Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Moving Memories: Joaquín Vara De Rey and Spanish History-Crafting in Cuba, 1898-1931

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Moving Memories: Joaquín Vara De Rey and Spanish History-Crafting in Cuba, 1898-1931

Article excerpt

In 1913, a Spanish diplomat praised the Spanish immigrant community in Cuba for its "thousand labours" aimed at extinguishing the "still-burning coals" of Cuban memories about the colonial past.1 Understandably, Spanish residents wanted to avoid blame for wartime atrocities such as the 98,000 Cuban civilians who died because of Captain-General Valeriano Weyler's 1896-1897 policy of reconcentration.2 Many of the Spanish elite in Cuba feared that public remembrance of this grim past might fan Cuban resentment against the continued post-war prominence of Spaniards as workers and property owners.3 As a result, community leaders sought to shape recollection of the Independence War (1895-1898) and Spanish-Cuban-American War (1898) in ways favourable to Spanish interests.

The Spanish community remained a strong presence in post-war Cuba. Between 1898 and 1931 it consistently made up close to ten percent of Cuba's population and up to thirty percent of the workforce.4 The collective encompassed some 600,000 to 800,000 Spanish immigrants and Cuban-born Spanish nationals, with the latter predominating by the 1920s. These individuals were organized through the island's most powerful private associations, such as the Centra Asturiano, a mutual-aid society with 51,000 members in 1920, and influential newspapers such as the Diario de la Marina, the principal organ for Spanish interests in Cuba. Community leaders tended to be mutual-aid-society presidents, newspaper directors and wealthy businessmen.

Spanish community organizations usually cooperated on history-related projects, despite divisions based on regional origins, class and ideology. Many Spanish residents, especially the elite, agreed on the need to shape discussions in Cuba about the colonial past. Many individuals had participated in Spain's war efforts as militia officers, guides, propagandists or profiteers, and feared possible reprisals by Cubans. Even the post-1898 newcomers and second-generation majority stood to lose economically if Cuban recollection of conflicts in which they had no direct involvement served to justify anti-Spanish laws regarding workplace quotas, medical fees and immigration restrictions. As a result, in the three decades after 1898, the Spanish elite in Cuba used its money and media power to promote histories aimed at facilitating Spanish-Cuban reconciliation.

A central element in Spanish community propaganda was the creation of a counter-Weyler based on the myth of a truly "noble" Spanish general, Joaquín Vara de Key, Spain's principal hero-martyr from the battle for Santiago in July 1898. Spanish residents used the figure of Vara de Key to promote an alliance between Spaniards and Cubans on the basis of a shared Hispanic heritage and opposition to the Anglo-Saxons.

Vara de Key was not the only object of Spanish commemorative effort in Cuba. Between 1898 and 1931, Spaniards in Cuba spent over US$200,000 on twenty monument projects in Cuba and Spain which defended Spain's colonial record.6 The fourteen projects with Cuban sites ran into objections by some Cuban patriots, and only about a third of them became reality. Despite this, the initiatives in Cuba generated the most enthusiasm within the Spanish community, because these monuments directly countered US and Cuban monuments on the island critical of Spanish colonial rule.

Although other heroes received tributes too, Vara de Rey inspired the Spanish community's most persistent commemorative efforts. In addition to several proposed monuments, the Spanish elite kept the fallen general in the island's immediate public memory through a host of memorials. These included displays of Vara de Key portraits and relics (his watch, suitcase, etc.) in the Spanish community centre in Santiago and the Casino Espanol in Havana; fundraisers for his surviving veterans; and even a 1909 "Vara de Rey Brigade" of volunteers for Spam's war in Morocco.

The existing literature on the politics of memory in Cuba after 1898 has focused on conflicts between Cubans and North Americans or between white Cubans and Afro-Cubans over who truly won the war against Spain and the meaning of victory. …

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