Everyone has heard of the Cuba Libre, potentially the most popular mixed drink in the world, consisting of rum and Coke. However, few are aware of the historical and symbolic significance of this ubiquitous cocktail. It was created in the wake of Cuba’s independence from Spain, following the Spanish-American War, using Cuba’s infamous Bacardi Rum. The Bacardi Family – and the well-known Emilio Bacardi – were distinguished leaders within Cuba’s community and prominent Cuban nationalists; to this day, a properly made Cuba Libre cocktail must contain Bacardi Rum; the pedigree is an important national symbol.
The Cuba Libre and its familiar Coca-Cola flavors rose in popularity during the United States’ early-twentieth-century involvement in various military interventions within Cuba, as well as during Prohibition, when Americans would travel to the not-so-distant island to imbibe without constraint.
While many know of the drink, few people are aware that some Cuban citizens have their own name for the Cuba Libre: they call it “La Mentirita,” which translates to “[Cuba’s] little lie.” This name is rooted in the pain and trauma that develops from generations of fighting for a free and liberal Cuba, eventually bringing such a dream into reality by establishing a republic (and paying the cost for that glimmer of freedom in loss and bloodshed), only to be duped by self-interested “revolutionaries,” who deny the Cuban people their natural rights at every turn.
Cuba has experienced a number of revolutions (although none as famous as Castro’s Revolution in 1959). Most are a part of the endless litany of minor revolts that fill the annals of that restless island’s history, but there are three major uprisings and attempts by the Cuban people to seize their nation’s freedom, which are essential to understanding the Cuban story.
The first is called the Ten Years War, which lasted from 1868 until 1878, and it was the first major modern Cuban Revolution. Although this revolution was primarily a war for the independence of the Cuban people and endeavored to establish a nation and a government based upon liberal principles, it also began to encompass a variety of broader, secondary principles. The war began when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes – a sugarcane plantation owner, who would become Cuba’s leading general in this battle against Spanish colonialism – freed his slaves and declared Cuba’s independence from Spain, offering his slaves the opportunity to fight by his side in the revolution, as free men. As the story goes, he assembled his slaves in the middle of the night, and proclaimed: “To win its independence and freedom, Cuba needs every one of its sons. Those of you who want to follow me, follow. Those who want to stay here, stay. Everyone will be equally free.” Céspedes’ emancipation of his slaves and the quest for racial justice would eventually become a symbol, synonymous with the liberation of the Cuban nation, as well as an example for other landowners to follow. To many Cuban revolutionaries, the concept of slavery was inimical to a free Cuba, and the relationships inherent in slavery (e.g., a slave and a master) seemed to represent the subjugative relationship between Cuba and its Spanish colonizer. The Ten Years War united Cubans from various walks of life and served to underscore a pre-existing island-wide discourse about slavery and its future within Cuba. Thus, the revolution was irreversibly intertwined with the ideals of Cuban abolitionism and the independence movement became synonymous with successful progress towards liberation for enslaved Africans on the island. The symbolism inherent in Céspedes’ actions is only slightly tarnished by his “Decree on Slavery” made on 27 December 1868, in which it became clear that one of the primary reasons for Céspedes’ freeing of his slaves – and the widespread freeing of slaves by landowners across the island – was due to his need for able-bodied men to fight in his war against Spain. Céspedes detailed Cuba’s liberal aspirations in the 10th of October Manifesto – “we believe that all men are equal, we love tolerance, order and justice in all matters; we respect lives and properties of all peaceful citizens…;” “We desire… free trade with friendly nations that use reciprocity, national representation to decree the laws and taxes, and, in general, we demand the religious observance of the imprescriptible rights of man…” – one of Cuba’s first independence documents. Unfortunately, this revolution failed to secure Cuba’s independence from Spain, following Céspedes’ death.
The second major Cuban revolution is called The Cuban War of Independence, also known as The Necessary War in Cuba, and more colloquially elsewhere as Martí’s Insurrection. It lasted from 1895 to 1898, and ended once the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain, which dictated that Cuba would exist in a state of occupation by the United States — notably, the Treaty of Paris was signed without any opportunity for Cuban input. José Martí — A Cuban nationalist, revolutionary symbol of the Cuban independence movement, and namesake of the Cuban War of Independence – wrote frequently about his liberal ideals, and his vision for a free Cuba. In 1892, Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, to facilitate the future fight against Spain. In a letter published by Jose Martí in Patria newspaper, he explained his motivations for founding the party. He lamented the Spanish colonial government’s denial of “the rights of men to the sons of Spaniards [Cubans],” and Spain’s interference with “the peaceful practice of independence in the free fatherland.” He expressed outrage with the colonial government which “punished the practice of freedoms…, with the lash, stealthy exile, or a dagger in the night.” Martí also clarified that the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s highest priority was liberty and that the “courage [of revolutionaries]” must be kept “from the grave danger of offending freedom.” In the platform which Martí drafted for this party, he described the beliefs of the independence-minded Cubans, and their determination for “a war waged with Republican methods and spirit, a nation capable of ensuring a durable happiness to its children, and of fulfilling, in the historic life of the continent, the difficult duties determined for it by its geographic location.” Martí made clear his intent to build a “new and sincerely democratic nation.” He states that the revolution “must be fought for the integrity and welfare of all Cubans, and to give all Cubans a free country.” On tyranny, Martí couldn’t possibly have been clearer: “The Cuban Revolutionary Party does not propose to perpetuate in the Cuban Republic, either with new forms or with changes that are more apparent than essential, the authoritarian spirit and bureaucratic composition of the colony….” The revolution was conducted to build “a just and frank republic – unified in territory, laws, work, and cordiality, built by all for the benefit of all.” As for the conduct of the revolution itself, it was to be pursued “in conformity with democratic methods,” and it was to be constrained by “the country’s rights, realities, and democratic spirit, in line with justice and experience.” In one of his works, titled “Our Ideas,” Martí stated that he believed the revolution rested upon the “determination to keep the country free so that a man may aspire to happiness by means of the full exercise of that freedom,” and he advocated for racial justice, stating “regardless of their [a Cuban citizen’s] color, [the revolution] will be equally just.” In José Martí’s work, “Our America,” racial justice again appeared as a central theme. He argued that racial biases could not exist in a free Cuba, because “There are no races… the soul, equal and eternal, emanates from bodies that are diverse in form and color.” Importantly, in this work Martí also describes his idea of a representative government: “The government must be born from the country. The spirit of the government must be the spirit of the country. The form of the government must be in harmony with the country’s natural constitution. The government is no more than an equilibrium among the country’s natural elements.” Martí’s revolution was overshadowed by the Spanish-American War, and ended with a brief occupation by the United States, as well as an extended period of post-occupation U.S. influence on the island which has led to significant controversy amongst historians of Cuba. However, it did deliver a measure of autonomy, freedom, liberalism, and prosperity to the Cuban people, albeit not immediately, and only for a short time.
Although the Cuban Republic is almost always associated with the period following United States’ occupation (the years 1902-1959), the Republic actually came into existence during the Cuban War of Independence, and its inception meant immediate progress for the Cuban people. While engaging in combat with its Spanish colonizer, the Cuban Republic provided a functioning alternative to colonial subjugation; this government collected taxes, held elections, built schools, and facilitated political discourse as well as the publishing of newspapers. Progress only accelerated after the end of the United States’ occupation. Economic data from the Cuban Republic show that it was a middle-income country, with consumption rates that were remarkably similar to those of European countries or that of the southern United States; as well as an income per capita which well exceeded the average performance of other Latin American nations. Cuba led Latin America in infrastructure and technology development during this period, which helped to catalyze the Republic’s strong economic performance. Social conditions throughout the island during the republic period were also exceptional by Latin American standards, with an infant mortality rate equal to Europe’s average as well as a life expectancy just shy of that in the United States, and a literacy rate of 79 percent (the highest in Latin America.) In the way of liberalization, the Cuban Republic propagated a number of anti-discrimination laws (based on the principles of Marti and his revolution) — most notably, a law was passed which intended to establish legal and cultural equality for Cuban women. Finally, after World War Two – in which Cuba fought on the side of the Allied Powers – the Cuban Republic led the charge for an international movement dedicated to the protection of human rights. When 58 state delegations convened for the first session of the United Nations, to determine the direction of the post-world order, Cuba pushed the body to curate a list of the essential rights of all humankind. Despite facing resistance, the Cuban delegation persisted, resulting in the establishment of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights and the initiation of a years-long process resulting in the creation of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Early in the proceedings, the Cuban delegation presented a draft of the Declaration which served as a model and a guide throughout the drafting process; during which the Cuban delegation remained the most vocal, in defense of important issues such as gender equality. The Cuban people were living in the manifestation of José Martí’s dream, finally, they were living in a free Cuba.
In the early fifties (26 July 1953, to be exact), Castro burst onto the stage as Cuba’s next revolutionary, and consecrated a new Cuban Revolution with his attack on Moncada Barracks. This proved to be a disaster and a false start, resulting in Castro’s imprisonment, and eventual exile to Mexico. After Castro’s return to Cuba at the end of 1956, with the disastrously planned Granma landing, the revolution re-commenced. At this time, the soul of the Cuban people was still decidedly liberal; they desired an end to Fulgencio Batista’s brutal dictatorship, but they were also seeking a revolutionary who would realize the dreams of their freedom-fighting forefathers. Castro’s Revolution was actually funded in large part by Cuba’s capitalists, including the Bacardi family (Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba is a seminal work on Cuban history and the Bacardi family’s role), who believed in the liberal ideals of free market capitalism. In order to deceive these liberals, and to assuage their growing doubts about his leadership, Castro engaged in a masquerade, professing beliefs that he never actually possessed. He affixed his name to the Sierra Maestro Manifesto, a document that preached “the beautiful ideal of a free, democratic, and just Cuba,” and promised the Cuban people a government free from “the lies, farces, and compromises of the dictatorship.” Yet, just days after Castro’s ascension to power, Che Guevara and the Butcher of Havana had been given command of La Cabaña Prison and weretasked with executing former pro-Batista officials and Castro’s political opponents. Just a month after his arrival in Havana, after Batista’s departure, Castro was appointed Prime Minister by virtue of his role as “Chief of the Revolution,” and it became clear that Castro’s will was now the letter of the law. A month later, Castro made a statement to this effect (as quoted in Gjelten’s work), “Revolutionary justice is based not on legal principles, but on moral conviction.” Ostensibly, Castro was referring to his moral conviction, as “Chief of the Revolution.” In 1961, Castro made a speech to a group of intellectuals, in which he made the now-infamous statement “This means that within the revolution, everything goes; against, the Revolution, nothing.” By now, everyone got the message: there would be no freedom in Cuba.
Now, in 2023, Cuba still exists as a nation oppressed under a brutal and totalitarian regime. Castro’s venomous ideology has outlived him. With each transfer of power (From Fidel Castro to Raúl Castro, and then to Miguel Díaz-Canel), the West allowed itself to hope for reform, and each time those hopes – and the dreams of the Cuban people – have been crushed. The population of Cuba’s political prisons grows every day, as Cubans march in the streets chanting “Patria y vida” and “Cuba Libre,” and as the rest of the world turns a blind-eye to their suffering.
What will Cuba look like another century from now? Will it still languish under the boot of a dictator; will its pain still be disregarded by the rest of the world?
When will Cuba get the modern state that it deserves, and has desired for centuries, one that is true to its liberal soul? When will the Cuban people finally be free? When will they be able to raise a glass of La Mentirita and cheer Cuba Libre! with the rest of the world?