When the subject of Cuba arises, the immediate associations are communism, missile crisis, and embargo. Obviously, Cuban history goes much farther back than 1959, but so does its relationship with the United States.
Taken as a whole, the (ultimately misplaced) popularity enjoyed by Castro’s revolution in 1959 is neither accidental nor a product of Cuban inferiority, as it’s often insinuated. Rather, Castro offered Cubans something the United States, and the corrupt regimes they propped up, long denied them: true self-government, control over economic resources, and, in sum, control over their own destinies.
The United States coveted the island as early as Thomas Jefferson’s presidential administration. Jefferson offered to purchase the Spanish colony from Spain, but was refused. By this time, Cuba had become a sugar colony, a product of slave plantations installed by the British when they briefly occupied the island in the 1760s.
Spanish plantation owners enthusiastically sought American statehood throughout the first half of the 1800s primarily to protect their slave labor from possibly being outlawed by the Spanish government. By 1825, the United States had become a more important trade partner than Spain.
The topic of annexation dominated the presidential elections of 1848 and James Polk made a public offer of $100 million for the island. The offer fell through but America’s obsession with the island was ignited.
Southern politicians and slave owners supported failed insurrections by Spanish aristocrats to overthrow the Spanish colonial government and declare American statehood. Annexation of Cuba would have strengthened the southern coalition of slave states in Congress.
President Pierce and his foreign ministers began entertaining the notion of forcibly wresting Cuba from Spain. Ultimately, the U.S. Civil War and the victory of the Union ended the Cuban slaveholders’ dream of statehood.
In addition to machine technology that made slavery obsolete and combined pressure from the U.S. and Britain, slaves were finally freed during Cuba’s first war of independence from 1868-1878. During that war, rebels freed slaves and called for a liberal constitution similar to that of the United States. A strain of rebels sought U.S. support and possible annexation.
The United States rebuffed rebel pleas and remained neutral, which gave Spain the chance to regain its footing and put down the rebellion. Nonetheless, U.S. capitalists continued to covet the island with the same fervor as pre-war southerners.
Ten years of war and the targeted destruction of aristocratic property opened the way for American capitalists to purchase their formerly productive land for artificially cheap prices. Spanish-landed aristocrats, ruined by the revolt and alienated by the majority of Cubans, were forced to cut their losses and many returned to Spain.
By the turn of the century, the United States was, by a gigantic margin, the primary purchaser of Cuban sugar. Consequently, the Cuban economy had no incentive to diversify and was at the mercy of U.S. trade policy.
The introduction of the Wilson Tariff in 1894 devastated Cuba’s economy and set off another war for independence.
The Cuban poet and political activist Jose Marti was the brainchild of Cuba’s second revolution, writing passionate essays from New York (a statue of him resides in Central Park) in favor of democracy and for political and economic independence.
Marti was suspicious of the United States’ political and business establishments. He feared a long war would invite U.S. intervention and worked feverishly to orchestrate a lightning rebellion that would quickly depose the Spanish colonial government, preserve existing Cuban wealth, and prevent the U.S. from having an opportunity to intervene.
The U.S. government caught on to Marti’s plans and just days before he was to set off from Florida with three ships laden with weapons and other supplies, American authorities confiscated the ships and alerted Spanish authorities.
The second war of independence began a few months later, but because of U.S. obstruction, the Spanish had time to prepare and what should have been a short war turned into a three year conflict. Marti was killed in action just months after it started.
Marti proved prescient.
At first, the American business community considered the Spanish colonial government as the best protector of its assets in Cuba. However, three years later, its confidence in Spain withered and businessmen began a political and information campaign to build support for U.S. intervention.
Congress quickly took up the cause and the big newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst printed dozens of mostly fabricated accounts of Spanish brutality. American popular opinion lurched in favor of war. President McKinley resisted, but the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine off the coast of Havana forced his hand.
The resulting Spanish-American War was an American victory, but a defeat for both Spain and Cubans. As Marti feared, as soon as Spain surrendered and departed, the United States set up a military government and opened the way for more U.S. businessmen to purchase Cuban land and install privately-owned capital.
Cubans, formerly portrayed in the media as brave democracy-seeking revolutionaries, were characterized as racially-mixed inferiors who “needed” American leadership. Under pressure from Cubans, the U.S. allowed for heavily restricted elections to an American-supervised Cuban constitutional convention.
As a result, only wealthy Cuban businessmen with ties to U.S. capital were elected.
The constitution they created was nominally liberal but also contained the Platt Amendment, which “gave the United States the right to intervene for the maintenance of ‘a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberties.’” The delegates, all too willing to compromise on basic sovereignty in return for economic stability, approved the constitution despite widespread protests and disapproval.
From 1900 to 1959, the United States used the Platt Amendment and its outsized economic influence to make sure Cubans had no control over economic resources or political decisions. The U.S. secured its military base in Guantanamo Bay, invaded and occupied Cuba for a second time from 1906-1909, pressured the Cuban government to violently crush African-Cubans who were protesting racist policies in 1912, and tampered with presidential elections to protect only pro-American leaders.
U.S.-owned sugar mills imported cheap labor from Jamaica and other black Caribbean islands rather than raise wages for Cuban workers. As a result, Cubans had little control over their political and economic lives. Economic crises hit Cubans the hardest. U.S. businessmen and their government protectors saw little need to invest in Cubans.
So it should be of little surprise that by the 1920s, students in Cuban universities began establishing socialist parties and movements. It should also come as no surprise that the Cuban population was amenable to a new war for independence in the 1950s.
Cuba should serve as a cautionary example for believers in interventionism and notions of exceptionalism. It's also a frustrating account of the true forces behind U.S. foreign policy.