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11: The Republics of the Caribbean

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The course of events in certain of the republics in and around the Caribbean Sea warned the Hispanic nations that independence was a relative condition and that it might vary in direct ratio with nearness to the United States. After 1906 this powerful northern neighbor showed an unmistakable tendency to extend its influence in various ways. Here fiscal and police control was established; there official recognition was withheld from a President who had secured office by unconstitutional methods. Nonrecognition promised to be an effective way of maintaining a regime of law and order, as the United States understood those terms. Assurances from the United States of the full political equality of all republics, big or little, in the western hemisphere did not always carry conviction to Spanish American ears. The smaller countries in and around the Caribbean Sea, at least, seemed likely to become virtually American protectorates.

Like their Hispanic neighbor on the north, the little republics of Central America were also scenes of political disturbance. None of them except Panama escaped revolutionary uprisings, though the loss of life and property was insignificant. On the other hand, in these early years of the century the five countries north of Panama made substantial progress toward federation. As a South American writer has expressed it, their previous efforts in that direction "amid sumptuous festivals, banquets and other solemn public acts" at which they "intoned in lyric accents daily hymns for the imperishable reunion of the isthmian republics," had been as illusory as they were frequent. Despite the mediation of the United States and Mexico in 1906, while the latter was still ruled by Diaz, the struggle in which Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Salvador had been engaged was soon renewed between the first two belligerents. Since diplomatic interposition no longer availed, American marines were landed in Nicaragua, and the bumptious Zelaya was induced to have his country meet its neighbors in a conference at Washington. Under the auspices of the United States and Mexico, in December, 1907, representatives of the five republics signed a series of conventions providing for peace and cooperation. An arbitral court of justice, to be erected in Costa Rica and composed of one judge from each nation, was to decide all matters of dispute which could not be adjusted through ordinary diplomatic means. Here, also, an institute for the training of Central American teachers was to be established. Annual conferences were to discuss, and an office in Guatemala was to record, measures designed to secure uniformity in financial, commercial, industrial, sanitary, and educational regulations. Honduras, the storm center of weakness, was to be neutralized. None of the States was thereafter to recognize in any of them a government which had been set up in an illegal fashion. A "Constitutional Act of Central American Fraternity," moreover, was adopted on behalf of peace, harmony, and progress. Toward a realization of the several objects of the conference, the Presidents of the five republics were to invite their colleagues of the United States and Mexico, whenever needful, to appoint representatives, to "lend their good offices in a purely friendly way."

Though most of these agencies were promptly put into operation, the results were not altogether satisfactory. Some discords, to be sure, were removed by treaties settling boundary questions and providing for reciprocal trade advantages; but it is doubtful whether the arrangements devised at Washington would have worked at all if the United States had not kept the little countries under a certain amount of observation. What the Central Americans apparently preferred was to be left alone, some of them to mind their own business, others to mind their neighbor's affairs.

Of all the Central American countries Honduras was, perhaps, the one most afflicted with pecuniary misfortunes. In 1909 its foreign debt, along with arrears of interest unpaid for thirty-seven years, was estimated at upwards of $110,000,000. Of this amount a large part consisted of loans obtained from foreign capitalists, at more or less extortionate rates, for the construction of a short railway, of which less than half had been built. That revolutions should be rather chronic in a land where so much money could be squandered and where the temperaments of Presidents and ex-Presidents were so bellicose, was natural enough. When the United States could not induce the warring rivals to abide by fair elections, it sent a force of marines to overawe them and gave warning that further disturbances would not be allowed.

In Nicaragua the conditions were similar. Here Zelaya, restive under the limitations set by the conference at Washington, yearned to become the "strong man" of Central America, who would teach the Yankees to stop their meddling. But his downfall was imminent. In 1909, as the result of his execution of two American soldiers of fortune who had taken part in a recent insurrection, the United States resolved to tolerate Zelaya no longer. Openly recognizing the insurgents, it forced the dictator out of the country. Three years later, when a President-elect started to assume office before the legally appointed time, a force of American marines at the capital convinced him that such a procedure was undesirable. The "corrupt and barbarous" conditions prevailing in Zelaya's time, he was informed, could not be tolerated. The United States, in fact, notified all parties in Nicaragua that, under the terms of the Washington conventions, it had a "moral mandate to exert its influence for the preservation of the general peace of Central America." Since those agreements had vested no one with authority to enforce them, such an interpretation of their language, aimed apparently at all disturbances, foreign as well as domestic, was rather elastic! At all events, after 1912, when a new constitution was adopted, the country became relatively quiet and somewhat progressive. Whenever a political flurry did take place, American marines were employed to preserve the peace. Many citizens, therefore, declined to vote, on the ground that the moral and material support thus furnished by the great nation to the northward rendered it futile for them to assume political responsibilities.

Meanwhile negotiations began which were ultimately to make Nicaragua a fiscal protectorate of the United States. American officials were chosen to act as financial advisers and collectors of customs, and favorable arrangements were concluded with American bankers regarding the monetary situation; but it was not until 1916 that a treaty covering this situation was ratified. According to its provisions, in return for a stipulated sum to be expended under American direction, Nicaragua was to grant to the United States the exclusive privilege of constructing a canal through the territory of the republic and to lease to it the Corn Islands and a part of Fonseca Bay, on the Pacific coast, for use as naval stations. The prospect of American intervention alarmed the neighboring republics. Asserting that the treaty infringed upon their respective boundaries, Costa Rica, and Salvador brought suit against Nicaragua before the Central American Court. With the exception of the Nicaraguan representative, the judges upheld the contention of the plaintiffs that the defendant had no right to make any such concessions without previous consultation with Costa Rica, Salvador, and Honduras, since all three alike were affected by them. The Court observed, however, that it could not declare the treaty void because the United States, one of the parties concerned, was not subject to its jurisdiction. Nicaragua declined to accept the decision; and the United States, the country responsible for the existence of the Court and presumably interested in helping to enforce its judgment, allowed it to go out of existence in 1918 on the expiration of its ten-year term.

The economic situation of Costa Rica brought about a state of affairs wholly unusual in Central American politics. The President, Alfredo González, wished to reform the system of taxation so that a fairer share of the public burdens should fall on the great landholders who, like most of their brethren in the Hispanic countries, were practically exempt. This project, coupled with the fact that certain American citizens seeking an oil concession had undermined the power of the President by wholesale bribery, induced the Minister of War, in 1917, to start a revolt against him. Rather than shed the blood of his fellow citizens for mere personal advantages, González sustained the good reputation of Costa Rica for freedom from civil commotions by quietly leaving the country and going to the United States to present his case. In consequence, the American Government declined to recognize the de facto ruler.

Police and fiscal supervision by the United States has characterized the recent history of Panama. Not only has a proposed increase in the customs duties been disallowed, but more than once the unrest attending presidential elections has required the calming presence of American officials. As a means of forestalling outbreaks, particularly in view of the cosmopolitan population resident on the Isthmus, the republic enacted a law in 1914 which forbade foreigners to mix in local politics and authorized the expulsion of naturalized citizens who attacked the Government through the press or otherwise. With the approval of the United States, Panama entered into an agreement with American financiers providing for the creation of a national bank, one-fourth of the directors of which should be named by the Government of the republic.

The second period of American rule in Cuba lasted till 1909. Control of the Government was then formally transferred to José Miguel Gómez, the President who had been chosen by the Liberals at the elections held in the previous year; but the United States did not cease to watch over its chief Caribbean ward. A bitter controversy soon developed in the Cuban Congress over measures to forbid the further purchase of land by aliens, and to insure that a certain percentage of the public offices should be held by colored citizens. Though both projects were defeated, they revealed a strong antiforeign sentiment and much dissatisfaction on the part of the negro population. It was clear also that Gómez, intended to oust all conservatives from office, for an obedient Congress passed a bill suspending the civil service rules.

The partisanship of Gómez, and his supporters, together with the constant interference of military veterans in political affairs, provoked numerous outbreaks, which led the United States, in 1912, to warn Cuba that it might again be compelled to intervene. Eventually, when a negro insurrection in the eastern part of the island menaced the safety of foreigners, American marines were landed. Another instance of intervention was the objection by the United States to an employers' liability law that would have given a monopoly of the insurance business to a Cuban company to the detriment of American firms.

After the election of Mario Menocal, the Conservative candidate, to the presidency in 1912, another occasion for intervention presented itself. An amnesty bill, originally drafted for the purpose of freeing the colored insurgents and other offenders, was amended so as to empower the retiring President to grant pardon before trial to persons whom his successor wished to prosecute for wholesale corruption in financial transactions. Before the bill passed, however, notice was sent from Washington that, since the American Government had the authority to supervise the finances of the republic, Gómez would better veto the bill, and this he accordingly did.

A sharp struggle arose when it became known that Menocal would be a candidate for reelection. The Liberal majority in the Congress passed a bill requiring that a President who sought to succeed himself should resign two months before the elections. When Menocal vetoed this measure, his opponents demanded that the United States supervise the elections. As the result of the elections was doubtful, Gómez and his followers resorted in 1917 to the usual insurrection; whereupon the American Government warned the rebels that it would not recognize their claims if they won by force. Active aid from that quarter, as well as the capture of the insurgent leader, caused the movement to collapse after the electoral college had decided in favor of Menocal.

In the Dominican Republic disturbances were frequent, notwithstanding the fact that American officials were in charge of the customhouses and by their presence were expected to exert a quieting influence. Even the adoption, in 1908, of a new constitution which provided for the prolongation of the presidential term to six years and for the abolition of the office of Vice President—two stabilizing devices quite common in Hispanic countries where personal ambition is prone to be a source of political trouble—did not help much to restore order. The assassination of the President and the persistence of age-long quarrels with Haiti over boundaries made matters worse. Thereupon, in 1913, the United States served formal notice on the rebellious parties that it would not only refuse to recognize any Government set up by force but would withhold any share in the receipts from the customs. As this procedure did not prevent a revolutionary leader from demanding half a million dollars as a financial sedative for his political nerves and from creating more trouble when the President failed to dispense it, the heavy hand of an American naval force administered another kind of specific, until commissioners from Porto Rico could arrive to superintend the selection of a new chief magistrate. Notwithstanding the protest of the Dominican Government, the "fairest and freest" elections ever known in the country were held under the direction of those officials—as a "body of friendly observers"!

However amicable this arrangement seemed, it did not smother the flames of discord. In 1916, when an American naval commander suggested that a rebellious Minister of War leave the capital, he agreed to do so if the "fairest and freest" of chosen Presidents would resign. Even after both of them had complied with the suggestions, the individuals who assumed their respective offices were soon at loggerheads. Accordingly the United States placed the republic under military rule, until a President could be elected who might be able to retain his post without too much "friendly observation" from Washington, and a Minister of War could be appointed who would refrain from making war on the President! Then the organization of a new party to combat the previous inordinate display of personalities in politics created some hope that the republic would accomplish its own redemption.

Only because of its relation to the wars of emancipation and to the Dominican Republic, need the negro state of Haiti, occupying the western part of the Caribbean island, be mentioned in connection with the story of the Hispanic nations. Suffice it to say that the fact that their color was different and that they spoke a variant of French instead of Spanish did not prevent the inhabitants of this state from offering a far worse spectacle of political and financial demoralization than did their neighbors to the eastward. Perpetual commotions and repeated interventions by American and European naval forces on behalf of the foreign residents, eventually made it imperative for the United States to take direct charge of the republic. In 1916, by a convention which placed the finances under American control, created a native constabulary under American officers, and imposed a number of other restraints, the United States converted Haiti into what is practically a protectorate.

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