Horatio Rubens, before and after

An architect of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Right on one side of the town of Mariel, at a considerable height, stands a singular construction. The building, of a rather rapturous eclecticism, displays in its exterior the identical arches and columns of Moorish palaces as well as medieval castles. The elders of the area remember that for many years the Naval Academy was located there, but perhaps none of them knows that this building was constructed as the residence of U.S. jurist and businessman Horatio Seymour Rubens (1869-1941), one of the most singular architects of relations between the United States and Cuba. His peculiar career deserves being recalled more around these days, when both nations are resuming their diplomatic ties, interrupted since 1961.

Rubens had been born in New York, where he was educated and in 1891 he graduated from the University of Columbia with the title of Doctor in Law. However, his greatest education would start then when he entered the office of jurist and politician Elihu Root. Through this skilful and sagacious figure he was able to gain access to important contacts in the financial, legislative and military world. Afterwards, the prominent member of the Republican Party got to be Secretary of War of President McKinley (1899-1903) and Secretary of State of Theodore Roosevelt (1904-1909) and Horatio remained very close to him, though he would never try to make an open political career since he preferred to exercise international law and to participate in substantial economic projects.


His first ties with Cuba emerged in 1893, when José  Martí contacted him through Gonzalo de Quesada, his former fellow student in Columbia, to serve as the defence attorney of Cuban tobacco workers who had gone on strike in Key West and whose employers had ousted them using Spanish strike breakers. Rubens rapidly and brilliantly resolved the case and this led to his being named General Consulting Attorney of the Cuban Revolutionary Junta in 1895. From this position, in which he remained until 1898, he strengthened his relations not only with Quesada but also with the new Delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Tomás Estrada Palma, as well as with prominent military figures such as Máximo Gómez. He was granted the Vote of Grace of the Revolutionary Junta for his services to the insurrection and was also granted the honorary position of Colonel of the Liberation Army, when he already had an equivalent rank in the U.S. army.


The work of the young lawyer went beyond his legal attributions. It has been documented that it was he who rented the ships “Lagonda” and “Baracoa” for the failed Fernandina expedition, who also served as contact between the Party and the principal U.S. media, as well as with some relevant politicians and diplomatic and financial means. He also maintained a network of Cuban émigré correspondents in diverse parts of the world and in the very ranks of the Mambí Army. He also had to defend the patriots arrested for organising armed expeditions to the island, among them Carlos Roloff and the Carrillo brothers. In a letter of one of his correspondents, Edmund Frederich, to Colonel Pedro Aguilera Kindelán, member of the general staff of Antonio Maceo, he says that Rubens is “nominally the Legal Advisor of the Cuban Junta but actually he is the brain behind the Party here.”


It is unquestionable that the lawyer was not working only following the duties of his post. In 1898, after having collected a great deal of information about the diverse possibilities of separating Cuba from Spain, be it through an agreement, the purchase of the island and the intervention of the United States in the war, he decided, unquestionably with the Root circle, for the latter.


In his copious documents, conserved in the Provincial Museum of Camagüey, there is a draft of the translation into English of the letter by Dupuy de Lome, the Spanish ambassador in Washington, addressed to politician José Canalejas. It must be remembered that this letter was mysteriously leaked to the press, to make of the derogative judgments against President McKinley an element that would mobilise public opinion to demand the war against Spain. It is evident that the draft, in the hand of Horatio, was a quick translation to be immediately published and the name of the Vice Consul of Austria-Hungary appears on the back as the possible addressee of a copy.


A while after the signing of the Paris Treaty on December 10, 1898, through which the island was occupied by the United States, Rubens visits Cuba for the first time. At that time the future of the country was being strongly debated, there was a strong pressure group headed by Governor Leonardo Wood who openly demanded annexation, while a more “liberal” wing of the U.S. power circles preferred to grant independence after guaranteeing on the island an allied government, since it seemed preferable to have it as a trade partner and not as a territory to be incorporated and taken care of in the ranks of the Union.


It is known that Horatio had arrived as part of an advance group of businessmen who were trying to be the pioneers in investments in Cuba; in fact, there is proof that he had come representing the interests of the powerful Astor clan. Meanwhile, he also knew how to work in his own interest and had links with the nascent Cuba Railroad Company which with U.S. capital was building the rail structure between Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba, which did not prevent him from becoming Consultant of the Occupation Government and participating in the Commission to Review Cuba’s Codes and Laws in 1901. Moreover, he was personally in charge of supporting and financing the campaign of Tomás Estrada Palma, the United States’ favourite presidential candidate. The letter addressed to him in November 1901 by a sort of political sergeant, Donato Soto, in which he guarantees that he has worked together with Gonzalo de Quesada and Colonel Manuel Lazo in Pinar del Río and that he can count “on almost all of that province’s votes” is conserved.


Rubens’ first important action on the island was the coordination of the loan of 35 million dollars to discharge the Liberation Army. The concession was granted to the Casa Speyer, thanks to the good offices of Root, at the time War Secretary, but also the attorney of that firm and Horatio’s mentor. It would not be the last time that he would be linked to such financial procedures, since between 1903 and 1904, during the government of Estrada Palma, he led the procedures for a new loan granted by the same firm.


The jurist, who until 1905 used to stay in the Telégrafo Hotel, facing the Parque Central, decided to build a sumptuous villa in Mariel whose construction on the following year was very advanced. El Fígaro of September 9, 1906, echoed the luxury of the palace that imitated in some of its parts Granada’s Alhambra. It affirms that until then it had cost around 150,000 pesos and a similar amount would be required to conclude and furniture it. Its funds conserve not only the invoices that estimate the total cost of the investment at 350,000 pesos, but also the sketch for the decoration and the list of furniture that had to be bought in Europe or made in Cuba, as is the case of the sideboard for the dinner service created by French cabinetmakers Lefevre and Saint Just in Havana, an absolutely exceptional piece that today is on display in the Provincial Museum of Camagüey.


The enjoyment of such a work, which makes one think of the Xanadú palace, built by the magnate of the film Citizen Kane, was spoiled by the unstable Cuban political situation: the fraudulent re-election of Estrada Palma and the subsequent liberal revolution known as the Little August War, which was followed by a second U.S. intervention which Rubens rejected even by writing, because of the open corruption of Magoon and his followers.


Already by 1906 the jurist appears related with a prosperous businessman, Colonel José Miguel Tarafa. For years both were linked in businesses such as the sugar industry, the construction of the North Railroad and in diverse financial enterprises. This did not stop him from interfering in a rather direct way in Cuban politics. A letter of General Mario García Menocal, of September 7, 1912, is conserved in which he openly asks Rubens for support for his presidential campaign. Years later, in 1921, during the economic crisis known as “Las Vacas Flacas” (The Skinny Cows), Rubens fought against the Fordney Act that taxed with tariff rates Cuban sugar in the U.S. market.


In 1925, when the Cuban Railroad Company and the North Railroad merged into the Railroad Conglomerate, Horatio is named president. His mandate was memorable because of his modern strategy: he favoured the appointment of Cuban leaders for the high-ranking posts in the company; he created commissions of employer and worker delegates to resolve labour disputes; he established a group of scholarships for low income workers’ family members to facilitate their access to diverse education centres, not just secondary and trades but also university.


During his last years, the businessman was again residing in New York and only visited the island once a year. The Mariel villa was donated to the Republic. The Railroad Conglomerate conserved part of the furniture and the State devoted the locale to the Naval Academy. During each one of the visits to Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, he was paid tribute to by the Council of Veterans or the Town Halls. The publication in 1932 of his book Liberty. The Story of Cuba, a personal testimony of his ties with Martí and the independence war, was very celebrated.


However, after the fall of Machado – a president with which he also had good relations – the Republic of “generals and doctors” ceased, the political actors are others and the role of Horatio is absolutely symbolic. One of his last trips to Cuba was in 1938, when he stayed in the Hotel Nacional. Three years later, on April 3, 1941, he passed away in New York at the age of 72.


Though he never held a diplomatic post, it will be necessary, when the history of relations between Cuba and the United States is impartially written, to consider Horatio Rubens as a singular architect of these ties; his actions, not completely free of ethical objections, has many modern features and is undoubtedly a precedent for the current review of these ties. (2015)

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