Cuba: The Peseta President

Zayas’ eight-foot-tall statue has one hand in its pocket and the other pointing towards the Presidential Palace. (Carlos Jordi/CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, February 16, 2024 — Alfredo Zayas is portrayed in Cuba as the most corrupt president of the pre-Castro era. To support this thesis, our school textbooks emphasize one event in particular: the Protest of the Thirteen. No one can deny that buying the old convent of Santa Clara for more than double its previous price was a very santa (saintly) or a very clara (obvious) thing to do. It is also true that the country was going through a profound economic crisis brought on by the collapse of sugar prices.

But Alfredo Zayas (a.k.a. El Chino, or the Chinese guy) was really no more corrupt that his predecessors. What there was, during his presidency, was greater freedom of expression. Everyone had carte blanche to publicly tear him to pieces. And that, at least, is certainly not something the last three people who have had their buttocks in the seat of power following the demise of the Republic can brag about.

Don’t tell me, “Yunior, you’re now going to defend Zayas!” Well, no. I am not related to the man though my relatives would have supported him. I won’t deny that he appointed himself the official historian, a job that came with a very nice salary, though he never did complete his promised History of Cuba. Nor will I deny that he had the astonishing good fortune to win the national lottery twice. I won’t ignore the fact that a statue of him was erected while he was still alive.

The eight-foot tall sculpture has one hand in its pocket and the other pointing toward the Presidential Palace. Cuban wags used to joke that the message was, “What I have in here, I took from over there.” In the place where that monument once stood, people now worship at a ship whose name [‘Granma’] means “grandmother” in English, the vessel that brought over from Mexico the biggest thief in our history.

I am not asking the Vatican to beatify Zayas. But despite his flaws, the Havana native — a man who always carried a Spanish peseta in his coat pocket — had many good qualities

A lawyer, poet, journalist and great orator, Zayas was the first doctor to become president. He was probably the most learned of our heads of state. He also managed to reach that position without causing a war, which was no small feat. In the Republic’s formative years, the fight between political parties for a piece of the action was violent and ongoing.

The press at the time called these constant internal battles la brava (the threat). El Chino had been eclipsed by former president José Miguel Gómez (a.k.a The Shark) in the Liberal Party’s ranks for too long. Until his “four cats” party — he actually preferred the term Popular — finally managed to win the presidency. He had already beaten General Mario García Menocal in 1916 but the general went into “Maduro mode” and refused to admit defeat, launching the failed Chambelona Revolt.

It must be said that, as a delegate to Cuba’s constitutional convention of 1901, El Chino opposed the Platt Amendment and to leasing the U.S. land for a naval base in Guantanamo. It must also be said that, during his presidency, women earned the right to vote. And the Isle of Pines was returned to us. It should be noted that he legally recognized the the University Student Federation, empowering the students. It must be emphasized that he suppressed an insurrection by the Veterans and Patriots Movement without issuing an order against the people and without firing a shot. It must be remembered that his package of measures did work, getting the country out of a tremendous economic crisis, unlike certain later realignments, reform measures and appeals to national self-reliance. Cuba was the first country in the world to replenish its treasury after the First World War. And it was also the first to pay its war debt to the United States.

Getting back to where we started, what our history teachers neglected to mention was what later happened to each signatory of the famous Protest of the Thirteen. Fifty years later, Juan Marinello himself wrote in the magazine Bohemia, “How many, among the thirteen protestors remained aligned with the masses and national liberation. The first traitor was Lamar Schweyer. Mañach, Ichaso, Lizaso and Masó went over to the enemy camp, taking up arms against the Revolution. The others shrugged their shoulders and categorized their protest as a youthful dalliance.” How ironic history often is.

I am not asking the Vatican to beatify Zayas. But despite his flaws, the Havana native — a man who always carried a Spanish peseta in his coat pocket from his days in exile — had many good qualities.


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