Due to its geographic location and historical background, Cuba had had a unique status for decades (Randolph 1900). For many years, the island played (and, in a way, continues to play) a significant role in colonial and later imperialist games on the part of the world’s most powerful countries. The United States had a particular interest in Cuba, that began with the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, and then continued during the Cold War. Cuba repeatedly was under American occupation at the end of the 19th century and during the first quarter of the 20th century. A historical overview of these occupations, their causes and circumstances will allow an understanding of why the United States found it difficult to end the occupation in Cuba.
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The American occupation of Cuba started in 1899. Before 1898, Cuba belonged to Spain, but it was ceded to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War (Offner & Smith 1996). Randolph (1900, p. 353) argued for “a right understanding of the position of Cuba and the responsibilities of the United States in its regard.” The notion of “responsibilities” was to signify the political and military interest of the United States government in occupying Cuba and imposing its policies on the island. From 1899 to 1903, Cuba was governed by American generals. Wood (1903, p. 153), who served as the military governor of Cuba at the time, declared that “the purpose of the Military Government was to prepare the people of Cuba for self-government and to establish conditions which would render the establishment of a Cuban republic possible and its orderly and successful maintenance probable.”
The first issues that the American government had to deal with in the occupied territory involved addressing starvation and widespread diseases such as yellow fever. Yellow fever is highly infectious, and an epidemic had unfolded to the extent that “the city and surrounding country was full of sick Spanish soldiers, starving Cubans and the sick of [the American] army” (Wood 1903, p. 153). Besides the most urgent task of feeding the starving and taking care of the sick, General Wood also pointed out the necessity to reform the regulatory system, law enforcement and courts. Necessary changes included stabilising the distribution of food and medicine, creating effective municipal authorities and empowering the legal system to ensure the normal functioning of the state. However, all actions taken by the occupational government were complicated by the fact that people in Cuba spoke Spanish, while very few American military men and officials on the island could speak it. The state of the society in Cuba at the time was described by Wood as stricken and demoralised.
While still under American military governance, Cuba began to prepare for independence. Political forces both in Cuba and in the United States Congress were interested in the island nation’s independence. However, the Americans were still concerned about the possibility of political turmoil and instability on the island after the dismissal of the military government. Therefore, Senator Platt proposed legislation to be incorporated into Cuba’s constitution that would allow United States forces to intervene in Cuban internal affairs in various ways (Sweig 2016). The United States also preserved its military presence in the form of a naval base and troops in Cuba. The Constitution, containing the Platt Amendment, provided for broad authorities to be granted to the president upon his election by the people of Cuba. It also established a bicameral parliament as a legislative body.
Tomas Estrada Palma won the presidential elections in 1902. General Wood transferred power to the newly elected leader, effectively ending the occupation of Cuba. The circumstances on the island would be estimated from a historical perspective nowadays as favourable for successful development of the Republic of Cuba after the end of the occupation (Stirk 2016). While many countries of South and Central America were torn by racial confrontation, racism was a significantly less daunting problem in Cuba. It meant that the new republic could avoid the kind of acute internal conflicts that are always a threat to the integrity of a state. However, the state was also facing many challenges. After centuries of Spanish rule, Cuba had inherited a governance system where corruption was a key element. Stirk (2016) points out that the main task of the Spanish government on the island, as well as within other Spanish territories, was to gain as much wealth as possible from the population and deliver it to Spain, distributing the rest among governors-general appointed to rule the island by the central power.
After serving a four-year term, Estrada Palma planned to participate in presidential elections again. His decision met much acute indignation from his political opponents, who had accumulated significant political weight during his rule. They claimed that the elections had been unfair and openly protested against Estrada Palma’s second term (Lambrecht 2015). Subsequently, the president asked for help from the American military forces to handle the rebellion, i.e., asked for military intervention. The intervention quickly became a new period of occupation, and a military governor from the United States was appointed to rule Cuba once more. The new governor did not have as much power as Wood but managed to bring positive social change to Cuba. For example, he constructed a sewage system in Havana, which decreased the risks of epidemics and the spread of infectious diseases among the city’s inhabitants. He was also involved in extensive legislative reforms. However, the new governor was criticised for his spending: Cuba’s economy was damaged by the end of his three-year term (Shaffer 2011). In any event, new elections were held, and José Miguel Gómez, a major opponent of the previous president, won and assumed the presidency in Cuba, ending the second occupation.
Several times after this, Cuba found itself on the verge of new interventions or experiencing a massive American military presence. The reasons were similar to those for the first two occupations: political instability and economic difficulties, such as a recession after World War I (Louis 1979). After reviewing the occupations, their background, causes and consequences, it is possible to speculate on the title question: Why did the United States find it so difficult to end the occupation in Cuba?
Although several reasons can be observed, the most significant is associated with Cuba’s location, history and economy. After the war with Spain, it was important for the United States to strengthen its influence in the territories close to the country’s borders that had belonged to the enemy (Pérez 1979). Thus, it was a matter of political interest. For the United States, losing the connection with and control over Cuba would mean having a hostile and potentially dangerous country in the region of the United States’ influence. The repercussions of such a loss were clearly demonstrated later in history. When Cuba became a socialist state, it turned aggressively anti-American. This made possible one of the 20th century’s most alarming moments: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world had ever been (and has been since) to a nuclear war (Allison 2012). The realisation that Cuba is in a strategically important area and that the country can turn into a serious threat to American national security is the main reason for the United States to pursue control over the island.
However, the United States was not willing to annex Cuba. From the point of view of American governors during the first occupation, annexation could be more beneficial to America, but the occupation was opted for instead, which was seen by the governors as “a vexatious result of a costly war waged for the avowed purpose of freeing Cuba from Spain in order to turn it over to its own people” (Randolph 1900, p. 354). It was stressed that Cuba did not, in fact, have a state at the time: institutions and systems required for normal social interactions were not functioning. From the very beginning, the occupations were planned as temporary measures aimed at creating conditions that would bolster the viability of the Cuban Republic. However, political and economic difficulties on the island seriously threatened the independent Cuban state several times. Two major reasons are thus identified to answer the title question: it was important for the United States to preserve influence over Cuba, and Cuba constantly faced dramatic problems when obtaining independence, which made it difficult for the United States to end the occupation.
Allison, G 2012, ‘The Cuban missile crisis at 50: Lessons for US foreign policy today’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 4, pp. 11-16.
Lambrecht, L 2015, The US–Cuban relationship in the 21st century: From foe to friend?, Master Thesis, Ghent University, Web.
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Offner, JL & Smith, J 1996, The Spanish-American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902, Longman, London.
Pérez, LA 1979, ‘Cuba between empires, 1898-1899’, Pacific Historical Review, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 473-500.
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Shaffer, K 2011, ‘Contesting internationalists: Transnational anarchism, anti-imperialism and US expansion in the Caribbean, 1890s-1920s’, Estudios interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 11-38.
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