31 Aug Amid ‘Manifest Destiny’ fervor, Cuban invasions from New Orleans inspired other Latin American incursions
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Today, the term “filibuster” refers to the obstruction of legislative procedure through lengthy speeches. For most of the 19th century, however, filibusters were men who engaged in unsanctioned warfare in foreign countries. It derived from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, or freebooter. In the 1840s and ’50s, private armies of American filibusters frequently ventured to Latin America pursuing wealth and adventure, often in conjunction with political objectives such as annexation and the expansion of slavery into new territories. The national press mythologized these men, stirring up immense popular support, even though these filibusters were generally at odds with federal authority. Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore felt that filibusters undermined diplomacy and the state’s privilege to declare war.
New Orleans was a frequent staging ground for filibusters, including Narciso López. López was born to a wealthy family in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1797. He joined the Spanish army during the Venezuelan War of Independence. After Spain’s defeat in 1823, López withdrew with the Spanish to Cuba. He saw combat in Spain before returning to Cuba to serve as assistant to the military governor. In the 1840s Cuban planters, worried that slavery was threatened by a weakening Spanish regime, sought the overthrow of Spain and annexation of Cuba to the U.S. López joined their conspiracy as military leader of a planned coup, which was later betrayed to the government. In 1848 López fled to the U.S., while a Spanish colonial court sentenced him to death in absentia.
From the U.S. López organized four expeditions to Cuba. He sought financial backing in New York from Cuban exiles and American businessmen such as steamship magnates and sugar traders. He was championed in the press by advocates of American expansion, including the editor John O’Sullivan, who coined the term “manifest destiny.”
López’s first two expeditions were thwarted by federal intervention. With his Cuban backers losing faith, López moved to New Orleans, where he hoped to woo the Southern establishment, which had interest in Cuba becoming a slave state. He raised $50,000 in bonds and recruited 500 men. In 1850, the company captured the city of Cárdenas, hoisting a banner sewn in New Orleans that symbolized American statehood for Cuba. In 1902 it would be adopted as Cuba’s national flag.
The Spanish army eventually defeated the rebels at Cárdenas. Upon returning to American soil, López was arrested for violating the Neutrality Act of 1818, though the prosecution would soon be abandoned. Undeterred, he launched another Cuban expedition in 1851. López led about 280 soldiers inland, while about 120 men remained with American William Crittenden at their ships. Spanish forces crushed both regiments, and López, Crittenden and 50 soldiers were executed in Havana. The executions inspired riots in New Orleans, where mobs stormed the offices of La Union, the first Spanish-language daily in the U.S., and also attacked the office of the Spanish consulate and other Spanish-owned property.
Despite its failure, the López expedition inspired later filibusters, such as William Walker’s war in Nicaragua in the 1850s.