DID the events of last August which put an end to the tyrannical dictatorship of General Machado in Cuba constitute a genuine revolution? If by revolution we understand merely the sudden shift of power from one man to another, the answer is clearly yes. Yet even with this definition, there is room to question how responsible a nation may be for a revolution characterized by anomalies both in its cause and course. Thus the revolution was produced as the consequence of the activities of a foreign diplomat, and its later developments continued in large measure to be conditioned by that same intrusion. To what degree do these facts detract from the genuine revolutionary character of the governmental change which has occurred in Cuba?

The answer depends on how strictly we define the nature of a revolution. There are revolutions and revolutions. There are simple transfers of authority of the superficial and factional type so common in Latin-American history; and there are revolts of more profound significance. Externally, every revolution worthy of the name is a process; that is, it is not one act, but a series of acts which describe an acute curve, with a preliminary phase of incubation, an apex moment represented by the revolt itself, and a decline toward normality, in which the revolutionary impulses finally achieve realization or frustration. Internally, every revolution is based on the imposition, by violence or otherwise, of an opposing will on the will of the constituted governmental authority. The classification of a revolution depends on whether this will is partial, merely that of a faction, or genuinely collective and national.

An examination, first in its external aspect, of the process of the Cuban revolution (which, it goes without saying, is still to be completed), leads to the recognition of a typical quality which predominates over the dubious elements in the situation mentioned above. The revolt itself consisted, as is well known, in the peremptory displacement of President Machado and his government by the Cuban army, together with accompanying activity on the part of the people, who during several feverish days of persecution and pillage set their hands to every possible form of punishment. It was in its way a typical reproduction of the best accredited revolutionary models. Of its genuine character there is no possible doubt.

But these events would certainly not have taken place in such a way or at such a time without the intervention of American diplomacy, in the person of the United States Ambassador, Mr. Sumner B. Welles. To determine the degree to which this circumstance affects the national responsibility for the revolt, we may do well to examine its antecedents, taking them however in inverse order.

1. Machado abandoned office and the capital of the Republic when he became aware on August 12 that the revolt of the army was virtually unanimous and that the United States, should it intervene, would not do so with sufficient promptness to assure his personal safety.

2. The military revolt was due none the less to the evident danger of such an intervention, should Machado have refused to abandon office by means of a constitutional leave of absence, as had been suggested by the Ambassador.

3. Such a stand was doubtless taken by Ambassador Welles as the result of the formidable general strike which had been declared throughout the republic. This was clearly a protest against the continuance of the government in office. It carried with it the imminent danger of even more serious public disorders.

4. The reason it was possible for the Ambassador to assume such a peremptory attitude and at the same time escape criticism for overstepping his authority was due to his "tender of good offices," which had been previously accepted by General Machado himself and by the most active sectors of the Opposition, as offering a possible solution for Cuba's political problem.

5. The United States was compelled to resort to this diplomatic move in order to reconcile its present policy of the "good neighbor" with the necessity, inescapable from its point of view, of ending the serious state of affairs existing in Cuba.

6. For the last five years the government of General Machado has been resisted and opposed, both legally and violently, by one of the most tenacious and dramatic movements recorded in the history of Spanish America. And that is saying much. Notwithstanding the sustained support of the army, it often seemed impossible that the cruel dictatorship could hold out much longer against the siege laid to it by Cuban public opinion -- organized in various combat sectors -- and more recently by disapproval from abroad. Indeed, the situation presented all the characteristics of an impasse. The prolonged struggle had broken down the economic life of the island, already profoundly affected by the depression in sugar. Such a state of affairs represented a chronic threat to foreign interests established in Cuba, and the responsibilities contracted by virtue of the Platt Amendment implicitly obliged the United States to end it.

This retrospective analysis is at the same time logical and chronological. Each circumstance was determined by the one before, although in the final stages events occurred so precipitately (some even simultaneously), that the line of causality was dimmed. From such a brief sketch it is clear that the process which culminated in the military revolt -- the "efficient cause" of the overthrow of Machado -- had its origin and true support in the sustained attitude of rebellion on the part of the Cuban people. This attitude finally found energetic outlet thanks to the state of public affairs resulting from the highly skilful diplomacy of Mr. Welles. But although it is pertinent to attribute to this diplomacy a decisive influence in the process leading to the revolt, it is evident that the final responsibility for this latter pertains to the Cuban Opposition.

Consequently the character of the revolution, its place in history, is defined by the nature and motives of that Opposition. Did it represent the will of a faction, directed only toward the reconquest of power and the overthrow of tyranny, or on the contrary did it respond to a mobilization of the will of the entire nation?

The fact is significant that the first movements of opposition to the government of Machado -- at a time when he still counted on the confidence of a large part of the country -- started from zones normally remote from politics, in particular the zone of student life. A Spanish thinker has written that youth is rarely right in what it affirms but almost always right in what it denies. Beginning with complaints of merely academic character, the students of the University of Havana ended with a declaration of war against Machado himself and against the whole traditional political system which he represented. They were the first to perceive vaguely that in Machado there was coming to a head an ominous process which had steadily been weakening the dominion of the national will over the country's development. In this process and in the fact of its culmination under Machado are to be found the true causes for the present revolution, the emotional substratum which has determined its motives, making of it, not a simple agreement of factions for the displacement of an unpopular government, but a profound mobilization of the national will against the historic causes which have alienated it.

Cuba has always been in fact a people debarred from self-determination. The Cubans have not been able to shape their destiny according to their own will, because that will has lain in semi-subjection. Geographical, historical and cultural factors have coöperated, first to delay the integration of a collective conscience and will, and then to fetter the development which might have come through their free operation and exercise.

Cuba's position as an island meant that through all the colonial epoch Spain could isolate it and hinder the development of a national will like that which grew up in the other Hispanic countries of America. This is one of the reasons why when the native leaders first began to aspire to independence they were always compelled to include in their calculations the possible assistance of neighboring countries, particularly the United States, which might offset the power of Spain. It could be shown how other characteristics of colonial life, especially slavery, together with the social and racial division resulting therefrom, helped also to foment the psychology which timidly sought either integral unity with Spain or else favored subjection to a strong power which might conserve the interior unity of the island.

Spain moreover was incapable of endowing its American colonies with a progressive political culture. The Hispanic-American republics were born in the nineteenth century, the century of liberal principles and standards; but their tradition of government was that of the worst Bourbon authoritarianism. Obliged by the rush of events to adopt, without preparation, the democratic forms in vogue in countries of greatly superior political education, they inevitably had to undergo various difficulties of adjustment. Their revolutions were only the price of their apprenticeship; they represented the failure to synchronize political doctrine, understood and appreciated by only a few, with the necessities and impulses of a primitive and heterogeneous popular mass.

Cuba would not escape in its turn the disturbances resulting from this incoherence. When toward the end of the last century José Martí, then in the United States, was in process of preparing the second independence movement, he was careful to point out that this would be only a war of emancipation. The second war, that for internal liberty, would come years later; as Martí prophesied, thirty years later. Previous to her effort for emancipation, Cuba had had occasion to observe the experience of those of her sister countries which already had become independent, and there is historical evidence for the assertion that the example of their convulsions more than once served to curb Cuban emulation. Opposed to certain romantic aspirations and dreams of absolute liberty at any cost, there long thrived in the island a fear of premature independence. This conditioned also the will of the dominant group. Hence the reason why the most characteristic political ideals of this group were of modest scope: annexation or autonomy. In the nineteenth century the Cubans had already contracted a kind of historical inferiority complex, which inhibited their trend toward self-determination.

Strictly speaking, the two wars of 1868-1878 and of 1895-1898 constituted a single long process undermining the psychology of independence. The first, initiated by rural landowners, still flirted with the idea of annexation. The second was better able to represent the longings of the popular mass, now swelled by the free negroes. It was an endeavor to demonstrate -- as José Martí, its apostle, emphasized -- that Cuba was capable of achieving liberty and independence. On the success of that demonstration, consequently, depended the future political morality of the Cubans. Marti had already died on the field of battle and the fate of the war was still doubtful, when the United States, aroused by the "atrocities" of Weyler and naturally desirous of rounding out the sphere of Monroeism, intervened in the conflict and decided the emancipation of Cuba.

It is too often forgotten that this was the first official intervention in Cuba. Others of semi-official character had threatened Spanish rule; for, as Elihu Root was to confess in 1901, "the United States, for the last three-quarters of a century, has proclaimed before the world, both in Europe and America, its right of intervening in Cuba; and has refused to other states even a friendly intervention in Cuban matters." But now intervention was a reality. The Cuban effort for political self-determination resulted thus in semi-subjection, tarnishing the joy and pride of liberation.

But despite the most generous intention on the part of the United States, Cuban illusions were still to be humiliated further. In the Treaty of Paris which put an end to the war, the Republic of Cuba in arms was not even a signatory. The transition from colony to nation was effected by means of the military occupation of the United States. When finally the Cubans were granted permission to write their constitution, the sovereignty of the new state was compromised by the Platt Amendment, which imposed on Cuba a permanent treaty, by which the United States was conceded the right of intervening in Cuba in certain specified emergencies. Cuba was irremediably a protectorate. Her sons had to resign themselves to arrive at national maturity as the wards of a guardian.

Whether the Platt Amendment limits Cuban sovereignty or not has been much discussed in Cuba. The discussion is merely technical. The important point is, not whether the Platt Amendment limits sovereignty itself, but the national sentiment of sovereignty. And on this point doubt is scarcely possible. The paternal and perspicacious prudence of the American Congress resulted in crushing the Cuban sentiment of self-determination, when it imposed express limits on the exercise of the collective will. The most serious consequence was the weakening of those organic defenses of the new state which would have safeguarded its democratic health and vitality. Feeling the threat of potential intervention, the Cuban's sense of responsibility was undermined and with it his power of self-correction. For around this delicate sense of responsibility revolves, in peoples as in individuals, the whole system of moral values and forces. Tutelage favored the growth of general civic indolence, a tepid indifference to national dangers. Should the nation be threatened, the intervention of Washington was always there as a last resource, or a last hope. The heroic attitude was discarded from Cuban values; desperation, that great spur of peoples, was banished. Disillusion led to a withdrawal of the best idealism; the ambition for a republic mature and proud in true historic style, values which are associated alone with full sovereignty, was abandoned. What public spirit remained was forced to find expression in matters of secondary import, or was drawn off into hollow pretense. The spirit of sacrifice gave way to the spirit of exploitation. In short, the protectorate did not grow out of the need for protection, but rather engendered that need for the future.

The spirit of furtive political dependence which characterized the beginnings of the Republic translated itself into a kind of calamitous mimicry, thus strengthening the same lack of originality and of independent ability to determine standards which had derived from the limited political opportunities of the colonial period. The Cuban Constitution of 1901 was an impromptu production, based on foreign models which were totally inadequate for application to the reality of a nation both immature and heterogeneous. From the American Constitution was taken, in addition to many precepts and institutional forms without justification in the case of Cuba, the principle of a strong executive. But in the new republic this principle was to lack the counterpoise of the states, and consequently degenerated. On the other hand, the unprepared masses were granted a direct and overwhelming representation in the political machinery. Unconsciously the foundation was thus laid for a despotic presidency and an irresponsible and oligarchic democracy. The national will was left at the mercy of a confused understanding between the will of one single individual and the blind will of the masses.

Such is the psychological and political background of the first era of the republic. Let us now consider how Cuba's primary problem, that of economic semi-subjection, is projected thereupon.

Economically also Cuba is a nation under intervention: that is, a nation which has no power over the conditions determining its material well-being. This is due to the fact that the Cuban, because of the semi-subjection of his political will, has never resolved (until the present) to reconquer and maintain a sure control over his country's resources, which were alienated during the emancipation period.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the past century, the Cubans were jealously excluded from public office by bureaucrats brought from Spain. They did however own and control the country's economic wealth -- land, sugar, cattle, etc. The exploitation of Spanish rule was limited to the enormous taxation levied on this wealth of the creoles. The campaign of emancipation which began in 1868 obliged the Cuban to sacrifice his connection with that wealth. Plantation owners freed their slaves, saw their sugar mills demolished or burned them themselves with their own hands; they had to abandon lands and farms to go into the struggle or into exile. The Spaniards took possession in great part of this abandoned wealth. When the Ten Years War ended, therefore, the Cuban had been displaced to large degree by the peninsular Spaniard and by the small group of Cuban "Tories." The war of 1895 completed this displacement. When peace was made the Cuban was little less than destitute. It might have been hoped that the treaty ending the war would compensate for these sacrifices by indemnities such as fall to the victor in every demobilization. But as has already been said, the Cuban, at least halfway victorious, was not a party to the Treaty of Paris. The geographic booty -- Puerto Rico and the Philippines -- was reserved by the United States.

Thus emancipation was translated by the American intervention into a semi-subject political independence; and on the economic side the Cuban was left dependent on those who held the island's wealth. These were principally Spaniards. The republic made its début under the sign of that disappointment. The relationship contracted with the United States opened a wide door for the investment of northern capital. The Cuban was needy. Intervention had damaged him psychologically; he lacked capacity for resistance and decision. He sold a great part of his lands at the first favorable offer, thus opening the way for the monopolization of them by American capital. The population of Cuba was divided into a small privileged class possessing the residue of colonial opulence, and the middle and lower classes, cut off from all wealth.

Those classes attacked the only resource left to them: the government budget. They removed from power the country's first president, the austere and economical Estrada Palma. After a second American intervention, they elevated to the presidency rulers disposed to serve the needy expeditiously and generously if not always wisely. Thus originated a treasury policy of large expenditures: that is, of swollen budgets, frequent loans, bureaucratic waste and copious graft. The presidents abandoned themselves to this short-sighted policy and were popular to the degree in which they generalized extravagance, sharing it with the largest possible number of citizens.

A fictitious prosperity was thus enjoyed for many years. Burdened by successive and growing loans, which were willingly granted by calculating foreign banks, the Republic was able to carry the weight of this artificial economy so long as sugar -- which is the basis of the island's prosperity -- remained in Cuban hands and was quoted at good prices. But in proportion as this last held true, the greed of American capital for further investment showed corresponding increase. In ever greater number the sugar centrales passed into the hands of northern stock-holders. Vast landed properties -- by the necessities of rationalization -- grew up around them. Thus the alienation of Cuban wealth attained its apogee. After the Great War the people of Cuba were economically a servant people. The position which they had occupied during the colonial period was reversed: now the Cuban held the flag and public office, but wealth was in other hands.

It is easy to imagine how this economic subjection determined a corresponding political and civic subjection. Where extravagance is an almost obligatory administrative standard, little austerity is to be looked for from rulers. The economic destitution of the Cuban made him an accomplice of the short-sighted and wasteful official. Dependent on government favor, or on the service direct or indirect of strong foreign interests, the Cuban had to choose between compliance and suicidal rebellion. He decided naturally for compliance. The consequence was popular support of corrupt government, whose only required virtue was that of liberality.

During the first two decades of the Republic, artificial prosperity dissembled the havoc which was being wrought in the vital forces of the country. A conscious minority recognized that public morality was profoundly corrupt, that the ideals which had led to the founding of the nation had been defrauded. But that minority, cut off from the mass, was impotent to act upon it. The mechanism of the political parties had fallen into the hands of an oligarchy of professional politicians, at the service of all-powerful but short-sighted presidents and of a political clientele avid for favors. Two conditions were indispensable for a reaction against such a state of affairs: first, that the masses should be pushed to protest by economic need; second, that the conscience and will of the country should feel itself brutalized by a despotic president.

With the collapse of the apparatus for a super-production of sugar, which most improvidently had been created during the World War to satisfy what was then believed to be a lasting demand, the first condition was on the point of realization. The economic malaise provoked symptoms which pointed toward a substantial change towards the end of the Zayas period. Adversity is a coefficient of all other misfortunes. The country felt itself sinking into poverty and corruption and endeavored to react in the so-called movement of Veterans and Patriots. Its failure made clear the need for a more energetic reagent.

Under these conditions Machado came to power in 1925. Because of his relationships and his personal and political antecedents, he could only be expected to be another spendthrift. He began, in fact, with a fantastically expensive program of public works. At the same time he launched a no less fantastic program for national "regeneration." The people, avid for rectitude as well as for public expenditures, thought they had found their model president, their providential man. They were not slow in noting, however, that although the program of public works maintained the tradition of extravagance, the benefits fell not to the many but only into the hands of a palace clique.

At the first sign of inconformity, Machado showed his hand. Public opinion struggled for expression in the University, in the press and even in Congress; but Machado silenced it incontinenti. Intimidation spread through the land. The people then placed their hope in Machado's promise not to seek reëlection. As the end of his period approached, the President reformed the Constitution to his fancy and was reëlected, not for four but for six years more. To assure his possession of this plunder, secured by pressure and bribery of the electorate and by control of the political leaders, the President, really a de facto ruler, maintained the constitutional apparatus which provided a cloak of legality for his dictatorship. But he bribed Congress, intimidated the courts, made certain of the support of the army by many privileges, and curbed all protest by the cruelest and most sinister régime of repression which Cuban history has known.

Thus despotism appeared: the second condition essential for popular reaction was fulfilled. The rest of the story is known. The opposition to Machado promptly took on unanimity -- muffled but indisputable. For the first time, all classes in the country were united in resistance. To explain why this universal conviction did not translate itself into an effective force would carry us too far afield. But to make clear the character of the recent revolution it is chiefly important here to point out that despotism and the economic crisis were the two conditions which led the Cuban people to become conscious of the Republic's fundamental evils, to consider the inadequacy of their political institutions, to recognize the economic root of their problems and of the factors both internal and external limiting their civic vitality, and to dispose themselves finally to assert their will against all these obstacles.

The events of August have been the initial steps in this effort to affirm and liberate the national will of the Cuban people. For that reason they constitute the first phase of a genuine revolution, for which the Machado tyranny has been only a stimulus. This revolution is animated by the purpose to restore the full liberty of the Cuban people. They must find their bearings in relation to their national problems, and solve those problems adequately and finally. For the first time since the war of independence, the people of Cuba experienced during those August days the emotion of control, the feeling that they were masters of their own destiny. We shall not inquire to what degree that experience was an illusion. The duty of loyal Cubans and the duty of all those who truly wish to help Cuba is to promote the translation of that illusion, if such it was, into reality.

Cuba needs to feel itself independent and to pay, if necessary, the historic price of that dignity; to pay that price, if such is its destiny, with still more pain and more blood. It is not among soft cushions nor under parental tutelage that peoples learn responsibility and capacity for self-government. The best service which the United States could render Cuba would be to consent to the abrogation of the Platt Amendment, which is the fundamental cause for the psychological semi-subjection of the Cuban people. To the degree that Cubans possess sufficient vision to see beyond their immediate interests, to conceive and feel Cuba in its historic dimension they long for that abrogation. But it is clear that the United States could agree to such a step only by recognizing its consequences: to wit, the simultaneous renunciation, for both present and future, of the privileges which power and proximity give.

Cuba furthermore needs to achieve without delay a fundamental solution of its economic problem, assuring to the Cuban his proper and inalienable relationship to the riches of his country. This presupposes a policy of economic restoration which necessarily would put a check, legally though none the less effectively, to foreign interests exercising an excessive domination which limits or conditions the Cuban's means of support. Only a magnanimous acquiescence to such a policy on the part of the United States will leave clear of all doubt, both in Cuba and in Latin America as a whole, the friendship of the great Republic of the north for this young Republic of the Caribbean.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JORGE MAÑACH, Cuban lawyer and writer, member of the Executive Committee of the A. B. C., author of a recent biography of José Martí
  • More By Jorge Mañach