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Camaguey, Oriente, Cuba: Heroes of the Independence (1)


Considering the history of discrimination and prejudice towards Chinese immigrants throughout the Americas, the Chinese of Cuba seem to enjoy a surprisingly good reputation. In Habana, a commemorative stele pays tribute to their loyal and unfaltering contribution in Cuba’s wars of independence: “No hubo un chino cubano desertor, no hubo chino cubano traidor.” “There was not one Chinese Cuban that deserted, not one Chinese Cuban that betrayed [the cause].” As opposed to other countries that the Chinese emigrated to, they are not only remembered as successful business owners, but also war heroes, pioneering doctors, and fervent revolutionaries.

Three Liberation Wars: Ousting the Spanish
Starting in the 1850s, the stirrings of nationalist uprising were under way in Cuba,then a Spanish colony. Cubans in the eastern provinces were dissatisfied with high taxes, corruption within the Spanish administration, and lack of political freedom. It was also around this time that the cost of keeping slaves became too high for landowners, who slowly began to employ indentured workers from China. In 1868, sugar-mill owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led an uprising and declared independence of the Cuban people from Spain’s clutches. Ten years of fighting ensued, with neither side winning any concrete battles; the Cuban revolutionary committee was plagued by internal dissent, and the US government at the time opposed Cuban independence. Eventually, Spain gained the upper hand, but tensions would remain throughout the Little War (1879-1880) and reach a climax during the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), which saw public opinion in the US turn in favor of the Cuban people and against the Spanish. This last war truly escalated after a US ship, the Maine, exploded in the harbour of Havana, on its way to the capital in the midst of Cuban Spanish loyalist riots breaking out against the new autonomous government set up by Spain to appease Cuban separatist rebels. After losing its other colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the US, Spain eventually sued for peace in 1898. After three years of US occupation, Cuba was finally and formally a state in its own right in 1902.

It is reported that around several thousand Chinese were enrolled in the Cuban patriotic forces against the Spanish settlers during this entire period of civil war. They formed an integral part of the Liberation Army during the first separatist war, with one battle in 1874 being renamed “el ataque de los chinos”, “the Chinese offensive”, when a mostly Chinese unit led by Antonio Maceo infiltrated the city of Manzanillo and laid siege to a Spanish garrison. Most notable are Colonel José Bu Tack (Hu De) and General José Tolón (Lai Wa), who both fought for more than 10 years and in all 3 liberation wars, subsequently winning the right to stand for president of the newly independent state. This honour was conceded only to two other fighters born outside of Cuba in the history of the country: a Dominican, and a Polish.

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