It was 1878, and Cubans had been fighting for independence against the Spanish colonial forces for almost years. Exhausted by the long struggle and frustrated by the rivalries among the rebel leaders, an exasperated General Maximo Gomez and other insurgent leaders finally capitulated to the Spanish forces signing a peace agreement known as the Pact of Zanjon.
The Spanish military governor Martinez-Campos had skillfully exploited the rivalries among the Cuban rebel leaders. He had replaced intransigent language with a conciliatory tone and had offered indemnities and other privileges to those who abandoned the fight and signed the agreement. On paper, the Pact of Zanjon offered Cuba some minor concessions, but the two fundamental objectives of the war — independence and the abolition of slavery — were not achieved, and it would soon become clear that the reforms promised by Spain were not forthcoming.
However, one rebel warrior of African descent refused to capitulate. General Antonio Maceo held a historic meeting with Spanish Marshal Martinez-Campos insisting on independence for Cuba and the end of slavery. In this meeting, known in Cuban history as the Protest of Baragua, Maceo’s conditions were rejected, and the general continued his fight for freedom with his now-depleted army.
Maceo could not accept the absurdity that under the Zanjon Pact only the slaves that had participated in the rebellion would be granted freedom. He, of course, wanted all slaves to be set free. In a famous exchange that ended the Baragua meeting the Spanish Marshal reproached Maceo saying: “Then, we do not understand each other.” To which the dignified warrior responded “No, we do not understand each other.”
Eventually this undefeated warrior of freedom accepted the fact that the first war for independence had collapsed and sailed for Jamaica for a long exile. It would take Cubans 17 more years, and the younger leadership of Jose Martí, before a new successful war of independence could be launched in 1895.
Maceo would again join the fight, and give his life in combat in the new war.
Fast forward to the present day, and consider these vignettes of Cuban history in light of President Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, thus legitimizing Cuba’s oppressive regime.
As it happened in 1878, in this 21st-century version of the Pact of Zanjon, some Cubans, weary of 56 years of fighting, will succumb to fatigue and melancholy and accept an armistice that falls shamefully short of the goals of a free and democratic Cuba. But there will also be a new Protest of Baragua with some Antonio Maceos among us that will continue the now quixotic fight for freedom.
The U.S.-Cuba announcement is not rooted in freedom but in a form of economic determinism and moral relativism masquerading as pragmatism. The agreement is anchored by a fundamental belief that engagement and a dose of capitalism will lead to political changes in Cuba. This is a reasonable-sounding premise and much in the American spirit.
Unfortunately, the empirical evidence against this claim is unambiguous, making the premise indisputably false. China and Vietnam introduced profound economic reforms in 1978 and 1986 respectively. Today both of these countries are significantly wealthier, a fact that speaks to the benefits of capitalism. And yet, notwithstanding decades of economic changes and diplomatic relations, repression continues, and neither country has moved to empower its citizenry with political rights.
When dealing with totalitarian regimes, the theory that improvements in material conditions usher in democratic governance is demonstrably false.
The period between wars, 1878 to 1895, was one of confusion and political disarray, with a variety of political models emerging among Cubans ranging from independence, to annexation, to various ways of accommodating Spanish rule. And so it will be in the new interregnum.
A great Cuban thinker of this generation, Enrique Jose Varona, provided a poignant statement regarding the period after the Zanjon peace treaty: “A defeated ideal is not easily or immediately replaced. … There is always a transitional period, in which a nation seems to glance only into darkness … when its dejected sons venture, almost aimlessly, like a group of pilgrims in unexplored solitudes, looking at a shared destination that they don’t know if they will ever reach.”
For now, we do not understand each other because the ambition of our Maceos is not for economic opportunities, it is for freedom. But ultimately the darkness will lift, and the ideal of freedom will prevail.
José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book, “Mañana in Cuba.”