The First Year of Cuban Self-Government

[Captain Matthew E. Hanna, the author of this paper, and of Public Education in Cuba, in the ATLANTIC for June, 1902, was on the staff of General Wood during the American occupation of the island. For two years he was Commissioner of Public Schools. He is, at the present time, Military Attaché at the American Legation in Havana. — THE EDITORS.]

IN the brief period of one year of independent existence as a nation the Cubans have shown to a surprising degree the elements that constitute stable self-government, and it is the purpose of this article to point them out. The numerous petty mistakes that might be noted, or the no less numerous instances of unsuccessful radicalism and individual attempts to block the very conservative policy of the administration, have been omitted.

Undoubtedly the most powerful factor for honest and stable self-government has been the calm, patient, conservative and conciliatory attitude of the President. The people of Cuba are to be congratulated that they had the wisdom to select Mr. Palma for their first President, and that he was willing to leave the retirement of his quiet home in Central Valley to accept a position of such great responsibility and that promised so little.

President Palma came to Cuba in answer to the almost unanimous call of the people of his country. He had been so long separated from active politics in the island that he was practically free from the jealousies and compromises that would have greatly affected any other possible President in the beginning of his administration. His tour of the island, prior to his inauguration, from Gibara to Havana was one prolonged ovation. He had the love, respect, and confidence of a very emotional people. He could scarcely have wanted a more favorable condition of public esteem under which to begin.

Under these circumstances and feeling as he did, that he had been the choice of the entire country, rather than of any section or faction, it was not strange that he chose his cabinet from all political parties. To have done otherwise might have precipitated dissensions at a time when he very wisely considered harmony the principal indication of success to a skeptical world. He cannot hope that the support of all political parties will be given him indefinitely, but the change when it comes will be no more violent for the delay. He has persistently refused to make an alliance with either of the political parties represented in the Cuban Congress to obtain a majority, but has ruled with the better element of each. He has held that the executive power should be one of the three forces of the State working in harmony.

That he has been able to govern the island for a year with the active assistance of the better element in politics, and at the same time convince the worse element of the wisdom of his intentions, stamps him as a ruler of exceptional executive ability. He has always appealed to the patriotism of his countrymen, and has believed that it should be sufficient stimulus to solve the questions of the hour and give life to the government. His influence with Congress has been sufficiently powerful to temper the hotheaded and indiscreet and to give complexion to legislation. In one instance only has he been forced to put his signature to a bill that did not meet with his approval, but his reasons for doing so were good. With a single exception he has so thoroughly introduced his ideas in legislation when it was in process of formation in Congress that he has had to exercise the power of veto but once, and then his reasons for doing this were so powerful that the changes he recommended were promptly made. He has borne with rare patience the delays of Congress, and apparently has not expected the impossible. He has contented himself with the knowledge that but few radical revolutionary or reactionary laws have been enacted, if he has to admit that some laws have still to be framed that the country sorely needs.

His messages to Congress have been ably prepared, have been conciliatory and conservative, and have outlined the work of Congress in a careful and clear manner. In his first message he emphasizes the necessity for providing sufficient revenues to meet the expenses of the State; for public and political economy ; for assisting agriculture and cattle raising; for arranging a reciprocity treaty with the United States; for developing public instruction; for encouraging railroads; for continuing public works; for maintaining a perfect understanding with the United States ; for preserving good sanitary conditions in the island; for supporting hospitals and asylums and improving jails ; for bettering the administration of justice ; for paying the Liberating Army, and for organizing the diplomatic and consular services. How thoroughly this plan has been carried out will be seen further on.

Both branches of Congress met on May 5, 1902, at the call of the military governor, for the purpose of notifying him officially, before May 20, who had been elected President and Vice President of the Republic, and who Senators and Representatives, and to thus complete the organization of the new government as a running machine before the termination of the occupation. The Senate held two more sessions and the House three more before May 20, the day on which the military government ended, and in these sessions both branches passed upon the credentials of their respective members and completed their permanent organizations. The House numbers sixty-one members and the Senate twenty-four. Of the former but a very small percentage had had much previous experience in public affairs, or were even familiar with the rules and customs that were to guide them in their work. For four centuries the Cubans had been governed in such a way that there were no opportunities for experience in self-government, and their ideas at the best were such as they had got by reading, or by a term of office in some municipal council, or, in rare instances, in the constitutional convention. The Spanish colonial government had not furnished the Cubans with training in the organization and control of legislative bodies and in the framing of laws. Due to bitter jealousies and antagonisms among Cubans from different sections of the island, the Congressmen, when they assembled in Havana, came prepared to be jealous of one another, and generally speaking each was anxious to see only his own ideas triumphant. There were no strong political organizations to discipline them, nor was there any one of sufficient experience as a presiding officer to control them and direct their energies. A time so full of opportunities for personal notoriety would appeal to any politician, and was not to be permitted to pass by in idleness.

The first task of the two Houses was the framing of their respective rules and of those that were to govern both Houses when acting jointly. This took the greater part of the time for the first two months, but in the meantime absolutely necessary legislation was attended to, and at the earliest possible moment the consideration of the measures recommended in the President’s first message was begun. Congress has been in session almost continuously for the past twelve months, and has passed sixtysix laws. The most important of these are the following: —

A law providing that the mayors, municipal councilmen, and municipal treasurers who were in office on June 30, 1902 (elected by popular vote during the occupation), should continue in their offices, or should be substituted by others according to existing statutes, until their cessation in office should be provided for by law. The occupation ended on May 20, 1902. The time for which these officials were elected expired on June 30; either these officials should be continued in office, or new elections should be held between May 20 and June 30. Due to the excited state of the country attending the change of government, it was deemed advisable to postpone the elections and permit these officials to continue in office beyond the time for which they were elected.

A law authorizing the President to meet all the liabilities of the government for the months of July and August, 1902 ; a law creating a board to revise the rolls of the disbanded Liberating Army and to determine the amount due each soldier by the Cuban government; a law authorizing the President to meet the liabilities of the Republic until further legislation on the matter; various laws creating legations and consulates in different parts of the world; a law modifying the tariff on stock imported into the island in such a way as to favor such importations; a law reorganizing the rural guard and increasing its strength to three thousand men; a law empowering the President to contract a loan of $35,000,000 for the payment of the Liberating Army and other debts of the Revolutionary government; a law fixing the revenues of consulates; and a law establishing the provisional government.

Everything considered, neither the volume nor the quality of the work of the first year of the Cuban Congress can be seriously criticised. Viewed in its entirety, conservatism has prevailed. For more than ten months Senators and Representatives have devoted all their time with unceasing energy and with honesty of purpose to the completion of the plan outlined for them by the President. An occasional false note can be detected, but there is a true ring to the finished article. The serious mistakes, the fraud and corruption, and even the inefficiency so frequently prophesied a few months ago are not to be encountered in the record of Congress up to date, and the evident desire to continue the work of government along the general lines established by the military government is shown in the cautious way in which all serious changes in military orders have been avoided.

However, in reviewing the work of the Congress for the first year of its existence, too much should not be expected, and it is but just to remember that it was a newly born legislative body that was ignorant of the procedure by which it was to make use of the faculties with which it was endowed. It had not the organization, training, discipline, or precedents of previous Congresses to assist it. It numbered among its members very few who had had any previous training in a legislative body of any consequence. The Constitution of the Republic was new, and interpretations of its less clear paragraphs were almost as plentiful as people to make them. Rules for governing the two branches of Congress had to be made, and when made they had to be interpreted. Almost every day a large part of the session was spent in wrangling over some point that would have been settled in a moment in an older Congress by some well-established precedent. There seemed to be no lack of desire to push legislation, but the machinery was new and untried, and it was passing through an adjustment period. In the meantime there was much working at cross-purposes and a lack of results.

It should also be remembered that there was a horde of individuals, corporations, etc., in the island, whose pet schemes had been politely rejected from time to time by the military governor, and they were crowding the lobbies of Congress before the latter had been inaugurated, ready to renew their petitions. An older Congress would have found it difficult to refuse them some consideration, but for a Congress holding its first session this was wellnigh impossible.

A long series of events, in short, the history of the island for the past few years, made it practically impossible for Congress to avoid giving its first attention to such powerful questions as the payment of the army, the restoration of agriculture, etc. A lack of organization prevented the well-ordered settlement of these questions one by one, and from attempting to do all at once, nothing was accomplished.

It should not be forgotten that the Cuban Congress, like our Congress or any other Congress, is composed of politicians, good, bad, and indifferent, with perhaps a greater proportion of the first than is met with elsewhere, and politics have played their part in shaping, hastening, or retarding legislation, modified however by the lack of experience and machinery among the politicians.

I believe there is a steady increase in the volume of business transacted by Congress, and that as Congress becomes disciplined, as each member discovers his own limitations, as political parties become better organized, and as precedents are established, there will be more to fear in the future from the meddling that follows a lack of work than from the dangers of overwork. Fortunately the government was turned over to the Cubans a running machine, and Congress was free to organize, to contemplate its duties, and to cautiously proceed with the legislation recommended to its consideration by the President.

Hence, in a study of the work of Congress for the past year due weight and consideration should be given to the difficulties under which it has labored. Many of its critics have lost sight of what it has actually done in contemplation of the delay and wrangling that have attended its doing, and of the many radical and unwise bills that have been proposed from time to time, but which have failed. Much of the debate has no doubt proceeded from a Latin fondness for talking, but a large part of it has also been due to a natural cautiousness. If Congress has erred, it has been on the side of doing too little, which is far better than if it had rushed headlong into illy considered legislation.

In one of the first sessions of Congress a representative requested information of the amount owing to the army in order that he might present a bill providing for payment. The first of the transitory provisions of the Constitution recognizes the validity of the claim of the Cuban Liberating Army, and imposes on the government the obligation to pay it. The President in his first message called attention to this obligation, and emphasized the necessity for early meeting it. The country was thus irrevocably pledged to the payment of the army, and after some months of lively discussion it appears to be united in the opinion that the payment is wise and just. Boards for revising the army rolls and determining the correct amount due each soldier were appointed and have finished their task, although the result of their work has not yet been made public. This important work has been done in a thorough and systematic manner, and the report of the boards should be very accurate. The probable amount necessary for the payment was estimated, and on February 28 a law was enacted authorizing the President to raise a loan of thirty-five million dollars, twenty-seven million of which should be for the payment of the army. This loan is to be secured and guaranteed by a special tax on alcoholic beverages, artificial waters, matches, tobacco, sugar, and playing cards, as well as by the ordinary customs revenues of the island.

The principal reasons for the payment of the army are far from sentimental. It has formed a troublesome, but in nowise dangerous, element in the social and political existence of the island for the past five years, and it is generally conceded that a normal condition will not be secured until it is paid. The reason that appeals most strongly to the business classes is the impetus that will be given all kinds of business by suddenly placing so large an amount of money in circulation, the effects of which may be best estimated by the following comparison: the whole amount of money expended by the military government for all purposes during the occupation was a little more than fifty-five million dollars. It is estimated that it will require twenty-seven million dollars to pay the army; or within a few months there would be placed in circulation almost one half the entire amount so put in circulation by the government in four years. With reciprocity there is no doubt of the government’s ability to bear the loan, and but very little doubt of it without reciprocity.

The remaining eight million dollars of the loan are for assistance to agriculture, and for the payment of the debts legitimately contracted during the Revolution, four million to each. The latter refers to the liabilities of the corps commanders between February 24, 1895, and September 19 of the same year and those of the Revolutionary government enacted after the latter date.

The former four millions are to be spent in assistance to agriculture in whatever way that Congress may decide upon. Mr. Terry, a practical sugar planter, was President Palma’s first secretary of agriculture. He early announced his plan for assisting the sugar planters, and it was warmly received by the entire country as promising relief that would be far-reaching in its effects. It was favorably commented on by the Cuban press, and was eagerly supported by the planters. The plan was for the government to borrow four million dollars to be loaned to such planters as wished to borrow, such loan not to exceed fifty cents for every twentyfive hundredweight of cane ground in the season 1901—1902, and to be refunded in two payments, made in February and March of 1903, the government holding a lien on the cane as security for the loan. It received the unanimous approval of the Senate, but was amended in the House in such a manner as to combine the relief of the planters with the payment of the army. This was in July last, and the possibility of a four-million-dollar loan as such no longer existed after that date. It has been incorporated in the larger loan however, and the planters should soon receive its benefits. For three years it has been said that if the sugar planter did not obtain relief soon, and a better market for his sugar, he would have to abandon his estate; yet, despite the fact that relief has not come from the source where it was most expected, such is the vitality of the industry in the island that the crops have been steadily increasing since the war, and this year’s crop will reach almost a million tons. The condition of uncertainty that has attended the delay in settling the reciprocity treaty has seriously retarded the development of sugar estates and has otherwise done much harm, and there will be general satisfaction when the matter is definitely settled, although the treaty should not be ratified. The sugar industry will struggle along even if all outside assistance should be denied, but the prosperity of the government is so dependent on the prosperity of its sugar planters that the failure of the latter means the loss of life and energy in the former.

The delays in the negotiations for a treaty of reciprocity with the United States are so generally known that it would not be necessary to mention this important question were it possible to avoid noting the childlike confidence with which all classes have founded their hopes on the desire of the people of the United States for fair play with Cuba, and in spite of repeated failures they still hope that the treaty will soon be ratified. Their faith in the President of the United States is unbounded, and that more than anything else has influenced the Cuban Senate to accept the amendments recently made by the Senate of the United States.

The condition of public health remains about as it was a year ago. The sanitary methods employed by the military government are still enforced. Yellow fever has not reappeared; there has not been a case in Havana for almost two years, and in other cities of the island for a still longer period. An effective quarantine system is enforced. One of the last acts of the military governor was the issuing of a decree for the reorganization of the sanitary service of the island in conformity with the requirements of modern sanitation; it placed the supervision of all matters relating to the public health in the island in the hands of a superior sanitary board, and provided for the appointment of a local sanitary board in each municipality to assist the superior board. This decree was published three days before the termination of the occupation, and its enforcement was left to the new government. The reorganization of the sanitary service in accordance with this decree has been effected, and the new department is doing efficient work.

In the President’s first message to Congress he declared it as his purpose to encourage public education, and to give it the preferential support of the government. He has done this, and in his efforts he has been assisted by Congress. This department has been disturbed less and subjected to fewer changes than any other, and such changes as have been made have been of minor importance. The Secretary of Public Instruction was authorized to appoint as many teachers as were employed last year until the regular annual appropriations could be made. The last statistics that are to be obtained show the number of teachers to be a few more than thirty - four hundred, with more than one hundred and fifty thousand pupils enrolled, of whom more than one hundred and twenty thousand are in constant attendance. The total amount of money appropriated for boards of education up to date is but little less than during a like period of the year before.

In October last a law was enacted increasing the rural guard, the regular army of Cuba, from about fourteen hundred to three thousand men, and giving it an organization more nearly like that of modern armies. There are to be three regiments, each consisting of eight troops of cavalry and two companies of infantry. The total annual expense of maintaining this force is estimated at a little more than a million and a half dollars. The whole object of the rural guard is to preserve order in the island. It is a force made up of intelligent, self-respecting men, who are well uniformed, and at all times have a soldierly bearing, and who are thoroughly trained and disciplined in the peculiar work for which they are intended. Their officers are efficient, and were trained in the wars of independence. Cuba has nothing to fear from militarism so long as her armed forces are as highly patriotic as her present rural guard. The absence of bandits or disorder of any kind is evidence of how thoroughly it does its duty and of the respect that it commands.

For some months a movement has been in progress to reorganize the various political elements of the island, consolidating in one party the radicals and in another the conservatives. The work has been gradually progressing until now the reorganization is all but completed. The strongest political factions have been the Nationalists, the Republicans, and the Democrats. Although they all counted among their members those varying in opinions from the most radical to the most conservative, yet the Nationalists have always had a decidedly radical complexion, and the Republicans and Democrats have leaned toward conservatism. The first has naturally formed the nucleus about which the radicals have collected, and the latter two have formed the rallying point for the conservatives. There have been the usual number of municipal, provincial, and national conventions and the usual amount of wrangling and dissensions, but in the end order will probably be secured out of the chaotic state in which politics existed formerly.

In his first message the President indicated to Congress that its first and most important duty was to provide sufficient revenues to meet the expenses of the State, and to make the yearly appropriations with such care and economy that they should be within the receipts and leave a surplus for emergencies. Economy seems to have pervaded the atmosphere, and expenditures have been made with the greatest caution. The government was transferred to the Cubans with $689,191.02 in the treasury, and with more than a million and a half dollars free from allotments. At the end of April, 1903, there was in the treasury a balance of $2,699,071.55. From May 20, 1902, to April 30,1903, the total revenues of the island amounted to $16,323,029.67, and the expenditures to approximately $14,000,000. The government is self-supporting, is without debts, and has a handsome unencumbered balance in its treasury.

Diplomatic and Consular services have been organized, and laws for the support and control of the latter have been enacted. It is believed that the laws fixing the revenues of the consulates will make these services self-supporting. Legations have been established in the principal foreign capitals, and consulates have been opened in all the principal east and south coast cities of the United States and in the larger shipping centres of Europe.

The policy of the government in its diplomatic relations with the United States can be shown in no better or more convincing way than by giving the following quotation from the message of President Palma to Congress at the opening of the third legislature in April: —

“ The fellow feeling, the respect, and the just consideration of the American people, which day by day we inspire more and more by our exemplary conduct as an independent people, possessing a consciousness of our duties and responsibilities, as well as of our rights, are circumstances that contribute powerfully to guarantee a good understanding between the two nations.

“ It is to our interests to worthily cultivate these sentiments of the American people, and we cannot do this in a more fitting way than by proceeding to comply with our obligations to the government at Washington, in a frank, expeditious, and correct manner, whether it be by granting what we owe, or by denying what we do not believe it just to concede.”

Carrying out this policy an agreement has been made with the President of the United States, fixing the boundaries of the Cuban territory to be leased for coaling and naval stations, and there is no doubt but that this will soon receive the approval of the Cuban Senate.

The treaty for adjusting the title of ownership to the Isle of Pines and the permanent treaty spoken of in the eighth article of the Appendix to the Cuban Constitution (Platt Amendment), which shall embody all of the provisions of the seven other articles of this Appendix, are now being negotiated.

The Cuba Company’s railway, begun during the occupation, has been completed, and is now in operation. The road joins the extreme eastern portion of the island with Havana, passing through the richest but wildest and one of the most sparsely settled regions of the country, and it will have a wonderful influence on the early development of this region of virgin soil and forests, and will no doubt make the most desolate part of the island one of its most productive sections. Everything about this railroad system smacks of good management, and gives confidence in the schemes of the company for the development of the country, a greater project than the original scheme for building the road.

It is little less than remarkable, and speaks volumes for the efficiency of the recent military government and for the present civil government, that the work of the former has been assumed and continued by the latter without its progress being materially interrupted by so radical a change in governmental methods, and there is every reason to believe that the government will become more efficient with time. The people of the island are law abiding and orderly, although an economical condition prevails that might well produce serious discontent. Already there has been opportunity for noticing the absence of Revolutionary tendencies and of any disposition of the minority to refuse to be ruled by the majority, conditions so prevalent in some other Latin republics. With great wisdom the administration has devoted itself to the really important and urgent questions of the hour, and has not wasted time and energy. Much legislation was necessary before all the departments of the government were in a condition to properly perform their constitutional functions, and this is either complete or nearly so. Of equal importance have been considered the restoration of agriculture and business and the payment of the army. The revenues and expenses have been studied with the idea of raising the former and making every possible reduction in the latter. In short, up to date, the Cuban government is conspicuous for energy, honesty, economy, and ability.

Matthew Elting Hanna.