Our Man in Havana: Governor William Sherman Jennings and the Inauguration of Cuban Independence

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Photograph of William Sherman Jennings courtesy of UFDC

Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at bmurphree@ufl.edu and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.

The reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in 2015 marked the end of an era in U.S.-Cuba relations that began with the victory of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959. During that period, Florida played a pivotal role in the tensions between the two countries. The state was the main exit and settlement point for two massive Cuban migrations—one in 1959–1960 and a second in 1980—and the frontline in the Cold War between the two nations. Fifty-seven years earlier, in 1902, Florida also played an important role at the start of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, when Governor William Sherman Jennings attended the inauguration of Cuba’s first president, an event that launched modern Cuba’s tenuous independence from U.S. rule.

Cuban president Tomás Estrada Palma’s inauguration on May 20, 1902 was the culmination of a series of dramatic events. The United States occupied Cuba during the Spanish American War in 1898. The result of which included Spain turning over control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Unlike those islands, which the United States controlled as territories—the Philippines gained independence in 1946—Cuba was to be granted independence after a brief period of American occupation (1898–1902). The United States, then under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, was not about to allow Cuba true independence, however. Cuba’s size, agricultural wealth, and strategic location—the island provided a vital shipping and defense link between the United States and the future Panama Canal—encouraged the United States to maintain its dominant influence in Cuba. The Platt Amendment outlined limited Cuba’s limited ability to enjoy diplomatic and economic independence and gave the United States the right to establish what is now the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba is Free
The Ocala evening star-May 21, 1902

These issues were not on the mind of Florida governor William Sherman Jennings when he was invited to attend the inauguration of Cuba’s first president in May 1902. Elected as a moderate progressive in 1900, Jennings was a hardworking, ambitious governor who focused on balancing Florida’s budget and creating plans for the drainage of the Everglades that his successor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, would ultimately undertake. A competent but rather bland figure, Governor Jennings benefited from his relationship to his cousin William Jennings Bryan, one of the most captivating and influential turn of the century American politicians.

Bryan, a youthful congressman and outsider, won over the 1896 Democratic Party convention with his fiery “Cross of Gold” speech in which he lambasted corporate interests and pushed for free silver coinage as a way to grow the economy in favor of farmers and workers rather than the gold standard, which he believed benefited the wealthy and big business. Bryan won the Democratic nomination for president in 1896 but lost that contest and the one in 1900 to Republican William McKinley. Despite these defeats, Bryan, known to his supporters as the “Great Commoner,” remained immensely popular and continued to dominate the populist-anti-imperialist wing—Bryan opposed American control of the Philippines and other conquests from the war with Spain—of the Democratic Party.

Happy to see the United States allow Cubans their independence, Bryan enthusiastically attended President-Elect Palma’s inauguration. He did so as a private citizen in the pay of Collier’s Weekly magazine, which wanted to cover the inaugural events for its readers through the eyes of the Great Commoner. Governor Jennings and his family accompanied the famous man on the journey, but unlike Bryan, Jennings did so in his official capacity—he was the first sitting Florida governor to travel overseas—and hoped to show his state’s support for the new nation by ending Florida’s annual summer quarantine of travel from Cuba, a policy enacted to prevent the spread of yellow fever from the island to Florida.

Arriving in Havana from Miami on May 15, 1902, Jennings headed a large delegation from Florida. He and Bryan spent the days before the inauguration in a series of meetings with American and Cuban officials, touring Havana, and giving interviews to reporters. The governor was quick to point out to the press that the main purpose of his visit was not the inauguration, but the inspection of the progress of sanitation measures in the fight against yellow fever. During its occupation of the island, the U.S. Army, under the command of General Leonard Wood, undertook sanitary work in Havana and other cites to combat yellow fever and other diseases. President-Elect Palma assured Jennings that his government was committed to continuing the sanitation improvements made by the Americans: “. . . you people in Florida need have no fear that yellow fever, that dreaded scourge, will find any foothold again in this island . . . I intend to spare no pains or expense in keeping Havana and other cities free from it.” Palma, as reported in the Titusville Florida Star, also praised Florida for its support for Cuban independence: ‘“The history of Cuba’s success was written on the Florida sands, and the Florida keys opened the door to Cuban liberty. Key West is a ward of Havana, being nearer to Cuba in point of time than it is to the mainland of Florida.”

Governor Jennings to Cuba
The Florida star-May 16, 1902
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Scrapbook from UFDC

 

Governor Jennings reciprocated in this outpouring of good will. He praised Palma’s leadership and was confident that the Cuban people would soon develop the habits of democratic government: “The loyalty and patriotism of this people has been well tested and established and I have every confidence that they will see to the interests and public welfare of the new republic.” While preferring to wait unit he returned to Florida to evaluate his impressions of Cuban sanitation facilities, Governor Jennings said that it was likely that Florida would end its annual quarantine of Cuba now that the island had the yellow fever problem under control. After attending Palma’s inauguration on May 20, Jennings and his party returned to Florida confident that Cuba had made a good start in its independence.

Last Resort of Yellow Jack
The Pensacola journal-August 9, 1905

That independence was conditional, however. The Cuban government had to enshrine the conditions of the Platt Amendment in its constitution and in a treaty with the United States. It was clear that the United States would not tolerate any foreign or domestic threats to its influence in Cuba. When opponents of Palma contested his reelection in 1905 and engaged in violent acts against his government, he called on the Unites States to protect his regime. In 1906, President Roosevelt sent U.S. troops back to Cuba, beginning a second period of occupation that lasted for three years. The United States continued to dominate the island until 1959, when the victory of the Castro-led revolution led to the break in relations that did not resume until 2015. As it did during Governor Jennings’s time, Florida continues to play a pivotal role in U.S.-Cuban affairs.

Citations and Additional Sources

Murphree, Boyd. “William Sherman Jennings, 1901–1905.” Unpublished chapter for a forthcoming book on Florida’s governors with the University Press of Florida.

William Sherman Jennings Papers. Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

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