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The first president after the US military occupation of
four years was, General Tomás Estrada Palma, who was 67 at his inauguration. He
had fought independence battles against the Spanish both in the Ten Years' War
(1868-78) and the Cuban War for Independence.1 He was known to be altruistic and strictly honest. He
understood that governing would be difficult, for he had commented that Cuba lacked
citizens. In fact, cynicism and fault-finding were common attitudes. Many in the
upper classes believed that politics were beneath their dignity.
He took over a country that was devastated by war. About 300,000 of the 1,800,000 population (16.67%) had died. Thousands more had been maimed. Building were destroyed; livestock herds thinned; croplands ruined; mines closed; and businesses bankrupted. Transportation facilities such as roads and bridges were damaged or destroyed. Cuba suffered from much unemployment. Sugar cane workers were idle half the year because they were not needed. The sugar industry was not recovered from the war and sugar prices were low. The US military dictatorship (1898-1902) meant the calcifying of the old colonial property arrangements and the incursion of American civilians who were buying Cuban property at depressed prices. US investment rose from about $50 million in 1895 to $200 million in 1906.
Estrada Palma wanted to see the country export more products, receive more foreign investment, stimulate immigration from people of European ancestry, and continue the educational and public works projects of the American occupation. He negotiated a reciprocity treaty with the United States in 1903, under which Cuban sugar got a 20% tariff reduction, thus stimulating sugar production on the island. The US would buy one million tons of sugar a year by 1904. Estrada Palma got the US to lease, not buy, two naval stations instead of the four the US had wanted. The US relinquished its claim to the Isle of Pines. Immigrants came, especially from Spain (some 400,000 between 1902-1916). Most Spanish immigrants were male, illiterate and broke, but they were willing to work hard. One-fourth of the national budget was spent on education. The number of public works tripled. He had inherited a treasury balance of $689,000 from the US administration and increased it to $25 million by 1906.
Problems abounded. One was corruption at all levels. Incentives to steal, directly and indirectly, were many and the odds of getting caught were small. The President was never able to stop it, for the government had money and had it regularly and people wanted money. Getting a government job for oneself and, then, for members of one's family was a means of survival. Getting government patronage and contracts was too. Estrada Palma and Congress fought over the size of the army, the law code, the budget surplus, the lottery, municipal administration, and the size of the government (he wanted to reduce it).
Factions began maneuvering in anticipation of the elections of 1906. The two major parties were the Conservative Republicans, led by Estrada Palma, and the National Liberals, led by José Miguel Gómez and Alfredo Zayas. Estrada Palma used the machinery of the government to repress the opposition and have himself re-elected. The Liberals boycotted Congress and revolted. The revolt in Pinar del Río in August was massive. President Theodore Roosevelt was asked to intervene using the Platt Amendment but he refused. Finally, he sent his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, to investigate. He arrived on September 19, 1906.
Taft was a judicious man, accustomed to weighing the evidence before making a decision, and he decided that the Cubans could not govern themselves. He concluded that the Liberals were correct; they had been cheated of victory. Taft wanted to nullify the elections except for President and Vice-President and hold new ones. Estrada Palma refused and he and his vice president resigned. Moderates boycotted Congress. Taft requested 2,000 US Marines to come, then 5,600 US Army troops. He became acting governor of the island until Roosevelt sent Charles E. Magoon, a Nebraska lawyer, as governor.
The Magoon era is the subject of some controversy. Elections were postponed until December, 1908, and US forces did not leave until January, 1909; in the meantime, the Americans controlled the country. Many Cubans, then and now, resented this. When Magoon took control, the Cuban enjoyed a $13 million surplus; by the time he left, it had dwindled to $3 million. Had he and his cohorts stolen the money, as some Cubans believed? No. The Cuban congress had made appropriations beforehand. The 1906 rebellion had cost. A hurricane caused damage and a yellow fever epidemic had to be handled. The banking crisis of 1907 affected Cuba; he devised to create a new banking law. He had a strong public works program which created about 500 miles of roads and 300 miles of railroad track, many paved streets, new bridges, sewage systems and aqueducts. Although there was some graft, characteristic of Cuban public life, Magoon was honest.
José Miguel Gómez , the Liberal candidate, who won the 1908 presidential election over General Mario García Menocal, the Conservative candidate, by 201,000 to 130,000 was not honest. He was an independence leader, a governor, and a charismatic hero. He was very popular. He also was a genial tyrant who enriched himself and allowed his official family to do the same. Perhaps it was because the Liberals won all 24 Senate seats; perhaps it was because he thought he deserved rewards for his role in the independence movement. Perhaps it was just greed and the wanting to profit from good times.
His 1909-13 presidency saw sunny times in Cuba. Sugar production was growing. Small industries were developing. Business was good. He was willing to help workers by having low cost housing built and requiring that rural workers (the vast majority) by paid in cash. He also expanded the size of the army; it had too much power to ignore it. He was careful not to offend the United States. Taft, now President of the United States, put pressure on English bankers in January, 1911 not to loan money for port dredging because he wanted US bankers to have the business.
In May,1912, Evacisto Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet led the Partido Independiente de Color in an armed rebellion. This Afro-Cubans political party argued that Afro-Cubans had done most of the fighting in the independence movement but had been denied their share of the political jobs. Gómez had Congress pass a law in 1911 banning political parties based on race. The Liberal Party needed Afro-Cuban votes but would not concede to their demands. So Afro-Cubans appealed to Taft to intervene and, when he declined, rebelled and began destroying foreign-owned property in order to provoke Taft into intervening. It worked. Taft sent marines into parts of Cuba over the protests of President Gómez. Taft said his act was not intervention but the US protecting the property of its citizens. Gómez said it was unnecessary. Cuba put down the rebellion.
The Liberal Alfredo Zayas, the Vice President, lost to the Conservative, General Mario García Menocal, 215,000 to 201,000. The Liberals had won in 1908 because Gómez and Zayas had cooperated and because Afro-Cubans voted for Gómez. In 1912, however, Gómez undermined Zayas and Afro-Cuban voters had been betrayed by the Liberals. Not only had García Menocal won but the Conservatives won control of Congress.
García Menocal was a war hero and a Cornell University graduate. He was a sugar planter. It would seem that his presidency would be outstanding but that was not to be. Because if World War I and its economic dislocations, sugar and tobacco production fell in 1913-1915. García Menocal tried to improve conditions including a compulsory compensation law. Sugar production rebounded to three million tons ion 1915. During his presidency, Cuba also began issuing its own currency.
When he decided to seek re-election in 1916, he faced several obstacles. He and his government were corrupt. He had said he would not ruin again. To win, he padded the voting roles. Zayas, his opponent, resisted. Both sides engaged in violence, García Menocal stole the election, particularly in Oriente and Santa Clara provinces. The US said new elections should be held, that it would not tolerate revolt; it sent troops in 1917. Cuba followed the US in declaring war on Germany in 1917. US Marines went into Oriente and Camagüey provinces.
The war brought prosperity, a Dance of the Millions, as demand for Cuban sugar skyrocketed. Whereas Cuban sugar had been selling for 4.6 cents a pound, it rose to 22.5 cents a pound in 1919. In 1918-19, production rose to four million tons. Sugar constituted 89% of Cuba's exports. Planters borrowed money to increase production. The future seemed bright. But the price of sugar collapsed in October, 1920, dropping to 1.6 cents a pound in 1921.
The 1920 presidential election proved particularly troublesome. Zayas of the National League ran against Gómez of the Liberal Party. Cuba used the electoral code written by the US Major General Enoch Crowder. He had been sent to try to cleanse Cuban politics. When García Menocal cheated, Crowder went back to Cuba and forced new elections in many provinces. The Liberals boycotted because this was foreign intervention. Zayas won.
During Zayas' 1921-25 presidential term, he did not run the country for half of it. Until 1923, when Zayas finally asserted himself, the United States controlled Cuba. The United States agreed to support Zayas financially and politically. Crowder picked Zayas' Cabinet, made many administrative decisions, and arranged a $50 million loan from the bank of J. P. Morgan. By 1924, US investment was $1,240,000,000, up considerably from the $50,000,000 in 1898. US interests came to control over 50% of the sugar production by 1925. From 1922-25, sugar production and prices rose. When Zayas did asset himself, corruption took off as Cubans took advantage of the situation.
In the 1924 elections, General Gerardo Machado, the Liberal, beat García Menocal, the Conservative, 200,000 to 136,000. There was a short-lived rebellion at Cienfuegos on April 30, 1924, but it was squashed. Machado proved to be particularly tough and durable. A darling of the Republican Party in the United States, he increasingly became dictatorial until he was overthrown by the Revolution of 1933.