Maine and Cuba: An Intimate History
Lillian Guerra, Ph.D.
History Department, Yale University
The people, economy and politics of Maine, particularly Southern Maine, have long been connected to the development and history of Cuba.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when Cuba was still a Spanish colony, shipping traffic between Portland, Maine and Trinidad, Cuba reached such high levels that Maine state officials received the right to establish a permanent consular post in Trinidad from the U.S. Government. Until the early twentieth century, prominent members of shipping families from Portland regularly occupied this post. As the epicenter of sugar production in Cuba for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Trinidad supplied Maine with both sugar and sugar-derived products such as molasses and rum. Maine, in turn, became the primary producer of potatoes for consumers in Cuba, a trade that continued throughout the twentieth century.
Indeed, when Cubans began their thirty-year struggle for independence from Spain in 1868, James Blaine, a Maine Congressman (1863-1877) and later, Senator (1869-1873) became an adamant opponent of the Cuban cause, fearing that a national state in Cuba would jeopardize the market for Maine products. As Secretary of State during the Harrison administration (1889-1893), Blaine earned himself the enmity of the most important of Cuba’s independence activists and one of Latin America’s greatest writers, José Martí. However, Cuban nationalists did find sympathy for their cause of freedom from other Maine politicians, particularly, William P. Frye, the former mayor of Lewiston (1866-1867) and Maine’s Attorney General. As a Congressman for Maine (1870-1881) and later, Blaine’s successor in the U.S. Senate from 1881 to 1911, Frye was a prominent member of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party. As such, he was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, then a staunch advocate of U.S. involvement in Cuba’s continuing war against Spain. Once the U.S. military formally intervened in Cuba in 1898, ostensibly on the side of Cuban rebels, Senator Frye encouraged his son, Alexis Everett Frye, a graduate of Harvard and public school teacher, to volunteer for Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in what would become known as the “Spanish American War of 1898.”
After Spain surrendered to the combined forces of Cuban rebels and the U.S. military in August of 1898, the United States’ intentions to “free Cuba” quickly proved much less definitive than U.S. officials had led the Cubans to believe. Instead of recognizing Cuba’s independence and national sovereignty, the United States occupied the island militarily and organized their own military government, staffed by Americans, to rule Cuba from 1898 to 1902. Although the United States eventually granted Cuba nominal independence in 1902, U.S. military intervention and diplomatic manipulation of the Cuban state became the order of the day from that moment until 1959.
Still, however unjust the actions of the U.S. government, not all Americans or even all U.S. officials agreed with its policies. Indeed, Alexis Everett Frye proved exceptional in this regard. Fervently committed to democratic ideals, Alexis’s experience in the public schools of New England and his upbringing in the working-class dominated culture of old Lewiston deeply affected his views of Cuba. Alexis was convinced that all people—whatever their gender, race or class—should have equal rights of access to economic and educational opportunities. Believing that he could help Cubans make their country more socially just and democratic than even the United States was at the time, Alexis managed to obtain an appointment to the position of Superintendent of Public Schools in Cuba under the U.S. military government of 1898-1902. As Superintendent, Alexis enlisted the support of progressive, former Cuban revolutionaries to create a national system of public schools in Cuba that for the first time, provided a majority of Cuban children with the opportunity for an education.
During his tenure, the number of schools in Cuba rose from 312 in 1898 to 3,628 by 1901. Moreover, Alexis constructed a system of public schools that was much more progressive than any which existed in the United States at the time. Not only did he racially desegregate all public schools in Cuba, he actively recruited female teachers and paid male and female teachers the same salary. “Equal pay for equal work” was Alexis’s underlying philosophy. Based on contributions from private citizens in Maine and Massachusetts, Alexis also engineered a free summer school for 1,256 Cuban teachers (most of whom were women) at Harvard University in the summer of1900.
In the end, Alexis Everett Frye’s actions earned him the love and respect of thousands of Cubans for generations to come. As late as the 1950s, some public schools in Cuba still honored Alexis as the founder of their school system by displaying his picture in classrooms. But while Alexis’s solidarity with Cuba’s national interests earned him the admiration of Cubans, they also earned him the suspicion of the U.S. military. When Alexis fell in love with and married a Cuban woman in 1901, he decided to print 200,000 copies of the Cuban national anthem for distribution to the parents of school children. He called it “his wedding gift” to the Cuban people. To U.S. officials who had not decided whether to keep Cuba as colony, Alexis’s actions in support of Cuba’s right to be free were treasonous. They ultimately got him fired. Thus, in the winter of 1902, Alexis and his young Cuban wife returned to Lewiston, Maine where they lived happily together and raised four sons as Cuban-American “Mainers.” Remembered fondly as a symbol of the American people’s good will toward the Cuban people, news of the Fryes in Maine frequently appeared in Cuban social magazines and newspapers until Alexis’s death in 1944. Personal, political, economic and even passionate, Maine’s historical connections to Cuba endure.
I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.
Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).
Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.
And Cubans did.
They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…
Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.
The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.
But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.
Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.
It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.
Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.
And we’re feeling it.
There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…
This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?
‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’
The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.
Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.
Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.
Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.
We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.
Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.