The Absolution of Evaristo Estenoz: Two Conflicting Documents in the History of Cuba

By Julio César Guanche

In 1910, the Cuban Congress passed an Amendment to the Electoral Law, presented by Liberal Party Senator Martin Morúa Delgado, which prohibited the existence of racially-determined political parties. In exchange, the Enmienda Morúa, or Morúa Amendment (MA) allowed political alliances, as long as they represented multiple class and racial interests.

The MA was resisted by the sector that created in 1908 the Independent Colored Grouping—christened in 1910 as the Independent Party of Color (IPC)—because in fact, despite being an interracial party, it was prohibited from intervening in national politics.

Two years later, its armed protest against the MA was drowned in blood in what has been the largest massacre inflicted by the Cuban State since its founding as a Republic in 1902, with estimates of between 500 and 5,000 dead, or more.

According to the most accessible interpretation of the MA, the Black and mixed-race electorate, between 30% and 43% of the total, could vote for the IPC, thus depriving the liberal and conservative parties of these voters and of the consumer networks established with this sector.

On the other hand, the legitimacy of the IPC uprising is a historiographical case that has been discussed extensively, especially in the last decade, in the context of the rise of anti-racist debate and activism on the island. Currently, it is a central topic in Cuban historiography, which has produced very heated debates.

A part of the studies on the uprising have been loyal to the thesis with which the protest was judged at the time: they accuse the IPC of having made strategic errors, not having established alliances with other popular sectors, concentrating exclusively on the abolition of the MA, and miscalculating the national political playing field at the time it launched its armed protest, so that the reaction to it, on the part of white, mixed-race, and Black sectors, would have compromised the space of the anti-racist struggle in the future.

For that reason, interpretations of the protest have concluded that the uprising would have provoked a “fratricidal war,” an “error” on the part of the IPC which threatened “national unity,” and which opened the door to U.S. intervention.[1]

In this regard, a letter, supposedly signed by Evaristo Estenoz, one of the leaders of the IPC, dated June 15, 1912—12 days before his assassination, in conditions of great isolation and persecution—has served as proof of such intention.

In no case has any information been provided, as far as I know, that contradicts the veracity of that letter. I do that here. My finding is that primary sources from 1912, hitherto under-explored, show consensus in considering that letter as forged.

In addition, I draw attention to a document from Estenoz’s papers, undiscussed until this moment, which I suggest should be considered Estenoz’s “political testament” as part of the need to establish new recollection politics regarding the IPC.

Estenoz’s alleged letter

The supposed letter from Estenoz (original fragment). “From Estenoz to Knox, through the consul in Santiago de Cuba,” June 15, 1912. NA/RS, microcopy 488, roll 7.

The letter acquired relevance in recent years, since Rafael Fermoselle and Rolando Rodríguez cited it from their copy in the National Archives in the United States.

The double component of it being “signed” by Estenoz, and of it being addressed to Philander Knox, U.S. Secretary of State (through Holaday, U.S. Consul in Santiago de Cuba, enthusiast of the U.S. occupation of Cuba) placed the matter in the hands of two of the leading protagonists involved in the conflict.

Then, and even now, that fact would add “proof” to the trail of what his enemies identified in Estenoz since 1912: that he promoted an uprising against the Republic and the Cuban nation.

A fragment of Estenoz’s alleged letter reads:

We hope, then, that as on other occasions, you will appoint a representative, if you see fit, so that in the same arena of the Revolution you will be convinced of all that I am revealing to you; because if the outrages against our families continue in this way, we will find it necessary to establish reprisals, something that will destroy civilization and the, well intended (?) advice that you have offered during the time that you have governed us. [2]

Rodriguez describes the letter as “anguished, almost desperate.” This author also comments on another document, dated earlier: “Estenoz ended this […] message in an unacceptable manner by presenting himself in favor of intervention; meaning, occupation of the US government on the island—Estenoz said in that document. We hope that the people of the United States will understand our position and study the matter exhaustively before being convinced of the need for intervention.”[3]

There are important differences between the two postulates. In the letter “signed” by Estenoz, it was requested that: “A Representative [of the U.S. Government] if he sees fit such that in the same field of the Revolution he may be convinced of all that I am exposing to him.” (Italics mine.) The previous document says something different: “…[that the United States] study the matter exhaustively before being convinced of the need for intervention.”

Only in the letter of June 15 is there an express request for intervention. Therefore, it is necessary to attend to this letter in detail. Its author asks in it for a US Representative, a fact that could already indicate US occupation. [4]

The consensus of the time: The letter is forged

“The alleged letter from Estenoz” in the Cuban press (La Discusión 05/22/1912).

In this section, I present the textual evidence that argues in favor of the forged character of the June 15 letter.

Authenticating it is important. It allows us to set aside the debate regarding the “intervention requested by Estenoz,” and to open new paths of research on the problems of Cuban nationalism in that period, represented, also, by the IPC Program.

Racist representations about the uprising of the IPC in the Cuban press (La Discusión, 05/20/1912).

El Mundo (June 21, 1912) stated: “That letter was shown by the consul [Holaday] to the general in chief [Monteagudo] and a comparison of signatures showed both the consul and Mr. Monteagudo that the signature was not authentic, it was not in the handwriting of Evaristo Estenoz.” So did the Diario de La Marina (June 22, 1912) and La Discusión (June 22, 1912).

The New York Times (July 10, 1912) validated the letter, but Cuban media criticized this tactic, since it “conveniently” extracted the fact for American readers.[5]

José de Jesús Monteagudo, Major General Commander in Chief of the Cuban military forces, stated in a report addressed to President Gomez: “I knew of the original, of the absurd document [the June 15 letter] because the consul showed it to me, I do not believe it is truly Estenoz’s signature.”[6]

Estenoz’s manifesto: His political testament?

There is a second document found among Estenoz’s papers. It does not seem to have been reproduced in its entirety since 1912, except for a few quotations.[7]

I consider it reasonable to suggest that it is Estenoz’s “political testament.” Including it in this text, together with the documentation of the apocryphal character of that letter, brings to light the problems of the politics of memory in Cuba surrounding the IPC.

It is ironic, but above all tragic, that the forged letter attributed to the leader of the IPC has garnered so much attention, and has contributed to accusing him of being an “annexationist,” and that the one I propose here as his “political testament” has been kept in the dark, nationally, for so long.

This second document is, in the words of those who appropriated the documents of the leader of the IPC on that date, Estenoz’s response to the Declaration made by José Miguel Gómez calling on the people of Cuba—and “civilization”—to arms against the rebels.[8]

This is a fragment of Estenoz’s Manifesto:

Attentive, then, Cubans to arms! that the hour of the definitive redemption for all has arrived: to redeem those of their crimes and of their savage selfishness and others of the humiliation in which we live for love of the Republic and for fear of inferring wrongdoings to the homeland.

And lastly, we will not lay down our weapons; we will not abandon the campsite until the needs that impelled us have not been satisfied […] but if intransigence (were an obstacle?) to our greatest desires and were to repel even our dearest aspirations, mourning [from this point, the original is in bold until the end] eternal as a shroud will it forever cover the mountains with ashes, the lakes with blood, so that in Cuba they will remain as monuments to a protest that shall perpetuate the centuries and signal to other nations, that here succumbed a heroic race, one that preferred death to desolation, rather than be subjected to an even more infamous slavery, if you will, than the one suffered by their unfortunate ancestors; let it be written for all, for whites and blacks, that the sacrifice that we begin today is not inspired by the hatred we have for the whites, no; but by the intense love we feel for freedom and the right, that defended us and which is so unjustly and grotesquely denied us.[9]

This “testament” may be critical for research that has considered the PIC experience as a search for “property and respect” (Rebecca Scott), anti-racist nationalism (Aline Helg, Tomás Fernández Robaina, Fernando Martínez Heredia, Alejandro de la Fuente), and the fight for democracy, law, and justice.

The death of Estenoz, according to the Cuban press, El Triunfo, 05/27/1912.


The existence, and propagation, of the June 15 letter was convenient for the government of José Miguel Gómez, serving to present before public opinion the “annexationist” interests of the IPC. Monteagudo saw the letter, reported its presence, and dismissed its authenticity.

So did the newspapers that reported on the forged character of the letter.[10] None had shown sympathy for the PIC, but rather the opposite: they stoked the repression under the label of “racist outbreak,” according to them promoted by that party.

Why this information has “remained silent” until today, and has served to delegitimize the memory of the IPC, is part of the problems that surround research on that movement. In general, it is linked to the problems of the study of the history of Afro-Cubans in the national and republican creation of their country, which erased the memory of the 1912 massacre. Accusing them of having “sought” U.S. intervention has served as a justification for this oblivion.

These are the silences which, according to Ernest Renan, “make” nations, but which should also embarrass them. The dissemination of this last document should continue to open paths of study, and of historical reparation, regarding the democratic, nationalist, and patriotic republican endeavor of the Independent Party of Color in Cuba.

Julio César Guanche Zaldívar, Ph.D. (History) has been a professor at the University of Havana, and has directed several national publications and editorials. He worked for several years at the House of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. He has published forewords and chapters in more than 25 volumes. His books include La verdad no se ensaya. Cuba: el socialismo y la democracia, and La libertad como destino: Valores, proyectos y tradición en el siglo XX cubano.

Title Image: Evaristo Estenoz.


[1] Rolando Rodríguez, La conspiración de los iguales. La protesta de los Independientes de Color en 1912 (La Habana: Imagen Contemporánea, 2010), 5.

[2] “De Estenoz a Knox, por conducto del cónsul en Santiago de Cuba,” 15 de junio de 1912. NA/RS, microcopy 488, rollo 7. I am grateful to the generosity of Emilio Cueto and Bradley Hayes, who sent me copies of the document.

[3] Rolando Rodríguez (2010). Ob. cit.,13.

[4] Jorge Ibarra Cuesta even interpreted the letter of June 15 as not implying a request for intervention. Cuba, 1898-1921: partidos políticos y clases sociales (La Habana, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1992), 398. The second document does not contain any such request.

[5] This was questioned, for example, in Diario de La Marina (June 22, 1912) y La Discusión (June 22, 1912).

[6] Fondo Ejército de Cuba (Instituto de Historia de Cuba).

[7] Aline Helg cites an excerpt. (Aline Helg, Lo que nos corresponde. La lucha de los negros y mulatos por la igualdad en Cuba (1886-1912) (La Habana: Imagen Contemporánea, 2000), 283.

[8] “Proclama del Presidente Al pueblo de Cuba,” El Triunfo (June 7th, 1912).

[9] La Discusión, June 21, 1912, 11.

[10] Paleographic analysis could be done to determine authenticity.

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