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Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, expressed a desire to make the island of Cuba part of the territory of the United States. Albert J. Beveridge, a senator from Indiana, reproduced Jefferson’s words in a 1901 article: “Her [Cuba’s] addition to our confederacy is exactly what is wanting to advance our power as a nation to the point of its utmost interest.’” However, it was John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state to President James Monroe, who argued most forcefully for annexing Cuba, still a Spanish colony in 1823 and virtually the only one Spain retained after the wave of successful Latin American struggles for independence that began thirteen years earlier.

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Thus, it was not surprising that in the same year, Adams authored what became the Monroe Doctrine, a proto-imperialist manifesto that staked a US claim to the Americas and warned European powers against any future interventions into the hemisphere. Cuba was a key piece of US designs for Latin America, as American politicians set out to actualize the vision they had for their young nation, as an equal to the traditional imperial powers of Europe.

The 1823 targeting of Cuba as an important future acquisition also marked the beginning of US attempts to control the island’s fate, while it was still in the hands of Spain. This dynamic shaped interactions between the two countries moving forward, including eventual attempts to purchase Cuba and incorporate it into the Union, a three-plus year occupation of the island following the Spanish-American War, and a decades-long obsession with bringing down its Communist regime.

The diverse ideologies behind plans to annex Cuba

In the early nineteenth century, many American politicians saw Cuba as a natural extension of the US. The island was a significant element of foreign policy for several reasons, including the fact that it was an ideal location from which to exert control over the Gulf of Mexico, and the fact that Cuba’s economy, like that of its northern neighbor, relied heavily on wealth derived from the labor of the enslaved. In other words, southerners saw Cuba as an ally in slavery.

In April 1823, Adams wrote to US Minister to Spain, Hugh Nelson, that Cuba was of extreme political and commercial importance to the US, and that “it is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal Republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”

James Monroe, 1819
James Monroe, 1819 via Wikimedia Commons 

In what has come to be known as his “ripe fruit” theory, Adams wrote in the same letter, “If an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjointed from its own unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her from its bosom.”

In an interesting twist, Adams went about staking the US’s claim to Cuba by providing support for Spain’s continued colonial presence. By 1823, Spain had lost most of its Latin American colonies, so it wasn’t difficult for Adams to envision its eventual severing of ties with Cuba. That said, he was concerned that Great Britain would attempt to usurp the island for itself. The British, after all, had already successfully invaded Havana and occupied Cuba for eleven months during the Seven Years’ War (1762-63). Spain’s ceding of Florida to the US in 1821 provided Britain with another reason to set its sights on Cuba—as presumably it now viewed its former colony as a competitor for global power and may have wanted to increase its presence in the Caribbean.

In addition, Cuba’s value had risen since the beginning of the nineteenth century: following the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Cuba had become the center of sugar production in the Americas—and relatedly, had seen a huge increase in the importation of enslaved Africans. Adams and the Monroe cabinet believed that helping Spain retain control over Cuba would prevent another European power from being able to seize it. The Monroe administration was so fearful of this possibility, Adams wrote, that the US would support a Cuban independence struggle if any other European nation tried to lay claim to it.

While Adams’ preoccupation with Cuba was rooted in concern about establishing the US as an imperial power, John C. Calhoun and other southerners were chiefly concerned with protecting the institution of slavery. That meant preventing both another Haitian Revolution-style revolt by the enslaved as well as British seizure of the island, as Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807.

An 1855 map of Cuba
An 1855 map of Cuba via Wikimedia Commons

For their part, many Cuban plantation owners liked the idea of annexation, as they had little faith in Spain’s ability to defend slavery in the face of Britain’s opposition to it. The two countries had signed a treaty in 1817 in which Spain agreed to prohibit the introduction of the newly enslaved into its territories beginning in 1820; regardless, the slave trade to Cuba continued illegally until the 1860s.

At the same time, the US-Cuba trade relationship had become increasingly intertwined. American investment in Cuba began as early as the 1790s. By 1823, the value of US-owned plantations in a single Cuban province was estimated to be more than three million dollars, and many of the American planters in Cuba were Northerners. Northern businessmen and investors established close relationships with Cuban plantation owners, and some ultimately moved to the island, married Cubans, and “made their homes in the center of Cuban slave labor camps,” according to historian Stephen Chambers. By the 1840s, almost half of Cuban exports went to North American markets, according to historian Louis Pérez, Jr., a share that rose as the century wore on. Cuban elites had also begun sending their children to the US for schooling; thereafter, some became citizens. According to political scientists Raúl Rodríguez and Harry Targ, “the US had become Cuba’s de facto economic metropolis” by the 1880s.

The peak of annexationist sentiment

While the United States became the chief importer of Cuban goods, annexationist sentiment was peaking on both sides of the Florida Straits. In fact, in the 1840s, acquiring Cuba was virtually the only issue upon which Democrats and Whigs agreed, if for different reasons. Some southerners were so committed they joined the pro-annexationist uprisings in Cuba led by Narciso López in 1850 and 1851. The Spanish authorities quickly put down these revolts. However, even abolitionists in the US recognized that annexing the island held both geographic and commercial benefits. Two presidents tried to purchase Cuba from Spain—James Polk offered $100 million in 1848 and Franklin Pierce offered $130 million in 1854. Both were turned down.

As a pro-slavery Democrat (albeit a Northerner), Pierce was interested in Cuba as a slave state: his southern allies were fearful that the enslaved on the island might revolt. In 1854, he instructed an emissary, Pierre Soulé, to offer up to $130 million to buy Cuba. His effort failed. In October, Soulé and two Europe-based colleagues drafted the Ostend Manifesto, asserting that the US should invade Cuba if Spain continued to refuse to sell it.

The argument over annexing Cuba was shelved as the prospect of civil war loomed at home. The debate over slavery foreclosed any possibility of adding a new slave territory to the Union. After the Civil War, American presidents changed course: Ulysses S. Grant pushed hard for emancipation in Cuba during the Ten Years War (1868-78), feeling it would provide more political stability for the island. As for Cuban sentiment, once President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, plantation owners lost interest in being annexed. As it turns out, Cuba was one of the last countries in the Americas to abolish slavery; it did so in 1886.

Direct US control over Cuban affairs

Once the US became involved in the Cuban independence struggle against Spain—the Spanish-American War—its long-standing desire to control the island was realized: the US occupied Cuba for three and a half years, from 1898 to 1902. “Even before Cuba gained independence from Spain,” write Rodríguez and Targ, it “was infantilised or alternatively gendered as female by government officials and popular culture in the US… major US newspapers portrayed Cuba as a damsel in distress.” Contemporary histories still don’t present an accurate portrayal of Cuban independence, often giving too much credit to the US for “liberating” the island from Spain, when in reality, Cubans had fought three separate wars to gain independence. The final one was in 1895; by the time the US got involved three years later, the mambí (rebel) army already held large swaths of the country. After Spain surrendered, the US denied Cubans participation in the peace treaty negotiations.

After President William McKinley asked for authorization to go to war with Spain in April 1898, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, stating that the US would not annex Cuba or establish permanent control over the island. Rodríguez and Targ argue that Teller set the stage for the Platt Amendment of 1901, which allowed for US intervention in Cuban affairs any time the US deemed it necessary. It also forced Cuba to lease the Guantanamo Bay naval station to the US as a condition of withdrawing American troops. Platt, in effect, meant “‘there is, of course, little or no independence left in Cuba,’” a diplomat wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

Albert J. Beveridge’s 1901 article displayed the paternalistic and racist ideology vis a vis Cuba that was standard at the time. He argued for continued US meddling in Cuban affairs, detailing the infrastructure the US put in place during its occupation. The US built post offices, schools, roads, and sanitation systems, achievements that Beveridge suggested Cubans could never have accomplished by themselves. Comparing Cuba to other Latin American republics, Beveridge noted demographic similarities and differences, including the relatively greater population of Blacks in Cuba. Of that cohort, he opined that “history and contemporaneous fact do not justify the belief that this element, left to itself, increases the Cuban capacity for self-government, unaided, unguided and unrestrained. Hayti, directly across from Cuba, is an instance.”

Even after the end of the US occupation, its troops were thrice dispatched to put down popular movements that threatened the holdings of American landowners in the subsequent twenty years. By 1926, Americans owned sixty percent of the Cuban sugar industry. For over half a century after occupation, the US supported corrupt dictatorships in Cuba, and exercised indirect economic and political domination. This exertion of power helped create the conditions for a mass resistance movement in both rural and urban areas. That movement culminated in 1959 in full-fledged revolution.

Two hundred years after the Monroe Doctrine, the US is still trying to control Cuba; its intact trade embargo—imposed in response to Fidel Castro’s nationalization of US-owned businesses and property—has endured for six-plus decades, even after Castro’s death in 2016. Owing to the popularity of the late dictator, the US Department of State recommended against responding militarily to nationalization efforts. Rather, “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba,” wrote Lester Mallory, a deputy assistant secretary of state, in 1960. He recommended measures including “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Notwithstanding the fact that President Barack Obama took important steps to improve diplomatic relations with Cuba—famously traveling to the island and meeting with then-president Raúl Castro, Fidel’s successor, in 2016—the US embargo remains, despite its spectacular failure. It has not provoked sustained mass uprisings to push for political change in Cuba, although this dynamic has shifted some in recent years. Its one achievement has been to harm average Cubans in material ways. The embargo has arguably achieved the opposite of its intent. It has provided the regime with a convenient scapegoat for the country’s many domestic challenges: shortages of food, medicine, and gas, as well as frequent electrical blackouts have all reliably been blamed on the embargo. Contrary to Beveridge’s insistence, the best interests of the Cuban people have never been a US priority.

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