in 1902, as a result of the war for independence, “agriculture, livestock and manufacturing were in a disastrous state. In a gesture of great sensitivity, Estrada Palma’s first action was to pay members of the Liberation Army and to pay off the war bonds issued by the Republic in Arms. To do this, he secured a loan from an American lender, Speyer Bank, for $35 million at 5% interest, which had already been repaid by 1943.”
For its part, EcuRed, the Cuban government’s version of wikipedia, states that “Estrada Palma was noted for being extremely thrifty during his presidency (1902-1906). In 1905 the Cuban treasury held the astonishing sum of 24,817,148 pesos and 96 centavos, of which the loan accounted for only 3.5 million pesos. The accumulation of so much money compelled Estrada Palma to invest in public works. The government allotted 300,000 pesos to be used in every province for the construction of roads and highways as well as more than 400,000 for their upkeep and repair.
The state-run press labels this period with the derogatory term “pseudo-republic” or “hamstrung republic.”
“They have done everything imaginable to obviate or destroy it. From producing television programs such as “San Nicolás del Peladero,” which ridiculed the venal politicians of the time, to minimizing the advances in material well-being achieved by various sectors of society. But when you review economic statistics from the period 1902 to 1958, you realize that, despite imperfections, there was more growth,” says a retired historian.
He adds, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The Republic of Cuba was founded on May 20, 1902. In the future, setting ideology aside, May 20 should be included in the schedule of national holidays and should be celebrated once again. Everything began on that day.”
That remains to be seen. For the moment, new (and not so new) generations are unaware of the significance of May 20.
This ignorance, a willful act of forgetting, is part of the late Fidel Castro’s strategy of building a nation from the ground up, burying its customs and values, rewriting history to suit his aims. And he succeeded.