By , June 2, 2009

Maine and Cuba: An Intimate History
Lillian Guerra, Ph.D.
History Department, Yale University

Horses are a sustainable resource

Horses are a sustainable resource

The people, economy and politics of Maine, particularly Southern Maine, have long been connected to the development and history of Cuba.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when Cuba was still a Spanish colony, shipping traffic between Portland, Maine and Trinidad, Cuba reached such high levels that Maine state officials received the right to establish a permanent consular post in Trinidad from the U.S. Government. Until the early twentieth century, prominent members of shipping families from Portland regularly occupied this post. As the epicenter of sugar production in Cuba for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Trinidad supplied Maine with both sugar and sugar-derived products such as molasses and rum. Maine, in turn, became the primary producer of potatoes for consumers in Cuba, a trade that continued throughout the twentieth century.

Indeed, when Cubans began their thirty-year struggle for independence from Spain in 1868, James Blaine, a Maine Congressman (1863-1877) and later, Senator (1869-1873) became an adamant opponent of the Cuban cause, fearing that a national state in Cuba would jeopardize the market for Maine products. As Secretary of State during the Harrison administration (1889-1893), Blaine earned himself the enmity of the most important of Cuba’s independence activists and one of Latin America’s greatest writers, José Martí. However, Cuban nationalists did find sympathy for their cause of freedom from other Maine politicians, particularly, William P. Frye, the former mayor of Lewiston (1866-1867) and Maine’s Attorney General. As a Congressman for Maine (1870-1881) and later, Blaine’s successor in the U.S. Senate from 1881 to 1911, Frye was a prominent member of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party. As such, he was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, then a staunch advocate of U.S. involvement in Cuba’s continuing war against Spain. Once the U.S. military formally intervened in Cuba in 1898, ostensibly on the side of Cuban rebels, Senator Frye encouraged his son, Alexis Everett Frye, a graduate of Harvard and public school teacher, to volunteer for Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in what would become known as the “Spanish American War of 1898.”

After Spain surrendered to the combined forces of Cuban rebels and the U.S. military in August of 1898, the United States’ intentions to “free Cuba” quickly proved much less definitive than U.S. officials had led the Cubans to believe. Instead of recognizing Cuba’s independence and national sovereignty, the United States occupied the island militarily and organized their own military government, staffed by Americans, to rule Cuba from 1898 to 1902. Although the United States eventually granted Cuba nominal independence in 1902, U.S. military intervention and diplomatic manipulation of the Cuban state became the order of the day from that moment until 1959.

Still, however unjust the actions of the U.S. government, not all Americans or even all U.S. officials agreed with its policies. Indeed, Alexis Everett Frye proved exceptional in this regard. Fervently committed to democratic ideals, Alexis’s experience in the public schools of New England and his upbringing in the working-class dominated culture of old Lewiston deeply affected his views of Cuba. Alexis was convinced that all people—whatever their gender, race or class—should have equal rights of access to economic and educational opportunities. Believing that he could help Cubans make their country more socially just and democratic than even the United States was at the time, Alexis managed to obtain an appointment to the position of Superintendent of Public Schools in Cuba under the U.S. military government of 1898-1902. As Superintendent, Alexis enlisted the support of progressive, former Cuban revolutionaries to create a national system of public schools in Cuba that for the first time, provided a majority of Cuban children with the opportunity for an education.

During his tenure, the number of schools in Cuba rose from 312 in 1898 to 3,628 by 1901. Moreover, Alexis constructed a system of public schools that was much more progressive than any which existed in the United States at the time. Not only did he racially desegregate all public schools in Cuba, he actively recruited female teachers and paid male and female teachers the same salary. “Equal pay for equal work” was Alexis’s underlying philosophy. Based on contributions from private citizens in Maine and Massachusetts, Alexis also engineered a free summer school for 1,256 Cuban teachers (most of whom were women) at Harvard University in the summer of1900.

In the end, Alexis Everett Frye’s actions earned him the love and respect of thousands of Cubans for generations to come. As late as the 1950s, some public schools in Cuba still honored Alexis as the founder of their school system by displaying his picture in classrooms. But while Alexis’s solidarity with Cuba’s national interests earned him the admiration of Cubans, they also earned him the suspicion of the U.S. military. When Alexis fell in love with and married a Cuban woman in 1901, he decided to print 200,000 copies of the Cuban national anthem for distribution to the parents of school children. He called it “his wedding gift” to the Cuban people. To U.S. officials who had not decided whether to keep Cuba as colony, Alexis’s actions in support of Cuba’s right to be free were treasonous. They ultimately got him fired. Thus, in the winter of 1902, Alexis and his young Cuban wife returned to Lewiston, Maine where they lived happily together and raised four sons as Cuban-American “Mainers.” Remembered fondly as a symbol of the American people’s good will toward the Cuban people, news of the Fryes in Maine frequently appeared in Cuban social magazines and newspapers until Alexis’s death in 1944. Personal, political, economic and even passionate, Maine’s historical connections to Cuba endure.

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