CubaNews / November 2004
By Larry Luxner
Relations between Washington and Havana may be at their lowest point in 45 years, yet it’s easy to forget that for most of its history, the United States has enjoyed vibrant economic and cultural links with Cuba.
Here’s a look at how the island developed ties with three leading U.S. cities on the Gulf of Mexico — Mobile, New Orleans and Tampa. This information is derived from an entertaining, offbeat presentation in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district following last month’s National Summit on Cuba:
"Mobile, Alabama, and Havana, Cuba, have only three things in common,” joked historian Jay Higginbotham. “The past, the present and the future.”
Higginbotham, author of 19 books and founder of the Societé Mobile-La Habana, said the two cities “were thriving settlements on the Gulf of Mexico when there were no other towns around.”
In 1516, Spanish adventurers sailing out of Havana harbor made the first documented exploration of Mobile Bay. Later on, Tristan de Luna made an attempt to settle towns around Mobile Bay, but those efforts failed and he sailed back to Havana.
In 1702, Mobile became the capital of the Louisiana Territory, and “thus began a 300-year relationship between the Cuban capital and Alabama’s chief port.
But hurricanes and disease killed thousands of people and frustrated efforts to develop commercial relations throughout the region.
“Yellow fever was to play a lethal role in the history of both cities,” said Higginbotham. “The founder of Mobile, Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville, is buried at the Plaza de Armas in Havana. The next governor of Louisiana contracted yellow fever in Havana, and he’s buried there too. Yet despite the mutual tragedies, Havana and Mobile continued to assist each other over the ensuing years.”
Mobile remained an active port after the Louisiana Territory’s capital was transferred to New Orleans in 1723 following a disastrous hurricane of 1717 that destroyed Mobile. In 1780, the city came under Spanish rule and remained so until 1813. Once Alabama achieved statehood and throughout the 19th century, Mobile remained one of North America’s busiest ports.
“Cuba had great need for Alabama products like timber, cotton and rice, while Cuba had many products to sell Alabama, among them tobacco, sugar, copper, salt, nickel and cobalt,” said Higginbotham. “After Cuba’s revolt against Spain, trade with Alabama picked up to its antebellum levels. A thriving consulate office was established, and Mobile’s population rose rapidly to over 200,000.”
Higginbotham said Alabama even played a role in bringing baseball to Cuba in the 1860s, after a young Cuban studying at Spring Hill College in Mobile learned the new game and took bats and balls back to Havana. Baseball quickly became Cuba’s national obsession and remained so well into the 20th century.
Once Fidel Castro took power in 1959, relations of course took a nosedive.
“At first, trade continued, but after the Bay of Pigs invasion, trade ceased altogether,” he said. “In June 1993, Mobilians visited Havana and met with Cuban officials to set up the sister-cities program” — the first of its kind between any U.S. city and Cuba since the revolution. “The Mobile City Council liked the idea and passed the resolution unanimously, with the support of our mayor, Michael Dow.”
At about the same time, a local Methodist church established a choir group which included Methodists, Baptists, Jews and other activists from both Alabama and Cuba.
“This caused quite a stink,” he recalled. “We were attacked by some unauthorized delegates from South Florida who tried to sabotage our meeting. All the news media covered it, and I was accused of planting the whole thing, because afterwards our membership jumped from 15 to 100.”
In 1999, Mobile unveiled a statue at the entrance to Havana harbor, and in 2001, the first boatload of U.S. food commodities to be shipped to Havana in 40 years left the Port of Mobile. The following year, the city invited Cuban officials to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Mobile’s founding.
To date, said Higginbotham, nearly 400 citizens of Mobile have traveled to Cuba as part of 69 medical exchanges, cultural tours and other humanitarian missions.
“The burgeoning interest of other Gulf of Mexico ports like Pascagoula, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla., as well as the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce points vividly to the desire in Alabama to renew normal relations with our one-time chief trading partner.” Higginbotham added: “Business exchanges are vital, but they form only one aspect of our relationship. Also important are exchanges in art, medicine and technology. In addition, cruise lines are being planned to connect Mobile and Havana, and several institutions are planning a dazzling Cuba exhibit for 2005. We want to drown the negative opposition with a torrent of profitable enterprises.”
New Orleans is most often associated with the French, but the city’s links with Cuba shouldn’t be overlooked, says international trade specialist Rafael Valdez.
In 1702, French soldier d’Iberville — who had spent a great deal of time in Havana — established a fort at the mouth of the Missi-ssippi River, near present-day New Orleans. In 1723, New Orleans became the capital of the Louisiana Territory, and trade between the two cities took off.
In 1764, France ceded Louisiana to Spain, and Gen. Alejandro O’Reilly, who had been in charge of Spanish forces in Havana, was sent to New Orleans.
“Prior to the Civil War, the South was trying to increase the number of slaveholding states, and Southern politicians looked at annexing Cuba to the U.S. as an additional slave state,” said Valdez. “While some politicians were making plans for Cuba, others were working to liberate Cuba from Spain, with help from the United States.”
One such politician was Narciso López, who was born in Venezuela, came to Louisiana and led two expeditions to Cuba in 1750 and 1751. Captured by the Spanish, he was publicly executed in Havana.
Between 1792 and 1810, over 10,000 refugees from the island of Saint-Domingue (today’s Hispaniola, divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) arrived in New Orleans, doubling the city’s population. Many of these newcomers were skilled in sugar cultivation and therefore contributed further to the local economy.
In 1893 and again in 1894, Cuban revolutionary José Martí visited New Orleans in his efforts to raise money for the coming struggle against Spain. And in 1898, a volunteer infantry consisting of 46 officers and 960 enlisted men departed New Orleans to fight in the Spanish-American War.
Following Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1902, U.S.-Cuba trade flourished, with the Port of New Orleans prospering from that trade. Prior to the embargo, around one-third of all cargo handled by the port was either destined to or coming from Cuba.
“The present-day cultures of both Cuba and Louisiana have strong and visible African influence, which is seen in music, dress, architecture, food and family structures,” according to Valdez. “One of the most distinct attributes of African culture is the religious tradition of voudou and santería. Numerous aspects of New Orleans jazz illustrate the connection to Caribbean and Cuban music.”
He added: "Cuba is still rich in examples of 17th and 18th-century Spanish colonial architecture. New Orleans has only a few buildings, but the connections are quite evident.”
Eight years ago, a group of Cuban-Americans erected a bronze statue of José Martí along Jefferson Davis Parkway. More recently, New Orleans established a sister-city relationship with the Cuban port of Mariel, and a number of Louisiana trade officials have made business trips to Havana.
“Both cities face challenges related to historic preservation. This provides a strong basis for renewed cooperation,” said Valdez. “Let’s encourage and explore with an open mind the endless opportunities and possibilities.”
“The history of Cuba cannot be written without dedicating at least one chapter to Tampa,” says oldtimer E.J. Salcines. “But the history of Tampa cannot be written without dedicating many chapters to Cuba.”
Salcines, a district attorney in Tampa for 16 years and an appellate judge for the last eight years, said the earliest Spanish explorers discovered Bahia de Espiritu Santos (now Tampa Bay) in the early 1500s, long before the rest of the country was even known to Europeans.
“By the time the English came to Jamestown in 1607 and the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620, we in Tampa were already in urban renewal,” he joked. Tampa’s connections to Cuba run long and deep. Part of the lumber used to build the University of Havana around 1720 came from trees growing along the Hillsborough River. After the Civil War, a number of Confederate soldiers sailed south to Cuba to help in that country’s independence struggle against Spain. Some tampeños were also involved in gun-running.
In 1884, Tampa got its biggest boost ever when two large cigarmakers moved their factories there from Key West, which at that time was Florida’s most populous city. Cigar manufacturer Vicente Martínez Ybor and railroad magnate Henry Plant helped put Tampa on the map, as the city gradually became a Spanish-speaking community.
Cuban independence hero José Martí made at least 20 documented visits to Tampa’s Cuban enclave, still known as Ybor City. In fact, walking around the historic enclave today, it’s impossible not to notice all the statues, plaques and street signs named in honor of Cuba’s greatest patriot.
“José Martí not only formed a Cuban Revolutionary Party here in Tampa, but was so dynamic in his presentations that he got the cigar workers to donate one day’s pay every week to the cause of Cuban independence,” said Salcines. “Fernando Figueredo was José Martí’s trusted leader, and he smuggled the Orden de Levantamiento (Decree of Uprising) to Cuba by rolling the order into a cigar. So we are proud to say that we rolled the cigar that lighted Cuba’s war of independence."
Tampa’s history continued to be intertwined with that of Cuba’s for many years — culturally, politically and musically.
“As a shoeshine boy growing up in West Tampa, I remember trying to get home by 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays so I could go to the movies. During the five-block walk home, I wouldn’t miss one single number of the Cuban lottery because every radio in the neighborhood was tuned into the same station,” Salcines recalled. “We all danced to Cuban music, and when the Tampa Smokers and the Havana Cubans played baseball, it was like the Super Bowl. In all the coffee houses, we would solve Cuba’s problems because we were all tuned into what was going on.”
In 1957, young revolutionary Fidel Castro visited Tampa in search of money and political support. He received both from his sympathetic audience, and two years later, Castro overthrew Gen. Fulgencio Batista, leading to the U.S. embargo that has endured to this day.
Despite limited efforts by some city leaders to improve relations, the vast majority of Tampa’s 100,000 or so cubanos remain bitterly opposed to the Castro regime — which is why, unlike the many historic references to José Martí, not a single plaque commemorates Fidel’s long-ago visit to Ybor City.