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Sunday Favorites: Our Neighbors Across the Pond


Today the relations between the U.S. and Cuba are on shaky ground, and have been for more than half a century. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that, at one time, Florida was the hub of Cuban culture, exporting and importing to and from Cuba on a regular basis. What most people don’t know is that Florida was also the birthplace of the Republic of Cuba

Cattle, fishing and cigars were the great commodities that brought Cuba and Florida together. Cuban fishermen were making annual pilgrimages to the Gulf Coast long before the Caucasian population arrived in Florida from northern states. 

The fishermen lived in camps, traded with Aborigine tribes and smoked their catch, storing them briefly before setting sail to sell their catch in the Havana market. 

Before that, evidence has shown that the Aborigine population paddled to Cuba in handcrafted dugout canoes to sell songbirds. 

The establishment of Armed Occupation Act of 1842, where the government deeded 160 acres to any able-bodied man willing to settle in the Florida wilds and live for five years, brought hundreds of Americans south to stake their claim on free land.

Some families had planned ahead, bringing their livelihood with them. Machinery for lumberyards and other endeavors were shipped down from New Orleans, La. 

But those living for the moment found lucrative opportunity grazing in the Florida lowlands. 

Cattle, a scrawny breed that had evolved from livestock brought from Europe by the conquistadors, had survived for hundreds of years in the thick palmetto brush. 

It didn’t take much for would-be ranchers to learn how to corral them using a whip and ship them to Cuba, where there was already a long-established trafficking rapport. 

The Cubans must have been ecstatic to have an ample beef import so close to home. They paid high dollar for the scrub cattle, often compensating the delivery captains with gold coins and exporting coveted Cuban cigars that could be purchased by Floridians at any five and dime in town. 

Our relationship with Cuban seemed unbreakable. Cubans were our neighbors, our friends and our inspiration.

Wanna-be cigar factories were popping up all over the state. When patrons said they weren’t authentic, the proprietors shipped in Cuba workers to prepare them just like they would in Cuba. When that wasn’t good enough, Cuban tobacco was imported too.

The first flag of the Republic of Cuba was sewn by three American sisters. 

Despite the friendly façade, Cuba was experiencing civil unrest. Some of the top cigar makers shut down their facilities in Havana and moved to Florida to operate. That did not rest well with the Cuban government. 

Florida had been a haven for Native Americans, slaves and convicts for hundreds of years. Prior to the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the state once again opened its arms to refugees hoping to rebel against Spanish-ruled Cuba. 

The rebels flocked to St. Augustine, where they held an extraordinary meeting and conjured an ambitious plan in September 1896. 

The meeting was held at a small cottage on Sunday to advert attention from several Spanish spies present in the city.

It was customary for Cubans to meet each Sunday for breakfast, so the meeting merely seemed like a gathering between friends. However, big business went down when Dr. Jose Julian Marti Perez (1853-1895) was elected president of the new Republic of Cuba. The Mayor of St. Augustine, F.B. Genovar, was also present at the meeting.

St. Augustine residents Ann, Amy and Alice McMillen became the Cuban versions of Betsy Ross when they sewed the first Republic of Cuba flag. 

While the group of patriots breakfasted, two freight cars marked “explosives” pulled up along the San Sebastian River. 

At noon the same day a steamer pulled into the hire for repair of its boilers, but the next day it was gone, sans repair and so were the Cuban nationals. The two cars were also gone. 

The incident was not isolated, according to a local engineer; on every southbound train that came into down during a period of about a month, several cars marked “Company Coal” were also secretly loaded overnight as cargo bound for Cuba. The containers allegedly contained contraband for guerilla warfare. 

Of course, those Americans who aided the rebels became nervous that Spanish ships would attack the city. Mayor Genovar, along with others, petitioned the Secretary of War for a shore battery on Anastasia Island to forestall the attack. 

The attack never happened and the luncheon in St. Augustine was only the beginning of a long-standing battle. Dr. Marti, the key figure in the planning and execution of this war, as well as the designer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its ideology, died in military action during the Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895.

Despite current relations with Cuba, it's amazing to think Florida played such a crucial role in the Cuban Rebellion. 


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