Yawning up San Juan Hill

By David Abel

SAN JUAN HILL, Cuba - Maria Terrero reluctantly marched up this famous slope, cupped her ears with her hands as she passed a band of trumpeters and yawned under signs blaring "Fatherland or Death" and "We will never renounce our independence."

The 24-year-old office administrator grumbled that she had little choice about whether to attend the recent, sun-scorching ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War.

"The problem is that it's obliged that everyone come," Terrero said. "If you don't attend, it's noted, and it could prevent you from getting a promotion."

So the recent university graduate piled into a packed bus with fellow employees and eventually fell in line with the thousands of other state workers, who were released from their jobs early this July afternoon to crowd the hill where a century before hundreds of American soldiers died.

The only mention of the U.S. role in Cuba's war to free itself from Spain, however, was the shame that intervention brought to the island's long-fighting rebels.

Sounding a familiar theme that has been the mantra of Cuba's communist-run government since it assumed power in 1959, a coterie of officials harangued the United States for hijacking Cuba's "imminent victory," and ushering in a humiliating period in the island's history.

"Like all the parties involved in this conflict, we have our interpretation ... about this war of an imperialist nature which frustrated the independence that was already in our hands after a lot of sacrifice," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez. "It had an immediate consequence in bringing about a very dark period in our recent history, that of a pseudo-republic where we were a neo-colony of the United States."

After swiftly defeating the Spanish and imposing a peace agreement in July 1898, U.S. troops occupied Cuba until Congress passed the Platt Amendment, formalizing the United States' right to intervene in the island's affairs in 1902.

Not all American soldiers were withdrawn afterward. One condition of the much-despised Platt Amendment, often cited here as evidence of brazen U.S. imperialism, was that Cuba cede the 45-sq. mile area that is now the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

The island remained economically dependent and strongly influenced by the United States until Fidel Castro's bearded rebels seized power. Supporters of the revolution say the events of 1959, and not the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as they insist on calling it, gave Cuba its real independence.

American motives in tweaking the Cuban rebels' three-decade-long struggle for independence went beyond ending Spanish brutality.

The intervention occurred during a time of unveiled expansionist sentiment, when European nations were fast acquiring colonies in Africa and Asia. The concept of "Manifest Destiny," a term coined before the Civil War forecasting the United States would expand from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, did not exclude islands outside the continent. In fact, during the five-month conflict, the United States annexed Hawaii, an independent country.

"The expansionist urge in the United States was fed both by those who stood to gain economically and by those who preached of a U.S. mission to rescue the Cubans from Spanish misrule," writes Thomas Skidmore, a history professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., in his book Modern Latin America. "Given its huge economic stake in Cuba, the U.S. was unlikely to remain out of the struggle."

The war established the United States as a preeminent world power. U.S. ships decimated Spain's naval fleet and ended its 400-year-old empire. The peace treaty forced Spain to turn over Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States.

"It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune which loves the brave," John Hay, U.S. ambassador to Britain, famously said to Theodore Roosevelt. The soon-to-be President, who led a volunteer cavalry unit called the "Rough Riders," became the emblem of the war's success.

Despite the glory, 385 Americans died in battle, 1,662 soldiers were wounded and another 2,061 troops later succumbed to tropical diseases from malaria to typhoid fever. Another 6,000 U.S. soldiers later died while taking three years to defeat Filipino insurgents in the newly won colony.

Yet Cuba today pays few respects to the American blood spilled in kicking out the Spanish.

The Guayabera-clad Cuban officials recently clamoring about U.S. imperialism atop San Juan Hill skirted any mention of the surrounding bronze plaques listing the 225 American soldiers who died here storming up this once fortified hill overlooking Santiago de Cuba, the island's second city on its southeastern coast.

The sweaty masses watched blankly as aging military men in sunglasses and decorated olive green fatigues ordered them around like troops.

Trying to organize the scattered workers before the ceremony began, one old soldier took the microphone and shouted, "Forward, march! In blocks. Like in the army."

Terrero rolled her eyes. "This is Cuba," she said.