The Cuban statesman Tomás Estrada Palma (1835-1908) first served as president of the provisional government during Cuba’s War for Independence and then became the first president of the republic. Tomás Estrada Palma was born near Bayamo, Oriente Province, on July 9, 1835. He attended schools in Havana and the University of Seville in Spain but failed to obtain a degree because family matters forced his return to Cuba.
As soon as Cuba’s Ten-Year War (1868-1878) against Spain broke out, Estrada Palma joined the rebels. In 1876 he was selected president of the provisional government but in 1877 was captured by Spanish forces and exiled to Spain, where he remained in jail until the end of the war. After his release he traveled to Paris, New York, and Honduras. In Honduras he married Genoveva Guardiola, daughter of Honduran president Santos Guardiola, and was appointed director of the postal service. From Central America, Estrada Palma moved to Orange County, N.Y., where he opened a boys’ school.
Teaching soon gave way to politics. The Cubans were resuming the war against Spain, and José Martí visited Estrada Palma to enlist his support for the revolutionary cause. When Martí was killed in Cuba in the early months of the war (May 1895), Estrada Palma was named delegate in exile and head of the Cuban junta in New York, carrying out diplomatic negotiations primarily with the United States, raising funds, and promoting the Cuban cause.
President of Cuba
In 1902 Estrada Palma became the first president of the republic, having been elected in 1901 by an overwhelming majority. The new president encouraged foreign investment and Cuba’s exports. He expanded public and educational projects and in 1903 negotiated with the United States a permanent treaty which was to govern the relations between the two countries. On July 16, 1903, the United States recognized Cuba’s sovereignty over the Isle of Pines, and Cuba granted the United States the right to lease and establish naval bases at Guantánamo and Bahía Honda. That same year Cuba signed a reciprocity treaty with the United States which gave Cuban products, particularly sugar, a preferential rate for import duties into the United States and gave selected American products preference in Cuban rates.
Estrada Palma was less successful in his domestic policies. A popular and well-intentioned man, he remained at first above partisan politics, conducting an honest and paternalistic government. He had little faith in the ability of his compatriots to govern themselves and scolded them for their shortcomings. Teacher turned politician, he lectured the Cubans on political virtue and good government.
As the elections of 1905 approached, political difficulties increased. Estrada Palma joined the Conservative Republican party, or Moderate party as it was then called, and sought reelection. He purged unfriendly officeholders. Corruption increased, tensions mounted, and accusing the administration of fraud, the opposition Liberal party boycotted the elections, thus allowing Estrada Palma’s unopposed reelection.
The Liberals charged a corrupt election and resorted to violence. In August 1906 an uprising took place in Pinar del Río Province, which quickly spread throughout the island. Estrada Palma appealed for United States intervention. President Theodore Roosevelt sent Secretary of War William H. Taft to mediate between government and opposition. But when Taft proposed, with Liberal backing, that all of the elections be nullified except those of the president and vice president, Estrada Palma rejected the proposal and resigned in September 1906. Taft then ordered the landing of U.S. marines. He dissuaded the Liberals from fighting and proclaimed a provisional government led first by himself as acting governor and later by Charles E. Magoon. United States intervention lasted until January 1909. Estrada Palma retired quietly to his modest holding in Bayamo, where he died on Nov. 4, 1908.