The Spanish Pearl Part Two : Americana and Independence

Continuing our discussion of Cuba, American influence was observable as early as 1805 when President Thomas Jefferson dispatched emissaries to for negotiation.  Secretary of State (later President) John Quincy Adams articulated in 1823 the ripe-fruit theory, namely

[t]here are laws of political as well as physical
gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native
tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba,
forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection
with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can
gravitate only towards the North American Union
which by the same law of nature, cannot cast her
off its bosom...

In other words, if Cuba’s masters manage to lose her, it rightfully belongs to America, a philosophical musing on the Monroe Doctrine, President James Monroe’s foreign policy admonition that Europe ought to leave the western hemisphere be, or “America to the Americans”.  A ripe plum to be sure, Cuba’s sugar exports were legendary, eighty-two percent of which landed in the United States until the 1880s.  The industrial revolution, underwritten largely by tacit slaves conscripted after the North South Compact of 1877, and general improvements in farming and manufacturing produced a substantial goods surplus in the United States as the nineteenth century approached conclusion.  Kansas Congressman Jerry Simpson informed his peers in 1892 that the excess of crops compelled agribusiness  “of necessity [to] seek a foreign market,” according to William Appleman Williams in The Roots of the Modern American Empire.  Williams’ key thesis is that U.S. hegemony of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mostly followed an increasing need for importers of American goods.  Over the decades leading to Cuba’s independence, it increasingly became reliant on America for basic goods, and American capital flowed reasonably freely.  President Grover Cleveland assessed the economical intertwining in 1896, writing

[i]t is reasonably estimated that at least
from $30,000,000 to $50,000,000 of American
capital are invested in the plantations and
in railroad, mining, and other business
enterprises on the island. The volume of
trade between the United States and Cuba,
which in 1889 amounted to about $64,000,000,
rose in 1893 to about $103,000,000.

Beginning in 1868, Cuba liberation movements organized the first of three wars for independence from Spain : the Ten Years’ War leading to abolition of slavery throughout Cuba.  The last war, lasting from 1894 to 1898, kicked Spain more or less out of the hemisphere for good.  In The Tragedy of American DiplomacyWilliams argues that a tripolar American constituency coalesced during Cuba’s final push for independence, neatly placing Vice President Theodore Roosevelt among those advocating intervention, William Jennings Bryant arguing for non-interference, and a business lobby favoring an “open door” rather than any form of colonialism.

As the push for independence ground on, William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as president, and concerns abounded as to the fate of a “free” Cuba.  A young analyst-turn-statesman, child of an American woman and British father, wrote

[a] grave danger represents itself. Two-fifths
of the insurgents in the field are negroes.
These men . . . would, in the event of success,
demand a predominant share in the government
of the country . . . the result being, after
years of fighting, another black republic.

The other black republic, to which this young man referred, was Haiti, wherein blacks overthrew their French masters in 1791, much to the chagrin of European proto-fascists.  This young statesman’s career would feature ups-and-downs, cresting during the second world war, crashing soon after when he, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, remarked with displeasure that he would not preside over the “liquidation of the British empire.”

With the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana’s harbor in February 1898, McKinley, by many accounts, reluctantly eased toward intervention.  By April, he asked Congress for a formal declaration of war, beginning the Spanish American War; a senator from Colorado, Henry M. Teller, proposed an amendment protecting Cuba from American annexation once Spain relinquished Cuba to its peoples.  In 1901, Senator Orville Platt from Connecticut proposed a replacement permitting the United States to intervene as needed to protect Cuba.  The Platt amendment articulated the limits of Cuba’s independence, namely, perhaps, oddly, to protect its independence; the actual text is rather instructive, as it more or less permits unilateral intervention by the United States to protect Cuba.

American unions were virtually all opposed to intervention.  A prevailing sentiment among tradesmen and semi-skilled laborers appeared in “A Peace Appeal to Labor”, published by Bolton Hall, treasurer of the American Longshoremen’s Union, reprinted in Zinn’s A People’s History :

[i]f there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and
the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators
will make money out of it -- that is, out of you. Men
will get high prices for inferior supplies, leaky boats,
for shoddy clothes and pasteboard shoes, and you will
have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you
will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish
fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and
who have had as little to do with the wrongs of
Cuba as you have.

Soon after war was declared, trade union dissidence all but vanished, as machinists and coal miners alike recognized the boon to industry that a war machine can be.

As Spain retreated, American dignitaries helped Cuban resistance leaders craft a constitution, requiring that the new constitution include Platt’s requisite subservience to American dominance.  Cubans rallied in opposition, as did anti-imperialist groups in the United States, recognizing that Platt gutted Teller in ensuring a tacit master/slave relationship.  General Leonard Wood of the American occupation assured President Theodore Roosevelt that

[t]he people of Cuba lend themselves readily to all
sorts of demonstrations and parades, and little
significance should be attached to them.

That is, Cubans just prefer to party, and ascribing serious American values of self-determination and independence to them is a mistake.  These partying Cubans proved to be a nuisance, resisting for months before finally succumbing to increasing American pressure to formalize their subservience.

The Platt amendment, aimed primarily at stabilizing Cuba while promoting American protectionism, largely failed in fostering a healthy, self-governing society, despite possessing tremendous trade and development capacity.  In fact, one can examine case-by-case, examining regions within the Monroe sphere to find nations resplendent with resources but in the throes of deep inequality and often tyranny, generally at the urging of America.  Wood himself confessed to Roosevelt that

[t]here is, of course, little or no independence
left Cuba under the Platt Amendment.

A feature of the American occupation, justified by Section VII of Platt, is the recently quite relevant Guantanamo Naval Base, held by the U.S. since 1898; we’ll return to this topic later.

As the occupation continued, Cuban trade with the United States skyrocketed, and American businesses busily gobbled up farmland and resource consignments, resulting in a 536% increase in American investment in years between 1913 and 1928, according to researcher Ann Marie Holmes.  During these years, pro-American leadership prevailed in Cuba, notably with the election of Gerardo Machado in 1925.  Though largely responsive to American influence, Machado pressed Cuban constitutional constraints on his term limit and curried favor with local and American businesses to remain in power; Cuban nationalists approved of his hard stance on gradual protest toward Platt, and American statists were generally pleased with his complicity.  Difficulties arose with the stock market crash in the United States in 1929, a more thorough discussion of which we’ll continue later.

 

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