To visit the Palace of the Captain General on Havana’s Plaza de Armas today
is to witness the most prominent stone- and mortar monument to the endur-
ing history of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. Built in the eigh teenth century,
the palace has served many purposes: as the home of the captain general, the
highest- ranking Spanish offi cial on the island; with Cuban in de pen dence, the
home of the U.S. military governor aft er 1899; the home of the Cuban president
until 1920; as the city hall, municipal archive, and fi nally a museum.1 Long
since national in de pen dence in 1898, Cubans have resisted the infl uence of
foreign powers, but the empire that built the palace as its nerve center has be-
come, with each successive transition, a less commanding symbol of imperial
domination. Cubans have confronted problems that had their origins in
slavery— economic de pen den cy and racial inequalities among them. Th e
palace itself, though, is now associated with the trea sures of a bygone era.
Walking through the palace today, it’s easy to underestimate the heft of an
empire that for almost four centuries variously inspired fear, resentment, and
aff ection from its subjects.2
Fernando Ortiz, the foremost scholar of Cuba’s African dimension, knew
this palace well. It was here that the lawyer and anthropologist learned lasting
lessons about the meaning of colonial rule to Cuba’s multiracial population.
Ortiz spent his formative years in the Canary Islands before returning to Cuba
when he was fourteen, just months before the fi nal war for in de pen dence
erupted in February 1895. Within days of his arrival in Havana, his grandfather
took him to the palace to catch a glimpse of Arsenio Martínez Campos, the
once and future reform- minded captain general known for negotiating with
rebels over the course of a three- decade insurgency. Such conciliation pro-
voked nothing but contempt in the grandfather, a staunchly conservative sup-
porter of Spain. When Martínez Campos entered the room, the grandfather
whispered into young Fernando’s ear, “Look well at his face; he is a mulatto
from Guanabacoa” (see fi gure
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