Fernando Damaso, 24 January 2018 — This year will mark 116 since the founding of the Republic on 20 May 1902. Although it was the time of the nation’s greatest progress and development–with important economic and social achievements, including health and education–this period has been systematically discredited and distorted during the last 60 years when only its defects have been written and spoken about. The same has happened with its presidents. To better understand them, I start the publication of their biographical sketches and presidential periods. Here is the first:
The Teacher from Central Valley: Tomás Estrada Palma
As early the first months of the year 1959, the new authorities had already launched a campaign against the history of the Republic, demonizing or legitimizing figures and deeds according to their political interests. One of the first victims was the first President of the Republic.
Don Tomás Estrada Palma was immortalized in statues and busts in cities and towns, and his name appeared on streets, schools, and even a sugar milling company. Such an honor was bestowed by those who knew him and those who, with the approval of the majority of Cubans, respected his accomplishments since 1868. In Havana, his bronze figure was placed on a pedestal on the Avenida de los Presidentes, between 5th and Calzada streets, in the Vedado district.
“The revisers of History” began an attack on him and other personalities who did not share their political and ideological tendencies. Estrada Palma’s statue was cut at the ankles and removed, leaving his shoes on the pedestal as evidence of the vandalism. His likeness and name also were expunged from other public spaces and, if he is mentioned today, it is only to revile him. Why so much hatred, more than a century after his physical life, against the first President?
Tomás Estrada Palma was born in Bayamo in 1835 and was among the first who joined the war against Spain when hostilities began on 10 December 1868. In the then-Free City Hall of Bayamo, he was its first mayor and defended the abolition of slavery (which had been proclaimed by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes), but in a gradual manner.
At the hearing on 27 October 1873 in Bijagual (Jiguaní) to depose de Céspedes as President of the Republic in Arms, conducted during the Chamber of Representatives session led by Salvador Cisneros Betancourt as deputy, Estrada Palma accused de Cespedes of “attempting to undermine the unassailable rights of the people,” and of practicing a system of favoritism by awarding military ranks to debtors and undeserving friends, endangering high-level collective interests. At the site, with more than 2,000 rebel troops, were Major General Calixto García, Generals Calvar and Modesto Díaz, and Brigadier Antonio Maceo. Along with Manuel Sanguily, Máximo Gómez, and other important leaders, Estrada Palma met with Vicente García in Loma de Sevilla, following the revolt of Lagunas de Varona, so that the latter would desist from his rebel activities and respect the authority of Juan Bautista Spotorno, the recently-designated President.
On 29 March 1876, Estrada Palma was elected President of the Republic In Arms in his own right by the Chamber of Representatives to succeed Spotorno, and due to Francisco Vicente Aguilera’s inability to return to Cuba to occupy the post. On 19 October 1877, he was taken prisoner by the Spanish in Tasajeras (Holguín). Francisco Javier de Céspedes, having taken as Interim President, could not prevent the demoralization of the revolutionary troops; the Chamber of Representatives elected as his substitute, to the surprise of all, Vicente García, the rebel from Lagunas de Varona and Santa Rita, to whom it feel to reach an accord with the Spanish General Arsenio Martínez Campos and forge the Pact of Zanjón.
Tomás Estrada Palma remained imprisoned in Spain until the signing of the Pact, which won him his liberty and later relocated to the United States, where he worked in education and ran a prestigious school in Central Valley, near New York City. He established political and personal ties with José Martí,* with whom he worked closely in pro-independence activities and who designated him (upon traveling to Santo Domingo en route to Cuba) as Delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.
In 1901, upon Generalísimo Máximo Gómez’ refusal to run as a candidate for the upcoming elections, Estrada Palma was nominated by his party (with Gómez’ support) to face off against the other proposed candidate, Bartolomé Masó. On 31 December 1901, while residing in the US, Estrada Palma was elected as the first President of the Republic soon to be established. He returned on 17 April and assumed the office on the very birthday of the Republic of Cuba: 20 May 1902.
During his presidency, Estrada Palma continued the reorganization of the Public Administration begun by the US provisional military government in Cuba. He allocated major resources to education, bringing to 3,712 the number of schools and classrooms, creating Kindergarten schools, summer schools for teacher training, and the National Library.
He devoted attention to the development and protection of industries, improving public safety and the prison system, construction of communication lines, and obtained compensation for the members of the Liberating Army by way of a $35-million credit. It fell to him to confront the first labor strike in the Republic, that of tobacco workers calling for better salaries in November 1902, which was suppressed due to the country’s lack of means to satisfy their demands.
In February 1903, Estrada Palma ratified the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations, which insured against any economic disaster and conceded spaces within the national territory for the installation of naval and coal bases. This action reduced the initial requirement of concessions in Cienfuegos, Nipe, Bahía Honda and Guantánamo to only two (Guantánamo y Bahía Honda) and, finally, to only one–in Guantánamo– with a larger expanse.
During his presidential period of 1902-1906, Estrada Palma practiced irreproachable honesty, did not give or nor permit “botellas”** (public-sector positions which paid salaries for no work), reduced the Republic’s expenditures, maintained a just and flourishing annual budget, the sugar industry was rebuilt ***, public services were well-run, and citizens’ rights were respected.
Estrada Palma’s principal errors were of a personal and political nature, having presumed that nobody but he possessed the competencies to execute the presidency (an affliction that runs throughout our history, taken to the extreme in the last 56 years) and listening to those surrounding him who petitioned him to run for re-election. To achieve this objective he allowed frauds in the partial elections of February and, even worse, in the general ones, forcing the withdrawal of the Liberal Party which was putting forth José Miguel Gómez for President y Alfredo Zayas as his running mate.
On 20 May 1906, Estrada Palma once again assumed the presidency of the Republic against the wishes of most citizens, who wanted a change, and which provoked the so-called “Little War of August” incited by the Liberal Party. Unable to stop the events, Estrada Palma sought the US government’s intervention, which was denied, and he was ordered to resolve the situation through agreements with the opposition. He did not comply and again demanded US action from President Theodore Roosevelt, who refused and tried to remain neutral–although, to protect North American interests and citizens, sent ships, some troops, and a mediator.
Faced with this situation, Estrada Palma resigned, leaving a power vacuum which the Congress was unable to fill for not convening nor electing a President. This seemingly irresponsible behavior brought about the Second North American Occupation, which began on 19 September 1906 and lasted until 28 January 1909.
Some historians accuse Estrada Palma of having ordered the assassination of Quintín Banderas. Banderas was the brave, but undisciplined and troubled, Mambí general who had been sanctioned several times, had a summary judgment pending against him and was relieved of his command for the final 11 months of the last war, for which he did not receive back pay when the Republic was established. The accusation, supported by no type of evidence, does not fit in with Estrada Palma’s personality.
Tomás Estrada Palma, removed from power, retired to a country estate on the outskirts of Bayamo, where he died two years later, on 4 November 1908. He was interred in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, near the tomb of José Martí. Despite the political mistakes he committed towards the end of his presidential period, the austerity, honesty, and patriotism that Estrada Palma maintained during the major part of his life make him one of the noblest Cuban figures of his time.
Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
* José Martí lived in exile in New York at various times while garnering support for Cuba’s independence from Spain.
** “Botella” literally translates as “bottles,” but in this context is used as Cuban slang for sinecures.
*** Which had been decimated during the Wars for Independence.