There is a memorial that most Americans are not likely to know of, and one that few Americans have likely visited. This is because this memorial – dedicated to brave American soldiers who gave their lives to liberate the oppressed – is in Cuba. It is a monument to the Americans who fell in the battle of Santiago de Cuba, the decisive event that secured Cuban independence from Spain.
The monument is placed under the tree where Spanish forces surrendered. Stone tablets are carved with the names of these Americans, along with their units and the nature of their deaths. A plaque at the site commemorates the Cuban General who led the Cuban freedom fighters into battle. It reads:
To Major General Calixto García Iñiguez, leader of the forces of the liberating Cuban army which took part in the Spanish-Cuban/American War, who, thanks to their wise cooperation, the Spanish forces could be defeated. Absent from the act of surrender in Santiago de Cuba, signed under this tree on July 16, 1898; present forever in the memory and the hearts of the Cuban and American people identifying with the high ideals for which the blood of the children of Cuba and the United States was shed, blended into these fields. The municipality of Santiago de Cuba dedicates this homage to the glorious general in observation of the 50th anniversary of the Spanish-Cuban/American War.
General García was honored by name in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the War. President Truman’s description of the War and America’s role in it is worth remembering:
It is eminently fitting that we should assemble here today to pay solemn tribute to the heroic champions of human freedom who brought about the liberation of Cuba. The commemoration of half a century of Cuban independence recalls the valor of the Cuban patriots and American soldiers and sailors who gave liberally of their strength and their blood that Cuba might be free. From that chapter in man’s age-old struggle for freedom, we can draw inspiration for the hard tasks that confront us in our time.
The struggle for Cuban independence, like every other effort of its kind, was fraught with hardship and disappointment. But the unconquerable determination of the Cuban people to win freedom overcame all obstacles. From the first, the fight for liberation by Cuban patriots evoked the sympathy of the people of the United States. Those in quest of independence have always had the support of the people of this Nation.
Americans watched with admiration the beginning of the final struggle for independence led by Jose Marti and his valiant compatriots, Gomez, Maceo, and Garcia. Our people made increasingly plain their desire to assist the Cuban patriots. The sinking of the United States battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, crystallized the growing sentiment in this country for joining forces with the Cuban people in their fight for self-government.
The Congress passed a Joint Resolution expressing in clear terms the conviction of the men and women of the United States that the people of the Island of Cuba should be free and independent. It also expressed our determination that once the Cuban people were liberated, they, and they alone, should govern the Island of Cuba. It is the passage of this Joint Resolution, 50 years ago today, which we are commemorating in this ceremony.
This Joint Resolution, the foundation upon which our relations with the Cuban Republic are based, brought the military and naval forces of the United States into the conflict at the side of the Cuban patriots. The names of Shafter, Roosevelt, Hobson, and many others were joined with those of Gomez, Maceo, and Garcia.
For 4 months, as Americans fought side by side with their Cuban allies, the opposing forces were driven back. On August 12 Spain signed the Protocol of Peace and agreed to give up Cuba and withdraw her forces. The dream of Jose Marti became at last a glorious reality.
The sympathetic interest of the United States in the welfare of the Cuban people did not end with the victory. We assisted the Cubans in repairing the ravages of war and overcoming problems of health and sanitation. The comradeship of war was succeeded by the notable peacetime collaboration of General Wood, General Gorgas, Doctor Walter Reed, Doctor Agramonte, and other men of science and public life.
From these sound beginnings, relations between the Republic of Cuba and the United States have continued through the years on a mutually satisfactory basis. I believe that few nations of differing languages and cultures have drawn so closely together during the last 50 years, freely and without duress, as have Cuba and the United States.
Unfortunately, Cuban independence from foreign domination would only survive one more decade. In 1959, the sons of Angel Castro – who came to Cuba as a Spanish soldier to fight against Cuban independence – brought Cuba under the enslavement of an evil empire on the other side of the world.
A little over 50 years ago, upon securing the release of the brave Cuban freedom fighters who attempted to liberate their island at the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy told these veterans in Miami:
Seventy years ago Jose Marti, the guiding spirit of the first Cuban struggle for independence, lived on these shores. At that time in 1889, the first International American Conference was held, and Cuba was not present. Then, as now, Cuba was the only state in the hemisphere still controlled by a foreign monarch. Then, as now, Cuba was excluded from the society of free nations. And then, as now, brave men in Florida and New York dedicated their lives and their energies to the freedom of their homeland.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, it should be noted that Cuban Independence day was last week – another of America’s many gifts to the world. The monuments that mark the battlefields where Americans have fallen may not all be known to many of us – but they stand as beacons that shine into even the world’s darkest corners, bringing hope to all men and women who dream to be free.