By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Due to its geographical proximity to the US, the island of Cuba has always held a strategic position in relation to the North American mainland. This relationship dates back to pre-colonial times when the indigenous Paleo-Indian tribes arrived on the island between 5000 and 2000 BCE. While little remains of these early tribes, the later Meso-Indians of 1000-500 BCE left a sophisticated archeological record of tools, pottery, and multifaceted society. So, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the region, he stumbled upon a complex, intertwined network of tribes.
Over the centuries the Spanish developed extractive colonies on both Cuba and the Florida mainland. Sea routes that facilitated the extremely valuable trade in tobacco and sugar produced on the island only increased after the American Revolution in 1776. By the 1840s, enough Southern US politicians had begun agitating for the US to buy Cuba in order to gain control of the three million slaves and Spanish sugar plantations on the island that President James K. Polk offered Spain $100 million for the island. While this was unsuccessful, the desire reached such a crescendo that a number of private citizens worked with the Spanish adventurer Narciso López to invade Cuba. Unfortunately for the expedition, they were caught by the Spanish authorities and some 40 Americans were executed in the capital city of Havana.
Shortly thereafter, the inhabitants of the island launched a revolution against Spanish colonial control. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish resorted to brutal counter-insurgency tactics in an attempt to suppress the violence. However, after the sinking of USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, the US and Spain became embroiled in the Spanish-American War, which saw the Spanish renounce all rights to Cuba.
Interestingly, while wealthy Americans and American businesses immediately rushed to purchase land and establish themselves on the island, the government pulled all troops in 1901-2 in adherence to the Teller Amendment and renounced all “sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control” over Cuba. Consequently, the island became an independent republic.
The First World War
All of that being said, it is unsurprising that during WWI Cuba contracted with the US to strike their coins. Despite remaining neutral until 1917, the island nation ordered a combined 62,737,240 pieces from the Philadelphia Mint across 13 denominations in 1915 and 1916. Included in this large order is a relatively large quantity of coins in all gold types, ranging from the 20-peso pieces measuring 33.44g and 34.3mm down to the small 1-peso coins measuring 1.67g and 14.9mm. All Cuban gold coins struck by the US Mint are of 90% gold fineness. The US mint also struck 90/10 silver/copper 1-peso coins in both years.
Because of their rarity, Cuban gold coins struck by the US Mint during WWI are quite collectible. All these coins were struck at the Philadelphia facility using planchets identical to those for US gold coins. Only 56,780 20-peso coins, 1,236,530 10-peso coins, 1,828,060 5-peso coins, 135,060 4-peso coins, 160,060 2-peso coins, and 17,450 1-peso coins were struck cumulatively during WWI. All these denominations featured the Cuban hero José Martí, the legend PATRIA Y LIBERTAD, and the date along with the weight and fineness of the coin on the obverse and Cuban Coat of Arms and denomination on the reverse. After the war, Cuba would never again contract the US mint to strike gold coins of any denomination.
While the silver coins struck for Cuba employed the same reverse design and obverse legends, the obverse design featured the Cuban star and rays dominating the central obverse fields instead of Sr. Martí. The small 5, 2, and 1 centavo denominations have similar designs. However, the obverse star is not superimposed on any rays, and the denomination in Roman numerals can be seen in the center of the star.
The Interwar Period
In 1920, several years after the Treaty of Paris and the end of WWI, Cuba began placing orders with the US Mint once again.
In 1920 and 1921, they only ordered small centavos denominations. In 1920: 40 centavos, 20 centavos, 10 centavos, 5 centavos, and 1 centavo coins for a total of 38,673,000 pieces. The 1921 order was smaller and only included 1,590,352 pieces in the 40 and 20 centavos denominations. These coins display the same designs as during the war years, with no changes.
In 1929, Cuba’s economy was hit by the shockwaves of the Great Depression. Sugar which accounted for 80-90% of the nation’s agricultural production, dropped nearly 50% in value during one year. Despite this decrease in revenue, increased unemployment, and general economic disruption, the Cuban government ordered 3,734,296 coins in 1932 and 6,000,000 in 1933. The 1932 order included silver 1 peso and 20 centavos denominations, while the 1933 order was only for the silver 1 peso denomination. The designs of these denominations remained unchanged since 1915.
After the overthrow of General Gerardo Machado and as part of Cuba’s recovery from the Great Depression, between 1934 and 1939 the government ordered some 70 million silver 1 peso coins. These 1-peso coins were of “a bold design” and are colloquially called the ABC peso after an underground revolutionary organization. On the obverse is a personified image of Cuba and a small version of the Cuban Star to right. The motto PATRIA Y LIBERTAD can be seen above and the date below a stylized horizon. The reverse depicts the Cuban coat of arms to the right of the denomination -UN PESO, the country name – REPUBLICA DE CUBA – below, and fineness and weight – 900m / 26.7295g – above.
The Philadelphia Mint also struck 2 million 1 centavo coins in 1938.
The Second World War
Cuba continued to order coins from the Philadelphia Mint during WWII with orders for 5 centavos coins in amounts of two and four million pieces in 1943 and 1944, respectively. As with the US, Cuba had to make concessions due to the war. As such, the denominations in these orders were not the standard alloy of 75/25 cupronickel. They were instead a new brass alloy of 70/30 copper and zinc. This would only last for two years and when Cuba ordered more 5 centavos pieces, they were again struck in the standard cupronickel alloy. Notwithstanding the change in the metal, the design remained the same.
In 1946, the Cuban government placed its largest annual order of 40 million 5 centavos coins and 50 million 1 centavo coins for a total of 90 million pieces. In 1948 and 1949, the Philadelphia Mint only struck a combined 20 million 20 centavos and 15 million 10 centavos denominations.
Three years later in 1952, Cuba ordered 1,250,000 40 centavos, 6,700,000 20 centavos, 10,000,000 10 centavos, and 2,160,000 1 centavo coins. As 1952 was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Republic, the designs of the 40, 20, and 10 centavos coins were changed for this year only. They all displayed the same design created by the Cuban artist Esteban Valderrama. The obverse of these coins is centered on the Cuban flag with a lighthouse and Havana skyline behind with the dates 1952 1902 above and below. The legend REPUBLICA DE CUBA is at the top of the design and the denomination VIENTE CENTAVOS is below. The tableau features a wagon wheel with a tree growing through the spokes as a symbol of the Cuban revolution against Spain in 1868. The legend CINCUENTA ANOS DE LIBERTAD Y PROGRESO is around the edge and the date is at the bottom of the design.
In 1953, the Cuban government also introduced a series of new designs for the centenary of Sr. Martí’s birth. On the obverse of the 1 centavo is depicted an updated portrait of Sr. Martí facing left with the Cuban star at his eyebrows. The legend CENTENARIO DE MARTI separates two dates 1853 and 1953. On the reverse is a five-pointed star inside an equilateral triangle with the motto PATRIA Y LIBERTAD and the country’s name around the edge. The triangle divides the denomination (1 C.) with the weight and fineness (2.3g 300m) above.
Additionally, Cuba ordered a 25 centavos coin. This commemorative denomination also depicted Sr. Martí on the obverse.
Perhaps the most interesting period of Cuban-US numismatic relations comes in 1958 and 1960. During the communist Cuban revolution, the national government ordered 50 million 1 centavo coins. Struck for the republican government fighting Fidel Castro’s forces, these coins share the design of the 1953 centenary coins. The only difference is that the obverse design does not have any legends, only the Cuban star, the portrait of Sr. Martí, and the date (1958).
Two years later, despite the rise of Fidel Castro’s communist regime and the US trade embargo, the United States Mint struck 20 million 5 centavos coins for Cuba.
After 1960, Cuba ended its relationship with the US Government and ceased ordering coins from the US Mint.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).