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Our complete history of Rotary in Cuba Courtesy of Dr. Wolfgang Ziegler, RGHF Senior Historian 31 May 2006


Rotary in Cuba


The Spanish American War


The revolution started by José Martí in 1895 led in 1898 to the Spanish American War of 100 days – and Cuban independence in 1902. This war, in spite of its tremendous implications for the United States, Spain, Cuba, and other places, never received much attention. After the American Civil War (1861-1865), a conflict of truly epic proportions, with a loss of approximately three-quarters of a million men, in the war of 1898 “only” three thousand men were lost. Some may have heard the statement “Remember the MAINE”. In response to a small protest by Spanish officers, not affecting the United States, Washington sent the USS MAINE to Cuba on a “friendly” visit. In the evening of February 15, the MAINE was shattered by two explosions and rapidly sank. Two hundred and fifty-two men were killed. After the disaster, U.S. newspapers were quick to place responsibility for the loss on Spain, while later studies have indicated that the ship probably sunk as a result of a coal bunker fire adjacent to its ammunition magazines. Despite of his efforts to avoid war, President McKinley finally decided to military intervene in Cuba to end the ongoing unrest and liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. In American history, the Spanish American War is mostly considered as a silly lark taken by a group of over-eager men with no real gain, though this goes against historical fact in many respects. (Related story of one battle of this war at www.messagetogarcia.org )


Rotary ante portas


In the same year, 1898, Paul Harris entered into a partnership as the senior to form the law firm of Harris and Dodds. While we can only speculate if the idea of a Rotary club was already on his mind, two later prominent Rotarians fought in the Spanish American War. Silvester Schiele had volunteered to serve with the United States armed forces, and also fought in the Santiago de Cuba campaign. More details are known about Chesley Perry from the rolls of the Illinois volunteers, who also went to Cuba in 1898 as a soldier and as a correspondent for the Chicago Times Herald. He enrolled as a 2nd Lieutenant in April 1898, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and was on special duty as officer in charge of regimental exchange until March 1899. In Cuba Perry met Wesley King, who in 1911 founded the Rotary club of Salt Lake City.


Chesley Perry’s decoration from the Illinois Veteran Corps

[W. Ziegler, private collection]


Havana - Club City of the World


In 1918, more than one-third of the total population of Habana of approximately 350,000 were members of various clubs. So it was quite natural that Habana was the first city in a non‑English speaking country to have a Rotary club. Also the Rotary club idea was essentially different from all of the many club ideas which had found root in Habana, the city was so accustomed to clubs of all kinds that Rotary was readily accepted. The leading clubs of the city, considered from the standpoint of number of members and wealth of their treasuries, were the various organizations known as Centros. These were originally organized by Spanish residents of the city whose purpose was to unite in a social organization those of their compatriots who came from the same section of Spain. In addition to its social and recreative functions, the Centros soon developed certain mutual aid and benefit features, which became a real necessity in the lives of the people of Habana. Some of the Centros, such as the Balear and Castellano, admitted women as well as men to membership. Most Centros were chiefly composed of Spanish born or the immediate descendants of such. The exception to this rule was the Centro de Dependientes, founded in 1881, one of the three largest and wealthiest of these organizations, to which most of the Cubans and residents of foreign birth belonged.


Club Rotario de la Habana – the Foundation


In the April issue of The Rotarian, a short note “Rotary and Latin-America” is followed by the names of the members of the General Committee on Extension of Rotary in Latin-America. The organization of the Rotary Club of Havana, the first non-English speaking Rotary Club, was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Tampa, Florida, and the committee was composed of A. L. Cuesta, Sr., John A. Turner and Ernest Berger.


Angel L. Cuesta, member of the Rotary Club of Tampa, Florida, and founder of Rotary in Cuba

[The Rotarian, January 1930].

The roster list of 22 members was closed on April 29th, 1916. Among its charter members were Angel Gonzales del Valle, in 1922 president and sketched in “La Rueda”, the magazine of the Rotary Club of Havana, by the famous Cuban cartoonist Massaguer, and Ramon Arguelles, owner of the famous “Romeo & Juliet” cigar factory.



 Angel Gonzales del Valle, “ni es angel ni viene del valle”

[La Rueda del Rotary Club de la Habana, May 1922]

Band of the “Romeo Y Julieta” cigar, especially made for Rotary

[W. Ziegler, private collection].

In 1917, the Havana club had already nearly 100 members. The club had obtained the establishment of traffic laws for its city. It developed a comprehensive city plan and had a remarkable program of civic enterprise. The civic program of the club included for instance:


- The acquisition for the city of the surrounding heights […] which on account of their location may be suitable for parks and other public uses.

- To acquire also suitable grounds in the most populated districts with the object of dedicating them to the public as playgrounds, gymnasia and bathing places […]”.


The Rotary headquarters in the Hotel Plaza [W. Ziegler, private collection]


Havana Rotarians on the roof of the Plaza Hotel [The Rotarian, February 1918]


More Rotary Clubs


Within eight years of the founding of the Havana club, other clubs were added at Matanzas, Sagua la Grande, Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, Trinidad, Camagüey, Santiago, Caibarien, Santa Clara, and Sancti Spritus. All of them flourished, and found many opportunities to serve their respective communities. The objectives concentrated mainly on sanitation, with special emphasis on the extermination of the mosquito.


The Ladder That Came in Handy


Havana, Cuba. – […] Some Rotarians had an interesting

and rather exciting – experience at a meeting of the

Havana Rotary. The meeting was held in the roof garden

of the Paza Hotel. And while a flashlight picture was

being taken some of the decorations were ignited by the

exploding magnesium powder. A panic was averted by

 the prompt arrival of the fire department  and a new

extension ladder recently presented to the department

by the Havana Rotarians came in handy.


[The Rotarian, August 1925]


This picture was taken at a special meeting of the Rotary Club of Matanzas, Cuba, held at Monserrate picnic grounds. At the head of the table (in the foreground) are, left to right: Urbano Trista, Governor of the Twenty-fifth Rotary District (Cuba); Joaquin Anorga, nominated as his successor at the district conference recently held in Sagua la Grande; and Paul Harris, President Emeritus of Rotary International, in whose honor the meeting was arranged [The Rotarian, May 1927].


In 1928, the Rotary Club of Havana was responsible for the initiation and successful conducting of the first National Congress of the welfare of the child. The statements in the resolution adopted sound rather modern, for instance:


- The child has the right to be born under social and physical conditions which
  will lead to a normal life.
 - The  child has the right to receive from society all the means for a free
  development, mentally, morally and spiritually […].


In a letter to the secretariat of Rotary International, past Director Luis Machado (no relation to Cuba's former president) wrote:


“In order to prevent civil war, which was imminent between the various political divisions, the Rotary Club of Havana appointed a committee of five, of which I am the chairman, to act as mediator between the government on one side and the opposition on the other, in an effort to find a friendly solution to all the political problems […]”. [The Rotarian, November, 1933].


However, in September, 1933, in an uprising known as the “Revolt of the Sergeants", Fulgenico Battista had taken control of the island. For the next twenty-five years he ruled Cuba with an iron fist.  


The First Regional Conference


In March 1937, during the opening session of the First Rotary Regional Conference of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, held in Havana, Cuba's President, Senor Laredo Bru, offered R.I. President Will R. Manier, Jr., the Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes – the highest Cuban decoration – as a recognition of the valuable service Rotary is rendering to humanity.


Cuban Rotarians greet Rotary's President Manier (right) in 1937.

[The Rotarian, January 1946]


Cuban decoration Manuel de Cespedes. The picture actually shows the decoration given to Chesley Perry, possibly ranking below the cross of the order [W. Ziegler, private collection].



The 1940 Convention


Originally, the 1940 World Convention was to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but was held in Havana probably because of WWII. R.I. President Walter D. Head wrote in The Rotarian in March 1940:


“It is my thought that the keynote of the Havana Convention might be the renewal of Rotary fellowship amid Old World surroundings. This is not a year for elaborate festivity. We are too keenly conscious of the fact that many of our fellow Rotarians are citizens of countries which are, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in the numerous conflicts now taking place […]”.


Paul Harris could not attend the because of sickness, but he was able to return from the hospital to his home during the Convention. His message was read to the Convention. He wrote about Rotary's efforts to promote the brotherhood of men, which …


“in the light of current events and in the light of history, seem to many nothing more than an empty dream […]” and continued:


The best way to proof that a miracle can be performed is to perform the miracle. Rotary has performed its miracle. Rotary has actually become part of the civic life of sixty nations. Rotary stands; though the tempest rage about – Rotary still stands. Why and how? Because it is grounded not on fear, rivalry and suspicion, but on the eternal and indestructible rocks of friendliness, tolerance, and usefulness”.



The Inaugural Session – Secretary of State Miguel A. Campa, who brought a message from Frederico Laredo Bru, President of the Republic of Cuba, being introduced by Chairman Carbajal. President Head and other Rotary officials are seated on the stage [Proceedings Thirty-First Annual Rotary Convention, Havana, Cuba 1940].


Though only 3,719 Rotarians attended the Convention, it was certainly a splendid success. The Convention Proceeding comment on the event:


“Looking back on convention week, it seems that each night brought with it a new high in entertainment. Perhaps it was the spell wielded by the tropic nights, a magic of deep, ebon-black skies and bright stars, gently waving palms, and a soft caressing breeze bespeaking mystery and romance, that made each event a never-to-be-forgotten experience […]”.


but credit the success also to the ingenuity of the host club.


A special stamp with the Rotary wheel and a number of beautiful first day issues were printed on this occasion.



Centrepiece of a block with the signature of R.I. President Head, who calls himself “Future past-President” [W. Ziegler, private collection]


Also in 1940, a Constitution was established by the national assembly of Cuba. The document struck a balance between the rich and the working class, it protected individual and social rights, supported full employment and a minimum wage, extended social security, called for equal pay for equal work and outlawed the huge plantations known as latifundias. General Fulcenio Batista was elected Cuba's 14th president.


In January 1946, Cuba had 44 Clubs with approximately 1,400 Rotarians. It had by then furnished four Directors of Rotary International – Mario Nunez Meza (1922-23), Luis Machado (1931-32), and Dr. Manuel Galigarcia (1942-43), all of the Rotary Club of Havana, and Felipe Silva (1936-37) of the Rotary Club of Cienfuegos.


The Revolution


The fifties were a decisive decade in Cuba’s turbulent history. In March 1952, Batista took over again in a bloodless coup d' etat. The elections, three month away, were cancelled. The United States recognized Batista's government. 


In July, 1953, Fidel Castro lead a revolt in which 100 men and women attacked army barracks near Santiago de Cuba. The attack failed, Castro was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1955, he and his revolutionaries were released from prison in a general amnesty.


In November 1957, Cuba was the second time host to the Caribbean-Gulf of Mexico Regional Conference of Rotary International. Cuba had 58 Rotary Clubs with 1,800 members.


The battle of Jigüe in July 1958 marked the turning point in the war between the government and the revolutionary forces. The government troops were surrounded by the Rebel units. Unable to break out, the battalion ran out of food and surrendered. In January 1959, the revolutionary forces took control of Havana. The U.S. government officially recognized the new Cuban government. Cuba's constitution of 1940, suspended in 1952 by General Batista,  was reinstated.


Fidel Castro, Cuban Prime Minister, outlines the program of his “26th of July Movement” before the Rotary Club of Havana. An overflow crowd jammed the room to hear his nationally televised Talk [The Rotarian, June 1959].


Of the twenty-one ministers appointed in January 1959, twelve had resigned or had been ousted by the end of the year. Four more would go out in 1960 as the revolution moved toward a Marxist-Leninist political System.


A communication of Rotary International of November 14th, 1978, reads:


“After due consideration of the guidelines established by the board at its October-November, 1978, meeting for the termination of membership in Rotary International of Rotary clubs located in countries in which Rotary clubs may not be able to function, the board, effective 31 January, 1979, terminates the membership in Rotary International of the clubs in Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam and declares the charters issued to the clubs to be null and void”.


The American journalist Walter Lippmann wrote in 1959:


“For the thing we should never do in dealing with revolutionary countries, in which the world abounds, is to push them behind an iron curtain raised by ourselves. On the contrary,[…) the right thing to do is to keep the way open for their return”.


The contents of this article are mainly based on information from The Rotarian. Between 1916 and 1980 Rotary in Cuba is mentioned in over a hundred short notes and in a few articles, some in Spanish. The information about Cuba’s  history are taken from the internet site www.historyofcuba.com, written and compiled by J. A. Sierra.


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