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.  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 the hardships before enactment FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, to say nothing of pre-independence.

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, 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.

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.

 

The Spanish Pearl Part One: Trump’s Gambit

Donald Trump, with modest pomp and circumstance from American media, honored a campaign promise this week in reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 decision to begin normalization of relations with Cuba, surrounded by a militant cadre of Republicans hankering to hurtle us back to the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis.  From a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last year, we have that a majority of Americans support lifting the decades-long embargo imposed on Cuba, yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the tough guy stance on continued human rights abuses within the island nation.  Aside from the official response from Cuba reported by CNN  detailing the myriad human rights abuses within the U.S. going on right now,  one need not look far for the craven double standard present not just in Trump’s bungled, clumsily heavy-handed foreign policy, but in American foreign policy generally traversing the (narrow) political spectrum of post-war administrations.   For example, despite myriad internal abuses documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, perpetration of massacres in Yemen, generation of radicalized ISIS militants as documented by Patrick Coburn of the Independent, the murderous tyranny Saudi Arabia’s monarchy enjoys broad American dispensation; Trump gleefully boasts, disingenuously according to the Brookings Institute, of multi-hundred billion dollar Saudi arms deals after a visit featuring a sword dance and a strange glowing orb.  Cuba, by stark contrast, somehow continues to draw the ire of extremists both inside and out of the American political aristocracy.  Though we may face temptation to hypothesize that

none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context.  When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework.  Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes.  Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek.  But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past.  Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples.  An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United Stateswith thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.

For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island.  Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures.  Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s.  Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escaleraa vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.

Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.