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.)

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Victory in Europe Day, 1945

Worldwide celebrations were held yesterday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the day that Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies and ended WWII in Europe. But while V-E Day is recognized as the official surrender date, important German armies had already surrendered.

On the Eastern Front, the Soviets had launched their attack on Berlin on April 16, and by the 25th they had completely encircled the city. German dictator Adolf Hitler had moved into his Führerbunker in Berlin on January 16. On April 30, after he was told that German forces defending the city couldn’t hold out any longer, he committed suicide. In a will he’d written on April 29, Hitler had designated Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who was also in the bunker, to succeed him as the new Chancellor of Germany.

On May 1 Goebbels sent General Hans Krebs to meet with General Vasily Chuikov, who commanded the Soviet troops in central Berlin, to negotiate terms of surrender. Chuikov rejected the offer and demanded that the Germans unconditionally surrender. After Krebs returned to the bunker and informed Goebbels of Chuikov’s reply, Goebbels committed suicide too. General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the surviving German troops in Berlin, unconditionally surrendered on May 2.

On the Italian front, the western Allies had launched a massive attack against the Germans and their Italian fascist allies in northern Italy on April 6. The Allies succeeded in smashing through the Axis forces and on April 27 Italian resistance fighters captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and executed him the next day. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the commander of German forces in Italy, surrendered on May 2.

In his will, Hitler had also  designated that German Admiral Karl Dönitz should become the new President of Germany and supreme commander of the armed forces. Dönitz set up his government at a German naval academy in Flensburg, in northern Germany near the Danish border. On May 4 the German troops he commanded in the Netherlands, Denmark and northwestern Germany surrendered to the opposing British forces. (Significant organized German resistance on the Western front had already ended on April 21, when the last of the German troops trapped in the Ruhr Pocket surrendered.)

Dönitz sent General Alfred Jodl to Reims, France, on May 6 with an offer to surrender all German forces fighting the Western Allies. But the Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to break off all negotiations unless the Germans agreed to an unconditional surrender of all German troops, including those still fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front. Dönitz had no choice but to accept Eisenhower’s terms and authorized Jodl to sign surrender documents the next day, May 7.

German surrender, May 8, 1945
German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in Berlin, May 8, 1945 (Wikipedia)

But Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin wasn’t happy about the German surrender in Reims. His Soviet armies, after all, had done the bulk of the fighting in the war and had suffered millions of casualties. He claimed the Soviet representative at Reims had lacked the authority to sign a surrender document and demanded that the Germans also surrender directly to the Soviet forces in occupied Berlin. So on 8 May Dönitz sent General Wilhelm Keitel to Berlin to sign the “official” unconditional surrender with Soviet General Georgy  Zhukov and other Allied representatives. Because it was signed late at night, and it was already May 9 in Moscow, Russia celebrates May 9 as Victory Day.

The U.S. Has a Responsibility to Help Central Americans

American newspaper columnist William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, coined the term “banana republic” at the beginning of the 20th century. It describes a nation with an undeveloped economy that’s reliant upon the exploitation of natural resources, with an elite ruling class that siphons off the profits for themselves at the expense of an oppressed and impoverished working class. Mr. Porter created the term after living in Honduras, which is one of the Central American countries, along with neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, which have produced the recent surge of immigrant children seeking asylum the U.S.

Mr. Porter chose the adjective banana because American fruit companies operating banana plantations dominated Honduras at that time. American foreign policy in Central America during the first half of the 20th century was focused on protecting the commercial interests of the large American fruit companies operating there. The U.S. Marines were sent to the region so often their activities are now called the Banana Wars. American troops, for example, occupied Cuba four times between 1899 and 1922.

U.S. Meddling Has Contributed to Problems in Central America

After WWII, and the advent of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy in the region  began to focus on the threat of Communism. Like it had during the earlier part of the century, the U.S. government continued to bankroll dictators and right-wing militias in the region in order to protect its perceived interests. This intensified the growing leftist sentiment among the poor.

A CIA sponsored military coup authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, overthrew a popularly elected leftist government in Guatemala in 1954. This led to the outbreak of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1960. The U.S. trained Guatemalan army along with right-wing death squads conducted genocide against rebellious peasants, particularly Mayan Indians. In addition to the estimated 150,000 people killed during the war, about 45,000 people were “disappeared” before it ended in 1996.

There was another civil war in neighboring El Salvador. It began after there was a popular coup in 1979 against the nation’s murderous and corrupt military dictatorship. The reforms proposed by the coup leaders provoked violent resistance from the military and the wealthy elite. A right-wing assassin killed El Salvador’s Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was giving mass on March 24, 1980, one day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians. Then on December 2, 1980, the Salvadoran National Guard raped and murdered four American nuns and a laywoman. In 1981 a coalition of leftist guerilla groups called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) began attacks against the U.S. backed Salvadoran army. It’s estimated about 75,000 people were killed, and about 8,000 were “disappeared” by right-wing death squads by the time the war ended in 1992.

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan (Wikipedia)

In comparison to Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras was relatively stable during this time. This allowed the Ronald Reagan administration to use it as a base of operations for the Contra rebels it sponsored to fight against the leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. The terrorist tactics the Contras used against Nicaraguan civilians prompted the U.S. Congress to cut off funds to them in 1985. But the Reagan administration decided to continue funding the Contras by other means, which led to the Iran-Contra Affair scandal of 1986–1987. The scandal revealed the Reagan administration had funded the Contras using the proceeds from arms sales to Iran, and had employed known drug traffickers.

The U.S. also provided support to Operation Charly during the Reagan presidency. This was a program by Argentina’s military dictatorship to implement covert operations in Central America against leftists. Their tactics included the use of death squads, and Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were among the countries in which they operated.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have democratic governments now but their political institutions are fragile, as shown by the right-wing coup which removed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Furthermore, many of the social issues that led to the wars are still unresolved. Their economies are still undeveloped, they still lack a significant middle class, and the vast majority of their people still live in poverty. This economic void, unfortunately, has been filled by violent drug cartels that have become the de facto governments in many neighborhoods. They make their money by smuggling illegal drugs into the U.S.

The flood of more than 57,000 minors that have fled to the U.S. from these countries since last fall has prompted many American right-wing protestors to take to the streets and angrily scream, “Send them back, they’re not our problem!” Tolerance for this type of hatred and ignorance is a good example of what’s wrong with the modern Republican Party. It’s difficult to believe it’s the party of Lincoln, the party that was founded to fight slavery.


On November 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced he was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of refugees from Nicaragua who have been living in the U.S. since 1999.

In the November 26, 2017, national election it initially appeared that the voters in Honduras had elected newcomer Salvador Nasralla to replace President Juan Orlando Hernandez, whose National Party had supported the 2009 coup that removed President Manual Zelaya. Protests erupted after it became obvious that the Honduran government was manipulating the vote count in favor or Hernandez. On December 17 a special Honduran court declared Hernandez the winner by a slim margin. The Organization of American States (OAS) responded to the announcement by calling for the election to be held again, citing irregularities, supporting a similar call from Nasralla’s Anti-Corruption Party.

On January 8, 2018, Donald Trump announced he was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of refugees from El Salvador who have been living in the U.S. since 2001.

On May 4, 2018, Donald Trump announced that he was ending the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of refugees from Honduras who have been living in the U.S. since 1999.

On May 15, 2018, during a Senate hearing, Donald Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended her agency’s new policy that will result in Central American immigrant families seeking asylum being separated at the border by saying that similar separations happen in the US “every day.”

On June 1, 2018, a religious coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern that his new “zero tolerance” policy was separating vulnerable children from their parents.

On June 20, 2018, President Donald Trump responded to intense nationwide criticism and signed an executive order to end the separation of immigrant families seeking asylum at the border by detaining parents and children together.

On June 26, 2018, a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reunite immigrant families that had been separated at the border, and complete it within  30 days.

On July 12, 2018, the Trump administration implemented new, more restrictive, asylum rules for immigrants entering the U.S.

On September 6, 2018, the Trump administration announced a proposal to indefinitely detain undocumented families that are seeking asylum instead of releasing them while their immigration cases are pending.

On September 7, 2018, a worker at an undocumented migrant child detention facility in Arizona was convicted of sexually abusing teenagers.

On September 19, 2018, the Arizona State Health Department announced it was initiating the revocation of the licenses to operate the 13 Arizona shelters for migrant children run by Southwest Key, citing its failure to provide proof of required background checks for its workers.

On October 5, 2018, Southwest Key announced it had suspended operations at its Hacienda Del Sol facility in Youngtown, AZ, after an unspecified incident that was reported to law enforcement officials.

On October 9, 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Arizona said a sudden increase in the number of families from Central American seeking asylum had overwhelmed their detention facilities in Phoenix and forced them to release hundreds to local church shelters and charities. ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said they can no longer conduct initial reviews of migrants’ asylum claims without running the risk of exceeding court-imposed limits on how long children can be held in ICE jails. In a blatantly political statement, O’Keefe said “the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families that have no legal basis to remain in the United States,” and that asylum seeking families, “face no consequence for their actions.”

On November 9, 2018, the Pres. Donald Trump issued a proclamation that suspended the opportunity for asylum to any migrant that entered the U.S. illegally, instead of using an official U.S. border crossing point.

On November 19, 2018, a U.S. judge issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the implementation of Trump’s new rules that denied asylum protections to people who did not enter the U.S. at an official crossing point.

On December 4, 2018, the Associated Press reported that almost 4,000 Central American migrants had died or gone missing while traveling across Mexico to get to the U.S. border.

On December 10, 2018, the Mexican government announced it planned to spend $30 billion over the next five years on Central American development, an initiative to slow migration from those countries.

On December 18, 2018, the U.S. State Department announced that it would contribute $5.8 billion to the Comprehensive Development Plan for Central American initiated by Mexico.

On December 20, 2018, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the U.S. had made a deal with Mexico so that individuals seeking asylum who had entered the U.S. illegally or without proper documentation would be be returned to Mexico to wait for the beginning of their immigration court proceedings in the U.S. The Trump administration called this new asylum policy “catch and return.”

On December 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s November 19 ruling that blocked the Trump administration from denying asylum protections to people who did not enter the U.S. at an official crossing point.

On January 25, 2019, The Trump administration appointed Elliott Abrams to be the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela. As an Assistant Secretary of State in the 1980s, Abrams supported the murderous right-wing dictatorships in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. He was convicted in the Iran-Contra Affair, but pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

On February 1, 2019, the Trump administration admitted to the court that reuniting thousands of immigrant children that had been separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border may not be “within the realm of the possible.”

On February 14, 2019, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the Trump administration’s “catch and return” policy was illegal under existing U.S. immigration law.

On February 28, 2019, the Arizona State Health Department announced that one of Southwest Key’s shelters for immigrant children would be allowed to start accepting children again because it had met all health and safety requirements, including background checks of its employees.

On March 21, 2019, U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Roy Villareal said his office was being pushed to the “breaking point” trying to handle the unprecedented influx of immigrant children.

On March 27, 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported they had released 18,500 immigrants from federal detention into the streets of Arizona in the span of three months.

On March 30, 2019, Pres. Trump announced the U.S. was cutting off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as a retaliatory move.

On April 29, 2019, the Arizona Republic reported that community groups in Phoenix were questioning why the Border Patrol began releasing migrant families in Yuma, creating a humanitarian crisis, instead of Phoenix, where the groups have the resources to handle them.

On May 2, 2019, USA Today reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had separated hundreds of immigrant children from their families since Pres. Trump signed an executive order to stop the practice in June 2018.

On May 7, 2019, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a judge’s decision that would have prevented asylum seekers from being returned to Mexico during their legal challenges. The ruling reinstated, at least temporarily, the Trump administration’s  “catch and return” asylum policy.

On May 30, 2019, Pres. Trump threatened Mexico with escalating tariffs  on its imports to the U.S. unless it increased its efforts to stop immigrants from crossing the border into the U.S.

On Jun 8, 2019, Pres. Trump tweeted that his tariff threat had worked, and Mexico had agreed to his demands, so he was cancelling his planned tariffs. It was subsequently reported that the measure Mexico had agreed to implement were negotiated before the tariff threat.