The Shameful History of U.S. Intervention in Cuban Affairs

Cuban flag
Cuban flag

I visited Cuba earlier this year with an American tour group and learned many things. One of them was that the U.S. government’s involvement in Cuban affairs before the Cuban Revolution was more extensive than what we’ve been taught – and not in a good way.

American involvement in Cuban affairs began as early as 1854, when the Ostend Manifesto was drafted by Southern expansionists who wanted to acquire Cuba from Spain in order to facilitate the expansion of their slave economy. Its publication outraged anti-slavery Northerners and the idea was shelved, although the Confederates would have pursued the acquisition of Cuba if they’d won the Civil War.

Many ex-Confederates moved to Cuba after the South lost the war because slavery was still legal there. They had little effect, however, because American businessmen were already heavily invested in Cuba and controlled its lucrative sugar industry.

The Spanish-American War
U.S.S. Maine
U.S.S. Maine entering Havana Harbor, January 1898 (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The Cuban War of Independence, inspired by Cuban patriot José Martí, began in 1895 and by 1897 the liberation army had the Spanish on the defensive. Then in 1898 the U.S. militarily intervened in the war after the American battleship U.S.S. Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, killing 266 U.S. sailors. President William McKinley asked Congress to declare war in April and in the subsequent Spanish-American War an American army defeated Spanish troops at the Battle of San Juan Hill and a U.S. naval force subsequently destroyed a Spanish naval squadron at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. These losses, coupled with other Spanish military defeats in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, caused Spain to sue for peace and a ceasefire was established on August 12. In the formal peace treaty that was signed in December, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico were annexed by the U.S. and Cuba became a protectorate – a virtual U.S. colony. Cubans were not included in the negotiations with Spain.

During my visit to Cuba I learned that most Cubans resent America’s intervention in their independence war. They believe they were close to defeating the Spanish on their own, and the Maine was blown up as part of a secret scheme by U.S. imperialists to create an excuse for America to gain control of Cuba. (No definitive cause for the ship’s explosion has ever been identified.)

There were apparently some members of the U.S. Congress that suspected the same thing, as the U.S. declaration of war against Spain included the Teller Amendment, which prohibited the U.S. from annexing Cuba by requiring that the U.S. must “leave the government and control of the island to its people” after the Spanish were defeated.

Spanish troops left Cuba in late December and the government of Cuba was handed over to the U.S. on January 1, 1899. U.S. Army General Leonard Wood, who had fought against the Spanish, became the military governor of Cuba. He called for a Cuban constitutional convention in Havana in the fall of 1900. In November 31 convention delegates began meeting and they finally approved first Constitution of the Republic of Cuba on February 21, 1901. It was modeled on the U.S. Constitution, with the government divided into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The delegates saw no need to get it approved by a public vote, as they wanted to hold elections as soon as possible to expedite the formation of a new Cuban government.

But just nine days later, on March 2, 1901, the U.S. Congress passed, and President William McKinley signed, the infamous Platt Amendment. It required the new Cuban government to meet several requirements before their constitution would be approved and U.S. troops withdrawn. These included the right of the U.S. to intervene in Cuba whenever it wanted, a requirement that Cuba sell or lease its harbors to the U.S. for naval bases, and that the ownership of the Isle of Pines would be settled by a treaty. The convention delegates had little choice but to agree to these demands, and on June 12 they voted to amend their constitution to include the provisions of the Platt Amendment by a vote of just 16 to 11.

Cuba held its first national elections under the new constitution on December 31, 1901. Tomás Estrada Palma won the presidential election. The degree to which his election was rigged is shown by the fact that Estrada did not campaign and was the only presidential candidate on the ballot. In fact, he hadn’t lived in Cuba for almost 25 years. He was living in Central Valley, New York, when he won the election and didn’t reach Havana for his inauguration until May of 1902. The U.S. forces in Cuba subsequently transferred “government and control” to the newly elected Cuban government on May 20, 1902, and left.

On May 22, 1903, Estrada’s government signed the Cuban–American Treaty of Relations, which finalized a permanent lease of Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. for use as a naval base. This was a minor victory for Estrada, as the U.S. wanted to lease more Cuban ports under the provisions of the Platt Amendment.

Settling the fate of the Isle of Pines, the seventh-largest island in the Caribbean, took longer. It had always been considered a part of Cuba and the Cuban government thought the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations had confirmed its control of the island. But many in the U.S. government wanted to have it as a coaling station for the ships that would travel to the new canal under construction at the Isthmus of Panama. There were also some vocal Americans on the island that were upset American troops had vacated the island in 1902, because they also believed it should be a U.S. possession. But in the end the island was officially returned to Cuba in 1904 under the Hay-Quesada Treaty because keeping it would have violated the spirit of the Teller Amendment. The U.S. Senate, however, didn’t ratify the treaty until March 23, 1925.

These treaties addressed two requirements of the Platt Amendment, but the amendment had also reaffirmed the right of the U.S. to intervene in Cuban affairs and President Theodore Roosevelt used it as justification for the second occupation of Cuba in 1906. A U.S peacekeeping force was sent to the island to deal with a revolt caused by Estrada’s rigging of the 1905 Cuban presidential election. The troops were under the command of Roosevelt’s Secretary of War William H. Taft – a future U.S. president. Charles Magoon succeeded Taft and successfully supervised a new election in November of 1908 that resulted in the election of Liberal Party candidate José Miguel Gómez as the Cuban president. U.S. troops left Cuba after Gómez assumed office at the beginning of 1909.

This, however, wasn’t the last direct U.S. military intervention in Cuba. An uprising called the Negro Rebellion erupted in 1912. Slavery had been outlawed in Cuba in 1886, just 26 years earlier, and racial discrimination persisted. The first American occupation government, in fact, had tried to enforce racial segregation. Subsequently, most Afro-Cubans still worked on the sugar plantations, where working conditions were bad. President Taft deployed U.S. Marines in Cuba during the revolt to protect sugar plantations and other American-owned businesses. The Cuban army swiftly suppressed the rebellion, inflicting 3,000 to 6,000 casualties against the rebels and their families, and the Marines left.

But they would soon return to Cuba. José Miguel Gómez lost the 1916 Cuban presidential election to the Conservative Party incumbent Mario García Menocal, who was a former manager for the Cuban American Sugar Corporation. Gomez and his supporters claimed election fraud and began an armed insurgency, called the Chambelona War, against the government. On March 7, 1917, Gomez and his command were defeated and captured at the Battle of Caicaje. This ended the political revolt, but the remaining rebels morphed into leaders of a popular revolt, attracting disaffected sugar plantation workers. President Woodrow Wilson sent the U.S. Marines into Cuba again to protect the American-owned sugar plantations. The U.S. military presence generated anti-American sentiment that caused more trouble, and the Marines stayed until early 1922.

The Cuban Liberal Party candidate Gerardo Machado defeated Alfredo Zayas in the 1924 election to become the island’s fifth president, and the last one to have fought against the Spanish in the War of Independence. He was popular and Cuba was prosperous during his first term. But he pushed through an unpopular amendment to the Cuban constitution that helped him get reelected in the 1928 election and he avoided having to face reelection in 1932. The subsequent onset of the Great Depression, coupled with his increasingly repressive policies created widespread civil unrest.

This caused U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Sumner Welles to intervene and broker a deal wherein Machado resigned on August 12, 1933, and Cuban politician Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was appointed president.  But De Cespedes was perceived by many Cubans as being too lenient with Machado’s supporters.

The Sergeants’ Revolt

This led to the Sergeants’ Revolt in early September. It was a coup d’etat by Cuban army sergeants and enlisted men, including an ambitious young sergeant named Fulgencio Batista. The revolt was supported by University of Havana students and the junta of soldiers and students agreed to appoint university professor Ramón Grau to be the new president of Cuba, while Batista became the Army Chief of Staff.

The coup had been bloodless, but about 400 high-ranking army officers refused to recognize Grau’s government. They took refuge in Havana’s Hotel Nacional, where U.S. Ambassador Welles was staying. They were well armed and refused to surrender. On October 2 the Cuban army attacked the hotel, and the next day the Cuban navy bombarded it. The officers surrendered but the attacking soldiers had suffered heavy casualties and they executed about a dozen of the officers.

Grau’s coalition government, called the One Hundred Days Government, instituted many progressive reforms, some of which affected U.S. companies in Cuba. Ambassador Welles requested U.S. military intervention, despite the Good Neighbor foreign policy recently implemented by newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt. The U.S. refused to recognize Grau’s government and a military task force was organized.

Fulgencio Batista
Fulgencio Batista, 1938 (Wikipedia)

In the meantime, Batista was unhappy with the governing coalition and secretly conspired with Welles to use his power as military commander to force Grau to resign in January of 1934. Batista then installed Carlos Mendieta, his puppet, as Cuba’s new president. The U.S. recognized Mendieta’s government within a few days, and the Roosevelt administration signed the Cuban–American Treaty of Relations in May, which nullified the Platt Amendment but reaffirmed the U.S. lease for Guantanamo Bay.

Also in May the U.S. Congress passed the Jones-Costigan Amendment which was designed to protect U.S. sugar producers from foreign competition by assigning annual sugar import quotas to foreign producers, including Cuba. This was followed by the Sugar Act of 1937 and the Sugar Act of 1948, which was subsequently amended. Thus began a continuous U.S. interference in the Cuban economy, as sugar was Cuba’s biggest export commodity and the U.S. was the world’s biggest sugar consumer.

More Batista puppets followed Mendieta until Batista succeeded in getting himself elected president in 1940. But Batista’s hand-picked successor lost the 1944 election to Ramón Grau, so Batista fled with an ill-gotten fortune to the U.S. But he continued to meddle in Cuban politics and was elected to the Cuban senate in 1948 – despite living in the U.S.

Batista returned to Cuba to run for president again in the June 1952 election. But the polls showed him trailing badly, so three months before the election Batista took advantage of his close relationship with the army to stage a military coup wherein he suspended the election, along with the Cuban constitution, and declared himself to be the country’s ruler. The administration of President Harry Truman was not alarmed because it considered the coup just another example of Cuba’s “immature” political culture. Batista immediately sought U.S. support, and after he promised to hold elections some day, give friendly treatment to U.S. business interests, and help fight communism, Truman quickly gave him official recognition.

Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, assumed office in 1953. He was a former U.S. Army general that had campaigned as an anti-communist, and was focused on winning the Cold War, even if it meant supporting murderous right-wing dictators. He appreciated Batista’s strong opposition to communism, in addition to his favorable treatment of American business interests in Cuba. The Eisenhower administration subsequently provided training and supplies to Cuba’s military, and the U.S Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped Batista establish a secret police force in 1954 called the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities (BRAC) which became infamous for the brutality it employed against anybody Batista considered an enemy.

Batista finally held a national election in 1954 and won 87% of the vote, but all of his rivals had withdraw, claiming fraud. Nobody in the U.S. government seemed to care. In fact, U.S. Treasury Secretary George Humphrey told the National Security Council that the U.S. should, “stop talking so much about democracy, and make it clear that we are quite willing to support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” In 1955 Vice President Richard Nixon, a strident anti-communist, visited Cuba. During his toast at the state dinner in Havana Nixon favorably compared Batista to Abraham Lincoln. Upon his return from Cuba, Nixon reported that, “Latinos had shown a preference for a dictatorial form of government rather than a democracy.”

Batista’s military dictatorship, facing no threat of American intervention, became characterized by a disregard for the needs of the poor, horrible acts of police brutality, and widespread corruption which included the establishment of a close relationship with the American Mafia to gain their help with the promotion of the Cuban tourism industry. Moreover, the Cuban economy still resembled that of a colony, with an enormous income gap between a small number of haves and numerous have-nots. There was a prosperous oligarchy based in Havana, but starvation and misery was the norm in the island’s rural areas.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro, 1959 (Wikipedia)

Batista’s abuses of power along with Cuba’s gross economic inequalities inevitably led to revolts and growing civil unrest. He responded to the insurgencies by having thousands of civilians executed, many of them publicly. Cuban dissidents rallied around the 26th of July Movement, a guerrilla war against Batista being led by Fidel Castro, a well-educated and charismatic young lawyer. Castro was an anti-imperialist who considered himself the heir to the Cuban independence movement started by José Martí. Some of his revolutionary goals, such as agrarian reform and profit sharing, sounded like socialism, but he denied being a communist.

In early 1957 the 26th of July Movement invited a reporter from The New York Times named  Herbert Matthews to Cuba to secretly interview Fidel Castro. In addition to refuting Batista’s claim that Castro had been killed, Matthews’ subsequent article portrayed Castro as an anti-Batista Robin Hood, not a communist. This newspaper article, along with the ones he subsequently wrote about the situation in Cuba, made Castro a popular figure among the American public. They also convinced the Eisenhower administration to disregard its concern that Castro might be a communist. This came into play when it became obvious that Batista was violating the 1952 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement that prohibited him from employing U.S. arms and military training against his own people. In March of 1958 the U.S. announced that it would stop selling arms to the Cuban government.

Batista’s army launched a summer offensive against Castro’s forces in 1958, but Castro cleverly eluded defeat and chased Batista’s army out of southeastern Cuba. Then on December 29, 1958, an armored train carrying munitions for Batista’s troops was captured at the Battle of Santa Clara by a rebel group led by Castro’s co-commander Che Guevara. It was the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution, as it deprived Batista’s army in eastern Cuba of much-needed supplies, and the capture of Santa Clara opened the way for the rebels to seize the Cuban capital city of Havana.

Batista had conducted another rigged election in November, after which U.S. Ambassador Earl Smith had told him that he no longer had the support of the Eisenhower administration. So when Batista received word of the defeat at Santa Clara, he realized the jig was up. On the morning of January 1, 1959, he fled Cuba on a plane with his immediate family members and a few supporters.* It’s estimated that Batista and his supporters took more than $300 million with them, and perhaps as much as $700 million, leaving the Cuban government essentially broke. (This is the equivalent of $2.5 billion to $5.8 billion in 2017 dollars.) Upon hearing of Batista’s departure, the Cuban army surrendered to the rebels.

On January 8 the 33-year-old Castro entered Havana at the conclusion of a triumphant journey across Cuba to become the island’s new leader. He was determined to do whatever it would take for Cuba to finally achieve true independence by ending the neocolonial relationship that had existed with the United States government since 1898.

*Batista went into a comfortable exile in Portugal and died of a heart attack there in 1973.

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  1. Amazing Jeff! Thank you for all this wonderful research and information. I’m putting a copy in my Cuba file for future reference.


  2. Jeff,

    Thank you for sharing your research and experience of talking directly with the average person in Cuba. Your information should be read by all American students. While it seems America was very hypocritical in dealing with Cuba, in regards to spreading democracy, enforcing national security is an important issue and must be extremely difficult to address on the world stage. Regardless, the hold point of a good education is giving students both sides of the story, as accurately as possible, and letting them arrive at their own conclusion.

    Well done!

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