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Louis Perez Interview



Bold = portions of the interview which were not filmed


START TAPE 028

BEGIN INTERVIEW

INT: Describe American interests in Cuba in the early 19th century.

PEREZ: Ah, US interest in -- in Cuba goes back to the 19th century, early 19th century in which there's a sense of a kind of inevitability of annexation, at some future point that Cuba would -- the term that was used is "political -- political gravitation", that -- and the way the apple would fall to -- to the Earth, Cuba would gravitate to -- to the United States. And so the US -- US policy through the better course of the 19th century was predicated on two essential themes. One was to, ah, make sure that the Spanish rule was preserved in Cuba until which point the United States presumed that it would then inherit sovereignty over Cuba and in the meantime – in the meantime there would be what the US invoked as a no transfer theory. That is, that Cuba could not -- the United States would not allow Cuba to be transferred to a third party, that Spain could hold onto Cuba, ah, Spain could in some way relinquish Cuba to the United States either by -- by purchase or secession, but that the United States would not allow the island to be sold or conquered by a third party, presumably a European party. Therefore, the island stays in this kind of state of -- of suspended sovereignty by a weak European power and presumably at some future point, from the US Presidents from Jefferson through, ah, McKinley saw the opportunity -- waiting for the opportunity for the United States to seize the island too.

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INT: Talk about the economic crisis and how it brought North Americans and Cubans closer together.



DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: The process of, ah, the means by which the United States and Cuba comes together really has a 30-year cycle that spans from the year 1868 and culminates in one phase of this in 1898. And as a result of the Ten Years War and the Little War of '79 and '80 and then, of course, the preparation for the War of Independence of '95 to '98. The effect of this -- these constant insurgencies and rebellions and insurrections is tied up with increasing US investment in Cuba, ahm, culminating in the reciprocity treaty of the early 1890s in which Spain and the United States signed the accord in which the, ah, US products would receive favorable tariff consideration in Cuba for exchange of Cuban sugar in the US market. And so there's a tremendous, considerable movement both of goods, services, and people back and forth across the, ah -- the Florida Straits. It is in these years that, ah, we see the first significant Cuban immigration coming into the United States, setting up first in the 1860s in Key West and moving up into the 1880s into Tampa, and then spreading out from there through the rest of Florida, Ocala, Jacksonville, which is clearly a working class immigration. And then this is accompanied with what can be called a kind of a middle class professional immigration that centered in New York City, in Philadelphia, in Boston and Washington. Ah, these are people who were themselves, ah, the sons and daughters of the Creole elite who were coming to this country to study, to go to school, high school, college, ahm, receiving professional education. And at the same time this is going on, there's a US immigration to the island as investors, as tourists, as communists and diplomats, some missionaries. And so that in this 30-year period what we find is an approximation of people who were moving back and forth across the Florida Straits getting to know each other, getting to -- and particularly the impact on Cubans is very important because, in point of fact, this is -- this period is critical to the formation of Cuban national identity, the means by which Cubans begin to articulate the discontent, their – their, ah, angst with the Spanish colonial system.

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INT: Refer more specifically to some ways in which American culture is brought to Cuba.



PEREZ: North American culture forms began to make their way back to Cuba, coming in various various forms and various expressions. Ahm, one is the degree to which baseball assumed some popularity in Cuba after the 1860s. Baseball is introduced into Cuba by Cubans themselves who are mostly the sons of the Creole elites who are studying in the United States at various institutions of higher learning, who have grasped onto baseball as this kind of element, this emblematic element of modernity in progress. And so this idea of the team, team spirit, collaboration is brought back into -- back to Cuba. And so by the 1870s and turning through the end of the -- the rest of the century, baseball spreads across the island (Clears Throat) from -- virtually from end to end in which Cuban Creoles began to take up the, ahm, ahm, the act -- and I use the "act" because it's loaded with all sorts of symbolism and -- and deeper meanings. At some fundamental level it is a gesture of Cuban inconformity with the Spanish colonial regime. It is to -- to play baseball is to be modern, to be progressive. It is not to be Spanish. And so we have this counterpoint, on the one hand, between baseball and bullfighting. And -- and -- and bullfighting represents the colonial regime. It's bloody. It's individual. It's singular. It seems to attract into the Havana bull ring mostly Spaniards. It is very male. Cuban baseball incorporates this kind of corporate spirit, the spirit of collaboration, of cooperation and Cuban -- Cuban women are very much involved in this. (Unintell.) directories of women, women who support the baseball teams. Ahm, there are black baseball teams. I mean so this phenomenon of baseball spreads to Cuba through the 18-- from the 1870s through 1890s, and not -- and not -- coincidentally, some of the most important leaders of the Cuban insurrectionary movement in 1895 are ballplayers who leave the ball field to take into -- to the field of armed struggle. Ah, Protestant denominations enter Cuba in the same period and again with the same sentiment. That is, that there is more and more Cubans who are in the United States whom identify the Protestant church with the -- the antithesis of the what - of Roman Catholic church, ahm, and so people who introduced -- who introduced Protestant denominations into -- into the island are not North American missionaries, but in fact Cuban missionaries who come bearing this new message of religious freedom, religious tolerance, and strike another blow at the -- at the edifice of the Spanish colonial system which was very much linked up and tied up with the Spanish church.

CUT


DIRECTIONAL

INT: Talk about the immigration of tobacco workers to Tampa and Key West ...

PEREZ: The immigration of Cuban cigar workers, ah, actually begins right after the US Civil War as the ah, US imposes tariffs on manufactured Cuban goods, which is the cigar itself, the actual product. And so Cuban and Spanish manufacturers hit on the splendid idea that if they couldn't exploit the finished product, what they would do is they would -- they would go under the tariff war by setting up factories in the United States, specifically Key West and then introduce the raw product, which in this case is a tobacco leaf. So they not only exported the cigar industry to the United States, they also brought into Key West a whole community of Cuban cigar workers. This community of cigar workers transforms first Key West and then subsequently Tampa. These are small, ah, rather nondescript settlements until you get Spanish and Cuban capital. And, ironically, it almost presages what the US is doing in Cuba and after '98, where you have Spanish and Cuban capital coming into the United States and developing banks and -- and developing communications systems and developing the (Unintell.) Cuban capital beyond the Key West trolley. And so there was – this payroll, that these communities expand around the Spanish payroll. Ah, this is a working class community. Ah, it is very much part of a long tradition of Cuban working class, ah, ah, militancy. Cigar workers are among the most militant of the Cuban -- Cuban working class movement. The communities in Key West, and then followed by Tampa, are very well organized and have a very well defined sense of solidarity. And so by the 1880s and '90s you find what is arguably the most -- the most radical component of the Cuban exile community residing in -- in Tampa and -- and in Key West. Ah, this becomes one of the -- the principal centers for Cuban political organizing and laying the ground work for, ah, support of and in defense of Cuban, what becomes known as Cuba Libre by the 1890s. Ahm, they and they clash head-on with native sentiment. They clash in local racial patterns. And these -- and these differences themselves are replicated in the -- in the communities they set up. They're subject to segregation. They also serve as a recruiting ground for US missionaries who, in point of fact, were Cuban communities in exile.

CUT


INT: Did this lead to any sort of disillusionment of the Cubans with American society?

DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: The -- the experience -- the Cuban experience in -- in Tampa and Cuba is clearly contributes the sense of solidarity, the sense of notion of -- nation, the sense of Cuban identity. It is enclaves that are offering -- perceive themselves, the enclaves, in a hostile environment, they are subject to -- increasingly to anti-labor violence. They're increasingly subject to racial discrimination. Ahm, and so there is this kind of -- this dichotomy that develops in this community between those who are anxious for the liberated homeland so they can return. And those who are indeed there because they have to be, because this is where the employment is, the opportunity, the work, the -- the opportunity for wage, ahm, at a time of economic crisis in Cuba. And so that this community becomes a center of, ah, a magnet whereby Cuban immigration, sort of waves of Cuban immigrations will begin to – move to Key West and -- and Tampa. So when the -- when the war begins in 1895, there is this community there prepared to support the liberation effort.

END TAPE 028

START TAPE 029

DIRECTIONAL

INT: Who was Jose Marti and what was remarkable about Cuba Libre?

PEREZ: The role of Jose Marti in this process, of course, is essential. Marti arrives to New York in 18-- just at the end of the Ten Years War and slowly emerges as a figure of -- of extraordinary rhetorical skills and particularly political organizing. He -- he is something of a newcomer to the separatist polity and begins to articulate a slightly different vision of what Cuba Libre is to encompass. Ahm, prior to Marti's arrival, Cuba Libre had been, for Cuba, had been seen as something that would lead to the independence of a new country in pretty much the traditional form of the prior independence movements of Latin America early in the century. The impact of Marti is -- is significant insofar as he begins to give ah -- to redefine what Cuba Libre means, to -- to articulate a new vision of what Free Cuba means. And what Marti is for fundamentally advancing is the proposition that, ah, Free Cuba is not the end, is not the -- is not the objective. That Free Cuba is in fact a means to a larger purpose. And the larger purpose specifically is a country that addresses issues of social inequality, of racial, ah, ah, racism in -- in structures of -- of the colonial society, of a new place for Cubans, a new nation to belong to, a new form of identity, a new sense of self-esteem, a Cuba for Cubans, a Cuba not only free from Spain, but a Cuba also that's free from the United States. So that what Marti's role here is to subsume into this category that had been fairly well undefined, ah, ahm, a social content, an economic content which then serves as the summons for a new revolutionary movement. This is now a movement not only to free Cuba from Spanish rule, but to give Cuba to Cubans, to give Cuba, ahm, "the republic" that Marti frequently addressed, a new, ah, purpose. And that is to provide for and care for and look after the interest of -- of its citizens in very concrete and very fundamental ways. And in so doing, Marti transformed what was essentially a generally defined political movement into a social movement of extraordinary resonance.

CUT

INT: Talk about Marti's attitude on race.



PEREZ: The issue of -- of race is -- is essential to Marti's formulation. What Marti is fundamentally – Marti’s working on two specific issues. One is the issue of class and second is the issue of race. On the issue of race, Marti is seeking to obliterate distinctions of race in which the Cuban is to subsume identity in the sense of the transcendental nation, that this is Cubans above anything else and everything else. Ahm, and that race is not to be a factor in the organizing and mobilizing for the war for independence because everyone was Cuban and that's the common denominator and that's the terms by which people must be -- must come to this view to the author of Free Cuba. Ahm, Marti collaborated with men and women of color. They were essential to the process of, ah, preparing and mobilizing for war. And the second element, and closely related to this, is an entire issue of class. And Marti deliberately and very -- I think very, ah, cleverly, identified it as the bed rock of the new political party, which was the Cuban Revolutionary Party, the workers of Tampa, cigar workers of Tampa and Key West. So that the ideal nation, the ideal nation, in very sharp contrast to what, say, the Ten Years War had been, which would have been an uprising of elite planters, what Marti is doing is creating a fuller representation of the nation by basing his, ah, the party as well as his vision of a Free Cuba on a much more representative racial and class structure.

CUT


INT: Describe Cuba Libre's program and how it threatened the pro-annexation Cubans.

DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: The social amalgam then that forms around the proposition of Cuba Libre. It's a multi-class, multi-racial, many women, people from Marti, I want to say people of the humble class of modest social origins really signifies what is an entirely different liberation movement than had been conceived in the first ...

DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: So the -- the movement that is summoned into existence as a result of Marti's effort and the efforts of the party represent a broad cross-section of Cuban society. Very different from what had been conceived of in the 1868 uprising, the Ten Years War, that was made up of the local elite families of the eastern end of the island. The fact that the leadership of this movement, the 1895 movement, has dropped, at what we could say is an entire social class. Instead of the land owners and the cattle barons and the elites of Cuba, it's dropped down to this kind of white collar professional journalist, ah, physicians, engineers, the doctors, supported very much by workers, blacks, and people of very modest social origin -- origins. Then creates a specter of a social revolution. That is to say that particularly as the revolution begins to move, you have significant numbers of -- of -- of, ah, Afro-Cubans who assumed positions, senior positions, in the Cuban army, ah, which in many cases serves to threaten the colonial elite, both Spanish and, ah, Cuban, ah, the large planters who -- who are effectively, ahm, preyed upon by Spanish propaganda. The Spanish propaganda's also preying upon the racial character of the insurrection. So that -- as a -- as the Spanish government begins to mobilize public opinion against the Cuban insurrection, one of the constant themes is that this is in fact a social upheaval, that this is in fact a racial war, and that all Cubans who -- who love civilization and who -- who defend tradition, ah, ah, must be against this movement. So what is happening is that programmatically there is this movement for social justice, for racial equality, for references to the redistribution of land at the war's end, this mobilization of the poor, of people of color, of the dispossessed, the powerless, the propertyless, summonings from Marti, being summoned to this campaign of liberation, ah, starting off on the eastern end of the island which is the traditional end, traditional impoverished sector of -- of the -- of the country, marching across the -- from east to west and raising the specter of what many people must have assumed was this apocalyptic end to civilization as they knew it. And it's most vividly represented by Antonio Maceo, a man of color who was the second command of the Cuban liberation army, as what they would call "the invasion" as they moved across the island. And there was this -- the sense of doom as Maceo, as his column marched further and further west closing in on Havana, there was this sense of preparation as this -- the end of the world kind of condition that had taken. As people braced themselves for Maceo to attack Havana, he -- he skirted by the capital and then continued west. But these are the images and allegories that are -- that are floating in here, they're creating a sense of -- of this doom of Spanish civilization on the island.

CUT


INT: Talk about how the Spanish played up ...

PEREZ: The Spanish lost no opportunity to portray the Cuban Insurrectionary Movement in the least favorable light. They're constantly employing all sorts of considerable means to portray the election as a war -- I mean fundamentally,at some points they are very explicit, this was a race war. They point to the number of commanders who were black and mulatto and identify them to good society that this is what was -- this is what was in the wings of -- of the capital. The Spanish are very, very effective in mobilizing what we could say were called the media, ah, devices, the public opinion, whether it's in the newspapers and magazines, from the pulpit of the Catholic churches, ah, from government edicts and decrees portraying this movement as not a movement really to liberate Cuba, to free Cuba, to commit Cuba, a modern state, but a movement of the dispossessed and people of color who simply wanted to seize the wealth and the treasure of the island. And the constant, constant references to and evoking the code word of sanctum in Haiti. Okay, Haiti becomes this kind of metaphor for "This is whats waiting for -- for Cuba if this movement succeeds," this kind of race war, this plunder, this pillage, and this solution to what they would call Santo Domingo was constantly in -- in -- in discussion and as the warning to Cubans, good Cubans, Cubans of means, Cubans of property, Cubans of status and wealth, ah, that this is what this movement is about.

CUT

INT: Talk about Gomez and Garcia.



DIRECTIONAL

INT: Did McKinley know about Cuba Libre?

PEREZ: No, but I think certainly Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Ohmeda (?), had a sense by what they would call the composition, the composition of the liberation army, that there was -- that these were not people that the US would probably be willing to do business with.

INT: Did McKinley know that?

PEREZ: I don't think McKinley really knew much of anything. I mean no. I don't -- I don't think that the kind of a gender of the movement was really a factor or the people -- his diplomatic representatives in Cuba had an inkling of this.

DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: The composition, the social composition of the liberation movement, particularly on the island, as sufficiently noticeable that both the members of the – in terms of the Cleveland Administration, in their analysis of the insurrection, were very, very aware that this was a movement of what you would say, the popular classes, ahm, in invoking that term, only himself to allusions to and references to Haiti. This one of the factors that leads the Cleveland Administration to urge the Spanish to make concessions, to make reforms. There was through the early years of the insurrection, certainly through the Cleveland Administration, and to a large degree the McKinley administration, there's attempt to induce the Spanish, to encourage the Spanish to make reforms so as to preserve Spanish sovereignty. Again, the keynote, the element, the underlying US policy during this period is to defend Spanish sovereignty. Given the choice on one hand, Spanish sovereignty and, on the other Cuban independence, ah, both the Cleveland and the McKinley Administration are opting for the defense of Spanish sovereignty.

DIRECTIONAL

INT: Talk about the transition between Cleveland and McKinley.

PEREZ: The changes of US policy from the Cleveland Administration to the McKinley Administration, not only is it a Democrat to Republican, ah, you have an administration now that becomes increasingly much more susceptible, unabashedly so, to expansionists the influences. Ahm, but what is also different not only is the difference in terms of administration, it's that the character of the war in Cuba is now different. Ah, from 1895 to 1896 to the early part of 1897, I would say that is probably the most desperate and the most difficult time of the Cuban insurrection in which the outcome of the war is, in fact, far from certain. By 1897 and certainly by the end of 1897, Cuban insurrection is now beginning to register its most notable victories. So what is facing -- what is facing the McKinley Administration is something very different than what has faced the Cleveland Administration. And that is that by the – as we move through the end of 1897, ah, the Cuban insurrection is gaining momentum and increasingly the Cuban insurrection seems to be not only gaining ground, but now is beginning to show signs it will indeed prevail. That is a very different -- a very different landscape that McKinley faced than the Cleveland Administration, because now it becomes apparent that Spanish reform that the Cleveland Administration had put so much stock in -- Spanish reform will not work. The McKinley Administration is also -- is also induce -- is trying to induce the Spanish to make reforms. The Spanish make reforms and they make the ultimate reform, in conceding to the Spani-- to the island what is called an autonomous government that takes effect on January 1st, 1898, which means basically that this is home rule. And this is the last, if you will, the last card that Spain plays in defense of colonialism. And this major concession that maybe -- that perhaps two years earlier would have been a significant and in fact decisive concession, ah, in 1898 fails. It now becomes clear that the Cubans will accept nothing but independence and, indeed, have it within their power, within some indeterminant period of time, indeed, to expel the Spanish.

CUT


INT: Talk about expediting factors.

DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: The arrival of Weyler, General Weyler in 1896 dramatically changes the -- the character of the Cuban insurrection. In -- in fact, Weyler knew precisely the nature of the conflict that -- that he was confronting on the island and undertook what was then a very controversial measure, was in a reconcentration policy. That is, to move all civilians, all civilians out of the countryside into centers near the large cities, both provincial and in the capital, to deprive the insurgents of support, the intelligence, the material aid, the medicine, the -- the horses, the food, and, therefore, presumably that everybody left in the field is ipso facto the enemy and they're attacked. The impact of Weyler -- Weyler's campaign in Cuba I think in many ways is one of the most critical turning points of the war, because in point of fact now, Cubans have to choose sides. Up to this point, one could reasonably hope inside Cuba that the Spanish would make concessions, that the Spanish would -- would be conciliatory. With the arrival of Weyler, there's no question that this was war to the end and now Cubans were obliged to either -- they would support Spain, the Spanish government, to the end or they would have to make their peace with the insurgents. And so the presence of Weyler has a dramatic polarizing effect on the colonial polity. The second effect of Weyler is that the measures were in fact so extreme that they shocked the conscience of -- certainly of many people in the United States. Ahm, the -- the frightful conditions of the camps, the high mortality rate, the lack of food, the lack of medicine, ah, the spectacle -- and certainly the reports of women and children and men being starved to death, which was a policy that the Spanish undertook with -- with -- with almost -- almost with indifference, begin to enter into US domestic politics. So that now that the character of the --- of the Spanish campaign on the island now becomes a political issue in the United States and kind of mobilized US public opinion is beginning to raise questions about what is going on so close to the United States.

CUT


DIRECTIONAL

PEREZ: What is -- what is interesting about 1898 is the degree to which, ah, in many ways is represented discontinuity of policy. From Jefferson right up through the McKinley Administration had been remarkable, remarkable continuity of perceptions in policy about Cuba. As we mentioned earlier, that is, that the United States was prepared to support Spanish sovereignty at which point then the United States would, when Spanish sovereignty had expired by one way or another, the United States would move in and, ah, in one way claim possession of the island. By 1898, something rather remarkable happened. And that is that the idea of Cuba Libre, the idea of Cuban independence, and that is independence in the sense of Cuban sovereignty, of Cuban self-determination, of a Cuban republic, of a Cuba for Cuba -- for Cubans, ah, had taken hold, ah, not only in Cuba, which is, I think, this was a sacred precept of the insurrection, but had -- had kind of disseminated and insinuated itself into the mainstream of US politics. Ahm, people now talked about Cuban independence with almost -- ah, well, with alacrity and with -- with general support. I think there's no doubt that the United States public, ah, popular sentiment generally warmed to the idea of a Cuban -- an independent Cuba. The evidence is found in sheet music, in poems and in memoirs that there was a vast public opinion out there that is, indeed, supporting the proposition of independence for Cuba. Now what makes this threatening, what makes this threatening is that the policy that goes from Jefferson to McKinley, ahm, was designed specifically to avoid the eventuality of Cuban independence. In other words, what I'm suggesting is that public opinion now is mobilized and becoming a political factor in -- in -- in US national life. Now, in fact, appears to be threatening a policy that has its origins almost three generations earlier. This consensus of opinion about the future of ah, Cuba is now being threatened by what we can call popular politics, ah, that was reflected in congress and particularly in the House, that people were supporting independence, were defending Cuban independence, were buying bonds for Cuban independence. The church pulpits in this country who had come out in favor of Cuban independence, ahm, the one eventuality that US policy from Jefferson to McKinley had been, ahm, had been formed had been designed to prevent had now seized the public imagination. And so we have a very significant contradiction, on one hand, what had been US policy through the better part of the 19th century, now the surge of public opinion supported by the press and supported by the church and supported by the labor unions of supporting the -- the freedom for the island.

CUT

INT: Tell about the Cuban junta in New York.



PEREZ: The politics of -- the politics of Cuba Libre played themselves out in -- in the United States, was very clever. On one hand, what the Cubans were -- shrewdly pursued as a policy, the Cuban representatives of the provisional government in the United States, which was this junta based in New York with elements in Washington, ahm, fundamentally sought to mobilize US public opinion in behalf of Cuban independence ah, in an effort to obtain support for the liberation movement in -- in a variety of ways. First, of course, to -- to pressure Spain, ah, to put pressure on Spain perhaps to arrive at accommodation with Cubans eventually leading to the independence of the island. Second, to raise money. Large numbers of filibustering expeditions or support expeditions left from the Florida coast or the southern coast of the United States, ah, carrying supplies, armament, weapons, ammunition, medicines. Third, to raise funds to carry on the -- the -- the work of the junta. And most of all what the Cuban junta and Cuban representatives both in the island -- in the United States and on the island were seeking was trying to get the United States to recognize the belligen-- the belligerency status of the insurrection, to recognize the provisional government of Cuba as the -- the legitimate government of the republic in arms. Once that was done, then the United States could formally and directly intercede and help the Cubans in the war against Spain. And so much of the -- much of the effort of -- of the Cuban exile representation was focused on attempting to acquire recognition of the belligerency status.

CUT




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