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The U.S. And Castro, 1959–1962
Was the Cuban leader always a Marxist or did the United States impel him in that direction? A distinguished historian of Cuban affairs examines the critical years when the Castro revolution became a communist dictatorship.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
During the first third of the twentieth century, the United States dominated Cuba so thoroughly that the island was a U.S. protectorate in all but name. Prior to 1898, while the island was still a Spanish colony, the United States had become Cuba’s most important trading partner and had invested some thirty million dollars in her economy. American intervention in the Cuban rebellion against Spain, from 1895 to 1898, led inexorably to the Spanish-American War, but in voting for that war, the U.S. Senate stipulated that it did not wish American occupation of Cuba after hostilities. Nevertheless, minds changed, and after the peace that secured Cuba’s freedom from Spain, the United States insisted on three years of military occupation. Cuba became a nominally independent republic only in 1902. Even then, the Platt Amendment to the U.S. acceptance of Cuban independence, introduced by Republican Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut, gave the United States the right to intervene militarily in the island under certain circumstances: if civil war erupted on the island and if Cuba were not kept clean and free from dangerous disease. The Platt Amendment also placed restrictions on the Cuban government’s capacity to incur debts and to embark on treaties with a third power, and enabled the United States to establish naval bases on the island—which it did at Guantânamo, to help secure the Panama Canal. These terms were as severe on Cuba as were those that the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain imposed on defeated Germany and Austria in 1919—and were as strongly resented.
A Cuban constituent assembly was prevailed upon to accept the Platt Amendment as part of the first constitution of “independent” Cuba. In 1906 the United States took advantage of its rights under the amendment, and another three years of occupation followed. The United States threatened to intervene again in both 1912 and 1917, each time with direct consequences to Cuba’s internal political affairs. In the 1920’s, General Enoch Crowder, the U.S. envoy to Havana, was given full powers to reorganize Cuba’s finances, and in the same decade the United States recognized and supported General Gerardo Machado, even when he made himself a dictator. This support ended in 1933, when Sumner Welles, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new ambassador to Cuba, helped inspire Machado’s fall. The following year Welles assisted in the overthrow of a progressive Cuban government under Dr. Grau San Martin, which prepared the way for a new, only partially veiled tyranny under General Batista.
The Platt Amendment was abolished in 1934, but even so, the United States would not have hesitated to impose its own candidate on Cuba during World War II, had it been deemed necessary. It was not required: General Batista (who in 1940 was elected president—reasonably honestly) might have been a “son-of-a-bitch,” but he was “our son-of-a-bitch,” in FDR’s words. Threats of U.S. intervention lasted longer. Probably the FBI knew of, and possibly may have encouraged, a plot to overthrow Dr. Grau San Martin in his second presidency in 1947.
The United States, meanwhile, had built up an economic position on the island as important as its political one. Investments in sugar mills gave U.S. companies control of 60 per cent of Cuban sugar production by the 1920’s. American companies also had large landholdings. Cuban tobacco was marketed through U.S. merchants. U.S. companies, or their Cuban subsidiaries, controlled electricity, telephones, and other public utilities. Cuba was even sometimes represented in diplomacy affecting sugar by American citizens with Cuban interests. U.S. dominance over Cuban cultural life was almost equally strong.
Some benefits for Cuba naturally followed from this close relationship. Had it not been for American intervention in 1898, Cuba would not so soon have become free from Spain. The U.S. interest in Cuba raised the Cuban standard of living to half that of the United States by 1925. U.S. military doctors with the occupying forces made possible the conquest of yellow fever, for many generations the scourge of Havana (though it had been a Cuban of Scottish ancestry, Dr. Carlos Finlay, who first discovered that yellow fever is carried by mosquitoes). The building by a U.S. company of a railway along the length of the island was an achievement from which Cuba will always benefit. American investments in sugar mills were carried out with an iron determination to make profits and to ensure a supply of sugar for the United States in time of war, but those investments transformed the Cuban economy and gave it the shape that it now has. The close contacts established in North America by upper-class Cubans also meant that their children could easily be educated in the United States.