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Exile and RevolutionJose D. Poyo, Key West, and Cuban Independence$

Gerald E. Poyo

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780813049182

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813049182.001.0001

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(p.118) 5 Persistence
Exile and Revolution

Gerald E. Poyo

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

In the late 1880s, a sharp decline in financial contributions from tobacco workers and manufacturers for the nationalist cause triggered a controversial shift in revolutionary strategy. Deteriorating economic and social conditions in Cuba’s rural districts produced a generation of bandits who turned to kidnapping and ransoming wealthy planters and raiding small towns for a living. Many fled to Key West, became politicized under the influence of José D. Poyo and other nationalists, and returned to Cuba as guerrilla fighters. These bandit-patriots, especially Manuel García, cooperated with the Convención Cubana, Key West’s secret insurgent organization, extorted funds for the revolutionary treasury, and helped create an environment in Cuba conducive to revolution. Some nationalist leaders in Key West expressed ambivalence and others expressed outright opposition about this turn in nationalist strategy, characterizing it as immoral, but Poyo persisted viewing this as the only viable strategy for raising revolutionary funds at least until the workers regained their enthusiasm for the cause.

Keywords:   Persistence, Revolutionary strategies, Bandits in Cuba, Politicizing bandits, Guerrillas, Manuel García, Convención Cubana

I think that if through a discrete, prudent, and cautious plan we decided to take from Spaniards in Cuba the money needed to commence, we would save time and prevent difficulties that today seem insurmountable.

José D. Poyo, 1888

One evening in late August 1887, José D. Poyo and Ten Years’ War veteran General Juan Fernández Ruz, a newcomer to Key West, met with a group of conspirators and made final preparations for a small expedition. In the name of the Key West revolutionary committee, Poyo and Ruz commissioned Manuel Beribén (aka Quiebra Hachas, a hardwood tree known colloquially in Cuba as “axe-breaker”) and Manuel García as commanders of around forty-five fighters. Few in Key West contributed to this small operation, but funds arrived from Cuba. Although the Spanish consul tried to monitor the group’s comings and goings, all he could tell his superiors in September was that an expedition had left for Cardenas. Hearing that yet another contingent was preparing to depart, concerned authorities in Cuba dispatched a warship to patrol the waters around Key West. A Spanish vessel was also docked at Key West, and rumors circulated that it brought agents intending to kidnap Cuban American citizens involved in the latest activities. However, these rumors proved to be false.1

Key West Cubans persisted in fomenting revolution despite difficult circumstances. In addition to the disastrous fire that destroyed the community’s financial base, New York Cubans remained opposed to insurgency, the autonomist liberals in Havana continued to seek accommodation, workers seemed disengaged from nationalism, and military leaders had not yet recovered from their latest defeat. Gone were the days of patriotic enthusiasm when manufacturers and workers conspired together and donated funds to the cause. (p.119) One correspondent in New York declared that patriotism was on the decline and that financial contributions had dried up.2 However, the local nationalist leadership in Key West adjusted. El Yara and La Propaganda continued the nationalist drumbeat, and Manuel Beribén and Manuel García offered new ways of challenging Spanish power. Poyo pursued these strategies with his usual determination.

Politicized Bandoleros

During the mid- to late 1880s, difficult economic and social conditions in rural Cuba gave rise to a grave problem with marauding bands that the Spanish government referred to as bandoleros (bandits). Dozens of independent bands roamed the countryside, forcing the Spanish government to establish a Civil Guard that was capable of tracking them down. But not all were purely bandits. Many were bandits turned patriots who justified their activities with nationalist rhetoric and financial donations to the independence cause. Regardless of their motivations, the bands shared a similar modus operandi that included attacking military outposts, farms, plantations, and small towns and confiscating supplies and livestock. Kidnapping and ransoming prominent plantation owners or their family members proved the most lucrative. For example, in 1885 and 1886, abductions in Matanzas produced 70,000 gold pesos. Plantation owners even paid annual levies to avoid kidnappings or having their fields torched. In 1884, authorities provided the Rural Guard with permanent garrisons, especially in the sugar zones, forcing many of the marauders to depart for Key West, a close and hospitable safe haven. Others took advantage of a Spanish policy that provided safe passage if they agreed to cease operations. Key West authorities bitterly complained about this policy.3

Among the fighters being organized by Poyo and Ruz to embark for Cuba in 1887 were veterans of Carlos Aguero’s guerrilla operation and a number of recent bandit arrivals to Key West. Some, like Aguero’s and Bonachea’s men in the early part of the decade had clear nationalist credentials and goals and were seen by many Cubans as patriots. Perico Torres, Rosendo García, and José Alvarez Arteaga (Matagás), members of Carlos Aguero’s expedition, remained in Cuba after their leader’s death. Torres and Rosendo García joined Lengüe Romero, a notorious bandit in Havana Province, and (p.120) Matagás established his own group in Matanzas. Before joining Aguero in 1883, Matagás had traveled around Cuba’s countryside robbing travelers, but he soon committed to the separatist cause. He remained in action until he was killed in 1896. Throughout 1885 both groups participated in kidnappings and robberies, all the while proclaiming “Viva Cuba Libre,” presumably waiting for the arrival of Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo.4

When Torres slipped out of Cuba on the steamer Mascotte in early 1886, he was accompanied by another member of the Romero group, Manuel García. Other insurgent bandits, including Manuel Beribén, Emilio García, Isidoro Leijas, Victor Fragoso, Domingo Montelongo, and Salomé Escassi, settled in Key West with their families and found jobs in the cigar industry. Beribén and Emilio García had accompanied Maceo for a while before infiltrating Cuba and then fleeing to Key West. In 1884, Emilio García regularly smuggled correspondence from Gómez and Maceo to Julio Sanguily, Carlos Aguero, and others.5 According to the Spanish consul, bandoleros arrived regularly in Key West, and in July 1887, he reported that “four individuals of Matagás’ group, three blacks and a white,” disembarked from the steamer Mascotte.6

The arrival of these tough characters in Key West coincided with Tuerto Rodríguez’s efforts to organize a fighting contingent and leave for Cuba at the appropriate moment. Rodríguez, who was born in Puerto Principe, Dominican Republic, in 1846, fought with a cavalry unit in Camaguey in 1868. He fought in many of the important battles and rose to brigadier general before leaving Cuba after the Zanjón Pact. He joined Gómez in Honduras in 1883 and accepted his assignment in Key West two years later.7 Rodríguez had operated with some patriot-bandits in Cuba for a time and asked the group in Key West to support his expedition, but he abandoned the enterprise after the fire and a significant shift in the mood of workers regarding revolutionary action.8

Disappointed with Rodríguez’s departure and especially angry when Gómez and Maceo quit their activities, Rosendo García and Perico Torres took charge of organizing the expedition. More bandoleros arrived and joined their efforts with the expedition. Many of those who lacked a political consciousness or experience with nationalist activities soon imbibed the patriotic atmosphere. They listened to the lectores in the factories, heard community orators, and participated in political clubs, activities that fused their complex (p.121) bandit origins with nationalist enthusiasm. But they made little progress with the expedition.

The difficult situation in Key West after the fire forced patriot-bandits to earn wages. Rosendo García and Torres found work at the Martínez Ybor factory in Tampa along with Manuel García, Isidoro Leijas, and a number of others. Emilio García opened a bar in Ybor City. These men played a leading role in the Black Guard vigilante group in Tampa, which was much like the Partida la Tranca in Key West, and several participated in the violent confrontation at the Mascotte bar. They returned to Key West in February and March 1887, when the Tampa Board of Trade threatened the safety of the Cuban nationalists. Only Emilio García and Leijas remained in Tampa. They had been charged with the murder of a Knights of Labor activist and had to stay in the city until their trial the following year. A jury found them not guilty due to the contradictory testimony of eyewitnesses.9

General Juan Fernández Ruz, Poyo’s collaborator in dispatching the Beribén-García expedition, arrived in Key West March 1887. Ruz was a Ten Years’ War veteran who had settled in Barcelona after the Zanjón Pact. He made his way to New York in mid-1886, when the Gómez-Maceo initiative offered the strong possibility of another insurrection. Despite the demise of that initiative, Ruz continued to Key West, where he joined the Rosendo García-Perico Torres group and quickly became their leader.10

Apparently, Poyo’s role in all of this was to offer encouragement and insist on the political legitimacy of their activities. Poyo was especially intrigued with Manuel García and suggested he lead the planned expedition along with Beribén, Ruz’s favorite. Beribén, who was originally from a well-to-do family in Biscay, in the Basque region of Spain, had arrived in Cuba fifteen years earlier and had joined the insurgent forces during the Ten Years’ War. In 1887, he was thirty-three years old. The six-foot-tall, 240-pound man with blue eyes and wide whiskers possessed charisma, clear revolutionary credentials, and republican ideals.11

Manuel García was a less obvious choice as a leader. Poyo no doubt saw in 37-year-old García the silent, uncultured man of rough aspect and poor manners who was also the practical, consumed, bold, cunning, and generous man that one historian later described. In addition, he was a good shot. In 1871, García had murdered his stepfather for beating his mother and turned to rural banditry.12 Despite García’s less-than-appealing style, Poyo recognized (p.122) that like Aguero before him, he had intense anti-Spanish attitudes, wellhoned fighting skills, and considerable experience with kidnapping and ransoming prominent wealthy figures, a practice that could provide resources that were not available in the exile communities.

This new revolutionary strategy built on Aguero’s guerrilla experience and for the time promised to spread some measure of havoc and insecurity in Cuba’s already turbulent rural districts. Though the operations of bandits promoted instability and the impression of ongoing insurrectionary activity, they also had the potential to inspire a revolutionary vanguard, not unlike what Bonachea had envisioned. The Spanish consul viewed the bandoleros with great concern and warned his superiors to prevent them from reaching Key West. The next year the consul confirmed the growing success of nationalists in politicizing bandits, declaring that “banditry can no longer be considered a common crime, it is responding to a political plan, which promotes independence as well as annexation.”13

After landing in Matanzas, Beribén and García marched with their forty or fifty fighters for six days into the Morejón Mountains, where they encountered a large Spanish force. Newspapers in the United States initially reported that Spanish forces had killed García but later clarified that Beribén, not García, had fallen. The Spanish captured seventeen fighters, but the rest reached the mountains and regrouped. García and the remaining men then made their way toward Havana Province and rejoined Lengüe Romero. When Romero died in action in January 1888, García took charge and in the next months gained considerable notoriety for two kidnappings that raised at least $17,000, a portion of which made its way to Key West.14 As García’s fame grew, he began referring to himself as Rey de los Campos (King of the Countryside) and publicizing his goal of Cuba libre.

Disputes and Divisions

Despite the promising collaboration between Ruz and Poyo and the renewal of revolutionary activism in Key West, personal differences and disagreements about strategy split the community there. Ruz was a rather flamboyant and charismatic character with a considerable ego who presented himself as the natural and obvious successor to Gómez and Maceo. Because of his (p.123) distinguished career fighting in Cuba in the Ten Years’ War, Ruz believed that he was the man of the hour, the one who was capable of uniting Cubans behind a new effort to revolutionize the island. Ruz’s plans included building a coalition of revolutionary groups in the various exile communities. He visited New York in October 1887, where he met with a group that José Martí had convened to listen to his propositions. While the New Yorkers listened politely, they were not impressed, and Ruz returned to Key West with only vague promises of support that never materialized.15

Back in Key West, Ruz sensed a change in attitudes about him. Ruz had badly mishandled his relations with the nationalist leadership there, beginning with Poyo. His pompous manner and his clear desire to command alienated Poyo, who remained loyal to Gómez. Ruz especially erred in publicly accusing Gómez of not accounting for the thousands of dollars he had raised in Key West, a criticism that circulated in the community after the general abandoned his plan to invade Cuba. Lamadriz and Figueredo also considered Gómez the movement’s indisputable leader and followed Poyo’s lead. In January 1888, these three men and several others formed a group called Los Diez (The Ten) that worked to discredit Ruz’s activities.16

To further complicate matters, the popular and charismatic General Flor Crombet arrived in Key West in February. Thirty-eight-year-old Crombet, who was born to a French family of color that was probably originally from Haiti, joined the Ten Years’ War in 1868 and demonstrated a tenaciousness that gave him a reputation as one of the best guerrilla fighters. He participated in many battles, rose to the rank of general, and joined Maceo’s protest against the Zanjón Pact. During the Little War he suffered arrest, but in 1881 he escaped and joined Gómez and Maceo in Honduras.17

Crombet initially agreed to Ruz’s plan for revolution, which involved an expedition composed mostly of the patriot-bandits in league with Manuel García who had provided funds for the enterprise. But relations between the two men soon soured. Ruz informed Crombet that he had offered General Julio Sanguily the military leadership in Vuelta Abajo and wanted him to direct operations in another region. Offended by Ruz’s presumption, Crombet responded that he had not gone to Key West to place himself under Ruz’s orders, especially since most military chiefs remained loyal to Máximo Gómez. Ruz responded clumsily by reminding people that Crombet was black as a (p.124) way to discredit him. He also accused Crombet of being Gómez’s puppet and even perhaps an undercover autonomist intent on denouncing revolutionary plans and turning Ruz over to Spanish authorities.18

Crombet lashed out in kind, calling Ruz immoral for relying on bandits to spark a revolution in Cuba, a strategy he would never support. This sealed the breach between the two men. The Key West nationalist leadership not only applauded this conflict but helped instigate it. The consul speculated that Ruz’s lack of tact and inability to get along with the revolutionary leaders in Key West was attributable to his personal vanity and lack of education.

Nevertheless, Ruz remained active and gathered followers. Not dissuaded by his inability to win a firm commitment from New York’s nationalists or by his lack of success in Key West, he continued to work with the patriot-bandits and gained backing from a small group in Key West led by Federico Gil Marrero, who reestablished the nihilist club that had been founded in 1883. This time it was called El Nivel (Level or Even or Equality). Throughout 1888, Ruz acted as Manuel García’s point man in Key West and received considerable sums of money from him. He also developed relations with numerous groups in Cuba, including a revolutionary committee in Havana.

In August 1888, Ruz received notice that armed groups were ready and waiting in Santiago de Cuba, Puerto Principe, Santa Clara, Remedios, Cárdenas, Cienfuegos, and Matanzas, but he failed to convert his plans into concrete revolutionary action. His conflicts with the leading nationalists left him without enough legitimacy to lead, and eventually even many of his close supporters abandoned him. In November, Ruz finally quit altogether and went to New York, where he published a manifesto before returning to Barcelona. He blamed the nationalist leaders in Key West for his failure, especially Poyo, Lamadriz, Figueredo, and several others.19

Meanwhile, with the full support of key nationalist leaders, Crombet continued to try to energize workers in the factories in Key West and Tampa, but with little success. Few workers attended a mass meeting in Key West on March 7, 1888, a sign of their continuing reluctance to contribute their wages to another nationalist enterprise. Workers were focused on labor activism and for the moment were more drawn to anarchist than nationalist ideals. At an earlier meeting of the Cuban black community’s Sociedad el Progreso, numerous welcoming speeches extolled the glories of the past war. Noticing that nobody mentioned Máximo Gómez, Crombet reminded the audience (p.125) that he represented the veteran general, but he had misread them. Labor activist Carlos Baliño openly declared that ideas, not men, inspired him and that he might even reconsider his attitudes about Spain should labor policies in Cuba change to allow greater freedom of action. Baliño’s comment provoked a rebuke from La Propaganda, which insisted on independence before everything.20 This kind of challenge to the nationalists had been unthinkable before 1886, but in 1888 it was not uncommon.

Another meeting on March 11 produced a similar result, leaving Crombet discouraged and some in the Cuban nationalist black community furious because they perceived the lack of response to Crombet from workers a racial slight to their community. The Spanish consul saw it otherwise: “The truth is, even if Crombet was as white as snow the result would have been the same since no one is now disposed to give more money to the freeloaders.”21 In a final effort, the nationalist community met on April 11 at the Odd Fellows Hall on Caroline Street. Nearly all of the nationalist leaders attended, including Lamadriz, Figueredo, Herrera, Morúa Delgado, and about fifty others, and issued a manifesto that called on Key West to support the visiting revolutionary leader.22

The meeting produced some enthusiasm, but few in the community donated funds, confirming that even respected military leaders could not over-come popular disenchantment. A discouraged Crombet left for New York in July but fared no better there. Finally, in a controversial move, he gave up and returned to Cuba, taking advantage of an amnesty that Spanish authorities had offered to former insurgents who faced legal sanction.23

Poyo did not attend the April 11 meeting, reflecting his skepticism about the possibility of raising funds for the nationalist cause. Throughout these months Poyo had been silent, refusing to take a public stand about the personal controversies between Ruz and Crombet. This was a striking contrast to his behavior in previous years, when he had publicly exhorted Key West Cubans to contribute to the Gómez-Maceo initiative. Experience had taught Poyo that a revolutionary should be circumspect, prudent, careful in communication, and not boastful. A revolutionary had to keep the enemy ignorant of his activities and maintain the element of surprise. For that reason El Yara did not discuss organizing activities or strategies. It focused on condemning autonomist, annexationist, and anarchist challenges to the ideal of independence. Poyo knew that constant public disagreements hurt the community’s (p.126) reputation, since it suggested a lack of capability and seriousness and gave its enemies important information. Others could do what they wished, but Poyo had learned the importance of discretion from repeated failures and bitter experience.24

Privately, however, he let his colleagues know that neither Ruz nor Crombet offered a viable alternative at the moment. While Poyo shared Ruz’s vision of filling Cuba with an endless parade of guerrilla groups who could create generalized disaffection with Spanish rule and raise funds, he rejected what he saw as Ruz’s grandiosity, immoral character, and refusal to accept Gómez and Maceo as the revolution’s natural leaders. Poyo acknowledged Ruz’s brave career during the Ten Years’ War but characterized him as “dead, morally and politically.”25

Although Poyo admired Crombet and supported him unconditionally as Gómez’s comrade, he argued that Key West was not ready for new fund-raising drives. Too many in Key West were still angry about the failed Gomez-Maceo campaign and too distracted with labor ideologies and working-class activism. One observer criticized Poyo for discouraging fund-raising efforts in the factories, saying, “Poyo always the same—waiting for another day,” but Crombet’s inability to create enthusiasm and raise funds for his enterprise proved Poyo’s point.26

Poyo nevertheless remained enthusiastic about infiltrating Cuba to promote unrest and rebelliousness. El Yara supported Manuel García, who could raise the resources he needed where they existed, among Cuba’s wealthy, especially since revolutionaries in exile could not expect help from anyone.27 Poyo became Manuel García’s primary contact in Key West after Ruz left. In a letter to Máximo Gómez, Poyo argued that “if through a discrete, prudent, and cautious plan we decided to take from Spaniards in Cuba the money needed to commence, we would save time and prevent difficulties that today seem insurmountable.”28

As Poyo had hoped, the kidnapping and extortion activities of Manuel García and many others transformed the rural districts around Havana into a virtual war zone. The government’s inability to guarantee peace in the countryside frightened planters, who wondered whether authorities could provide a stable environment. This situation had serious political implications for Spain. Things became so difficult that in April 1888 the captain general imposed martial law in the provinces of Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, (p.127) and Santa Clara, placing the administration of justice directly under military control. Poyo believed that this action would foment rebellion. “We accept the challenge,” El Yara announced.29 Emergency governance remained in force through 1889 without much success, but the capacity of the military was strengthened in 1890, when the new captain general, Camilo G. Polavieja, dispatched 10,000 soldiers to rural districts in a clearly military operation. Although Spanish troops killed, captured, or executed many, this effort was still not sufficient, and bandits remained a dangerous threat to the established classes in the rural areas.30

In January 1889, García ordered his followers in Key West who were under the leadership of Bernardino Trujillo (aka José Rodríguez) to heed Poyo’s instructions. “Poyo is so intent on organizing this latest movement,” noted the Spanish consul, “that he did not attend the inauguration of the San Carlos.”31 Instead, the consul continued, that evening he met with “el negro” (Trujillo) for several hours to discuss preparations for another expedition. Several days later, Poyo again met with Trujillo and Emilio García to resolve an apparent disagreement over who would lead the guerrilla contingent; both Trujillo and García wanted to be the jefe of the expedition.

The consul was suspicious about the enterprise. He speculated that this activity was perhaps a decoy because preparations suffered “certain defects.” In fact, the consul told superiors that Poyo had received a letter from Havana reporting that Manuel García had attempted to leave the island several times without success and asking that Poyo send a guerrilla contingent as a distraction. The consul did not consider the expedition a threat, but he warned authorities in Cuba that if these bandits were not eliminated they could well serve as the basis for a future revolutionary movement, which, of course, was precisely Poyo’s goal. In May 1889, Poyo received another $1,140 from García’s kidnapping activities in Cuba.32

Poyo’s support of García and his willingness to use explosives created considerable controversy in Key West throughout the 1880s. In fact, none of the other important Key West leaders except Poyo’s son-in-law Delgado and Dr. Manuel Moreno figured in these activities with García. Some opposed these strategies as too radical and inherently immoral and viewed Poyo and his group as fanatics.33

In 1884, a friend of Poyo’s reported on his activities to the Spanish consul, saying that he considered himself a Cuban patriot but felt that Poyo’s (p.128) activities were criminal. Another critic, Néstor Leonelo Carbonell, a Ten Years’ War veteran who arrived in Key West around 1886 and later became a leading nationalist leader in Tampa, refused to participate in Poyo’s activities with the patriot-bandits and argued that the end did not justify the means. Pedro Pequeño, editor of Key West’s El Cubano, for which Carbonell also wrote, also publicly condemned efforts to organize “bandit expeditions.” Pequeño was so opposed to these strategies that in late 1889 he returned to Havana as a converted autonomist after publishing a proclamation denouncing the “immoral practices” of the separatist party. Morúa Delgado was also disillusioned with nationalist politics of exiles and returned to Cuba in 1889, where he published La Nueva Era and participated in autonomist politics.34

The Spanish consul reported that even Lamadriz and Figueredo expressed doubts about Poyo’s activities and did not take part, but this may have been less out of principle than because of personal considerations. Lamadriz, an attorney, had to consider the effects of associating with patriot-bandits on his professional standing, while Figueredo, a local political figure, had to protect his reputation with the voting public. In the 1880s his public service included representing Monroe County in the Florida Assembly, working as customs inspector, and achieving election as Superintendent of Public Education.35

In contrast, Poyo’s work as lector and as editor of his own newspaper left him quite free to act. In an irony of history, only his local ideological nemesis, Manuel Moreno, a representative of Monroe County to the Florida Assembly, also supported García, but for different reasons than Poyo. Moreno was an annexationist who believed that if guerrilla groups caused enough chaos, the United States might be persuaded to intervene and take control of the island. This was certainly not the goal Poyo had in mind. Poyo’s radicalism often left him “alone, abandoned, scorned, [and] accused as demented,” according to Figueredo, but he “maintained faith and heart.”36

Poyo was simply advocating on a smaller scale what the army of insurrection would do in a grander fashion when the independence war erupted. Máximo Gómez, Antonio Maceo, and the liberation army implemented guerrilla warfare, used scorched-earth tactics, and extorted plantation owners; these were indispensable strategies for keeping the Spanish army at bay.37 Poyo did not view insurgency and war as a romantic adventure; he saw it as a brutish affair to be pursued with all available methods. He had made this clear in 1883 and 1884. From his point of view, the war had not ended in (p.129) 1878 or even in 1880; he rejected the Zanjón Pact and continued the struggle without compromise. The revolutionary party—a party of action—was invariably obligated to try every strategy, and as far as Poyo was concerned, “the measures available to carry out the work are as many and varied as may fit in the abstract idea of the revolutionary.”38

Convención Cubana

In December 1889, in the midst of frustrating divisions about nationalist strategy and leadership and challenges from Havana anarchists that included the strike that closed down the entire industry in Key West, a group of nationalists gathered to evaluate the situation. They agreed on the futility of broad-based fund-raising efforts and decided on an approach that relied heavily on organizing revolutionary sympathizers in Cuba. They returned to the model of the secret organization, Orden Cosmopólita del Sol, that Poyo had introduced in 1878 and Club Máximo Gómez had used again in 1884. They called the new organization the Convención Cubana. A political arm, Club Luz de Yara (Light of Yara Club), issued public pronouncements and instructions, but the two organizations had the same officers: Lamadriz (president), Poyo (vice-president), and Figueredo (secretary). Each of the Convención Cubana’s twenty-five members was sworn to secrecy. They organized as much of the community as possible through additional clubs that were subordinate to the Convención. The two main objectives of the organization were raising funds to purchase and store weapons and promoting revolutionary cells in Cuba. The first goal was postponed until a more propitious time, but organizing Cuba was immediately feasible and became the organization’s primary preoccupation.

Four committees spearheaded activities: War, Treasury, Propaganda and Correspondence. Manufacturers Gato, Recio, and Soria took charge of the Treasury Committee, and military veterans Figueredo, Gerardo Castellanos, and José Rogelio Castillo led the War Committee. Poyo and Manuel P. Delgado handled the Correspondence Committee. Initially, at least, the correspondence and war committees played the most important roles of establishing contacts with insurgent elements in Cuba, beginning with messages to Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, who were at their headquarters in Santo Domingo and Jamaica, respectively.39



Figure 4. Membership of the Convención Cubana de Cayo Hueso, a secret patriotic institution. Top Row: José Martí, Carlos Roloff, José D. Poyo, and Tomás Estrada Palma. From Juan J. E. Casasus, La emigración cubana y la independencia de la patria (Havana: Editorial Lex, 1933).

(p.131) Other revolutionary contacts in Cuba included Guillermo Moncada and Bartolomé Masó in Oriente; Manuel and Ricardo Sartorio in Holguín; Luaces and Mola in Puerto Principe; Luís Lagomasino and Federico Zayas in Las Villas; Julio Sanguily, Juan Gualberto Gómez, and others in Havana; and, of course, the many other veterans scattered in the communities where exiles had gathered. In Villa de Placetas in the province of Las Villas, Luís Lagomasino, who owned the newspaper El Cubano and was head of a revolutionary club, Provisional de Cinco Villas no. 2, responded positively to Poyo and Figueredo, with whom he had collaborated since 1883. He attributed his own expertise in revolutionary work “to the indefatigable propagandist José Dolores Poyo, Director de ‘El Yara’ de Key West, Fla.”40

In early February 1890, around the time the new secret organization was formed, news arrived in Key West that Antonio Maceo, like Crombet, had accepted an invitation from Cuba’s governor to discuss his reintegration into Cuban society. Although he was not serious about renouncing revolution, Maceo saw the opportunity for gathering firsthand information about the state of affairs in Cuba. He traveled to Havana and checked into the Hotel Inglaterra, in the heart of the city. Immediately he convened clandestine meetings with dozens of sympathizers of the insurgency, many of whom were already in contact with the revolutionaries in Key West. He also met with associations of working-class Afro-Cubans who were linked with anarchists, a demonstration of the growing convergence of separatist and labor interests.41 He traveled throughout the provinces of Havana and Pinar del Rio and across the island to Oriente and sent agents to places he did not visit to determine the general state of intent and readiness.

In a letter to Convención leaders, Maceo characterized the revolutionary situation in Cuba as positive but not quite ready for action. He designated the Convención as the chief revolutionary center in exile and named Máximo Gómez the military leader. Two prominent intellectuals coordinated Maceo’s plan in Havana. One of them was Juan Gualberto Gómez, a well-educated journalist who was the best-known nonwhite Cuban intellectual. He had suffered arrest and imprisonment in Ceuta for a time during the Little War, but he was given probationary release in Madrid, where he stayed until 1890. He returned to Cuba in time to accept Maceo’s offer to coordinate revolutionary activities in Havana, which he shared with Manuel Sanguily, a colonel during the war whose intellectual talents became evident in writings and speeches (p.132) throughout the 1880s. Maceo and the island rebels finally set October 10, 1890, the anniversary of the Grito de Yara, as the date for launching the insurrection.42

In April, Convención representatives traveled to Cuba and met with Maceo and a group of insurgent leaders, probably to discuss funneling resources to the rebels and preparing an expedition. A week later the Spanish consul reported the formation of several new revolutionary clubs, including the Liga de Cubanos Independientes (League of Independent Cubans), which was headed by Juan Arnao, who had settled in Key West after decades in New York. Like other new Key West organizations, the League of Independent Cubans was subordinate to the Convención. It took charge of training and equipping recruits for the expedition. Members of this group included Rosendo García, Perico Torres, Bernardino Trujillo, and numerous others.43

In theory, the Convención did not intend to support guerrilla operations of the type Poyo advocated or support the activities of Manuel García, but activities quickly moved in that direction. From New York, manufacturer and Convención member Eduardo H. Gato shipped rifles to several different people in Key West so not to raise suspicions; including five to Francisco Ybern (El Yara’s office manager), five to Carlos Recio, and more to Emilio García and Juan Arnao. Gato also sent $200 toward the purchase of the schooner. A very concerned consul sent a telegram to Cuba’s captain general on August 31: “Expedition of bandits organized to join Manuel García in Cuba. Schooner purchased. Possess 30 rifles. Waiting for orders to launch.” He followed with the information that the expedition would depart at night under the command of Torres or Rosendo García and coordinate with Manuel García.44

In Cuba, Maceo also contacted Manuel García through General Julio Sanguily, Manuel’s older brother. Born in 1846, Julio had studied in the United States and had joined Manuel de Quesada’s Galvanic expedition in 1868 and had fought on Cuba’s battlefields in the Ten Years’ War. He led a lethal cavalry unit from Camaguey. In short order he rose to the rank of general, and he served with Gómez.45 Sanguily had emerged from the war with a stellar reputation as a fierce fighter and remained in Cuba, where he instigated and supported conspiracies in the 1880s. He had secured Carlos Aguero a safe conduct pass from Spanish authorities to Key West in 1883, and now he served as intermediary between Maceo and García. In summer 1889, García had again achieved headlines with a series of kidnappings, and he returned (p.133) briefly to Key West before meeting with Sanguily and Maceo.46 Maceo instructed García about what to do when the rebellion erupted, but while he was waiting for things to begin, the Rey de los Campos continued his normal activities.

In the late afternoon of June 20, 1890, armed with rifles, machetes, and revolvers, García’s group attacked the town of San Nicolás, southwest of Havana. They targeted a store, taking all available cash as well as supplies, and kidnapped the merchant and another resident of the town. While waiting for a ransom of 8,500 gold pesos for the two men, he extorted the railroad companies for 15,000 pesos with threats to derail trains, kill mechanics, and burn stations. The threat to the transportation system may have been made in coordination with Maceo, who continued to travel the island making connections with insurgent groups. In August, Maceo contacted the Convención about the status of the expedition.47

Not surprisingly, Spanish intelligence learned of Maceo’s plans, and the government acted. On August 29, 1890, police surrounded his hotel and ordered him and his family to leave the very next day on a steamer for New York. Days later, many of the leaders of the conspiracy, including Flor Crombet, suffered the same fate. In New York, Maceo informed nationalist leaders in Key West of his optimism and intention to continue and said that he would soon visit them. Convención leaders urged their networks in Cuba to be patient and cautious, especially the enthusiastic Lagomasino group in La Villas. The League of Independent Cubans, which had 327 active members and almost $14,000 in cash, remained ready.48

However, many rank-and-file fighters in Key West lost patience and gathered at Emilio Garcia’s bar to lament the delays. García declared himself fed up with the waiting, and others agreed. They should forget the local jefes in Key West and immediately join Manuel García in Cuba, commented one man. Another disagreed, counseling patience, while yet another wondered when final instructions would arrive from Cuba. Meanwhile, instead of going to Key West, Maceo departed immediately for Honduras to prepare his landing in Cuba, where two thousand men waited his arrival to initiate operations. He told Poyo to remain expectant and asked for any available funds.49

The Spanish consul remained vigilant and reported that despite Maceo’s departure from Cuba the rebels in Key West remained active and continued to accumulate funds. He provided Spanish authorities with a list of (p.134) twenty-nine “dinamitistas,” by which he meant the activists of the League of Independent Cubans. According to the consul, these men included seven “bandits, thieves and murderers”; four cigar manufacturers; four merchants, two tobacco workers; four lectores; three journalist/printers; two government employees; one bookkeeper; a pharmacist; and a barber. He said that they usually met at the Gil Marrero or Cecilio Henríquez cigar factories or at Poyo’s home, which was still protected because he was the Peruvian consul.50

Everything remained quiet throughout October and November as the insurrectionists waited for developments in Cuba, but the news was not encouraging. Maceo had not arrived, and Spanish authorities increased their pursuit of the other conspirators across the island. They also pursued Manuel García, who was desperately trying to get out of Cuba. Julio Sanguily in Cuba, who was trying to help García, cautioned Rosendo García and Torres in Key West to remain still, by which he meant that they should not send the expedition or try to contact Manuel García, since this might alert authorities to his whereabouts.51

García appeared again briefly in Key West in March 1891 and likely consulted with Poyo and Manuel Moreno, among others. But García tired of waiting for Maceo and returned to the island in April, where he made the bold step of declaring war on Spain. In a manifesto dated April 27, García proclaimed himself general of the Occidental Department of the Island of Cuba and rejected the legitimacy of Spanish rule. Listing a litany of grievances, including unfair taxes, government corruption, personal insults, and abrogation of civil rights, he proclaimed independence and the creation of a republic. Curiously, a version of the document appeared in English that also called for Cuba’s annexation to the United States. The origin of that document is a mystery, but it may be that while García was in Key West, Manuel Moreno persuaded him to include the annexationist passage to encourage the United States to intervene. Poyo and the great majority of Key West nationalists would never have consented to such a proclamation; it suggests either some duplicity on García’s part or a less-than-sophisticated understanding of the political implications of such a statement.52

García’s action was perhaps designed to force the hand of many conspirators, including Maceo, who had informed supporters in Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa, and Holguín that he would soon leave for the island from Costa Rica. Nobody in Cuba responded to García’s call, and Maceo remained in (p.135) exile, but the King of the Countryside continued his raids and kidnappings. In Key West, nationalists again lowered their visibility to await another opportunity while organizing insurrectionists in Cuba and receiving funds from patriot-bandit groups who continued to create a climate of unrest.53

If nothing else, Maceo’s activities in 1890 and 1891 and the Convención’s preparations in Key West stirred nationalist enthusiasm. This was high-lighted at the October 10, 1890, commemoration of the declaration of Cuban independence. The nationalist community gathered at eight in the morning and the La Libertad band led students carrying the Cuban and American flags in a large parade down the principal streets to the cemetery. Behind them followed members of the, Círculo Cubano, Liga de Trabajadores Cubanos, Club Patria y Libertad, Club Independiente, Liga de Cubanos Independientes, and the Afro-Cuban group Sociedad el Progreso, among others, carrying banners and images of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Francisco V. Aguilera, and other martyrs.

At the cemetery, Methodist pastor E. B. Someillán led his church choir in hymns. Speeches followed, and the venerable exile veteran Arnao condemned the autonomists, whom he held responsible for delaying the inevitable revolution in Cuba. Representatives of the various clubs spoke, as did Flor Crombet, who was representing military veterans. Poyo closed the ceremony by reciting an “epic poem” dedicated to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the martyr he held in special regard. That night Arnao presided at another meeting at San Carlos Institute, where spectators listened to two more hours of speeches promising a free Cuba.54

The failure of the Gómez-Maceo initiative, the Key West fire, and the rise of labor ideologies that were attractive to Cuban workers in Key West made mobilizing nationalists in the Key West community very difficult in the late 1880s, but nationalist leaders changed their strategies to meet the new circumstances. Few residents of Key West continued to provide resources, and the practice of raising funds in the factories no longer worked. But Poyo recognized an alternative in the mid-1880s when Cuba’s patriot-bandits began their operations. The considerable experience of these men in kidnapping and ransoming wealthy planters and raiding small towns offered a new source of funds. Poyo and other nationalists helped politicize those without nationalist consciousness, and many infiltrated Cuba as small bands of guerrilla fighters determined to cause whatever havoc they could. They raised money (p.136) for themselves and for the revolutionary treasury in Key West. Manuel García and Matagás proved the most successful, and they both continued their activities until the outbreak of the second war of independence.

Some nationalist leaders in Key West expressed ambivalence about and others expressed outright opposition to this turn in the strategy of the nationalists, characterizing it as immoral and not in keeping with the noble goals of the nationalist movement. But Poyo viewed this as the only viable approach, at least until the workers regained their enthusiasm for the cause. These bandoleros took on patriot identities—some sincerely and others as a way of justifying their banditry—and gained a kind of political legitimacy in Key West and Cuba. They cooperated with the Convención’s conspiracies, became important allies in spreading nationalist sentiment, and helped created an environment conducive to revolution.


(1) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Ministro de Estado, August 22 and September 14, 1887, H1868, AMAE; “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888; “Key West Excited,” The Wheeling Register, September 17, 1887; “Bravery of an Insurgent,” The New Haven Register, October 24, 1887.

(p.264) (2) . “Carta de Cayo Hueso,” Las Novedades, May 17, 1888.

(5) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, March 6 and May 8, 1886, Leg. 771, Caja 54/7995, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Schwartz, Lawless Liberators, 117; Deulofeu, Héroes del destierro, 33.

(6) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Ministro de Estado, July 16, 1887, H1868, AMAE.

(8) . Stebbins, City of Intrigue, 102; Schwartz, Lawless Liberators, 115; Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, [May 10, 1886], Leg. 771, Caja 54/7995, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(9) . Stebbins, City of Intrigue, 199–202.

(10) . “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888.

(11) . “Beribén Joined by 400 Men,” New York Herald-Tribune, September 9, 1887.

(13) . “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888; Joaquín M. Torroja to Ministro de Estado, February 25, 1887, H1968, AMAE; Joaquín M. to Enviado Extraordinario April 5, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(14) . “Isidro Cejas,” The Daily Equator-Democrat, June 8, 1888, newspaper clippings, H1868, AMAE; Stebbins, City of Intrigue, 161–162; Schwartz, Lawless Liberators, 122.

(15) . “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888; José Martí to Juan Ruz, October 20, 1887, in Martí, Epistolario, 1:415–419; Trujillo, Apuntes históricos, 28–29.

(16) . “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888; Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, January 8, March 15, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(18) . Ibid.

(19) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, January 14, February 24, March 4, April 7, and August 4, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; “Manifiesto,” Las Novedades, November 8, 1888.

(20) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, March 2, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(21) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, March 4, 10, and 15, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(22) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, April 12 and 13, 1888, Leg. 714, Caja 54/7984, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(23) . Padrón, El General Flor, 274–277.

(24) . “Nuestra actitud,” El Yara, January 8, 1888.

(25) . “Manifiesto de Ruz,” El Yara, November 18, 1888.

(27) . Quoted in Las Novedades, February 16, 1888.

(p.265) (28) . José D. Poyo to Máximo Gómez, April 1, 1888, Leg. 4, no. 56, Archivo Máximo Gómez, ANC.

(29) . Quoted in “Carta de Cayo Hueso,” Las Novedades, May 17, 1888.

(31) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, February 16, 1889, Leg. 721, Caja 54/7986, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Stebbins, City of Intrigue, 162–163, 181–182.

(32) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, January 20 and 29, February 16, and May 31, 1889, Leg. 721, Caja 54/7986, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(33) . Ibid.

(34) . Stebbins, City of Intrigue, 215; Justiz, Elogio del Sr. Néstor Leonelo Carbonell, 22; Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, January 20 and August 13, 1889, Leg. 721, Caja 54/7986, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Helg, Our Rightful Share, 44, 83–84.

(35) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, January 29, 1889, Leg. 721, Caja 54/7986, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(36) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, April 10, 1889, Leg. 721, Caja 54/7986, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Gómez, Album del Estado Mayor, ix–x.

(38) . “Dilema cubano,” El Yara, October 23, 1886.

(39) . “Convención Cubana,” Leg. 699, no. 11, Donativos y Remisiones, ANC; Alpízar Poyo, Cayo Hueso y José Dolores Poyo, 71–79; Stebbins, “The Cuban Convention.”

(43) . Joaquín M. Torroja to Enviado Extraordinario, April 30, May 6, and June 6, 1890, Leg. 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(44) . Francisco de Baguer to Enviado Extraordinario, May 6 and June 6, 1890, Leg. 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(48) . Franco, Antonio Maceo: Apuntes, 1:331–372; Granda, La Paz de Manganeso, 23; Francisco de Baguer to Enviado Extraordinario, September 18, 1890, Leg. 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Lagomasino, La Guerra de Cuba, 9–17.

(49) . Francisco de Baguer to Enviado Extraordinario, September 9, 10, and 12, 1890, Leg. 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA; Schwartz, Lawless Liberators, 137.

(p.266) (50) . Francisco de Baguer to Enviado Extraordinario, September 30, 1890, Legajo 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo de Fondo 10, AGA.

(51) . Francisco de Baguer to Enviado Extraordinario, November 18 and 21, 1890, Leg. 731, Caja 54/7988, Fondo 26.1, Grupo 10, AGA.

(52) . Schwartz, Lawless Liberators, 139–142, 203.