Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Cuba - Tales of another Occupation

A year ago I began what I hoped would have been an historical series on twentieth century relations between Cuba and the United States, following the Spanish American War. After two installments, I was unable to keep up with it. Although I haven't abandoned the idea altogether, the historic decision of Fidel Castro not to run for re-election as President of the State Council has motivated me to re-post what I had written back then.


The 24th of February will mark 51 years since the New York Times correspondent and editor Herbert L. Matthews (no relation to me) published his first in a series of articles on Fidel Castro, marking the 26 of July Movement's first steps out of the Sierra Maestra mountains and toward its eventual ascendency to power in Cuba. Criticized as partial to Fidel Castro, Matthews nevertheless spoke words that would prove prophetic and resonate throughout Latin America:

One might say Fidel Castro was like Pandora. The box was there and all the troubles were in it – and he opened the box. Latin America is moving fast, and not necessarily with us or toward us. The social and economic pressures have revolutionary possibilities. Our policies to date have not been successful. They have been too negative, too little, too closely tied to dictators and to small ruling classes who will become victims of the new social pressures if they do not move quickly and make necessary reforms. Stability and the status quo are dreams of the past. We have lost the Cuba we knew and dominated, or influenced so greatly. Our relations with Cuba will never be the same , even when they become friendly again, as they must. (Herbert L. Matthews, The Cuban Story, New York: Braziller, 1961, p. 273)

The United States is going to continue to have a difficult time dealing with Fidel Castro’s legacy, even after his passing. It is no secret that the US had actively sought to depose and even eliminate the Cuban leader in order to replace the island’s communist government with one favorable to US interests. Instead of passing judgement on Castro’s years in power as supreme leader of Cuba, I would instead like to go back in history to examine to some degree why someone like Castro came to power in the first place. I do it in the hopes of contributing to the examination of the roots of animosity and outright rebelliousness of not a few Latin American administrations towards the US government and its policies (notice that I am - purposely - not using the phrase “roots of anti-Americanism”). As author Thomas G. Paterson writes in the first chapter of his 1994 book Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, in the mid nineteen fifties:

Castro had no ties with Cuba's Communist Party – at least not at this time. His dissident organization actually distrusted the Communists because of their onetime sordid alliance with Fulgencio Batista, the very dictator the rebels intended to topple. Castro's most conspicuous model in the mid-1950's was the hero of the 1890's Cuban Revolution José Martí, not Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Mao Zedong or Josef Stalin. (pages 15-16).

So what happened? Historians have long debated whether Castro, once in power, was pushed by the Eisenhower administration into the arms of the communists, or if he had come to power with the intent of converting the island to communism all along. That debate is not as interesting as why there may have existed in Cuba (and, for that matter, elsewhere in Latin America) a widespread distrust of and even antagonism towards the United States government in the first place. In fact, I believe the debate about Fidel’s intentions was largely settled by Allen Luxenberg in his 1988 articleDid Eisenhower Push Castro into the Arms of the Soviets”, (Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 1 pages 37-72.)

(The photo of l to r Cuautémoc & Lázaro Cárdenas, Fidel Castro & his son was taken by my father, Dr. Thomas G. Mathews)

It is evident that when Castro came to power, his seemingly abrupt repudiation of the United States came as a shock to many ordinary Americans. As Louis A. Perez Jr. expressed in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba”,

North Americans viewed early developments in Cuba with a mixture of incomprehension and incredulity. Much had to do with the pace of events: everything moved so quickly, as events with portentous implications seemed to accelerate from one day to the next in vertiginous succession. There was no frame of reference with which to take measure of developments in Cuba: no precedent, no counterpart, but most of all there was no understanding of the larger historical circumstances from which the Cuban revolution had emerged. (Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 34, Part 2, May 2002, page 229)

It is precisely these historical circumstances that must be reviewed to understand why someone like Castro could emerge as a leader of a Latin American country. Cuba’s hostility toward the United States can be attributed in part to U.S. policies toward the island since 1898. That was the year of what North Americans have dubbed the Spanish American War.

(note: I am at great pains to recommend a single book as the definitive account of the “Spanish American War”, since there are many writings on the subject as well as diverse interpretations of the events; nevertheless, I am advised that David Trasks’ book is among the best one might find in a single volume).

Herein lays one of the main roots of the historic US-Cuban discord. Cubans have resented the US depiction of the war as primarily a battle between Spain and the United States. As Lars Schoultz expounds in his commentary Blessings of Liberty: The United States and the Promotion of Democracy in Cuba:

The Cuban contribution had been considerable: after three years of warfare the rebels had pinned down nearly all of the 200,000 Spanish troops on the island, and that alone explains why Cubans have always been upset by the term US citizens use for the conflict – the Spanish American War – which overlooks their role in the proceedings. (Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 34, Part 2, May 2002, page 399)

One of the great heroes of what Cubans prefer to call the Spanish-Cuban-American War was General Antonio Maceo Grajales, a black man who was popularly known as the Titan of Bronze. Described as one of the outstanding guerrilla leaders in nineteenth century Latin America, Maceo’s

...most famous campaign in the War of Cuban liberation was his invasion of western Cuba when his troops, mostly Afro-Cubans on horseback, covered more than 1,000 miles in 92 days and fought the enemy in 27 separate encounters.

Noted historian Ada Ferrer points out that the presence of blacks among Cuban revolutionaries brought anti-racism to the fore in the struggle for independence. (See also the historical references to the Mambises) The experiences of these black insurgents became fundamental to the unfolding of the new republic and held out the promise of the eventual establishment of a color-blind nation. While Spain was defeated in the war, what took place in its aftermath clearly dismayed the brave Cuban fighters. As Lars Schoultz explains,

No Cuban helped to negotiate the armistice signed by Spain and the United States in Washington in August; it required the Spanish to relinquish sovereignty over Cuba pending negotiation of a treaty of peace, which was signed in Paris in December, again without Cuban participation. It declared that Cuba ‘is, upon evacuation by Spain, to be occupied by the United States’. (page 399)

And this in the face of a US Congressional War Resolution known as the Teller Amendment that explicitly stated that the US would not annex Cuba. It is important to note that while the United States supposedly joined the war to assist the Cubans in liberating their country from the yoke of the Spanish, the tables were now turned and Cuba had actually become a war booty with the US presence emanating from the “right of conquest” instead of any invitation or formal understanding with Cuban leaders. General John R. Brooke, to who the Spanish formally turned over the Cuban capital in 1899 (and who became the first US military commander of the island) exemplified the condescending and paternalistic approach which would characterize the US occupation of the island. According to Lester D. Langley:

Having condemned Spain for its backward colonialism, Brooke... accepted the Spanish characterization of Cubans as people incapable of self-rule who required enlightened guidance. (...) In assuming power, Brooke retained much of the Spanish administrative structure, modifying it to meet the current requirements; he even kept a number of Spanish bureaucrats. (The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century, Fourth Ed., U. of Georgia Press, 1989: pages 18-19)

Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the island, the eventual successor to Brooke was already stamping his imprimatur on the American occupation by implementing a

regimen which included, among other punishments, public whippings for those who violated his civic code. (Langley, page 19)

This individual was General Leonard Wood, who would become a particularly notorious irritant to the Cubans. Leonard Wood (who would later go on to notoriety as the butcher of Muslims in the Phillipines) was one of a group of likeminded government functionaries, that included such “luminaries” as US President McKinley’s Secretaries of War, Elihu Root, and State, John Hay, that disliked the Teller Amendment and clearly favored annexing Cuba to the United States. Lars Schoultz documents the racist nature of the US occupation under Leonard Wood:

But the Cubans could not be convinced so quickly to become part of the United States, and so Governor-General Wood tried to extend the transition period. ‘We are going ahead as fast as we can,’ he wrote the president in 1900, ‘but we are dealing with a race that has steadily been going down for a hundred years into which we have got to infuse new life, new principles and new methods of doing things. This is not the work of a day or of a year, but of a longer period.’ (...) ...the president ordered Wood to accelerate the transition. The first task was to disenfranchise that part of the Cuban population which had gone furthest downhill. By decree Wood restricted suffrage to Cuban born males over the age of twenty who could meet one of three requirements: the ability to read and write, the possession of property valued at $250 or more, or military service in the insurgent forces. This eliminated two thirds of Cuba’s males over the age of twenty, and ...Elihu Root congratulated his general when he learned that ‘whites so greatly outnumbered blacks’ in the truncated electorate. (pages 400 – 401)

PART II (originally posted on March 11, 2007)

Following some brief notes about the current Cuban transition to a new leadership, we go back in time to examine the infamous Platt Amendment, which compounded the already deteriorating relations between the island and its North American occupier following the war.

(The above photo is of the Havana waterfront taken during my 1979 visit)

Speculation abounds in the press of the United States regarding the possible fate(s) of Cuba following Fidel Castro’s decision to step down due to illness. Although he appears to be making a slow but steady recovery, it is evident he will no longer be able to hold the island’s foremost leadership position. What seems to have escaped the US media in its unbound enthusiasm for a radical change in the political direction of the country is the fact, apparent to anyone who cares to analyze the situation seriously, that an orderly transition to a new leadership under the aegis of the Communist Party has already taken place.

People in the know like Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow and Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia E. Sweig (who not only has publications about Cuba but has traveled to the island some 30 times over the past 23 years, meeting with a wide spectrum of people from Fidel Castro to his regime’s political prisoners) are aware that despite not being a US style Jeffersonian democracy, Cuba:


... is a functioning country with highly opinionated citizens where locally elected officials (albeit all from one party) worry about issues such as garbage collection, public transportation, employment, education, health care, and safety. Although plagued by worsening corruption, Cuban institutions are staffed by an educated civil service, battle-tested military officers, a capable diplomatic corps, and a skilled work force. Cuban citizens are highly literate, cosmopolitan, endlessly entrepreneurial, and by global standards quite healthy.

This panorama is seldom acknowledged by the Cuban government’s (exiled) detractors, which at times seem to have an all-too-privileged access to the halls of power in the United States. People without such blinders would readily acknowledge what Sweig has concluded: that the Cuban government has garnered sufficient legitimacy over the years to undertake a smooth leadership transition:

People at all levels of the Cuban government and the Communist Party were enormously confident of the regime's ability to survive Fidel's passing. In and out of government circles, critics and supporters alike -- including in the state-run press -- readily acknowledge major problems with productivity and the delivery of goods and services. But the regime's still-viable entitlement programs and a widespread sense that Raúl is the right man to confront corruption and bring accountable governance give the current leadership more legitimacy than it could possibly derive from repression alone (the usual explanation foreigners give for the regime's staying power).

This should get some people thinking. The Cuban leadership has maintained itself defiant towards the US throughout its nearly 50 year history. If it is still in power and enjoys such a level of legitimacy as to be able to guarantee continuity of the Revolution via a smooth transition to a new leadership, maybe there is something to all the anti US government rhetoric (please notice, again, that I am using the phrase anti US government , instead of anti US). As Sweig again acknowledges:

In Cuba's national narrative, outside powers -- whether Spain in the nineteenth century or the United States in the twentieth -- have preyed on Cuba's internal division to dominate Cuban politics. Revolutionary ideology emphasizes this history of thwarted independence and imperialist meddling, from the Spanish-American War to the Bay of Pigs, to sustain a national consensus. Unity at home, the message goes, is the best defense against the only external power Cuba still regards as a threat -- the United States.

On November 5, 1900, Governor-General Leonard Wood (who, as noted in PART I, would rise to further notoriety in the Philippines) called for a constitutional convention in Cuba’s capital. However, just four months later the Cuban constitutional convention was given a set of articles which had originated as a US legislative amendment to the Army Appropriation Act of 1901, sponsored by Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut. What became known as the Platt Amendment reflected US President McKinley’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root’s and General Wood’s (both annexationists) prescriptions for future Cuban-US relations. It placed onerous restrictions on Cuban sovereignty and was immediately rejected by the constituent assembly as well as sectors of the Cuban population. Two provisions of the amendment are of particular importance:

Article III. The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba. Article VII. To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the United States the land necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States. (As reproduced in: Leo Huberman & Paul M. Sweezy, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1960: page 15)

As Lars Schoultz explains:

Once McKinley had signed the Platt Amendment into law, ...Root informed the Cubans that they were obliged to append it to their new constitution. When the constituent assembly refused by a vote of 24 to 2, he instructed Wood to tell the Cubans that the US occupation would continue indefinitely ‘if they continue to exhibit ingratitude and entire lack of appreciation of the expenditure of blood and treasure of the United States to secure their freedom from Spain’. [Elihu Root papers cited by Schoultz] With no alternative but capitulation, the constituent assembly grudgingly added the Amendment’s eight articles to their constitution; in return, Governor General Wood presided over Cuba’s first transition to Democracy, then sailed for home. Shortly before leaving he wrote to assure his new President, Theodore Roosevelt, that ‘there is, of course, little or no independence left Cuba under the Platt Amendment’. (Blessings of Liberty: The United States and the Promotion of Democracy in Cuba, Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 34, Part 2, May 2002, page 402)

Lester Langley adds some more detail to the reaction the Platt Amendment elicited from Cubans:

In Havana it precipitated widespread, but not universal, disapproval; when a Cuban group presented Wood with a formal protest, he privately characterized its members as ungrateful. The Cuban convention resolved to oppose the amendment as a violation of national sovereignty and dispatched a delegation to Washington. It arrived only to discover that McKinley had already signed the act into law. Root mollified the Cubans with a sumptuous dinner and a soothing explanation that the amendment would be interpreted narrowly and would not be exploited to impair Cuban sovereignty. Six hours of discussion ensued, during which Root reminded them that the Monroe Doctrine already gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. (Lester D. Langley. The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century, Fourth Ed., U. of Georgia Press, 1989: page 21)

Thus on June 12, 1901, the Platt Amendment was written into the Cuban Constitution by a vote of 17 to 11 (it would be further formalized two years later by a permanent treaty between both countries). Although the US military occupation of the island “officially ended” on May 20, 1902, the US used article VII of the Platt Amendment to lease (for $2,000 a year) the land for what today is the naval station at Guantanamo Bay. The US wasn’t gone for long, either. As I will discuss in future installments of this series, the US returned to occupy Cuba between 1906 and 1909, sent troops in 1917 and continued interfering in the conduct of Cuba’s internal affairs up until the July 26 Revolution (and beyond).

(The respected popular Cuban journal Bohemia has more detail on the Platt Amendment – in Spanish).

Instead of continuing on to take a look at post-occupation Cuba, I will make a brief digression, before concluding, to examine why there wasn’t a stiff and violent resistance to the US occupation once the Spanish American War ended.

Why Didn’t Cubans Resist the Occupation?

First of all, to answer the question outright, Cubans did resist the occupation but not violently as did the Philippines. As Robert Whitney asserts in a recent round-up of Cuban scholarship before 1959:

Historians ... know that despite the long and violent independence struggles, when US troops occupied their island in 1898, many Cuban political leaders readily accepted US hegemony. Many members of Cuba’s upper classes had reluctantly joined the independence movement and had always been skeptical about the ability of Cubans to be a sovereign people. (History or Teleology? Recent Scholarship on Cuba before 1959, Latin American Research Review, Volume 36, Num. 2, 2001: pg. 222)

There was also an element of fear among the upper classes that the lower classes (and especially the blacks) would become empowered and threaten their privileged position in a post-colonial Cuban society. This angle has not been fully explored in the past and is now being pursued by scholarship from such notable researchers as Ada Ferrer (who I mentioned in Part I). Commenting on her book Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898, Robert Whitney says:

Ferrer shows how in both wars for independence, the simultaneous struggle against racism and colonialism fueled an insurgent energy that threatened both Cuban Creole domination and Spanish colonial rule. This revolutionary threat from the poorest sectors of the Cuban population also alarmed US leaders, and one objective of US intervention in 1898 was to block this revolution. Ferrer reveals just how revolutionary Cuba’s independence wars were. A multiracial fighting force, integrated at all ranks, carried forward a message of racial equality, land and work for the poor and total independence for Cuba.

Just as was the case in Puerto Rico (speaking from my own common knowledge), the United States represented progress, modernity and freedom to Cuba’s Creole elites, while Spain was looked upon as backwards and decadent. What was not perceived at the time (or was ignored by some) was that the United States was entering its full imperialist phase. C. Friedrich Katz notes that:

While US economic expansion into Latin America, above all into Mexico and Cuba, had begun shortly after the Civil War, political and military expansion only began in 1898. In that year, the Spanish American War, the United States easily defeated Spain and occupied its colonies on the American continent: Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as the Philippines. (From paper entitled: US Imperial Expansion into the Caribbean and Mexico, 1898 – 1920)

(Note: For those of you more historically inclined than myself, there are some good sources which flesh out the different historical interpretations of the period and discuss the US’s emergence as an imperial power. For the time being, I’ll just recommend this one (pdf).)

I think it is important to include a note or two about the role of the Cuban exiles when discussing the lack of a fierce resistance to the US occupation. The Cuban patriot Jose Marti spent a good deal of time in exile and is probably best known for his essay Our America (rtf). Despite his strong anti-imperialist credentials, author Rodrigo Lazo notes in the introduction to his book Writing to Cuba:

In the mid-nineteenth century, Cuba's exiled writers were in many cases willing to embrace U.S. constitutional principles, if not the United States itself. They drew inspiration and political ideals from the writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams and from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In addition to the content of U.S. revolutionary documents, exiles were captivated by the relationship between text and revolution exemplified by a pamphlet such as Common Sense. Their wish to recreate el sentido común for Cuba is an example of what Michael Warner describes as the "far-reaching impact both on the continent and in the New World" of the U.S. paper war waged by men of letters in the eighteenth century

Nevertheless, he says the following about what is indeed a very complex topic:

The attitudes of Cubans toward the United States, as I show throughout this study, were neither monolithic nor static. As a culture of exile and print developed in the antebellum period, some Cubans adopted expansionist positions, while others challenged the ascendancy of the United States and its slave-based economy. Thus, while the dominant strain in writings by Cuban exiles during the antebellum period is pro-United States, heterogeneous and contradictory discourses circulated as a result of the complex relationships and political alliances prompted by U.S. expansionism and Spanish colonialism.

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