Cuba or the Base?

Piero Gleijeses

  • Guantanamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution by Jana Lipman
    California, 325 pp, £17.95, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 520 25540 1

‘Once the United States is in Cuba, who will drive them out?’ José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, asked from his New York exile in 1889. Six years later, as Cuba’s revolt against Spanish colonial rule began, Martí, now back in Cuba, was still preoccupied with the US threat. ‘What I have done, and shall continue to do,’ he wrote in his last letter, ‘is to … block with our blood … the annexation of the peoples of America to the turbulent and brutal North that despises them … I lived in the monster and know its entrails – and my sling is that of David.’ The next day he was killed by Spanish troops at the battle of Dos Ríos.

For three more years the Cubans fought alone against the Spanish. Then, in April 1898, the United States entered the war against a now exhausted Spain, waving the flag of Cuba Libre. American journalists and politicians hailed the intervention: it was ‘the most honourable single war in all history’, in the words of George Hoar, Republican senator from Massachusetts, ‘a war in which there does not enter the slightest thought or desire of foreign conquest, or of national gain, or advantage’. European diplomats and journalists were less impressed. ‘These high-minded claims fool no one,’ Le Temps asserted.

Americans scoffed at such cynicism. ‘It is a misapprehension that we want Cuba, and that we are intriguing to get it for ourselves,’ an editorial in the New York Times explained. The Teller Amendment, approved by Congress in April 1898, testified to the purity of America’s intentions. The United States, it said, ‘disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people’. The amendment calmed Cuban fears. General Calixto García, who commanded the Cuban Liberation Army in the eastern part of the island where US troops landed, placed his forces at the Americans’ disposal. ‘They have recognised our right to be free and independent,’ he declared, ‘and that is enough for me.’ Martí would have been less trusting, but he was dead.

When the war ended, the United States did not keep its word: it forced the Cubans, as a non-negotiable condition for the termination of US military occupation, to append to their constitution the Platt Amendment of 1901, which granted Washington the right to send troops to Cuba at its discretion and to establish bases on the island. This was a flagrant violation of the Teller Amendment, yet hardly any Americans objected. Meanwhile, those Cubans who dared to oppose the Platt Amendment were denounced as ungrateful and chastised like errant children. It was the American people who had won Cuba’s independence, Senator Albert Beveridge argued in a much admired article in the North American Review: ‘Cuba was not able to expel Spain … The United States ejected Spanish government from that island. In doing this, the United States expended many scores of millions of dollars. Our soldiers gladly gave their lives.’

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