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
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
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
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.
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.