Thursday, May 25, 2023

Ireland and Cuba: Historical Links and the US Connection


The Intersection of Cuban and Irish Nationalism

in 19th Century New York


by John McAuliff  for presentation at the Latin American Studies Association, Vancouver, 5/25/23


When Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins visited Cuba in 2017, he spoke about the two countries special bond:

“Irish and Cuban people have in common a proud sense of their national identity, a passion for freedom… In the past, both of our people have shared an experience of living in the shadow of a powerful neighbor. We are two island nations who have been marked by colonization and that have had to wrestle their freedom from the grip of empires,”[i]

This is a theme memorialized in a plaque at the foot of Havana’s O’Reilly Street in Spanish, English and Gaelic, said to be placed in 1998 but it is not clear by whom or why.  “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.  Cuba and Ireland”.

My purpose in this paper is to highlight some of the intersections between the two island countries’ parallel paths to independence during the 19th century via the Irish emigrant population in the US.   It seems a story not well known in any of the three countries and continues into the first part of the 20th century as both Cuba and Ireland achieved their incomplete and imperfect sovereignty.


The Early Colonial Period and US Independence

Manuel A. Tellechea, a Cuban American from New Jersey, summarized the important role of Irish who came to Cuba via Spain in a blog post on St. Patrick’s Day, 2005:

“The largest Irish migration prior to the Great Potato Famine of 1848 was to Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Irish, who were awarded Spanish citizenship on arriving in Spain as persecuted Catholics, joined the Spanish army's Hibernian regiments and became Spain's best soldiers and most famous generals. Many of these were posted in Cuba and married into the island's aristocracy, establishing our own great Irish-Cuban families (the O'Farrills, the O'Reillys, the Kindelans, the Madans, the Duanys, the O'Gabans, the Coppingers and the O'Naughtens).  Four Captains General of Cuba were of Irish origin (Nicolás Mahy; Sebastián Kindelán; Leopoldo O'Donnell and Luís Prendergast).”[ii]

Irish people served at high levels in government and in senior military positions.  The lighthouse at El Morro, the fort that guarded Havana Bay, had been known as "O'Donnell's Lighthouse", after the Spanish governor, a relative of Red Hugh O'Donnell.

The O'Farrill family came from Longford via Montserrat.  They rose to prominence as slave traders, importers and sugar plantation owners.  The family mansion has been restored as a beautiful boutique hotel.  

Returning to the street just cited,  the person honored, General Alejandro O’Reilly was born in 1723 in County Meath.[iii]  His family moved to Spain when he was a child, part of the flight of Wild Geese from English Protestant domination.  O’Reily arrived in Cuba on 3 July 1763 as British forces were withdrawing from their conquest of Havana.   In 1765 he was named governor general of Puerto Rico.  In both Cuba and Puerto Rico he created a local militia, including blacks and mulattoes, to supplement Spanish troops.  In Cuba’s case, in later generations they were a source of fighters for independence. 

Cubans played a little known part in the American revolution.  Spanish forces defeated British troops from 1779 to 1781, capturing forts on the Mississippi, Mobile and cities in west Florida.  The British were defeated by a Spanish force of 7,000 troops, 4,000 of whom came from Cuba.

 “A Cuban field marshal, Juan Manuel de Cagigal (who hailed from Santiago de Cuba), deployed troops to block the British escape both by sea and by land…The British saw no other alternative than to surrender to the Spanish, who once again secured western Florida with the aid of an army largely composed of Cuban men that included free slaves and mulattoes among their ranks.”[iv]

Am important Irish component was Spain’s Hibernia Regiment[v] commanded by Arturo O'Neill de Tyrone y O'Kelly, born in Dublin, who became governor of the reclaimed colony of West Florida from 1781 to 1792.

In 1781, the American revolution received desperately needed funds from Cuba, thanks to the same de Cagigal who had become governor.  The money came from both government and private sources, including by legend from women who pawned their jewelry.  Spain, like France, had its own strategic reasons to aid rebels against their English enemies.  Did Cuban enthusiasm also come from identification with the first hopefully precedent-setting struggle for independence in the Americas?


Venerable Felix Varela, A Hero of Two Nations

The strongest Cuban Irish American link begins in St. Augustine, in the East Florida colony, in 1790 when the orphaned Felix Varela’s maternal grandfather was named General of its military garrison.  The Irish priest and vicar of East Florida, Miguel O’ Reilly, was Varela’s inspiration and teacher, including of the Irish language.   Varela studied at San Carlos Seminary and the University of Havana, was ordained and taught philosophy.  Known for his advocacy of self-government, abolition of slavery and equal education of women, he was elected to the democratic Spanish Cortes in 1821.  Absolutist royal rule regained power in Spain in 1823.

“In his position as representative of Cuba in Spanish Court, he signed an invalidation of the Spanish king and was sentenced to death as a result.” [vi]  Varela found asylum in the United States, arriving in New York Harbor on December 15, 1823.  At first in Philadelphia, but largely in New York, as a Parish priest he became a compassionate advocate for the poor, especially for Irish immigrants in whose language he became fluent.  He wrote, “I work hard to help Irish families build schools for their children, and I tend cholera patients, and I defend Irish American boys and girls against insults from mobs who hate them just because their parents are immigrants.” [vii]

For a time Varela remained active in the intellectual and political life of his homeland, publishing a magazine, El Habanero, from 1824 to 1826 in which he explicitly advocated independence.  He rejected the arguments of Cubans who believed the country would fare best if annexed by a larger country like Mexico, Colombia or the US.  "I am the first to oppose the union of the island to any government. I should wish to see her as much of a political island as she is such in geographical terms."[viii]

Spain sent an assassin to eliminate him in 1825.  His Irish parishioners protected his location, but according to the New York Catholic publication, “One day, walking the streets of his parish, the priest encountered the man who had been sent to murder him. In a spirit of compassionate forgiveness, he approached the would-be assassin and counseled him against committing a grave sin. The man listened. Then he returned to Cuba, his mission unfulfilled”[ix]

Varela was an extraordinary public intellectual, challenging the most vicious anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant propaganda of his era, but also building ecumenical relationships with Protestant church leaders.  Having great administrative talents, he was named Vicar General of the New York diocese that covered all of New York State and the northern half of New Jersey.    He was also a prodigious fund-raiser, creating two churches and accompanying schools between 1827 and 1836.  While designed to meet the needs of the burgeoning Irish population, they were not ethnically exclusive.  The second, the Church of the Transfiguration, is still an immigrant but now mostly Chinese church at a new location on Mott Street, but with his statue by the entrance.  

The only reference I could find to his engagement with the issue of Ireland itself was his participation in New York City in a May 1, 1843 “Approbation meeting” of the Friends of Ireland and Universal Liberty in support of publication of Thomas Mooney's lectures on Irish history.[x]   Their statement can be found in the preface of “A History of Ireland: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time” by Thomas Mooney.  That they felt it necessary to collectively advocate publication of the book and the tone and content of their words are reminiscent of voices in our time pressing for publications that reflect African American history and perspectives.   

“It would make an excellent school book, which we much wanted, for it was a lamentable fact, that the youth of this country never saw a History of Ireland, simply because there is really no such work , complete, in existence . Even the children of Irish parents forget the blessed and revered land of their forefathers, or learn of it only through the vicious medium of English calumniators.”

Much to the dismay of friends and political supporters in Cuba, Varela’s intellectual focus shifted almost entirely to his responsibilities in New York and issues related to his Irish immigrant flock.  Because of illness, Varela retired to his boyhood home in St. Augustin in 1848, the height of famine caused Irish immigration to New York.  He tried to return to New York three times but his health did not permit and he died in 1853


 [A topic for more scholarly research is Varela’s long term reputation and impact with the Irish community in New York.  Among the New York Irish was there for one or more generations any special interest or affection for Cuba because of the role he played in their religious lives, economic survival and education?]


Streams of Integration

Irish emigrants and their descendents in Spain and in North America found their way to Cuba throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  Many are named in the pioneering research of Rafael Fernandez Moya, “The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba”, published by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (SILAS).[xi]


He tells contrasting stories of the Irish experience in the first half of the 19th century:

“Juan O’Bourke, who was born in Trinidad around 1826 and twenty-five years later took part in the armed uprising of July 1826 organised by Isidoro Armenteros, collaborator of the expansionist general Narciso López, lived in this city [Cienfuegos] from 1839. The young revolutionary Juan O’Bourke was arrested and later condemned to ten years in prison in Ceuta from whence he escaped and headed to the United States….

In June 1855 a boy named Juan Byrnes, whose father was Gregorio and his godmother Margarita Byrnes, was baptised in Havana. This surname became part of the heart of the intellectual community of Matanzas. Firstly, this happened through the educational work of Juana Byrnes de Clayton, the first headmistress of the school for poor girls. This school would later become the Casa de Beneficencia, founded in 1846”

He writes that the Irish who came to build Cuba’s first railroad in the 1830s did not have an easy experience:

“The Junta de Fomento brought the technicians, foremen, superintendents and a group of workers made up of 273 men and 8 women from the United States under contract, among whom were English, Irish, Scottish, North American, Dutch and German labourers. However, they were all identified as Irish, perhaps due to the greater numbers of those of that nationality.

While the work was being carried out, the so-called Irish workers and Canary Islanders were subjected to hard labour beyond their physical endurance, receiving insufficient food in return. Nor were they assured the pay and treatment previously agreed upon. After some weeks putting up with mistreatment and hunger the “Irish” workers and Canary Islanders decided to demand their rights from the administration of the railway works and when these were not adequately met, they launched the first workers’ strike recorded in the history of the island. The repression was bloody; the Spanish governors ordered the troops to act against the disgruntled workers, resulting in injury and death.”

Other Irish coming via the US to Cuba found a smoother path.

“It has been said that the introduction of the steam engine and other improvements in the sugar industry, Cuba’s main economic activity in that period, was mainly the work of North American growers who had settled on the island, particularly in the areas surrounding Matanzas and Cárdenas, north coast districts which, according to the opinion of the Irish writer Richard R. Madden, had more characteristics in common with North American towns than those of Spain.

One of the growers who had come from the United States named Juan D. Duggan was, according to the Cuban chemist and agronomist Alvaro Reynoso, one of the first farmers in the country to plant sugar cane over great distances…. The introduction of the steam engine on the sugar plantations resulted in the necessity to hire operators or machinists in the main from the United States and England. After the administrator, the most important job in a sugar plantation was without a doubt that of machinist, who had to work like an engineer because, besides being responsible for all repairs, sometimes they had to come up with real innovations in the machinery.”


Irish and Irish American Support for Cuban Independence

The democratic instincts of the American Irish confronted the colonial attitudes of the Spanish Irish in the Cuban aristocracy:

“Some of these foreign technicians living in the Matanzas region became involved in a legal trial, accused of complicity with the enslaved African people’s plans for a revolt, which were abandoned in 1844. Six of them were originally from England, Ireland and Scotland: Enrique Elkins, Daniel Downing, Fernando Klever, Robert Hiton, Samuel Hurrit and Thomas Betlin.

The number of people arrested later grew and all were treated violently during interrogation. In November 1844 the English consul Mr. Joseph Crawford informed the Governor and Captain General of the island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, that the British subjects Joseph Leaning and Pat O’Rourke had died after being released. The doctors who treated them indicated that the physical and moral suffering they had endured in the prison was the cause of death. One of the streets in Cienfuegos was given the name of the infamous Governor of the Island, Leopoldo O’Donnell, who embarked on a bloody campaign of repression against the Afro-Cuban population and against the white people who supported their cause.”

Charles Blakely from Charleston was Cuba’s first mulatto dentist (Black mother, Irish-American father).  He was arrested in 1844 by Capitán General Leopoldo O´Donnell as the Havana leader of the Escalera slave rebellion.   Notorious due to the brutality of his repression, O’Donnell was born in the Canary Islands but his grandfather emigrated to Spain from County Mayo. 


Another fatal path with a political agenda that brought Irish Americans to Cuba were two annexationist expeditions led by the Venezuelan Narciso López in 1849 and 1851.  Annexationism had both reactionary proslavery and progressive prodemocracy constituencies in each country.  But when López arrived with his multiethnic American expeditionary forces including Irishmen, they received very little support from Cubans and were easily defeated by the Spanish and executed or harshly imprisoned.  Ironically the failed landing by Lopez in Cardenas, despite its annexationist goal, brought Cuba its national flag.


Moya recounts the Irish role in Cuba’s unsuccessful Ten Year War of Independence against Spain (1868-1878):

“From the beginning, the Cuban Liberation Army had the support of patriots who had emigrated to or organized outside of Cuba, mainly in the United States where they raised funds, bought arms and munitions and recruited volunteers who enlisted to fight for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish yoke. Among the foreign volunteers was the Canadian William O’Ryan.…Upon the US American general Thomas Jordan’s arrival, who was named Chief of the High Command and later Head of the Liberation Army in the Camagüey region, W. O’Ryan was named inspector and chief of cavalry, before attaining the rank of general. He was sent on a mission to the United States, from where he set out to return to Cuba at the end of October 1873. He sailed aboard the American steamship Virginius…. The Virginius was captured by the Spanish warship Tornado off Cuban waters and was towed into the bay of Santiago de Cuba on 1 December. Five days later, by order of the Spanish authorities, all the leaders of the revolutionary expedition were executed, O’Ryan among them. On 7 December the ship’s captain, Joseph Fry, and 36 members of the crew, were executed, causing a diplomatic and political conflict between Spain and the United States. In honour of the independence fighter O’Ryan a street of the Sagarra subdivision in Santiago de Cuba was given his name.”


The Fenians/Clan Na Gael sent James J O'Kelly to Cuba in 1873 to report on the Ten Years’ War for the New York Herald, owned by a Catholic Scottish nationalist.  His mission included potential alliance with the Cuban revolutionaries.  From research funded by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies and published in its 2019 collection “Ireland & Cuba, Entangled Histories”[xii] José Antonio Quintana writes

During the days he spent alongside Céspedes, they reached an agreement that would have had great mutual benefits for the causes of both colonies, and which illustrates the journalist’s sympathy and commitment to the island’s revolution. The Fenian’s idea was to make Ireland aware of the militancy of the Cubans, with the help of the Irish emigrants residing in the United States. The agreement stipulated that if he managed it successfully, then the Cuban revolutionary government, once in power, would give O’Kelly twenty thousand rifles and a ship to be used to carry out the subversion in Ireland (Céspedes, 1982: 185). This project never came to fruition.

O’Kelley’s articles and his book, The Mambi Land[xiii], were influential with Irish-Americans and a wider audience.  After returning to Ireland he became a Parnellite MP for Roscommon North and wrote on foreign affairs for The Independent.  The paper supported Cuba’s final independence struggle, characterizing it as “the Ireland of the West,” and applauded the US war with Spain as a “just and holy crusade”.  “It openly wished that America would intervene in Ireland as in Cuba”.   When William Astor Chanler, the millionaire US brother of a board member “fitted out a warship at his own expense; the Independent published glowing reports of his Cuban exploits.”[xiv]


Tammany Hall and Dynamite Johnny O’Brien

The institution through which immigrant Irish gained political power in New York was Tammany Hall, or more precisely the General Committee of the Democratic-Republican Party.  The Irish role in Tammany Hall emerged in 1817 and grew during Felix Varela’s time.   “In New York, the famine emigration of 1846-1850 established the basis of Irish domination. There were 133,730 Irish-born citizens by the mid-century, 26 percent of the total population.”[xv]   Most arrived with little or no resources and began their new lives in poverty. Tammany Hall provided employment, shelter, and even sometimes citizenship[xvi]  

On April 4, 1855, the New York Times reported that Chairman H.P. Carr submitted “spicey resolutions” on Cuba to the Young Men’s Democratic-Republican General Committee, meeting at Tammany Hall.  They incorporated concern about “interference of ‘a new Holy Alliance by the Monarchical Powers of Western Europe’] between a struggling and oppressed people and their oppressors to crush the one and lend new means of cruelty and oppression to the other.”  Citing the authority of the Monroe Doctrine, Carr “advocated the necessity of having a guarantee…that there would be no more insults to the American flag by the authorities of Spain.”  The Times reported, “The resolutions were adopted unanimously.” [xvii]

[Deeper digging could determine whether Mr. Carr or any others on the General Committee were interested in Cuba because they were involved with or benefited from the work of Father Varela.]

In the 1880s, Tammany Hall provided meeting spaces for Jose Marti and others to debate, organize and celebrate their struggle for Cuba’s independence.  Tammany also made the largest financial contribution from any American source in the fall of 1897.  Horatio S. Rubens who served as legal counsel for the revolutionaries, wrote in his memoir “Liberty, the Story of Cuba”

“William Astor Chanler [the brother of the board member of the Independent] had a preliminary conference with the then Sachem, Richard Croker, and subsequently, when I called on him, he asked me how much I wanted, adding that the recent election had left an unexpended sum in the treasury. I replied that whatever balance there was would do. Croker, an impassive man, just stared at me, doubtless because the sum, as I heard later, was nearly $80,000….

Croker having prepared for the [subsequent] meeting, a district leader quickly proposed that, out of the unexpended campaign funds, $30,000 be donated to “ the sick and wounded Cubans.”

In his memoir, "A Captain Unafraid"[xviii], Dynamite Johnny O’Brien has this additional observation:

In their three and a half active years the Cuban delegations in the United States expended approximately $1,500,000, practically all of which passed through the hands of Mr. Palma. Of this amount Americans gave less than $75,000.  The largest American offering was $20,000 from Tammany Hall in the fall of 1897, at which time we were badly in need of funds with which to purchase arms and ammunition.

Cuba Libre was being talked of with such encouraging enthusiasm that it threatened to become a political issue, and shrewd old Dick Croker, the boss of Tammany, concluded it would be the part of wisdom to extend substantial as well as sentimental aid. He sent word to the delegation, through one of our friends, that Tammany had a little balance" left over from the last election, and that if some of the Cuban chiefs would attend the next meeting of the executive committee it would be turned over to them. But for Heavens sake, was his parting message. don't let them do any talking. 

Accordingly Mr. Palma, Dr. Castillo, General Nuses, and one or two others put on their best black clothes and attended the following meeting of the committee. They sat around with long faces, but spoke never a word. Mr. Croker reported the unexpended balance, and on his motion it was donated to the Cubans for the aid of the sick and wounded, which was the stereotyped form for all such gifts.[xix]

Whether Rubens or Obrien had the correct figure, the amount was substantial, in current value the equivalent of $582,000 or $873,000.

Potentially is this also a legacy of Father Varela’s? Croker was born in County Cork in 1843 and was brought to the US two years later.  Could his parents have known Varela?  Did he go to one of Varela’s schools?


O’Brien may have the correct explanation but Terry Golway who wrote “Machine Made, Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics”, documents that both Coker and another leader, Congressman William Bourke Cockran were anti-imperialist based on their experience with the English.   Cockran who was born in County Sligo in 1854 was a mentor and inspiration of Winston Churchill and served as Grand Sachem of Tammany from 1905 to 1908.  In 1899, he, “protested American expansion in Cuba and the Philippines at an anti-imperialism rally in Manhattan’s Academy of Music.”[xx]

Harry Boland told an Irish reporter in 1921, “Between you and me, Tammany Hall has given more aid to the [rebel] cause than any other single body.”[xxi]

Dynamite Johnny O’Brien was born in New York in 1837.  His parents immigrated from County Longford in 1831 and lived on the lower east side [posing again the question of possible relationship to Father Varela].  He was a pilot in New York harbor before becoming a "filibuster", a smuggler of arms.  During the successful independence war, he made over a dozen deliveries of weapons and personnel in every quadrant of Cuba's coast.  O'Brien evaded efforts by Spain, the US and Pinkerton detectives to arrest, capture or kill him.  He successfully commanded what Granma[xxii] has described as the sole engagement of the Mambisi navy near Cienfuegos.  O'Brien's integrity and heroism were so appreciated that he became Havana's first port captain after Cuba achieved its independence through a special act of the legislature.  He was also forgiven his transgressions by the US government enough to symbolically command the resinking of the Maine outside of Cuban waters.  His role was reported in the New York Times but not acknowledged in US government documents.     Johnny’s story was documented by the Irish filmmaker Charlie O’Brien.  It can be seen here  and is accounted in Charlie’s essay “The Lure of Troubled Waters”.[xxiii]  


The Cuban Roots of Eamon De Valera

I will finish with the controversial report of an unintended but significant contribution of Cuba to Irish history.  The grandfather of Ireland’s independence leader and President Eamon de Valera was Cuban, active in the sugar trade in Matanzas Province.  Juan Manuel de Valera reportedly sent his son Juan Vivian, an aspiring sculptor and music teacher, to New York to avoid the Spanish draft.  Vivian married Katherine Coll from Bruree, County Limerick.  Their son Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 and sent to Ireland to live with his mother’s family after his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1885.  

Frank Connolly wrote the most definitive account in the Sunday Business Post in 1996[xxiv]

“The Long Fellow withheld the details of his father Vivian’s origins for most of his life but told his children and grandchildren some years before his death that his father, who died when Eamon was two years old, was from sugar farming stock near the Cuban capital, Havana.  The young Dev was told the story when he visited his mother Kathleen Coll for the first time during his famous fundraising trip to the US in 1919, and heard further details when he met her again in the States in 1927….It seems that after his father’s death the grandparents wanted the boy back in Cuba and that is why Kathleen sent him back to Ireland with her uncle who was visiting there, said O Cuiv…Eamon O Cuiv recalls that as a child his grandfather showed him a family bible in the Aras which in the flyleaf carried a note referring to his father’s Cuban origins.  Dev called his eldest son Vivian in memory of a man he hardly knew, and told his children and grandchildren of how his mother had recounted the sad tale of their separation.  ‘He never made a big deal of it, but he must have been very conscious of his father or he would not have called his own eldest son after him,’ said O Cuiv, who believed that Dev may not have made an issue of his Cuban origins for fear of being accused of trying to cash in on the wealth of his father’s family in pre-revolutionary Cuba.”

An alternative explanation of de Valera’s reticence to discuss his origins is that a marriage certificate between Vivian and Kathleen has not been found despite research in the New Jersey church where they were said to have wed.  Being born out of wedlock could have been a political burden in a very Catholic Ireland.

[A topic worthy of further research is locating the passenger list of arrivals in New York from Havana that includes Vivian de Valera.]



To sum up, I suspect that very few people in Ireland, Cuba and among Americans of Irish descent are conscious of how much of a conceptual and practical link existed between Cuba and Ireland’s struggle to achieve independence from colonial masters in the 19th century and how much involvement there was from a triangular relationship with the Irish population in the US.

As I suggested in the beginning there is a twentieth and twenty-first century chapter to the story with the US replacing Spain as an economically, culturally and politically dominant foreign power, neo-colonial in practice if not in theory.   As the price of achieving peace and independence Ireland had to accept the separation of the northeast portion of the nation, most of the traditional province of Ulster.  The problem of reintegration remains an obstacle to the fulfillment of Ireland’s national potential although thanks to the Good Friday Agreement and the unintended consequences of Brexit, the border is a diminishing obstacle in practice if not in theory.

Cuba flourished as a client state of the US for the first half of the twentieth century, compromised by direct military US military intervention during the first years of independence from Spain and separated from an important part of its national territory by US occupation of the base and prison of Guantanamo.   Politically, culturally and economically the two countries became deeply integrated with the US as the dominant partner.   The Cuban revolution of 1959 achieved political independence but it has not been able to establish a deeper autonomy from the US as effectively as Ireland did from England.  Confronted by virtually unabating hostility and regime change objectives from Washington and Miami, with the partial exception of President Obama’s second term, Cuban leaders have been constricted economically, ideologically and psychologically.  In the minds of revolutionary leaders, maintaining freedom from US dominance required radical transformation of their country’s economy, ideological rigidity, overdependence on a balancing superpower and oppressive state control of a population inherently vulnerable to covert and overt subversion from the north.  The context created by the US, whether intentionally or by propinquity, meant the harder Cuba had to fight to maintain its independence the more it had to sacrifice of its fundamental revolutionary goal to advance the lives of its people.

Because of my own experience with Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, it is hard to escape the underlying reality that the missing ingredient is the mutual respect that the US extended to its former enemies in Indochina, recognition of their right to full self-determination, with differences in governance and ideology, including human rights, that it has never extended to Cuba over more than two centuries.



[iii] Dictionary of Irish Biography

[iv] Carlyle House Docent Dispatch








[xii] Ireland & Cuba, Entangled Histories, edited by Margaret Brehony and Nuala Finnegan, Ediciones Bolona pp 222



[xv]  Christiane Köppe (Author), 2005, Irish Immigrants in New York City 1850, Munich, GRIN Verlag,



[xix] A Captain Unafraid by Captain Johnny Dynamite O’Brien, pp 279-80

[xx] “Machine Made” by Terry Golway, Liveright Publishing 2014  pp 171

[xxi] “Machine Made” by Terry Golway, Liveright Publishing 2014  pp 223



[xxiv] Sunday Business Post, 11th August 1996


A Walking Tour of Irish Old Havana

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Cuba Proxima Proposed Solution to the Crisis



Are there peaceful solutions to the Cuban crisis?

 Cuba Proxima

 05 January 2023



The depth of the current crisis

It can be debated whether the current crisis in Cuba is more or less serious than the crisis of the "Special Period" of the nineties, following the fall of the Soviet Union.

In economic terms, based on a thorough statistical comparison, Carmelo Mesa Lago concludes that the current situation "resembles that of those terrible years" (Mesa Lago, 2022). The fall in GDP of 10.9% in 2020 – after a virtual stagnation during the previous five years – is the largest after the contraction of 14.9% in 1993, the worst year of the crisis of the nineties. The projection is that 2019 GDP – already very low – would not recover until 2024-2025. The index of industrial production in 2021 was 45.2% below the 1989 level, and food processing only reached half. The value of exports in 2021 was 67% lower than in 1989 and 63% lower than in 2013. Foreign exchange income, counting the three main sources, fell dramatically between 2018 and 2021: export of services (mainly health and education) with 67%; family remittances with 71%; and tourism with 85%.

Without up-to-date data on the depth of the current social crisis compared to the Special Period, it is very likely that it will not be minor, and that the income disparity is likely to be much greater.

In political terms, it can be argued that the crisis is worse. First, the lack of a charismatic leader like Fidel Castro, who managed, almost mysteriously, to save the Cuban regime when most of the socialist republics collapsed, is very clearly felt. Secondly, much of today's population has no memory of the situation prior to 1959 or of "the achievements of the Revolution", which probably injected a great deal of patience into the population during the Special Period. On the contrary, today's young people have had a generally positive experience with the relative openness of the economy and relations with the rest of the world (including the United States), which was largely lost. The result of this is clearly seen in the new mass exodus (mostly of well-prepared young people) and in two hitherto unknown phenomena: open protests, and electoral behavior despite the lack of real freedom of vote, where abstention and voting against the official position increases.

The sum of the economic unsustainability and political illegitimacy of the current Cuban regime is such that Raúl Castro's metaphor of "falling off the cliff" seems closer than ever. So the question is: what solutions can be imagined to the crisis? In this article I limit myself to discussing solutions to the political crisis, but the relationship and interdependence between the political and the economic is evident.

The New Civil Society: Politics from Below 

During the years of Raúl Castro's presidency, coinciding with the economic reforms and the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba (approximately 2008-2016), a new civil society emerged on the island, which had already begun to emerge more timidly through the churches in the nineties. Perhaps the decisive element was the gradual opening to the internet and access to smartphones, which actually led to a weakening of the regime's monopoly of information.

There was a rapid expansion of social media and the emergence of independent journalism. A myriad of alternative information agents began to appear, promoters of peaceful political transformations. Academics and intellectuals achieved, albeit barely, a much more autonomous space for critical debate of alternative development options, and also found channels to convey these thoughts to members of the system. Hoffmann (2016) states that Cuban politics in that period underwent a great change despite the rhetoric of continuity, which allowed the emergence of a new civil society.

Along with the weakening of the computer monopoly, the liberalization of travel and migration, with its transformative effect on State-citizen relations, and the strengthening of a non-state sector, especially with the massification of self-employed workers (self-employed), had a great impact.

In reality, total control over citizens by the state and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) was drastically reduced. What can be called "politics from below" emerged, with actors distinct from the more traditional right-wing dissident groups that had supported a US policy of regime change.

From 2016 and especially with the new confrontation by President Trump when he took office in 2017, the space of this new civil society narrowed again, also for those voices that argued for a national dialogue instead of an open confrontation. Although the government seemed quite powerless in its efforts to curb "virtual civil society", i.e. alternative information and debate involving an increasing number of people, particularly the youngest, the counter-reform that was actually consolidated with the PCC's Seventh Congress in April 2016 seriously complicated any opportunity to initiate a dialogue on a negotiated transformation. The PCC flatly rejected the emergence of a counterpart with which to dialogue.

With this counter-reform, many of the new and young actors lost all illusion of peaceful transformations. Many of them emigrated, entrenching themselves above all in "the second Cuba" of Florida, where they largely joined the traditional and radical opposition.

However, despite the new constraints, it was not possible to stop all the pro-reform actors that had emerged in the previous era. During the discussion of a new Cuban constitution, the churches began a harsh open campaign against the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage, also giving rise to a counter-campaign by the LGBTI community. When the Government realized how controversial the provision was, the National Assembly removed it from the final version of the new Constitution (and later reintroduced it in a new Family Code). Strong voices of private entrepreneurs managed to limit new restrictions against their operating space; Havana taxi drivers went on strike successfully pressuring the authorities not to prevent their access to lower fuel prices (through the black market); and animal rights advocates obtained a commitment from the Government to enact an animal protection law (Decree-Law no. 31/22 "On animal welfare").

These and other examples have much in common: the government tried to placate protesters rather than repress them, although protest leaders have reported subsequent harassment by police. The state's relative tolerance of these special interest groups contrasts sharply with the harsh preemptive repression it generally deploys against traditional dissidents, presumably because the new groups do not challenge the regime's basic principles and political foundations.

That flexibility changed with artists' protests, sparked by the so-called Decree no. 349, a new law that requires artists, musicians and performers to register with the state, request authorization to organize events, and pay a 24% commission on their earnings at private events. Artists feared a return to the heavy state censorship of the seventies. The artistic community began to mobilize through social networks.

At first, the government was conciliatory, suspending the implementation of the Decree and promising to modify it. But the protest movement continued to grow and expand into new groups.

In this situation, the San Isidro Movement (MSI) stands out, which takes its name from the popular neighborhood of Old Havana where that group had its residence. It is a group of dissident hip-hop artists who provoked the government with a series of creative protests, combining their political activism with artistic interventions. In November 2020, rapper Denis Solís, one of the members of the group, made public through a Facebook broadcast the moment in which he confronted a police officer, telling him that he had no right to enter his home or harass him. Days later, Solís was arrested by security officials, subjected to a judicial process under the charge of contempt, which culminated in the sentence to eight months in prison and his subsequent transfer to a maximum security penitentiary center. All this provoked a series of protests both inside and outside the island. Other members of the MSI began a hunger strike, which was joined by other opposition public figures of art and culture, including journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez. This led by the artist and political activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.

Coinciding with these events, a group of well-known Cuban musicians released the song Patria y Vida – in allusion to the revolutionary slogan Patria o Muerte – with lyrics that pay homage to the MSI. Patria y Vida became the great slogan of young opponents, both in Cuba and among Cubans abroad.

On November 27, 2020, the arrest of fourteen MSI strikers and the interruption of access to social networks throughout the island triggered a spontaneous demonstration at the Ministry of Culture of some three hundred artists of various ideologies, including some highly recognized by the government. That group, later named the 27N Movement, even managed to get a deputy minister to sit down for talks, promising concessions that were quickly withdrawn.

In April 2021, residents of Havana's San Isidro neighborhood prevented the arrest of another MSI rapper activist, Maykel Osorbo, amid anti-government slogans and chanting the song Patria y Vida, in which Osormo himself participates.

The culmination of that generation of protests occurred with the spontaneous and massive mobilization throughout the country on July 11, 2021 (11J). President Miguel Díaz-Canel, totally shocked and apparently in great fear of losing control of the situation, called on loyalists to take to the streets and defend the Revolution, which provoked violent clashes with demonstrators. After two days of protests, the police arrested about 1300 people and denied many more to the streets. The Internet was constantly interrupted. An atmosphere of terror was created in the population, especially among urban youth.

In an attempt to capitalize on the 11J mobilization, a group of artists created a Facebook group called Archipiélago, asking for permission to make new demonstrations on November 15 (15N) of 2021. The government rejected the petitions on the grounds that the protests were aimed at regime change, which represented a violation of the constitutional premise that Cuba's socialist system is "irrevocable." The government showed its strength by stopping the announced marches, branding the organizers as foreign agents, and arresting them. When the day came, no one else showed up at the appointed time to leave.

The big question, of utmost strategic importance, is what caused that 15N fiasco. Was it the threats of the Government or the lack of support or interest among the population? While it was a combination of those two factors, the question about the motivation of the popular reaction cannot be avoided, between political protest and anger over food shortages, lack of electricity, the spread of Covid-19 and the apparent inability of the state to solve these problems. LeoGrande (2022) considers that there is a difference of perceptions, which "reflects the different life experiences and priorities of Cuba's emerging young and educated middle class, on the one hand, and the working class struggling to survive on state sector wages on the other."

In any case, the lack of response on 15N shows that mobilization through social networks, without clear leadership, for now is not enough to cause a popular uprising in Cuba. Such mobilization may provoke a protest, but it is difficult to provide a response on its own to the crisis. That is why it is necessary to build the conditions for dialogue.

The repression that followed 11J and 15N was massive. This was documented by the HRW Report published on the anniversary of 11J in 2022, which bears witness to a wide range of human rights violations committed in the context of the protests, including arbitrary detentions, and prosecutions plagued by abuse and torture. The government's crackdown and apparent unwillingness to address the underlying issues that brought Cubans onto the streets, including limited access to food and medicine, have led to a human rights crisis. The number of political prisoners reaches almost 1000 people, some with sentences of up to 25 years.

The number of people leaving the country increased dramatically. It is estimated that during the year 2022, the number of Cuban immigrants to the United States exceeded 200 thousand, the highest annual number of Cuban immigrants entering the northern neighbor (Mesa Lago, 2022).

Most of the MSI activists and others who played a prominent role on 11J are already among the political prisoners, while others managed to travel abroad. With the mass incarceration of activists, and the historically large exodus of young people with academic training and organizational skills, the government seemed to have pacified the country. The control of the streets is not total, but the spontaneous protests against the blackouts at the end of September 2022 were quickly controlled with a widespread internet shutdown and the deployment and patrolling of police and military vehicles.

Once again, as so often in the history of the Revolution, the opposition has gone into exile. The exit won the voice, in terms of Hirschman (1970). Therefore, it is from exile that they organize again, with three main demands: release of political prisoners, response to the humanitarian crisis and a dialogue to democratize the country.

To the reactions of protest and exodus must be added a third response of the population to the current crisis of legitimacy: electoral behavior. Historically, and as a clear reflection of the authoritarian system, the vast majority have voted in favor of the will of the single party and the government. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, only 3% of voters abstained. In 2018, that percentage rose to almost 15%, and in the November 2022 municipal elections to 31%, plus 11% of white and voided votes. In the referendum on the Constitution in 1976, almost 98% voted in favour. When the new Constitution was put to a referendum in 2019, the comparative figure was 22% (adding 10% abstention, 8% NO, and 4% white and annulled votes). In September 2022, there was a historic event in the electoral behavior of the Cuban Revolution: although the new Family Code was approved by 67% of positive votes in another referendum, adding 33% of votes against with the abstention of 26% plus null or annulled votes, the law was approved by only 46.70% of the Cuban population with the right to vote.

The need for two parallel dialogues

The Cuban crisis cries out for two parallel dialogues: between the Cuban government and its own population, and between the governments of Havana and Washington. The first is vital to restore a minimum of trust and legitimacy between rulers and governed, and to put on the table the indisputably legitimate claims of the population, both economic and political. The latter represents the only way out of the Cuban economic crisis. But the question is whether there is anyone who wants to dialogue, what would be the agenda, and above all what could be the process to reach the two dialogue tables. The resistance of all three sides so far has hampered that whole process.

The role of the Cuban government

Despite facing what is possibly the deepest crisis in the history of the Revolution, at the moment there does not seem to be the slightest political will to recognize and sit down with representatives of the population who are not from their own political apparatus. The question is how far the situation will have to worsen for the government to be willing to talk.

There are two factors that may have an impact on ending this intransigence. The first is the fact that the Latin American left is moving decisively towards democratic positions and against authoritarianism. With elections in Chile, Colombia and Brazil during 2022, Cuba finds itself increasingly politically distant from the new leftist wave in the region, in authoritarian company only from Venezuela and Nicaragua. If an agreement is also reached between the government and the opposition in Venezuela, it will be even more difficult for Cuba to maintain the rejection of an opening. Nor would it have much to expect from the current situation that countries such as Russia and China are going through. In this circumstance, an initiative of the governments, parties and leftist leaders of Latin America, old allies of Cuba, should be able to have some impact in favor of a relaxation of positions in Havana. Trade unionists should join in this initiative, inviting the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) to collaborate with the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA).

The probably most attractive incentive for Havana to be more flexible would be a process toward normalization in relations with the United States. The official Cuban position states that any issue can be negotiated, as long as there is no foreign interference in Cuban internal affairs. In reality, everyone knows that the hard American position, which until recently did not change much between the Trump and Biden administrations, would only begin to soften if there are reforms in Cuba. The problem is how to draw a parallel between changes in Havana and changes in U.S. policy.

The role of the United States

What at the end of the day would allow a change in the policy towards Cuba is that significant changes can be seen on the island economically, but above all politically. It is a mirror situation to the one we find in Havana: changes in Cuba depend on changes in U.S. policy. The question is who moves first, or better: how to achieve a parallel dynamic?

There is a new factor now: U.S. policy toward Cuba has always been characterized as an aspect of domestic politics, specifically it has been part of the electoral battle for Florida as a swing state, where Cuban-Americans have a tremendously strong lobby. For the Democrats, it has always been considered essential to win Florida, and adjust "Cuban politics" to what gives more votes. With the last midterm election in November 2022, Florida can already be considered lost by Democrats in the immediate future. According to William LeoGrande (2022): for the first time in many decades, the Democrats can stop formulating their policy towards Cuba as a domestic policy issue, that is, win Florida.

A second factor is the relevance of the new leftist wave in Latin America. It can already be considered as important for the Biden administration, as it was for Obama, to change the hostile policy towards Cuba to look good with Latin American governments that demand the end of the embargo. The messages from the region's leaders are equally clear now. The recent appointment of former Senator Christopher Dodd — a historical critic of the aggressive U.S. confrontation with the left in Latin America — as special adviser to the president for the Americas may be a first step in that direction.

It is perhaps for this reason that we have recently noticed very careful signs of rapprochement between Cuba and the United States: the two-million-dollar humanitarian aid that the United States granted to Cuba in the wake of Hurricane Ian; the recent negotiation for an arrangement to normalize migration relations and remittances; and the near-finalized U.S.-Venezuela agreement that may depend on active Cuban support to deliver results.

If those factors can be considered positive for a return to the Cuban politics that characterized the Obama administration, there is an elephant in the room: Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, a committee that also includes Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Menendez shares radical positions against the Cuban government with these and other Republicans and, at the same time, is a politician who has very close relations with Biden, who cannot risk a confrontation with Menendez. That is why it will be important for him to be part of any arrangement with Cuba.

The emergence of a new civil society calling for dialogue

So far it has not been only the two governments that have opposed dialogue. The position of the great part of the Cuban opposition, both internally and abroad, has been one of rejection of any negotiation with a regime considered dictatorial and illegitimate. Actors who for several years have argued for dialogue have found little support.

Going up and down a roller coaster for the last ten years and ending up as victims of unprecedented repression in Cuba, a new civil society willing to dialogue focused on solutions, mainly organized through the diaspora, is already repositioned. Almost under the radar, they resurrect a series of initiatives, and perhaps a minimum common platform, in the process of taking shape as an expression with political legitimacy.

In September 2022, the formation of the D Frente platform was announced, "a democratic front of concertation of plural Cuban civil and political actors, whose central objective is to achieve the refoundation of the Republic, guided by Marti's idea of building a country with all and for the good of all."

Since its foundation, there are a number of member organizations, representing three different dimensions of Cuban society:

As an expression of the new actors of open protest, there is the San Isidro Movement, with members of the group who managed to go abroad, representing their imprisoned comrades. Within the same group can be included the Association of mothers and relatives of political prisoners for Amnesty, which represents around 1000 political prisoners in the wake of 11J and the following repressive acts. We also find among the founders the Archipelago group, the network of cultural actors that was born with the massive action in the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020.

There is a presence of the most traditional dissidents, through the Council for the Democratic Transition in Cuba (CTDC), a space founded in 2021 by opponents and activists of different political tendencies. The coordinator is José Daniel Ferrer, the imprisoned leader of the Patriotic Union, according to the US State Department "the largest group of the Cuban opposition" (which also considers Ferrer "the visible head of the dissident movement").

Behind these groups, constantly working to promote peaceful dialogue, is the group Cuba Próxima, led by Roberto Veiga, a lawyer with vast experience working in favor of peaceful reforms and a dialogue between government and civil society. Cuba Proxima is the latest expression of initiatives to find new spaces while closing existing ones. That work began with the magazine Espacio Laical, promoted by the Archbishopric of Havana, and then continued with the organization Cuba Posible (see Bye 2019, pp. 139-141).

What is new with the D Frente group is exactly the coincidence between these three traditions of the Cuban opposition. That has aroused quite a few expectations in the unofficial press in Cuba.

It is still necessary to give more weight to this group in Cuban society with the integration of personalities of cultural life, who have traditionally been considered favorable to the regime or at least not against, but who lately have expressed themselves more critically, such as the artists Silvio Rodríguez and Leonardo Padura.

How to trigger a series of events that can bring the three parties closer together in the two parallel dialogues we have talked about?

I share some ideas to promote that dynamic of dialogues that can unblock the apparent total impasse existing in Cuba.

There are two immediate challenges for Cuban society that require an immediate response, which in turn can trigger a constructive dynamic: to alleviate the crisis of popular survival, a major humanitarian corridor must be established. At the same time, the political crisis will not be resolved without starting with the release of political prisoners. The three parties (civil society + U.S. and Cuban governments) would have to find a mutually acceptable methodology to attack those two immediate crises.

The humanitarian corridor, in order to have legitimacy both in the population and in the international community, cannot be an exclusive responsibility of the Cuban government. It should take as a starting point the already existing small-scale efforts of civil society (the Spain-Cuba, Miami-Cuba corridors, etc.), which are already being established with the networks of relatives in Cuba. Consideration should be given to expanding that through an international humanitarian mechanism, and a wider network of family members with relatives abroad. Perhaps mechanisms can be explored to socialize remittances, to generate support beyond each beneficiary family and benefit the community where it resides. Obviously there has to be an understanding between the international actor and the government, but maintaining some distance with government structures and rather channeling aid through local communities and family networks. If such a mechanism can be opened, funding must be sought from governments, including the United States.

With such a humanitarian mechanism in place, another channel must emerge to negotiate the release of political prisoners, starting with those who have not been involved in acts of violence. With Cardinal Beniamino Stella's prompt visit to Cuba, perhaps the Catholic Church and the pope himself are envisioning a role in that regard again. Humanitarian aid must be expanded as prisoners are released.

The humanitarian corridor must be linked to an internal instrument: technical assistance to non-state producers (including usufructuaries, CCS cooperatives) and openness to market food through non-state networks (returning to the policy of reducing the weight of Collection Centers and opening non-state wholesale markets). An idea to consider could be the use of paladares also as popular dining rooms. All this should lead the agricultural sector to introduce a series of measures towards the much-needed agrarian reform, partly following proposals already indicated in the "Guidelines" introduced at the time by Raúl Castro, although never carried out.

By involving networks of relatives of prisoners, relatives with relatives abroad, non-state producers and non-state cooperatives, paladares, etc., Cuban civil society could be expanded and legitimized, to position itself as an actor of dialogue with the Cuban government (once the political prisoners are released).

These proposals should seek proactive support and accompaniment among the democratic left-wing governments of Latin America and their parties and grassroots movements, mainly Brazil, Colombia, Chile and perhaps Mexico. Together with other actors with a relationship of historical sympathy with Cuba (also from the United States, Canada, the European Union and other European countries), they must support a dialogue with the Cuban Government with the message: "the era of authoritarianism is over, the socialism of today and the future is democratic." These actors must present a more comprehensive agenda of economic and political reforms (prepared by a technical team of Cuban professionals), in parallel with a normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations (prepared by diplomats from the two countries). The first step in that regard should be to remove Cuba from the list of terrorist countries.

You have to realize that time is short: the window of opportunity may close in November 2024, with the US presidential election and the possible return of a far-right Republican president. If the European Union is to be involved, the window may be open only until the possible summit between the EU and CELAC (Route, 2023), supposedly under the Spanish presidency of the EU, which begins in July 2023, and before the general elections in Spain, scheduled for October next year.


If one adds up the economic and political factors, the Cuban nation is going through what can easily be considered the worst crisis after the 1959 Revolution. The need to seek the two parallel dialogues, between the Cuban government and its own population, and between the governments of Cuba and the United States, seems more obvious than ever. Without one, there will be no other. All three sides need to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism, which surely requires external facilitation, especially from other Latin American governments and leaders. Similarly, there is an interdependence between economic and political issues to be addressed in the two dialogues. In this article the political part has been discussed. On the economic side, Mesa Lago's conclusion in the cited article is equally clear: "I urge an open, respectful and democratic national dialogue so that the population discusses the change to the model of market socialism."

There should be a window of opportunity to initiate a dialogue process. It is very likely that this window will not stay open for long. Someone has to facilitate the first steps, without further delay.


Bye, Vegard: Cuba, from Fidel to Raúl and Beyond. Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2019.

Hirschman, Alberto O.: Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Hoffmann, Bert: «Bureaucratic Socialism in Reform Mode: The Changing Politics of Cubas Post-Fidel Era», in: International Political Science Review 30 (3, June), 2016, pp. 229-248. 

LeoGrande, William (2022): «Why Democrats Should Forget About Winning Florida», in: Foreign Policy, 21.11.2022:

Mesa Lago, Carmelo: «Cuba's economy in times of crisis: 2020-2022 and perspectives for 2023», in: La Joven Cuba (to appear), 2022.

Human Rights Watch, July 11, 2022:

According to non-governmental sources, a total of 1771 arrests for political reasons have been recorded; 758 remain in prison; 706 have been tried; 963 people imprisoned and sentenced or awaiting trial: the website of the group Justicia 11J, which works on documentation on prisoners with the NGO Cubalex.

National Electoral Council. Retrieved September 27, 2022.

The boycott by a number of presidents of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022, and the message to Secretary of State Blinken when he visited the region in October of the same year: