The Spanish Pearl Part Three : Sugary Sweet Good Neighbor Policy But Hardly ‘Golden Years’

Continuing with our discussion of Cuba, American dominance throughout the island was palpable through the 1920s.  Nonetheless, trade deficits and the stock market crash of 1929 left the United States grasping for protectionism in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, ending economic reciprocity as America’s business elites struggled to tread water amidst a wrecked, failed pseudo-laissez faire economic policy.   The Cuban military leaders, along with Sumner Welles, American diplomat dispatched to Havana to negotiate a settlement, ultimately convinced Machado to resign and flee.  Within days, a militant student group, led by Fulgencio Batista, a son of a laborer and an army official, overthrew Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada, Welles’ official replacement for Machado, placing in power a university professor by the name of Ramón Grau San Martín.  San Martín publicly opposed the Platt amendment and supported reforms enacted during sporadic rule in the early 1930s.  Though Welles in certain respects attempted outreach to both San Martín and Batista, Washington’s reluctance to recognize San Martín because of the risks of reforms (a common dilemma America faces when choosing between human rights and market control), pressure to protect American property and interests, Batista’s commitment to resisting communism, and a power struggle with Batista led Welles’ replacement, Jefferson Caffery, to side with Batista.  San Martín resigned, replaced by more militant elements in the government sympathetic to Batista.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt and Cuba formally dissolved said amendment in the Treaty of Relations as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, an ideological and diplomatic campaign aimed at unifying the western hemisphere and diminishing violent American hegemony.  Prominent in the policy were public relations designed to acquaint Americans with a flavor of Latin life through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA).  The U.S. vowed not to interfere with Cuba’s sovereignty nor favor any political force, though the letter and the spirit differ, as is generally the case.  Nonetheless, the Good Neighbor Policy was successful partly in softening relations in the western hemisphere; course reversal coincided with the conclusion of the second world war.

Batista became president of Cuba in 1936, and though he supported some worker reforms and extended outreach to communists, American leaders generally considered him reliable.  Under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, the U.S. provided arms to Cuba in exchange for military alliance in anticipation of joining the war in Europe and opened training grounds in Cuba.

Relations with the U.S. became increasingly difficult during San Martín’s resurgence in the late 1940s and early 1950s; as early as December 1945, San Martín was negotiating with America to relinquish control Cuba’s military bases, according to the American diplomatic papers.  Though the U.S. returned a few bases and airfields to Cuba, it continued a military presence in the island with ships, manpower, and other equipment, to say nothing of the base Guantanamo Bay.  Colonel Camilo Gonzalez Chavez of the Cuban Air Corps proposed to American officials for the U.S. to open airspace to Cuban training exercises and ease travel requirements for Cuban soldiers, according to Ann Katie Holmes.   That is, Cuba naturally assumed that mutual trust between the two nations should permit Cuban military games over Kansas corn fields if the U.S. Air Force could play in Cuba airspace; it turns out that American friendship is often one-sided.

American leadership certainly noticed that our economic intervention in Cuba concentrated wealth among the American investors and their upper-crust Cuban surrogates while sandbagging cost-of-living increases essential to supporting the population at large.  With the beginning of the Cold War, American propaganda found a new, post-war enemy in Stalinism, and though Cuba’s proximity to the United States seemed an insurmountable obstacle to Soviet influence in the hemisphere, Cuban workers parties and human rights movements were receptive to anti-Americanism.  From their perspective, the U.S. continued to occupy, ferret away resources, and control the Cuban sugar economy through many means, including restriction of diversification.  That is to say, if Cuba’s crop output is highly diversified, the country can better negotiate with buyers internationally.  Constraining crop output to just a handful of varieties ensures better deals for the buyers, principally the United States.  It’s easier to imagine that if a store sells only lightbulbs, it likely can’t get your attention if you’re buying dish rags that day.  Further, many alive remembered the Platt amendment, American support of Machado, and American failure to recognize the San Martín government.  Moreover, Cuba had a communist party since at least the 1920s, with an ideology increasingly attractive to Cuban peasants either underpaid or superfluous in the hemisphere’s economy.

Carlos Prío Socarrás became president of Cuba in 1948; a friend to American interests, he soon proffered a new treaty promoting American businesses in exchange for technology sharing.  Cuban resistance, as mentioned earlier, stymied his first iteration, compelling him to reduce scope to sugar and currency stability.  Prío, like San Martín before him, joined the effete as Cuban opinion diminished around their inability to reduce violence or corruption, setting the stage for a coup.  Nonetheless, though these were hardly “golden years,” to conjure historian Charles Ameringer,  the years marked by their leadership were an improvement over two decades preceding enactment of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, to say nothing of the days of Spanish imperialism.

In 1952, Batista seized power in an American-backed coup supported by wealthy Cubans after a seemingly unsuccessful run for president.  Resistance movements appeared here and there, one lead by Prío, another by a nationalist by the name of Fidel Castro.  Prío operated a resistance inside the U.S. while Castro plotted to overthrow Batista from within.  A failed coup in 1953 at Moncada Barracks left several rebels dead with Castro and his brother Raul imprisoned.

In 1955, Chairman Harold Cooley of the Agricultural Committee in the House of Representatives presented his eponymous protectionist bill tightening the noose around Cuba’s economic throat : if passed, it would guarantee that once annual imports of sugar reached 8.3 million tons, Cuba could supply no more than 25.6% of it.  That is, despite American restrictions against crop diversification in Cuba as discussed above, Congressional leadership intended to protect American domestic sugar mills at the heavy expense to Cuban mills.  The sugar market was already grappling with excess supply, so Batista expressed deep concern to President Eisenhower about America’s seeming willingness to betray decades of economic interdependence.

Meanwhile, Castro and his brother received pardons, and fleeing to Mexico, sought to establish a 26th of July movement, named for the day of their attempted coup.  The years leading to their success will be the topic of discussion in a following article.

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