History of Cuba 3 – US intervention and the Platt Amendment


by Greg Scott

* On 23 June 1783, the second US president, John Adams, expressed what was to be the US’s attitude towards Cuba until the end of the 19th century. He said the island was a natural extension of the North American continent, and that the continuation of the United States made its annexation necessary. The best way to achieve that, he reckoned, was to let Cuba to remain under Spanish rule until it could be seized directly, because independence could never to be allowed.

* In 1823, President Monroe declared that interference by any European power in the newly emerging Latin American republics would be considered an unfriendly act against the US itself and therefore it had the right to ‘protect’ the region. This became known as the Monroe doctrine.

* An aggressive expansionism was swiftly added to the defensive paternalism and two precepts formulated to justify it: the ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘theory of the ripe fruit’. The US believed it had a special mission: to carry its particular form of economic, social and political organisation westwards within North America and later throughout the Western Hemisphere. Westward expansion was completed by the end of the 19th century: the indigenous population was decimated, and neighbouring Mexico lost nearly half its territory (the states of Texas, New Mexico and California).

* Cuba became the next target. John Quincy Adams, secretary of state in Monroe’s administration and his successor as president, wrote: ‘… if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only to the North American union, which by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.’

* By the 1880s, US capital was heavily involved in the Cuban economy, particularly the sugar industry, as part of the turning by the imperialist powers of all the Caribbean Islands into sugar-based economies. In 1895, an American financier wrote: ‘It makes the water come to my mouth when I think of the State of Cuba as one in our family.’ The US even offered to buy Cuba for $100m, but Spain refused..

* There was a tense build-up to direct military intervention in Cuba’s independence war against Spain. In 1895, the Committee of Cuban Exiles in the US was established, which supplied the US newspaper barons with stories of the liberation war, with a view to winning support for their cause. The revolutionary origins of the US were still alive in popular memory and many ordinary US citizens were sympathetic to Cuba. However the Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí said that, though fighting Spain, he also sought ‘to prevent the United States, with the independence of Cuba, extending itself through the West Indies and falling with added weight upon our lands of America’.

* Throughout 1897-98, atrocity stories about the independence war were reported, exagerated and even fabricated. In the film Citizen Kane the eponymous protagonist is based on real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and is portrayed as printing the headline `Galleons of Spain off the Jersey coast!’. While the guardian of the still-young Kane is questioning the truthfulness of that claim, a telegram arrives from his reporter in Cuba, who says he can only send some prose poems about the scenery because there is no war in Cuba. Kane sends the reply ‘…you provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.’ Hearst and Pulitzer competed in producing the most sensational stories of the war. Another historian, H. Wayne Morgan, says of this time: ‘Vivid language, striking sketches drawn by men who never left New York, lurid details composed in bars and cafes mingled with the truth about Cuba until the whole fabric dazzled millions into stunned belief. Reporters rescued damsels in distress and upheld the US flag in filibustering expeditions. Artists furnished pictures from the palm-fringed isle and toured incognito in the devastated cane fields and sickened cities… An elaborate system of spies and rumour-mongers spread lies.’ (H. Wayne Morgan, America’s road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion, 1965, p. 13)

* On 24 December 1897, US Under-Secretary of War J.C. Breckenridge wrote in a memorandum ‘This [the Cuban] population is made up of whites, blacks, Asians and people who are mixture of these races. The inhabitants are generally indolent and apathetic – Since they only possess a vague notion of what is right and wrong, the people tend to seek pleasure not through work, but through violence – It is obvious that the immediate annexation of these disturbing elements into our own federation in such large numbers would be madness, so before we do that we must clean up the country – We must destroy everything within our cannons’ range of fire. We must impose a harsh blockade so that hunger and its constant companion, disease, undermine the peaceful population and decimate the army. The allied army must be constantly engaged in reconaissance and vanguard actions so that the Cuban army is irreparably caught between two fronts.’

* He went on to explain the plan for the military occupation of Cuba and the temporary maintenance by force of the new independent government of a minority of the autonomists and Spaniards who remained, until it was strong enough to maintain itself against the separatists. He continues: ‘When this moment arrives, we must create conflicts for the independent government. That goverment will be faced with these difficulties – These difficulties must coincide with the unrest and violence among the aforementioned elements, to whom we must give our backing – To sum up, our policy must always be to support the weaker against the stronger, until we have obtained the extermination of them both, in order to annex the Pearl of the Antilles.’

* In early 1898, the battleship USS Maine arrived at Cuba on a so-called ‘courtesy visit’. Early February, Hearst’s New York Journal published a private letter by the Spanish ambassador in Washington which insulted US President McKinley. At 10a.m. 15 February, the Maine exploded and 260 of the crew were killed. Hearst’s paper coined the slogan `Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain’. He offered $50,000 reward for the detection of the perpetrators, and doubled his sales in less than a week, with over eight pages on the incident each day. Pulitzer sent divers to the scene of the wreck, and the circulation of his paper rose hugely too. One of the photographs published, which it was claimed showed the hole made in the hull by a Spanish torpedo, was actually of an eclipse of the sun. Incidentally, while the 100th anniversary of cinema is being celebrated, one of its earliest uses was in showing many propagandist and fake documentary short films about the war in Cuba, which successfully rallied US public support. Over 80 years later, US Admiral G.H. Rickover admitted that the Spanish had not blown up the Maine, and actually US ‘specialists’ had set the explosives on board. The majority of the 260 US crew killed were black, the white officers having been ashore at the time.

* On 11 April 1898, McKinley requested authorisation from the US Congress and Senate to intervene. Several days later declared war.

* The US had never recognised the Cuban people’s struggle for independence or their liberation army as a legitimate force. Just a few hours after declaring war on Spain, McKinley said he would not recognise the Republic of Cuba as declared by the revolutionary Government in Arms. He only wanted to drive Spain out and gain sole influence for the US.

* In just eight months, Cuba saw US military intervention, the defeat of Spain, actions by the US forces against the Cuban independence army and the imposition of a transitional government – a US military governorship.

* On 10 December, the Treaty of Paris was signed. The US treated Cuba as a conquered country and got Spain to hand over of the island to their military occupation. Cuban representatives were excluded from the proceedings.

* The Cuban people bitterly opposed annexation. General Máximo Gómez, one of the founders of Cuban independence, wrote in his campaign diary: ‘The Americans’ military occupation is too high a price to pay for their spontaneous intervention in the war we waged against Spain for freedom and independence. The American government’s attitude toward the heroic Cuban people at this history making time is, in my opinion, one of big business. This situation is dangerous for the country, mortifying the public spirit and hindering organisation in all the branches that, from the outset, should provide solid foundations for the future republic, when everything was entirely the work of all the inhabitants of the island, without distinction of nationality…Cuba cannot have true moral peace…under the transitional government. This transitional government was imposed by force by a foreign power and, therefore, is illegitimate and incompatible with the principles that the entire country has been upholding for so long and inthe defence of which its sons have given their lives and all of its wealth has been consumed. The situation that has been created for this people – one of material poverty and of grief because their sovereignty has been curbed – is ever more distressing. It is possible that, by the time this strange situation ends, the Americans will have snuffed out even the last sparks of goodwill.’

* The Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, wondered at the time what José Martí ‘would say today in seeing that under the cover of aid to the grief-stricken pearl of the West Indies, the “monster” gobbles it up, oyster and all.’

* In preventing Cuban independence, the US had the support of those Cubans who had strong commercial ties to their powerful neighbour, such as the sugar magnates. This meant that the US could change its straightforward annexationist plan to one of being seen to accept the desire for independence.

* On 25 July 1900, the Constitutional Convention of Cuban representatives started its deliberations. It was to implement the US Joint Resolution by drafting a new Constitution and agree stipulations concerning US-Cuban relations.

* On 2 March 1901, the US congress attached an amendment to the Cuban Constitution authorising the US to leave government of the island in the hands of the Cuban people – but only after a government had been established there under a constitution in which the future relations with the US were to be ridgedly defined. This became known as the Platt Amendment, after Senator Orville Platt, who presented it. Under this amendment, the US limited the country’s sovereignty and turned it into a neocolony. It legalised US military intervention. It assumed the right to seize part of Cuba’s territory by leaving ownership of the Isle of Pines (the second largest largest island in the Cuban archipelago) to be adjusted by future treaty. It limited Cuba’s rights to enter into treaties with other countries. Finally, it forced the country to sell or lease a part of its territory for the establishment of naval stations.

* Coercion and fraud were used to establish US military bases in Cuba – factors that, under international law, make any agreement null and void. The Cuban Convention was warned not to modify the Amendment and told the US troops would not leave Cuba until its terms had been adopted. So there could be no possible misunderstanding, he finished his warning by saying that, if the Amendment were not accepted, there would be no Republic of Cuba. Cuban patriot Juan Gualberto Gomez said: ‘The Amendment was like giving it the key to our house so it could come and go at all hours.’

* In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became US President. He had been Assistant Secretary for the Navy under President McKinley and one of the strongest advocates of military intervention in Cuba. The war had made his political career. He made an addition to the Monroe doctrine, known as the Roosevelt Corollary: ‘Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force it, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.’

* Invasions, threats and treaties made at gunpoint characterised Roosevelt’s term as president. On 24 March 1902, he met with Tomás Estrada Palma, President of Cuba. He told him which places had been chosen for the establishment of naval or coaling stations, as stipulated in Clause VII of the Platt Amendment: Cienfuegos and Guantánamo on the southern coast, and Nipe and Honda Bays on the northern coast. The US occupation of the island as a whole officially ended.

* In July 1903, the Permanent Treaty was signed, which involved the unlimited lease to the US of the territory of Honda and Guantánamo Bays. The neocolonial Cuban government requested that the event be low-key because the Cuban people were protesting against the lease, and it sent only one representative. At noon on that day, the Cuban flag was lowered, and the US flag raised to sound of a 21-gun salute. Then 600 US Marines landed.

* The US-backed independence movement of Panama had just won its separation from Colombia. The US planned to construct a canal through to the Pacific Ocean there as a boost to its trade and military activies. Roosevelt described Guantánamo as the ‘absolute necessary strategic base’ for controlling the Caribbean and the route to the Panama Canal’.

* Cuba emerged as the model for US imperialism. American economic and political domination had been secured without the seizure of a colony. The US could continue to boast its anti-colonial tradition and beliefs despite having made Cuba a dependency. It was at this time that the term ‘sphere of influence’ became an international euphemism for neo-colonialism.

* However, the US regularly intervened, occupying Cuba again in 1906 and 1909. In 1912, US troops occupied the east of the island in order to crush an armed uprising against the government even though it had not asked for help. The US then took the opportunity to impose an extension of its territory at Guantánamo in exchange for giving up Honda Bay. That same year, US President William Howard Taft said: ‘The day is not far distant when three Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory; one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal, and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally.’

* Taft’s policies were followed with even more vigour by his successor, Woodrow Wilson. The US was seriously challenging British imperialism within the hemisphere. In 1914, the US held 17% of all investments in Latin America; by 1929 it held 40%, with most of in Mexico and Cuba.

* The US Marines occupied Cuba again for the whole of the period from 1917 to 1923 when the Russian Revolution inspired a revolutionary upturn. They put down strikes and protected US property. A US governor virtually managed the finances of the Cuban government and representatives of US sugar interests were leading political figures. They enforced policies which suited US economic interests at the expense of Cuban national development.

* Between 1925 and 1933, US interests in Cuba were looked after by the dictator Gerado Machado, who was nicknamed ‘the Butcher’. By the 1930s, with the worldwide depression, increasing social unrest and fear of revolution convinced the US that he was more of a liability than an asset.

* In March 1933, US President Roosevelt proposed what he called the ‘Good Neighbour Policy’, and said he was opposed to armed intervention in Latin America. A special ambassador, Sumner Welles, was sent to Cuba charged with preventing a left-wing government replacing Machado. However, the US never abandoned the threat of the use of force and, in September 1933, over 20 US warships visited the Bay of Havana and other points along the Cuban coast. The US eventually put its trust in Fulgencio Batista.. .After his successful installation as dictator, the Treaty of Reciprocity was signed in Washington. It repealed the Platt Amendment and the Permanent Treaty, but maintained the Guantánamo naval base. A new sugar agreement was made which, which reinforced Cuban dependence on the US. Batista formed an alliance with the reactionary pro-US elite in Cuba and was rewarded with a 25 year period in power, which was notorious for its corruption and repression.

* General Smedley D. Butler, participant in many of theUS interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean during the early 20th century wrote in his memoirs in 1935: ‘I spent 33 years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force – the Marine Corps. I served in all commisioned ranks from second lieutenant to major-general. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism… thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in… I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras `right’ for American fruit companies in 1903.’

* Throughout 1898 to 1959, US servicemen constantly harassed the Cuban population and went on rampages through towns. The neocolonial Cuban government usually displayed a thoroughly servile tolerance of whatever abuses were committed. Cuban laws were not applicable to US forces personnel even when they were on supposedly Cuban territory!

* During the revolutionary war 1952-59, the Batista regime at first had the complicity, then recognition, and finally support of the US. The Guantánamo base served as a fuel and ammunition supplier to the dictator’s planes that indiscriminately bombed rural areas and defencless towns. Photographs taken of planes on the base landing strips were published worldwide.

* The revolution triumphed in 1959, and the US tried to destroy it by military intervention in 1961, using an unofficial, mercenary, CIA-backed force of mainly exiled Cuban reactionaries. It was an embarrasing fiasco for the US, with the invaders defeated in just 72 hours. So it turned to the tactic of economic blockade. History shows, however, that it will use direct military action any time it considers it a feasible way of achieving its aims. It still has its naval base at Guantánamo, from where it has launched many invasions of other countries in the region, most recently Haiti, Panama and Grenada.

* Also, since 1959, Cuban workers and soldiers have been regularly killed in and around Guantánamo, and by the continued actions by the reactionary Florida-based exiles. There has recently been a rumour that the US has plans to invade Colombia. If successful invasion of Cuba appears possible, it will surely be attempted. However, we can also be sure that the Cuban people will defend their country to the best of their ability, and we can aid them by giving as much practical and political support as we can.

History of Cuba 3 – US intervention and the Platt Amendment