Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The failed adventure of the US colonies in Cuba

The Digital Magazine of Cuban Arts and Culture

By Mildrey Ponce

The US immigration was the fifth one among the flood of foreigners that arrived in Cuba during the first three decades of the 20th century. By 1905, approximately 13 000 Americans had bought land in the Island. Fifteen years later, around 80 foreign colonies, mostly from US immigrants, had settled down in Cuba.

The emergence of these colonies resulted mainly from the poor condition of the Cuban economy after the end of the independence war in 1898. Large areas, located in the most productive regions of the Island, had been devastated and the landowners were ruined. These lands, bought at very low prices by speculators and companies dedicated to the development of land, were sold to several US families, which led to the emergence of important farming communities in different regions of the archipelago.

Most of the new colonizers had come with their whole families: many of them were peasants, farmers, fruit harvesters and gardeners. Their main activities were the harvesting of commercial crops and self-consumption.

The establishment of US communities in Cuba was primarily protected by the dependent mechanisms that were created during the US Occupation Government between 1899 and 1902. During this period, an even greater amount of capital and investments from the US was allowed. This particular situation of economic, political and cultural penetration favoured the increase of US immigrants to Cuba.

Two new political trends appeared as a result of this immigration. The first one, formulated by some powerful sectors in the US, supported a possible annexation of Cuba when the time was right. The other one, coming from the capitalist farming sector, encouraged the production of citruses and vegetables for the US market.

But it wasn’t just the low prices of the land and the hopes of easy profits what made the US colonists come to Cuba. The US land companies made a strong promotion of the Cuban lands in the different states of the union: ¨Cuba is a country without winter¨, ¨a virgin land¨, ¨practically undeveloped¨, and ¨destined to become a place of great richness and prosperity in the future¨.

Such promises of fortune, work and ways to make a living, which were appealing under any circumstances whatsoever, were particularly needed by Americans. During the 1890´s, the United States underwent one of the hardest economic crisis of its entire history. In general, all the adventurous, unemployed, landless and unlucky people in the US invaded Cuba in pursuit of their dreams.

The first and probably largest settlement of these US colonies was La Gloria City, organized by The Cuban Land and Steamship Company during the first days of 1900, and located on the North coast of Nuevitas, Camagüey. By 1904, more than 3 000 Americans and citizens of other nationalities had settled down in that area.

Another significant number of US colonists settled down along the 12 colonies of the Isle of Pines, currently known as the Isle of Youth. The US land companies managed to attract colonists and investors to that area, under the assumption that the Isle of Pines was a territory of the United Sates. The confusion increased by the fact that an official map of the United States from 1899 showed the Isle of Pines as part of the US territory.

It is estimated that in 1910 there were around 2 000 Americans living there, constituting more than 50% of the total population of the Isle of Pines. This figure increased to 3 000 by 1917. The colonists came from Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Canada. Serious disputes arose between the local population and these colonists, when the latter promoted and requested the annexation to the US.

In Herradura, located on the western province of Pinar del Río, another community was founded with a few hundreds of inhabitants. By 1920, there were 25 families left in the area, and in 1950 they had already disappeared. We also know that some of these immigrants tried to develop the harvesting of pineapple in Havana for exportation purposes.

Half a dozen US villages existed in the North Eastern region of the Island, usually located along the Central Railroad. Its constructor, Sir William Van Horne, considered that he needed to encourage colonization in this underpopulated area in order to make the railroad a profitable business. The most important of these villages was Bartle, located near Las Tunas, and also Omaha, whose inhabitants included Swedish and Finnish immigrants.

It was possible to find colonists from different European countries in some communities, but US immigrants always outnumbered them.

In 1912, there were 12 newspapers printed in English in Cuba. There were also 2 national farming societies, and four important farming fairs were held that year in Havana, the Isle of Pines, La Gloria and Camagüey.

However, 1917 brought changes to the US colonies in Cuba. Several factors contributed to their decline. A frost in Florida raised the prices of citruses considerably; a hurricane devastated the provinces of Pinar del Río and the Isle of Pines and destroyed the citrus plantations; the United States entered the First World War and put the Cuban fruits in quarantine.

The armed uprising known as ¨La Chambelona¨ (the candy), by the followers of the Liberal Party in 1917, was the event that exerted a greater influence on the colonies of the West and Camagüey. The liberals believed the 1916 elections had been rigged. Armed liberal soldiers plundered the properties of the US colonists and jeopardized the stability of property in Cuba. Those who lost their houses, their livestock, their crops and their sugarcane plantations, fled back to the United States.

The military service came along with the entry of the US into the First World War. Since the majority of the US colonists in Cuba had kept their original citizenship, young Americans from all across the Island were drafted. At least 219 Americans, Canadians and British colonists joined the army. When the young men went to war, their families in Cuba were left without any monetary support, and that was an additional reason for them to pick up their personal belongings and sell their land, especially in the eastern part of the Island.

Due to the war in Europe and the drastic fall of the sugar beet production, the price of sugar started to rise sharply at the international markets. Prices rose significantly all across the Island, especially in the areas with the bigger possibilities to increase sugarcane production. Many of the US colonists who had decided to leave Cuba, took advantage of this situation in order to make small fortunes with the selling of their land.

The Isle of Pines, however, kept a great number of colonies. In 1917, when a hurricane struck the area, there was an important exodus of Americans. But after World War I, there was a second wave of immigrants from the US, who had been once again encouraged by the land companies.

With the ratification of the Hay-Quesada Treaty in 1925, which confirmed the Cuban sovereignty on the Isle of Pines, many of the US residents went back to their homeland, and the 1926 hurricane devastated the investments of those who had decided to stay. According to the Cuban census of 1931, only 276 Americans were living in the Isle of Pines at the time.

The changes that took place in the customs duties and in the public health regulations of the US did not help the US residents in Cuba either. The Fordney-McCumber Duties Act, imposed by the US on Cuba in 1922, raised the payment of duties of all farming products from 9 to 14%. Then, the Smoot-Hawley Duties Act of 1930 raised them even higher.

The presence of the Mediterranean fly was spotted once again in Cuba in 1924, this time in Havana. All the fruits produced in the country were put in quarantine up to 1926. Despite all these adversities, during the 1930´s there were still 157 US fruit and vegetable exporters in Cuba, a figure that exceeded the total number of Cuban exporters. The majority of these US exporters were living in the Isle of Pines, and 22 of them were in Herradura, Pinar del Río. In the eastern part, there were only 10 fruit exporters left, and there were two living in the colony of Omaha.

Devastation and ruin were the final destination in the adventure of US colonists in Cuba. The ending of such adventure was sealed by the same status of semi-colony that Cuba had. They failed because of the lack of protection from the US government to these communities, as opposed to the support given to the great US investments (the sugar and mining industries, dominated by the consortiums), and the internal policies of the US in relation to the payment of customs duties.

• The author is a journalist of Cubanow, specialized in historical topics.

• Translation by Vidal Viera
September 06, 2007

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