America has invaded Cuba more often than Iraq?

A Brief History of Cuba Before the Castros

With both President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba — a baseball game and promises to improve ties between the countries last year — and Fidel Castro’s death, Cuba has a new face to the world. Yet, as Americans, we almost always view Cuba as a missile launching pad in reference to our wider “twilight struggle” with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Not so for the Cubans — the United States has a long history of involvement in Cuba, and not always on the side of the majority of the Cuban people.


While Communism has impoverished the island relative to other areas of the Americas, it was once not so. Havana was the capital city of Spain’s empire in the Americas. As late as the 1950s, Havana was the fourth most expensive city to live in in the world and had more movie theaters than New York City.

For its turbulent political history, Cuban political culture flows along three themes:

  • Nationalist/Independence
  • Annexationist/Pro-American
  • Reformist/Pro-Spanish (sometimes)

To discover the Cuba before the Castros, we’ll look at four periods of Cuban history:

  • Discovery, Colonization, Disputation — 1492 thru 1762
  • The Struggle for Separation — 1795–1895
  • The American Occupations — 1895–1934
  • The Road to Castro — 1934–1959

Discovery, Colonization, Disputation — 1492 thru 1762

Cuba came into Western knowledge in 1492, when it was a destination of Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World (at the time, Columbus thought Cuba was Japan or a peninsula of Asia). In 1494 Columbus returned to Cuba and landed at Guantanamo Bay. In 1511, after completing their conquest of the island of Hispaniola (today the countries of Dominican Republic and Haiti), the Spanish invaded Cuba.

Here the first theme of Cuban political culture — nationalism/independence — manifested itself at the beginning. The Taino Cacique, Hatuey, himself a refugee from Hispaniola, led a Taino resistance across the island. Yet, after 3 years, the Spanish superior fire-power overcame the natives. In 1514, the conquest was complete, Hatuey was burned alive, and the Spanish founded a new capital for their American empire — Havana.

Hatuey monument in Cuba
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hatuey_monument,_Baracoa,_Cuba.JPG

By 1550, the Spanish made widespread use of Cuban cigars and sugar and tobacco were the two main products of the colony. At the same time, Havana was the departure point for the gold fleets laden with the spoils of Mexico for Spain. So Havana was a prime target for Spain’s international enemies. In 1628, a Dutch fleet sailed into Havana’s harbor and plundered a gold fleet. In 1662, the English temporarily occupied eastern Cuba.

Here the second theme of Cuban political culture emerges into the narrative — annexationism. The English/British would be back many times. During the hilariously named War of Jenkin’s Ear (1741–1748), the British landed at Guantanamo Bay, occupied part of the island, and fought naval battles against Spain around the island. During the Great War for Empire (1754–1762, aka “The French & Indian War”), Spain sided with France against Britain. In response, the British attacked Cuba and completely conquered the island in 1762. In general, the Cuban population supported the new British regime — slaves and lower classes aspired to the greater freedom of British rule and the planter elite and traders saw economic profit from joining the British mercantile system.

But who didn’t like Cuba as a British colony? That’s right! British sugar & tobacco merchants (some from America) who did not want the competition. Due to the political influence of the merchants, at the peace conference ending the Great War for Empire, Britain traded Cuba (which it had captured during the war from Spain) back to Spain in exchange for Florida becoming a British colony. That decision changed history — unlike Canada and Louisiana, which became full participants in Anglophone political culture and geopolitics — Cuba remained Latin American.


The Struggle for Separation — 1795–1895

As Cuba approached 1800, it was a frustrated country. The annexationists were foiled in their desires to join the British Empire, the nationalists were as far from independence as ever, but even those Cubans who wished to maintain ties to Spain insisted on the need for reforms. Conflict was inevitable.

Cubans themselves were divided by race and class and politically three themes permeated their culture. 1) Nationalism, which sought to solve Cuba’s problems through independence and self-government, 2) Annexationism, which saw union with Britain or the United States as the solution, and 3) Reformism, which sought to moderate change and improve Cuba within the larger Spanish Empire. Outside of Cuban control, their future was also directed by the geopolitical machinations of three powers: Spain, Britain, and the new United States.

Reformism took active political form first in 1795, with an abolitionist revolt on the island that ended unsuccessfully. On the other hand in 1809–1810, the creole aristocracy on the island staged a conservative revolution. They declared independence from Spain in order to preserve what they cared for the most in Spanish rule — Napoleon’s conquest of Spain and installation of brother Joseph as King of Spain threatened to spread liberty, equality, and fraternity to Cuba. The independence movement ended after Joseph Bonaparte was expelled from Spain during the Peninsular War and Ferdinand VII regained the Spanish crown.

Ferdinand VII’s capricious colonial rule made political life difficult for the reformists and pushed the middle class toward annexation from the US and the peasants toward independence. This dissatisfaction culminated in the 1836 independence revolt crushed through brutality. With independence demonstrably impossible, more and more Cubans turned toward the United States as a potential savior from Spanish tyranny. Paradoxically, different factions of these Cubans favored US annexation for two contradictory reasons — A) the aristocracy believed US annexation would preserve the institution of slavery, while B) the merchants and peasants sought US annexation in order to bring American political and economic freedom to their island.

American policymakers desperately wanted Cuba — part of the USA geopolitical rivalry with Great Britain in the 19th Century. In their view, Cuba should be American, but until that could happen, it was preferable for American interests that Cuba remain a dissatisfied Spanish colony rather than becoming part of the British Empire.

  • In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson sent secret agents to Cuba to negotiate with Cuban subversives favoring annexation.
  • In 1823, Secretary of State (and future President) John Quincy Adams articulated his “Ripe Fruit Theory” — Cuba would certainly become American, it was simply a matter of timing and patience.
  • In 1823, President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine — declaring US opposition to any expansion of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere (directed against any British attempt to annex Cuba before the Americans).
  • “Filibusters” — American adventurers who sought to attack and annex territory to the US (similar to the Texas and California Revolutions), invaded Cuba in 1848, 1849, 1850, and 1851 — unsuccessful four years in a row.
  • In 1881, Secretary of State James G. Blaine announced to the world the strategic and economic “necessity” that Cuba become part of the United States “within a generation.”
U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine By Mathew Brady — Public Domain in United States

During the 1860s and 1870s, Cubans fought two rebellions against Spain which were unsuccessful due to lack of American assistance. But American businesses began investing and reformists in Cuba finally succeeded in abolishing slavery on the island in 1886. By 1895, Cuba was politically Spanish, but economically American. Its economy depended on American investment and Cubans sold agricultural products to the US and purchased American consumer goods.


The American Occupations — 1895–1934

1895 marked the turning point in Cuban history — although not between colonialism and independence. Instead, after 1895 the United States refused to allow the continuation of Spanish influence over the island — instead intervening directly in the island’s foreign and domestic affairs. These actions offended those Cubans who wanted independence, while the results failed to satisfy those Cubans who had wished for American annexation. The failures of American policy toward Cuba, 1895–1956, led directly to the rise of Fidel Castro and his Cuban Communism that aligned with the Soviet Union.

By 1895, those Cubans who wished for independence for their island realized they were running out of time before an inevitable American invasion of Cuba. Jose Marti, a Cuban exile who founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892, returned to Cuba to lead a rebellion with covert British support. Spain responded brutally and from 1895–1898 the Cuban Revolution raged, with atrocities on both sides. By 1898 the conflict was so bad that US President William McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana to intimidate both sides into respecting US citizens and American economic investments.

When the Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana harbor, the East Coast daily newspapers (in the classic example of “yellow journalism”) cited the event as a Spanish plot. War fever swept the country — in the popular mind, America had tried to stay neutral even as Spain mercilessly killed Cubans fighting for their freedom. Now, Spain had attacked America, and America would have vengeance.

On April 19, 1898, the US Congress passed a joint resolution instructing President McKinley to send the US Army to Cuba. On April 21, 1898, the US Congress officially declared war on Spain. However, the popular fury aroused by the Maine incident undid the careful plans of America’s foreign policy elite. A group of congressmen insisted upon the addition of a clause to the war resolutions. This “Teller Amendment” required the American war goal to be a “free and independent Cuba.”

So, America won the war. Theodore Roosevelt became a national hero after leading his “Rough Riders” on a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba and later became Vice President and then President. Roosevelt’s military successes in Cuba left the island under complete American control by the war’s conclusion in December 1898.

Col. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba, Image Public Domain in United States

The United States annexed Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, and the Phillipine Islands, but could not annex Cuba because of the Teller Amendment. However, rather than honoring the spirit of the Teller Amendment and turning over Cuba to Marti’s independence revolutionaries, the US Army continued to occupy the island. In 1901, the US gave the island its “independence,” but simultaneously passed the “Platt Amendment.” The Platt Amendment contained five limitations on Cuban sovereignty reserved to the United States.

Thus, Cuba under the Platt Amendment received none of the benefits of American annexation while simultaneously none of the benefits of independence. America’s Platt Amendment policy only served the US Navy and the short-term economic interests of powerful special interest groups in the United States. The hypocritical Platt policy began the dramatic turn in Cuban political consciousness, where Cubans began to see America as a colonial power almost as odious as Spain.

US government policy was muddled between pro-annexation and pro-Cuban independence positions. Ultimately, the US government made Cuba into a client state, failing to grant it true independence while also missing most of the benefits of annexation for the Cuban people.

The result was hostility toward America among most Cubans.

Here are the details of the Platt Amendment passed by the US Congress in 1901:

  1. No foreign presence or control of any part of Cuba (on Cuban foreign policy)
  2. No Cuban national debt without sufficient taxation to guarantee interest payments
  3. US military could intervene on the island to defend American military or economic interests
  4. The Isle of Pines was not part of Cuba
  5. Cuba must give naval base to the US Navy (today this is the base at Guantanamo Bay)

Cuba was forced to accept the Platt Amendment and add it as an appendix to its constitution.

The US re-invaded Cuba two more times in order to pressure or reconstitute the Cuban government (1906–1909 and 1912). In an improvement of relations, the US returned the Isle of Pines to Cuba in 1925. While America was occupied with the Great Depression, Cuban nationalists were able to stage the Revolution of 1933. The new democratic government abrogated the Platt Amendment, but compromised with the United States in a 1934 deal that gave the USA a perpetual lease on Guantanamo Bay.


The Road to Castro — 1934–1959

Despite the official end of Platt, the US maintained tremendous economic influence on the island. The pro-American Fulgenico Batista was elected in free and fair elections in 1940. Batista stepped down at the end of his term, and free and fair elections were held again in 1944 and 1948. Weeks before the 1952 elections, Batista led a coup that delayed the elections to 1953, which Batista then won.

Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, Image public domain US & Cuba

In the 1950s, Havana as a city and Cuba as a country were economically prosperous. Cuba’s 1950 GDP was larger than Japan’s and Cuban workers received benefits still considered good in America today — 8 hour work day, 4 weeks paid time off, 9 days of sick time off, and 6 weeks maternity leave. Havana had more movie theaters than New York City and Cuba had the most personal telephones of any country in Latin America.

However, Cubans were dissatisfied. Popular opinion saw Americans making money off the Cuban economy as exploitation. Nationalist feelings (strengthened by three American invasions and occupations since 1898) held that Cuba had merely traded Spanish colonialism for American colonialism. One popular leader mobilized this dissatisfaction and promised Cuba respect and self-sufficiency. And that’s how Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.


Portions of this article originally appeared in 2016 at The Daily Dose.