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Cuba: Birth of a Nation
by Guillermo A Belt
Guillermo A. Belt received a Doctorate in Law from the University of Villanueva, Havana, Cuba. He was a staff member of the Organization of American States (OAS), Washington, DC, participating in several Inter-American political missions from 1961 until retirement in 1998.
Early on October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, 49, born in Bayamo, the second oldest city in Cuba, a lawyer, sugar planter, and outspoken opponent of Spanish colonial rule, ordered the bell rung at his small plantation, La Demajagua, near the town of Yara, in the islandâ€™s easternmost province of Oriente.
Over one hundred fellow patriots and thirty slaves answered the call. CĂ©spedes immediately freed the slaves, declared them citizens and invited them to join his small army. He announced: â€śWe only want to be free and equal, as the Creator intended all mankind to be.â€ť All the former slaves joined the rebel force.
The Grito de Yara, as CĂ©spedesâ€™ shout for freedom is known in the history of Cuba, marks the beginning of the Ten Yearsâ€™ War, by far the longest of the countryâ€™s three wars of independence. Courage and determination ruled the day. CĂ©spedes had to improvise a flag. Tradition tells us that he chose three pieces of cloth: red, from his lawyerâ€™s toga; blue, from the robe on a statue of the Virgin Mary; and white, from his wifeâ€™s wedding dress. Candelaria Acosta, â€śCambulaâ€ť, the 17-year old daughter of La Demajaguaâ€™s foreman, sewed them together.
The flag CĂ©spedes designed and flew on October 10, 1868.
The army of 147 men failed to take Yara the following day, due mainly to the lack of weapons and of military experience. But by the end of the month CĂ©spedes had 12,000 men, and after a 3-day battle took Bayamo, and later HolguĂn, both much more important objectives. The war quickly spread beyond Oriente.
On April 10, 1869, the patriots held a Constitutional Convention at GuĂˇimaro, in neighboring Camaguey province, and approved the first Constitution of Cuba, which established three branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. Article 24 declared that all the inhabitants of Cuba were completely free, thus abolishing slavery on the island. Carlos Manuel de CĂ©spedes was elected President of the Republic in Arms.
Five years into the war, political and military rivalries in the ranks he had led so bravely resulted in his being deposed, on October 28, 1873. He accepted this injustice, saying that no blood would ever be shed in Cuba on his account. Left to his own devices, without an escort, CĂ©spedes went up into the Sierra Maestra Mountains, in his beloved Oriente, accompanied only by his eldest son and namesake. There he busied himself teaching children to read and write. On February 27, 1874, with his son momentarily away from their remote camp at San Lorenzo, alone and nearly blind, he was attacked by surprise by a column of Spanish soldiers. Refusing to be taken alive, the father of the Cuban nation had time to fire only two shots from his revolver before falling, mortally wounded, down the side of a ravine.
On the 142nd anniversary of the Grito de Yara there is a sad postscript to the story. On October 10, Capitol Hill Cubans quoted Spainâ€™s news agency EFE, which reported from Havana the complaint by the Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White) that Sonia Garro Alfonso and Mercedes Fresneda Castillo, two activists from their support group, had been brutally beaten by Cuban state security. They were detained over the weekend for demonstrating with a sign that read â€śDown with racism and long live human rights.â€ť Both Garro and Fresneda are Afro-Cuban. The complaint states that during their detention the police broke Garroâ€™s nose and fractured Fresnedaâ€™s left wrist.
From a regime in absolute power for more than half a century, which scoffs at every tenet of democratic governance and systematically violates human rights, we can expect no less. One of the male policemen who beat up the two black women told them: â€śGet this into your heads. We beat you up, and nothing will come of it.â€ť
A far cry indeed, from the bid for freedom at Yara to the reality of Cuba today.