One hundred years later, when I visited Santiago to retrace the steps of that epic battle, a siege of a different sort was under way. City residences had gone 12 days without water. On the streets, people were engaged in an endless scramble for daily necessities, lining up outside shoe stores and bread stores, clamoring to find out what hitherto unavailable item had suddenly, unexpectedly, gone on sale. Lines for city buses stretched three blocks and more. In the hotel restaurant, the waiter handed me a lengthy menu and left me to study it for 15 minutes before he returned to inform me that the restaurant was out of everything except pork sandwiches and beer.
To the people of Santiago, none of this was remarkable. The 1898 American embargo lasted a couple of months; the current embargo has been in effect for 37 years.
But I was discovering that there was more than a coincidental
relationship between the siege that ended in Cuban independence and the
siege that resulted from the Cuban Revolution. The more I learned about
the legendary charge of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the more I
believed the exaggeration, self-deceptions, outright lies and general
arrogance surrounding that event fed directly into the failure of Cuban
democracy, and the sorry situation that exists on this beautiful island a
History, Part II
Most Americans can conjure up a fanciful image of the mounted Roosevelt, saber raised overhead, leading a thundering cavalry -- bugles sounding, guidons fluttering -- on a defiant charge up San Juan Hill into the desperate fire of a startled, doomed foe.
The Rough Riders, 1898
Of course, I eventually learned that history is full of myths and half-truths. George Washington told plenty of lies. Thomas Jefferson, the champion of individual liberty, was a slave holder. Gen. George Armstrong Custer was no glorious warrior, but an obnoxious fool who led brave men to certain death in a genocidal war.
Most Americans are aware of Custer's blind ambition. Many realize the inherent conflict between this country's founding principles and its embrace of the slave system. But the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill retains an aura of glory, a sense of brash, brave men striking an unselfish blow for liberty.
As the centennial of Roosevelt's famous charge approached, I felt a growing compulsion to get to the raw reality of it. Was it even possible, I wondered, to (legally) visit San Juan Hill? What could you learn by going there? Would there be something as surprising as the slave quarters at Monticello? Would there be something as sobering as the graves at Little Big Horn?
The answer to the first question was (relatively) easy: Yes, but only
after applying to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license that granted
me an exemption from the Trading With the Enemy Act. The other answers
would have to wait.
Teddy Roosevelt leads the Rough Riders up San Juan
Hill. Only problem is Roosevelt only rode up San Juan Hill after the army
cavalry had sent the Spanish packing.
On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. It was probably an accident. Some in Cuba have argued that the Americans sacrificed a precious war ship (the Navy was thin to begin with) as an excuse to invade Cuba and pick off a choice possession from a crumbling European empire. But in 1898 American public opinion -- swayed by journalists eager to boost circulation -- decreed it an act of war by Spain, which had ruled Cuba for almost 400 years. President William McKinley obliged the raging sentiment and declared war against Spain on April 11, 1898. At the time, the U.S. Army stood at a mere 25,000 soldiers, one-fifth the number of troops needed for such a war. While the Army struggled to find arms and equipment for the new forces, it had no problem finding volunteers. Over a million men showed up at recruiting stations hoping to make the cut.
Going to war was the thing to do in the spring of 1898.
One of those eager to head into battle was the assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Somewhat overweight, nearly 40 years old, and with no military background, Roosevelt was hardly a likely candidate for a combat command. A wealthy scion, he had spent years in governmental positions awarded to him for loyal support of the Republican Party.
But Roosevelt had a persistent need to prove his manliness. When a stint as a cattle rancher in Dakota Territory didn't satisfy that need, Roosevelt focused his attention on the political conflict with Spain, built on the American desire to rid the Western Hemisphere of European powers. He longed for a war and chance to go to the front, where he might prove himself as a soldier. More than 30 years after the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt worried that his generation was getting "soft" without trial by combat. From his desk in Washington, he became one of the loudest advocates for intervention in Cuba, calling it ``righteous'' and ``advantageous to the honor and interests of the nation.''
Photo shows troops gathering at Port Tampa heading for
To this rugged crew, Roosevelt added some 50 men with backgrounds closer to his own: Ivy Leaguers from wealthy Eastern families. In citing their qualifications for active duty, Roosevelt touted their athletic accomplishments. Dudley Dean was ``perhaps the best quarterback who ever played on a Harvard 11.'' Bob Wrenn was ``the champion tennis player of America.'' Other Easterners included ``Waller, the high jumper; Craig Wadsworth, the steeplechase rider; Joe Stephens, the crack polo player; and Hamilton Fish, the ex-captain of the Columbia crew.''
The First U.S. Voluntary Cavalry Regiment gathered in San Antonio for training. Roosevelt provided the troops with a dapper uniform: slouch hats, blue flannel shirts, brown duck trousers, leggings and boots, with blue polka-dot bandannas knotted loosely around the neck.
Drawn to the lieutenant colonel's flair and the novelty of a regiment composed of cowboys and quarterbacks, the press corps immediately recognized that the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry was a source of great copy. Journalists filed daily reports on the regiment's training and the latest Roosevelt quip. First they dubbed the regiment ``Teddy's Terrors''; then ``Teddy's Riotous Rounders''; then the name that stuck: ``Roosevelt's Rough Riders.''
Once the troops were transferred from Texas to Tampa, the staging area
for the Cuban invasion, Roosevelt entertained the reporters with his
audacity. The military accommodations didn't suit his taste, so he took it
on himself to rearrange the encampment. When the order was given to load
the transport ships in Tampa, Roosevelt didn't like the pace at which the
loading was proceeding; he commandeered a coal train at gunpoint in order
to get his men to the quay faster. Later, fearing that the Rough Riders
might get left behind, TR took possession of a troop ship assigned to a
regiment of regulars and boarded his men instead. In each instance, the
press lauded his insubordination and cheered him on -- a foreshadowing of
events to come.
A 1954 Chrysler
In Santiago, my first mission was to hire a driver to take me to the sites of long-ago battles. The government-run tourist taxis, officially the only taxis available to foreigners, were charging ludicrously high rates, so I walked over to the Parque Cespedes in the city center, where a number of men offered the services of their private cars. Some paid a monthly fee to operate with official approval. Others ran the risk of a fine if they were caught engaging in a private enterprise.
The driver I chose, Rodolfo, fell in the latter category. Because carrying a foreigner enhanced his risk, he charged me a few dollars more than the licensed operators. But I liked his car -- a 1954 Chrysler New Yorker in fine condition. It was probably the biggest car I had ever stepped into, and it looked much safer than the rattletrap Soviet Ladas lined up along the plaza. But before I could get in, Rodolfo signaled for me to wait. A policeman was approaching.
It was all too obvious what was going on, but the policeman merely nodded, rapped his knuckles on the trunk of the Chrysler, and passed on by. He wasn't 20 feet past us when Rodolfo waved me into the car. As long as you were somewhat discreet, Rodolfo explained, the police weren't likely to bother you. But if you flouted the rules in front of them, they could come down hard. The fines were heavy -- several months' wages.
Rodolfo was a dapper man, dressed in a starched white guayabera, his hair gone gray at the edges. He loved to talk. As we took the road east out of Santiago, headed for the beach town of Daiquiri, Rodolfo kept up a nonstop monologue. It was very exciting, he said, to meet someone from Miami. In the mid-1950s, he had attended the Miami Military Academy. He liked Miami a lot, and someday hoped to go back and see the school and the Dolly Madison Ice Cream Parlor that he used to frequent. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that neither place existed any longer.
After the Revolution, Rodolfo went to medical school and became a doctor, specializing in pediatrics. The health-care system and education were the two great successes of the Revolution, he said, and he was proud to have been a part of the success. But life was very difficult just now. As a doctor he made only $20 a month, the same salary he had received for years. Prices, meanwhile, had risen dramatically. He needed to work as a taxi driver to supplement his salary. He was lucky he had this old car to use for generating income.
His father had bought the Chrysler before the Revolution, and Rodolfo inherited it from him. Since the Revolution, private property could not change hands except through inheritance. It was virtually impossible to acquire a house or a car, so you had to maintain what you had. The private property laws were, in his mind, the most onerous and asinine fact of life in contemporary Cuba.
After 30 kilometers of driving along the rolling bluffs above the sea,
we came to Daiquiri, a small coastal town where the Rough Riders landed in
1898. It was a difficult landing. The transport ships couldn't get within
a mile of the shore, and the surf was rough for the small lighters used to
bring ashore 16,000 men and 10 million pounds of rations, arms and
ammunition. Fortunately for the Americans, the Spanish army did not show
up in Daiquiri. Roosevelt guessed that a force of 500 could have easily
repelled the chaotic landing of such a large, clumsy operation.
The Unknown Soldiers
On the day of my visit, the beach at Daiquiri was occupied by a contingent of Italian tourists, the women lying topless on the sand, the men in bright bikini briefs kicking a soccer ball and smoking cigarettes. A white-haired Cuban with a weathered face passed us, a fat cigar stuck in his mouth. He carried a tray of -- what else? -- daiquiris down to the Italians. With his cigar and beard, he looked like an emaciated version of Fidel -- a Fidel who hadn't eaten in a few weeks.
It was here at Daiquiri that TR saw Cuban insurgents for the first time. He took one look and decided they were ``a crew of as utter tatterdemalions as human eyes ever looked on. . . . It was evident, at a glance, that they would be of no use in serious fighting.''
It was true that the Cuban insurgents didn't look good. They were dressed in rags, barefoot, and emaciated after three years in the jungles and mountains, where they had survived for months at a time on green fruit, palm nuts and snake meat. But TR's conclusion that the Cubans were ``nearly useless'' missed the mark. These ``tatterdemalions'' had managed in three years of jungle warfare to drive the Spanish army into disarray. Constantly pestered by bands of guerrillas, the Spanish had lost their will to fight. Before the U.S. even arrived, 100,000 Spanish soldiers had died and Spain had depleted its resources.
Standing on the beach at Daiquiri, Roosevelt wondered why the Spanish army didn't repel the landing. He never thought to credit the ``useless'' Cubans, who had already taken and defended the beachhead so that the American troops could land.
In fact, that had been no small feat. For years, the great Cuban general Calixto Garcia had endured the harshest of conditions as he led the insurgents against a numerically superior and better equipped foe. Sheer will and strategic genius had enabled him to bring the Spanish army to the point of capitulation. Garcia (along with the forces of Maximo Gomez operating in central Cuba) might well have been able to deliver the knockout punch himself. He certainly would have defeated Spain if the Americans had simply sent arms and rations.
Nevertheless, Garcia welcomed the involvement of American forces in the hopes that a quicker conclusion to the war would save lives. So Garcia, then 70, in the last months of his life, marched 4,000 men in five days across Cuba's highest mountains to reach the outskirts of Santiago in time to clear out any opposition to the American landing. Additionally, he deployed troops to strategic locations in order to prevent the Spanish from reinforcing Santiago. Far from the battles involving Americans, Cubans fought bitter guerrilla battles against large Spanish forces. Their efforts went unreported by the American correspondents, who clung close to Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was far from alone in his dismissive attitude toward the Cubans. The renowned novelist Stephen Crane, in Cuba to cover the war for Pulitzer's New York World, noted that ``both officers and privates have the most lively contempt for the Cubans. They despise them.''
Other correspondents wrote that the Cubans were ``worthless'' and a sorry disappointment. History -- at least the American version -- has accepted that assessment: For 100 years, most American history books have left the Cubans out of the picture.
As we drove from Daiquiri to Siboney, another beach town, I told Rodolfo
about the comments of Roosevelt and the correspondents. He nodded.
``It's one of the reasons our countries have bad relations,'' he said.
``In the Cuban view, the Americans stole the victory from us. We call it
``la fruta madura,'' the ripe fruit. This means that Cuban independence
was a piece of ripe fruit, plucked by the Americans after Cubans did all
The Color Yellow
In Siboney, a tour group of sunbathing Canadians cavorted on the beach. This sybaritic scene was far different from the town's nightmarish appearance when the Americans occupied it in 1898. For it was here that the U.S. Army established its field hospital. And it was here that the American soldiers saw the grim reality of war -- so different from their expectations when they rushed to enlist. The hastily assembled Army was in fact ill-equipped for war. The soldiers were issued wool uniforms -- suitable for Northern winters but not for a rainy season in the tropics. Scores suffered from dehydration and heatstroke. The rations were improperly canned, and many more were put out of action by food poisoning.
When the battles began, hundreds of wounded were brought back to this beach to die or to await the surgeon's amputating saw. Where Canadian tourists now rubbed their limbs with tanning oil, used ammunition boxes once stood, filled with amputated limbs. The sand was littered with bloody clothing and shoes cut from wounded flesh. Vultures circled overhead. Flies swarmed. At night, land crabs emerged to pick at corpses and body parts. Those soldiers who were strong enough beat back the bold crabs that advanced on the wounded who were too feeble to fend for themselves.
The scene was particularly nightmarish to the soldiers suffering the delirium of yellow fever or malaria. Only 379 men would die of combat wounds in Cuba; more than 5,000 succumbed to ``yellow jack,'' as the troops called yellow fever. The dead were buried in the hills above Siboney under wooden crosses, but no trace of their burial remains. Rodolfo and I asked a few people about the graves of American soldiers in the area. No one had a clue.
One grizzled cane cutter, machete dangling from his waist, was bemused by my question. No, no Yankee soldiers buried here, he said. ``Perhaps the señor would do better to visit the Bay of Pigs.''
From Siboney, Rodolfo and I followed the road to Santiago. We passed a farmhouse where Castro, then a young revolutionist, once stayed on his way to attacking a barracks in Santiago. The road was lined with memorials to those who died in the attack, but as at Siboney, all trace of the 1898 war had long since vanished. I tried to recognize the landmarks mentioned in accounts of the American invasion, but the jungle that then existed had given way to cultivation.
Black troopers distinguished themselves in the war, but
their toughest battle was against discrimination. Troopers of the Ninth
and Tenth cavalries were in the forefront of the assault on Kettle and San
According to these accounts, Roosevelt endangered the American line in his search for a ``bully fight.'' Meanwhile, it was left to the regular cavalry, the First and Tenth Regiments, to turn the Spanish flank and save the troops that Roosevelt had left exposed.
In the press frenzy over the Rough Riders, the heroism of the Tenth was
almost completely ignored. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Tenth was an
all-black regiment. One Southern officer, in a dispatch to the New York
Evening Post, said, ``If it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough
Riders would have been exterminated. I am not a Negro lover
. . . but the Negroes saved that fight.''
Cruising along in the '54 Chrysler, we passed some bluffs and entered a broad valley. The road turned to the west. ``Bueno,'' Rodolfo said, ``there's San Juan Hill.''
I scanned the far side of the valley and saw nothing but a few gentle undulations about three miles distant. After so much anticipation, I expected something grander and more imposing out of the famous hill. Certainly something more obvious.
``Where?'' I asked.
``Straight ahead, where there's a Ferris wheel.''
I studied the hazy ridge line and spotted the wheel. It wasn't what I expected to see atop San Juan Hill.
``That's the 26th of July Amusement Park,'' Rodolfo said. ``Named for Fidel's attack on the Moncada barracks. It's usually closed now -- power problems.''
The road brought us alongside the base of the San Juan Heights. The Ferris wheel, on the far side of the ridge, fell from view, and looking up I could now see a few old cannons along a stone wall. Even with the cannons, the hill didn't look impressive, certainly not legendary. Before ascending San Juan Hill, we detoured to the north side of the valley to visit the small town of El Caney.
The battles of July 1, 1898, began at dawn with an assault on a small hill on the outskirts of El Caney, where a few hundred Spanish soldiers manned an adobe blockhouse. The American plan was to take the blockhouse and thus prevent the Spanish troops stationed there from attacking the flank of U.S. forces moving against the San Juan Heights. The American command badly underestimated the time needed for the 7,000 American troops to take El Caney. Instead of the planned two hours, it took 11 hours and 450 casualties before the hill was won. Although 1,200 Cuban reinforcements helped win the fight, the American command circulated reports that the Cubans had shirked their part of the fight.
When Rodolfo and I walked around the battleground, now a small park, we found memorials dedicated to the Cuban soldiers who fought for independence. There was no mention of American involvement.
Before we returned to San Juan, the Chrysler needed gas. On the way back into Santiago, we passed two service stations, but Rodolfo drove by. Too expensive, he said. A dollar a liter -- nearly $4 a gallon. He said he knew a man who would sell it to him for half-price. But when we reached the station, his acquaintance got jittery -- the presence of a foreigner was liable to attract too much attention during the illicit deal.
``Don't worry about him,'' Rodolfo said. ``He's three-quarters Cuban by now.''
``Then tell him to take off those sunglasses,'' the gasoline man said. ``No Cuban can afford sunglasses.''
To pull off the deal, we had to park around the corner from the station, where I wouldn't be so conspicuous. Rodolfo returned to the station for a 10-gallon bucket of gas, which we then had to siphon into the tank -- hurriedly in case any inspectors happened by looking for instances of anti-socialist behavior.
``How can you get the gas for half-price?'' I asked.
``Barter,'' Rodolfo said. ``As a pediatrician, I have access to good-quality milk at the hospital. I steal it, then trade it for necessities I don't have access to. The gasolinero, he has gas but no milk. You see how we are forced to live here?''
I wondered if there was any other country where pediatricians drove taxis to eat and stole milk from children to trade for half-price gasoline.
The hunt for cheaper gasoline took over an hour. Rodolfo needed to go to
work -- as a doctor -- and was running late. He would have to leave me,
he said, at San Juan Hill. He apologized for abandoning me, and gave me
his phone number. He hoped I could visit him before I left Santiago.
The Game of Blackjack
Rodolfo wasn't really abandoning me. At the foot of San Juan Hill was a hotel where I had reservations for the night. The tree-shrouded grounds of the Villa San Juan covered the north side of the hill: An older main building with a lobby and a ballroom, a newer complex housing guest rooms, a restaurant and a pool. I checked in and was given a room that looked up at the rounded summit and a memorial park dedicated to the events of 1898.
I spent the next hour strolling around the park, looking at statues, reading the plaques, and trying to imagine what it had all looked like 100 years ago. One plaque installed in the 1920s directly addressed the question of the historical record in both English and Spanish: ``In 1898 the victory was won through the decisive support given to the U.S. Army by the Cuban Army of Liberation under the command of Calixto Garcia, therefore this war must not be called the Spanish-American War but the Spanish-Cuban-American War.''
The Cuban insurgency was not the only group slighted in the story of San Juan Hill. With report after report from the pens of famous journalists putting Roosevelt at center stage, he accrued much of the credit for the heroics. But the truth was that TR hadn't really been at the center of the action. From the memorial park atop San Juan Hill, I could look down on another, smaller hill about 400 yards away. Called Kettle Hill, it was this knoll that Roosevelt and the Rough Riders attacked in an action ancillary to the main charge up San Juan.
You would never know it from American depictions of the charge, but the Rough Riders were not alone, even on Kettle Hill. Nor did they reach the top first. Soldiers from the Regular Ninth Cavalry beat Roosevelt up the hill. But the Ninth Regulars were black, and stories of their exploits did not sell newspapers. Consequently, they were all but excluded from descriptions of the battle.
Roosevelt's own account (``a classic of elastic retrospect,'' one historian called it) also fudged the facts. The future President wrote that the Rough Riders were the first to plant their guidons atop Kettle Hill, and technically he was correct: The guidon bearer for the black regiment was gunned down just as the Ninth reached the summit.
Meanwhile, at the main battle, the actual charge up San Juan Hill included white infantry and black cavalry, but no Rough Riders. Roosevelt, hunkered down on Kettle Hill 400 yards away, was a spectator to the main charge. The Spanish army had already fled by the time the Rough Riders ascended San Juan.
After watching the initial assault, one white soldier wrote in his diary: ``The charge up the hill by the colored regulars was the bravest charge since the charge of the Light Brigade.'' The War Department had decided to send the African-American regiments to Cuba because blacks were falsely believed to have an innate ability to withstand jungle heat and tropical diseases. They were transferred to the Southern staging points at the very time when states like Louisiana were disenfranchising blacks through poll taxes and literacy tests. Lynchings were occurring around the country at an average of two a week. In Florida, while waiting to ship out, black soldiers were refused service at restaurants and barber shops.
Nothing had changed by the time they overtook San Juan Hill. Even after the battle, racial incidents occurred, one of which concerned Roosevelt. ``None of the white regulars or Rough Riders showed the slightest sign of weakening,'' Roosevelt wrote a year later. ``But under the strain the colored infantrymen began to get a little uneasy and drift to the rear. This I could not allow. So, I jumped up, drew my revolver, halted the retreating soldiers, and called out to them that I would shoot the first man who went to the rear.''
Roosevelt neglected to mention the rest of the story, told in The Spanish War, a 1984 history by G. J.A. O'Toole: The black soldiers -- professionals who knew their business -- were under orders to retrieve entrenching equipment so that the troops could dig in. Roosevelt, an inexperienced amateur who had been given officer status, was corrected by professional officers.
One of the officers correcting Roosevelt was Lieutenant John ``Blackjack'' Pershing of the Tenth Cavalry (the officers of black regiments were all white), who was adamant in his admiration for the black soldiers. He was so adamant, in fact, that Pershing became known as ``Nigger Jack.'' Only later, when he became a general in World War I, was the nickname softened to ``Blackjack.''
Other soldiers noted the valor of the black troops. Captured Spaniards spoke of their terror of the ``smoked Yankees'' who relentlessly charged their lines. Some white American soldiers were impressed, too. ``We must never forget the colored troops,'' one said. ``If it had not been for the Tenth Cavalry, there would not be a Rough Rider left today.''
Yet the black soldiers were forgotten. The journalists overlooked them. The famous illustrators erased them from the scene. For a century now, history textbooks have included only passing references, if that. A 1997 TBS ``docudrama,'' following the pattern, gave only two African Americans speaking parts -- a handful of stereotyped lines. In the movie's concluding panorama of the victorious troops atop San Juan, not a single black soldier was present.
Oddly, the production portrayed Roosevelt as a kind of lovable bumbler,
who nonetheless rose to true heroism in battle. In real life, Roosevelt
was seen as an unambiguous hero in the aftermath of San Juan Hill. His
popularity translated directly into New York's governorship, then to the
Vice Presidency in McKinley's second term. When McKinley was assassinated,
the Rough Rider rode into the White House.
The Ugly American
Leaving the memorial park, I stopped at the hotel's poolside bar for a beer. Like every Cuban I met, the waiter wanted to chitchat. Learning I was from America, he said, in heavy English, ``I love the peoples, but the government is bowl sheet.''
There was another American at the bar, the only one I met during two weeks in Cuba.
``What's up with him?'' he said, pointing at the waiter.
``What do you mean?''
``All that about our government is B.S. Think he's forced to say that?''
I shrugged. The American was feeling talkative.
``Almost nobody here speaks English,'' he complained. ``After a while it gets to you.''
He wanted to know what brought me to Cuba. Reluctantly, I said a few things about the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders. He looked puzzled. ``Rough Riders?''
``You know, Teddy Roosevelt. San Juan Hill.''
``Oh yeah, that was around here somewhere, right?''
``Somewhere around here,'' I dead-panned.
``Funny you said Rough Riders -- here, look at this.''
He took something from his back pocket, a shiny foil packet, and tossed it on the bar. I picked it up. It was a condom. The brand name was ``Rough Rider.''
``How about that?'' he said. ``Ironical, huh? You know, I brought a whole box of those, 36, and I've almost run out. It's the chicas here. I mean, the most beautiful girl you've seen in your life is yours for like 20 bucks. I'm telling you, this place is paradise.''
I called for the check. There was one more site I wanted to visit before it got too dark to take pictures. It was a mile's walk from the hotel, and I needed to get going. The American followed me out the door.
``A walk sounds good,'' he said. ``I could use a break from the action, if you know what I mean.''
It turned out I did not need to devise some way of ditching him. At the front of the hotel, a group of chicas was waiting. They waved us over.
``Oh, man, look at them,'' he said. ``So sweet dressed like that. Maybe I'll take that break later. Look at that one in the red. Hope they speak English.''
I begged off.
``Suit yourself,'' he said, and fairly skipped over to the women.
I was headed for a tree in the nearby zoo, the tree where the Spanish army surrendered the city of Santiago to the Americans. The zoo appeared abandoned. I passed cage after empty cage. A few caretakers stood here and there in the shade of overhanging trees, apparently with nothing to do.
The Peace Tree, then and
``It's sad so many people died,'' I said. ``But maybe it was for a worthy cause -- the independence of Cuba.''
The old man smiled sadly. ``Then they died in vain. Independence was not the result of the Spanish-American War.''
``You mean the Spanish-Cuban-American War.''
He shook his head and pointed at the tree. ``No. By the time they got here, the Cubans had nothing to do with it.''
It was true. When the Spanish surrendered on July 16, 1898, not a single Cuban was invited to the ceremony of surrender. The American flag was raised over Santiago. For five years the U.S. would rule the island directly. After Cuba was granted independence, U.S. Marines freely intervened in Cuban affairs. In fact, the new Cuban government was forced to legitimize U.S. military invention by writing it into their constitution as a condition of independence. The constant threat of Marine landings led to a series of puppet dictators who did Washington's bidding.
After remaining under Spain's colonial thumb far longer than most of Latin America, these were not ideal conditions for the formation of a stable, enduring, democratic culture. ``Cuban governance never completely overcame that initial handicap. Then came Fidel Castro, and the outward form of democracy was buried by a Marxist dictatorship, which led to the present misery.'' Night had fallen by the time I got back to the hotel. Before returning to my room, I went to the memorial park atop San Juan Hill one more time to sit alone in the darkness. I was thinking about the many misconceptions resulting from the Spanish-American War, and how the consequences of those misconceptions were still with us. A contemporary historian has made the point that the actual events of a war are sometimes not as important as the subsequent representation of those events; in other words, how we interpret what happened in a war is ultimately more important and of greater consequence than what actually happened.
Even as the sun set on July 1, 1898, and darkness covered the American troops entrenched on San Juan Hill, the story of the Spanish-American War was being represented in a certain light. At the time, popular accounts depicted the war as ``an episode in the growth of free government'' and ``a step in the steady progress of the world toward universal liberty.'' In the century since, the war has been interpreted as the event that signaled the start of the American century and put the U.S. on the path to becoming a superpower.
It was, in the words of Secretary of State John Hay, a ``splendid little war'' -- 113 days in which the brash, upstart nation knocked off a tottering old-world empire and took over. For most Americans, the consequences of the war were essentially good. But in Cuba, the perspective was different.
From where I sat, I looked over the dysfunctional amusement park toward Santiago -- a city once captured by the American armed forces, now called the ``Hero City'' of the Cuban Revolution. Darkness hid the desperation of people struggling to survive in a land of chastened hopes. In the shadow of San Juan Hill, they stood in long lines, they hustled, they stole, they bartered, they turned tricks, they hid from the dreaded Inspectors. From my perspective on the high ground of San Juan Hill, it all seemed part of the sad legacy of a war Americans had long since consigned to the history books.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald