Background on the History and Aims of U.S. Imperialism in Cuba

November 2, 2015

In a stark reminder of the racist “manifest destiny” doctrine of the U.S. capitalist class, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently announced the formation of a special “U.S.-Cuba Business Council.” According to the Chamber of Commerce, “USCBC will seek to work with the U.S. Congress, respective public and private sectors, and other key stakeholders to remove barriers to trade and create jobs, growth and prosperity in both countries. . .We’re facing a historic opportunity to support a vital and growing Cuban private sector, one that is defined by entrepreneurs whose expanding efforts show that the spirit of free enterprise is already taking hold in the country.” Today, the U.S. monopoly capitalist class is renewing its attempts at undermining Cuba’s sovereignty and reversing the country’s program of economic reforms and nationalization. 

Since the first half of the 19th century, the U.S. government frequently proclaimed its “right” to intervene throughout Latin America in order to protect its “security” and “national interests.” The Monroe Doctrine enunciated by President Monroe in 1823, and the proclamations of manifest destiny in the decades that followed, had spelled out very early in American history that U.S. officials would not hesitate to intervene anywhere in Latin America in order to advance their economic and strategic interests.

Throughout the nineteenth century, numerous attempts were made by U.S. officials to purchase Cuba from the Spanish colonial rulers. The struggle for Cuban independence by the Cuban masses, therefore, was seen as a threat by the propertied classes in both the U.S. and Cuba, since it was their hope that Cuba would eventually be annexed to the U.S., either through direct purchase or outright military conquest. In 1854, after President Franklin Pierce failed to buy Cuba by offering Spain $130 million, U.S. diplomats met in Belgium and issued the so-called Ostend Manifesto in which they threatened Spain that if it still refused to sell the island, “then, by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power.” By the turn of the century, it became clear that the U.S. was willing to use its military power to achieve its objectives. 

In 1898, when the Cuban people were on the threshold of total victory in the independence struggle against Spain, the U.S. dispatched troops to the island in order to rob the people of the fruits of their struggle. Presenting itself as the “liberator” and “defender” of the Cuban people, the U.S. signed the “Treaty of Paris” with Spain in 1898, which formally gave the U.S. not only control over Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. The Cuban people, however, were not represented in this agreement between Spain and the U.S. In 1899, Spain officially handed over its jurisdiction to the United States.

Although officially granted “independence,” Cuba was put under the control of U.S. military generals. In 1901, the U.S. drafted a constitution for Cuba, and the Cubans were eventually forced to accept as part of their constitution a clause known as the “Platt amendment” (after U.S. Senator Platt), which explicitly stated that the U.S. had  the “right” to intervene in Cuba at any time. The amendment also surrendered Cuban territory, the island of Pinos, and gave the U.S. navy authority to establish bases on the Cuban island. During 1901, U.S. General Wood set up “democratic elections” in Cuba, based on a franchise which represented only 5 percent of the Cuban population and which excluded Afro-Cubans, women, and those with less than $250 in assets. Two years later, the U.S. military occupation “officially” ended as Cuban president Estrada Palma took office.

From 1902 to 1959, Cuba was essentially a “pseudo republic” and run by men who refused to do anything without the explicit approval of U.S. officials in Washington.

The Estrada government quickly ratified a treaty with the U.S. in 1904 which ensured U.S. capitalist control over Cuban markets. Hordes of American businessmen rushed into Cuba, grabbing up its fertile land for next to nothing.  In addition, the railroads, sugar mills and refineries and all aspects of the Cuban economy quickly came under the ownership and control of U.S. capital.

During the Cuban presidency of Estrada Palma, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt formulated a corollary to the “Monroe Doctrine” which stipulated that the U.S. had responsibility for “preserving order” and “protecting life and property” throughout Latin America. This corollary was used to justify every subsequent U.S. invasion and intervention in Latin America.

In 1905, after a falsified election resulted in civil war, the U.S. military intervened to “mediate.” However, after further revolt by the Cuban people, President Roosevelt sent in more troops and the U.S. officially occupied the country once again. From 1906-1908, the U.S. administration of Charles Magoon controlled Cuba. In 1908, control was again formally handed over to a Cuban army general, Jose Miguel Gomez. 

During the next decade, the U.S. military returned to quell revolts and insure Cuba’s “loyalty.” In 1912 and again in 1917, U.S. troops invaded the island. When the U.S. entered World War I, Cuba was used as a military training base for Marines, many of whom stayed until the early 1920s.

In the years that followed World War I, U.S. capitalists looked to Cuba as a prime investment opportunity, and began once again to buy up cheap land, aided by the world-wide drop of sugar prices. It was during these years also that U.S. investors turned Cuba into the “playground of the Caribbean” in which gambling, prostitution and the drug trade began to flourish.

By 1925 U.S. financial interests in the Cuban economy amounted to more than $1.5 billion. Eighty percent of the exported mineral wealth of Cuba was owned by the Bethlehem Steel Company. The railroads, the tobacco industry, and the electrical industry were all owned by U.S. capitalists. Most of the sugar industry was owned by the House of Morgan financial group, the National City Bank, the Chase Bank, the Brown Brothers, the United Fruit Company, and the Rockefeller family. Also, seventy-four percent of all Cuban imports came from the U.S.

During the 1920s and 30s, the Cuban political scene was filled with corruption and rigged elections. It was during this time also that the Cuban people became more outspoken and resistance and revolutionary movements developed throughout the island. In 1933, a general strike broke out and many Cuban workers and farmers occupied sugar mills and took to the city streets. Eventually, a Cuban army officer, Fulgencio Batista, emerged and with the backing of the U.S. assumed power in a coup d’etat.

Although the Platt amendment was officially revoked in 1934, and some social reforms were implemented in Cuba during the years prior to World War II, the Cuban people remained under the political and economic domination of U.S. imperialism and the Cuban elite. The anti-imperialist sentiment of the Cuban people, however, did not diminish during these years and, after World War II, new revolutionary leadership developed.

On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Although many of the rebels were killed during the attack, and Fidel Castro was captured and imprisoned, the resistance to U.S. imperialism and the puppet Batista regime gained new life. The famous “July 26 Movement” emerged from this battle and subsequently liberated Cuba. In December, 1956, Castro and his supporters returned from Mexico, and helped launch the revolution that succeeded in taking power on January 1, 1959.

On January 2, 1959, the revolutionaries formed a new government and quickly began implementing economic reforms as well as taking steps to defend the sovereignty of the country. Implementation of the agrarian reform law on June 3, 1959 limited ownership of sugar cane land to 3,300 acres. Those land-owners who possessed land in excess of this limit, however, were compensated when the land was expropriated.

Throughout 1960, Cuba embarked upon further economic reforms, including the nationalization of the petroleum industry, as well as the utilities, sugar mills, banks, railroads, and factories. 

Although the U.S. officially recognized the new Cuban government in early January 1959, subsequent documents released by the CIA show that during the same year it had already begun its campaign of espionage and subversion. In fact, the U.S. immediately began both economic and military aggression against Cuba aimed both at undermining its sovereignty and reversing the program of economic reforms and nationalization.