Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of: http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=695


United States and Cuba, 1903-59

    Even when granted its independence in 1903, Cuba was not an independent nation. The Platt Amendment prohibited that fir the US could intervene at will. Further, the US had tremendous economic power in Cuba. The 1903 reciprocity trade treaty with United States was favorable to the latter. Cuba producing about one million tons of sugar a year by 1904. Cuba did get the US to lease not buy naval stations and the number of stations reduced from 4 to 2. The US relinquished its claim to the Isle of Pines. Foreign capital flowed into Cuba, more European than American. US stake was $50 million in 1895 and rose to $200 million in 1906.
    Within two years, the US was deeply involved in Cuban domestic politics. In the election of December, 1905,  General Tomás Estrada Palma used the government machinery to squash the opposition, the National Liberals. The Liberals boycotted Congress and the election. There were post-election revolts which were suppressed. In August, 1906, there was a massive revolt in Pinar del Rio. The Liberals appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene but he refused. He finally sent Secretary of War William Howard Taft. He arrived on September 19, 1906 and found the government at bay. After he conducted a series of interviews, he decided that the Liberals had won the majority of votes. He proposed that all the elections be nullified except those of the President and Vice President and that new ones be held. Estrada Palma said no and he and the Vice President resigned. His party then boycotted Congress.
    Taft ordered 2,000 US Marines into Cuba, followed by 5,600 Army soldiers. With this military force backing him, he declared himself Acting Governor until President Roosevelt could send Charles E. Magoon, a Republican lawyer from Nebraska, to take over.
    Magoon inherited $13 million surplus but left the treasury with $3 million. Where had the money gone? Some Cubans and even some Americans said Magoon and his friends stole it. That did not happen. The Cuban Congress had made appropriations before Magoon arrived and Magoon’s government simply carried put Cuban wishes. The 1906 revolt cost money as well. A hurricane and a yellow fever epidemic also cost. The 1907 financial panic was costly.
    In 1909, the United States turned the government over to Jose Miguel Gomez, the National Liberal leader. Taft, who had become President of the United States in 1909, intervened in Cuba through Secretary of State Philander Chase Knox. In January, 1911, for example, Knox put pressure on English bankers not to loan money to Cuba for port dredging; he wanted US bankers to have the business. They complied because it was clear that Cuba was an American colony. If one doubted that fact, he or she only had to watch the US send troops for "training" over the protests of Gomez when there was a revolt of Afro-Cubans in 1912.
    In 1916, General Mario García Menocal (Conservative Republicans) stole the presidential election from Alfredo Zayas (National Liberal) in Oriente and Santa Clara provinces by padding the electoral rolls and by violence. The US ordered that new elections be held, saying it would not tolerate revolt. When the US declared war on Germany in April, 1917, it sent troops into Oriente and Camagüey provinces where they would stay for years.
    The sugar treaty set the price the US would pay at 4.6¢ per pound, which was below the market price of 6¢. US and British refiners had gotten their government to negotiate this lower price. On the other hand, they bought the entire export crop. I 1918-1919, Cuba produced 4 million tons of sugar and sugar constituted 89% of all exports.
    In the 1920 elections, García Menocal cheated. Major General Enoch Crowder returned to Cuba and became the hidden power. He forced new elections in many districts. Zayas won because the Liberals boycotted the election. Crowder picked the 1922 Cabinet. He made many other decisions and improved the government. As a result, Cuba was able to get a $50 million loan from the J. P. Morgan banking interests. In 1923, Crowder was named Ambassador to Cuba but Zayas saw himself as strong enough to dismiss the Crowder Cabinet and appoint his own, thus being able to reward his friends.
    The US government continued to be concerned with Cuba. By 1925, US interests controlled over one-half of the sugar produced in Cuba. By 1924, US investment was $1.24 billion.
    By 1925, Crowder wanted to get rid of Zayas who was not cooperative enough. He worked with historian Charles Chapman to write A History of the Cuban Republic: A Study in Hispanic American Politics which would attack Zayas. When Gerardo Machado was elected president in 1925 over Garcia Menocal, Crowder wanted Chapman to give up project but Chapman had devoted too much time to the project.
    Machado was a rich man who had used American connections to make a fortune in electrical utilities. He was tough, vicious, and lionized by the US business community. It liked his bringing "order" to Cuba and his anti-labor views. He had deported 400 labor leaders, an act protested by Bill Green of the American Federation of Labor.
    Cuba in the late 1920s enjoyed prosperity and US support . Prosperity was for the few, however. Most Cubans lived in poverty. The 1929 depression revealed how dependent Cuba was on the US. Foreign trade dropped to one-tenth of its previous level. American bankers no longer bought Cuban bonds. Unemployment was widespread. Bankruptcy was common. Government revenues fell by one-half. Violence became increasingly common in Cuba in the early 1930s but the US had its own problems and did not intervene until Machado was overthrown in 1933.
    By 1932, even US admirers of Machado were saying he had to leave the presidency. A revolutionary junta was formed in New York City. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Sumner Welles as Ambassador to Cuba. Welles tried to get Machado to resign but Machado refused. The Cuban opposition realized that Machado had lost US support. The Revolution of ‘33 ousted him.
       Welles placed Dr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes as provisional president who then restored the 1901 constitution. When Fulgencio Batista’s army faction and university faculty and students took over the government in September, the US sent warships to intimidate. Welles did not like the leftist government of Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín. In January, 1934, Roosevelt, Welles, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull indicated that the US would never accept the Grau San Martín; on January 14, 1934, Batista overthrew Grau San Martín. Batista was president for 32 hours before putting Carlos Mendieta in the presidency. The US immediately recognized his government.
    In 1934, the two negotiated a  treaty in May which abrogated the Platt Amendment and another in August which included Cuba in the quota system the United States had created as part of the New Deal. Cuba would be allowed to export 22% of the sugar the US imported, paying .9¢ a pound tariff duty. In return, little or no duty would be levied by Cuba on goods imported from the US. US investment dropped to 500 million. Money had to be loaned to the Cuban government.
    American involvement generated anti-Americanism. Educated Cubans, who had a better understanding of what was happening, became increasingly resentful that their country was treated as a satellite. Batista, who was really running Cuba, allowed the Communist Party to operate freely in part to counter US influence. Nevertheless, the US was involved in writing the Cuban constitution in 1940. Ironically, President Roosevelt, who would get elected president four time in the US, suggested that the Cuban constitution prohibit reelection!
    Cuba supported the US during WWII. It not only declared war on the Axis powers but provided naval patrols and naval bases. In return, the US bought the entire Cuban sugar output at 2.65¢ a pound. Cuban production, stimulated by such high prices, rose to 5 million tons.
    In the post WWII period, Cuba became a playground for Americans. The flow of dollars helped corrupt many in the nation. It acquired an unsavory reputation of being a place where anything could be bought. American gangsters enjoyed influence. They had gone there when ruin out if the US in the 1920s and 1930s. Post-war Cuban governments were even more corrupt.
    On March 10, 1952, Batista overthrew the government and the US recognized his regime immediately. However, the Batista dictatorship grew more and more repressive. By 1957, the government was on the defensive as guerrillas and terrorists, with support from Cubans in the US, sought to overthrow him. In April, 1958, the US government canceled all arms shipments to Batista The year 1958 was worse for Batista. His regime had lost its moral authority. The sugar harvest, the zafra, was held early to keep Fidel Castro’s men from burning the fields. Sabotage increased. The police responded with beatings, brutality, and mass jailings. Castro, who was portraying himself as a folk hero who personified the hope of the common man, stepped up his propaganda efforts. Cleverly, he refused to work with other anti-Batista groups; he wanted to claim sole credit for bringing Batista down. By the Spring of 1958, riding busses and trains in Cuba was unsafe because the attacks were so frequent. Bombings closed most public schools. Soldiers and public officials feared assassination. Tourism dropped drastically as fear increased. His people kidnapped US businessmen and sailors. The rural population continued to withdraw support from Batista and give it to Castro. The business and professional class deserted Batista followed by urban workers. The dictator had lost the support of the US, which would not intervene. The US was waiting for the end of Batista's term in February, 1959, in hopes that a free government would be created. Only his army and police kept him in power.
    When Castro and his forces swept down from the mountains, Batista's army surrendered or deserted. Cuban soldiers knew that Batista could not survive. In December, the dictator began flying his family out of the country. Some arrived in Jacksonville, Florida and were cursed at the airport. Batista left Cuba on December 31, 1958. Castro's victory was not military but psychological.
    On January 2, 1959, Castro's 26th of July movement's men marched into the capital . They were bearded and wore camouflage uniforms. Even in victory, Castro was a master propagandist.

Don Mabry
021604