On the eve of this 4th of July, I think about our servicemen and women whose lives are at risk defending U.S. interests and the cause of freedom around the world. I also think about Cuba, so close to the United States, where a despotic regime continues to misrule; and about the Ladies in White, a group of women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of Cuban political prisoners, punished for desiring the same freedoms that Americans will celebrate this weekend.
Again, this Sunday the Ladies in White will walk together to mass, all dressed in white, calling attention to the plight of their loved ones and the lack of freedom in Cuba. The women have been harassed, spat upon and insulted by mobs organized by the regime. Their mistreatment, detention and abuse by Cuban police has earned the condemnation of world leaders, including the First Lady of France, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and President Barack Obama.
Less known today, although they played a noble role in the war for American Independence, is another group of Cuban women, the “Ladies of Havana,” who helped George Washington at a most critical moment.
The battle of Yorktown was about to start, and the British General Charles Cornwallis, believed he would defeat the Americans. According to Washington’s aide, Count de Rochambeau, “the Continental troops [are] almost without clothes. The greater number [are] without socks or shoes. These people are at the very end of their resources. Washington will not have at his disposal half the number of troops he counts on having.” The story is told by historian Stephen Bonsal in the book When the French Were Here, published in 1945.
In 1781, things did not look good, when General Washington sent French Admiral Francois De Grasse to seek funds in the Caribbean. What happened is told by Charles Lee Lewis, in his Admiral De Grasse and the American Independence, published by the United States Naval Institute.
Unfortunately, as Jean-Jacques Antier writes in Admiral de Grasse: Hero of L’Independence Americaine, when De Grasse got to Havana the Spanish fleet had left for Spain. There was no gold to be had, and the colonial government could not help. The Cubans, however, liked Washington and private contributions flowed in. “Ladies even offering their diamonds. The sum of 1,200,000 livres was delivered on board,” Antier wrote. De Grasse sailed back toward Philadelphia, where Rochambeau took a boat to Chester, Pennsylvania, in September 1781.
“We saw in the distance Gen. Washington, shaking his hat and a white handkerchief and showing signs of great joy” when he saw their boat approaching Chester, according to De Rochambeau’s account in J.J. Jusserands’s With Americans of Past and Present Days. “De Rochambeau had scarcely landed,” Jusserand wrote, “when Washington, usually cool and composed, fell into his arms; the great news had arrived, de Grasse had come.” And there was enough money to fund to continue fighting. .
The campaign in the fall of 1781—and the war—ended with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. As Bonsal noted, “The million that was supplied by the ladies of Havana may be regarded as the ‘bottom dollars’ upon which the edifice of American independence was erected.”
Back in 1781, there was no United States, no United States Agency for International Development and no Cuba democracy program. While the worthiness of current U.S. efforts to promote a transition to democracy in Cuba are sometime questioned, on this Fourth of July let’s pray for our soldiers abroad, and remember the help given to George Washington by the “Ladies of Havana” so long ago.
*Frank Calzon is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, which is based in Arlington, Va. Read his May AQ Web Exclusive on Cuban worker productivity.