Updated: Dec 21, 2019
In the past few centuries, the United States has been a hegemonic power in its hemisphere, exerting domestic control over its Latin American neighbors. Like many of its Latin American neighbors, the island of Cuba shared a long heritage of colonial control, either from Spain or the United States. In this hemispheric relationship between the United States and Latin America, in the words of the Greek philosopher Thucydides, “large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.” Despite its shared background of US dominion, Cuban revolutionaries successfully toppled the US-backed Batista regime in 1959. Cuba stood out by defying a regional superpower and exerting its right to self-determination. Several Latin American regimes had been toppled with US blessing, but never had Latin Americans overthrown a US-backed rule. Cuba served almost as a new “light upon a hill” by proving to its peers and the world its independence. The Cuban Revolution radically reconfigured the relationship between the United States and Latin America. In this paper, I will set out to discover why Cuba was successful where other nations failed in gaining independence, how that forced a shift in US foreign policy, what those changes meant for Latin American nations and their relationship with the United States, and what all of this means for the future of the hemisphere.
A 1736 colonial map by Herman Moll of the West Indies and Mexico, together comprising “New Spain”
The island of Cuba served as a colony of the Spanish Empire for several centuries, from 1492 to 1898. Cuba shared these origins with most of its neighbors in then Spanish America. Spanish rule in Cuba was the first of a few different superpowers who would exert their influence on the island. This colonial rule set several precedents for its one-sided relationships with global superpowers. Spanish control established a mercantilist system in Cuba; it became an economy of extraction equipped purely to harvest raw materials and ship them to the economically powerful nation that exerted influence there. Originally the Spanish prized Cuba for its gold and silver, but soon tobacco and especially sugar became the most valuable goods originating in Cuba. This plantation economy would remain for centuries, granting the nation’s elite with huge riches from exports while creating a large and uneducated population that provided menial labor. The Spanish colonial society on the island created distinct divisions along socioeconomic and racial lines; divisions that would remain even to the modern day to some extent. The elites of society held an inordinate amount of the wealth and political power, making self-governing a challenge. Colonial Cuba, especially its elites, depended on the mother country for economic prosperity and stability. Gaping social inequalities simmered until in 1895, José Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party began fighting for Cuban independence. Martí was killed in battle, and Spain began a campaign of suppression. It was General Valeriano Weyler, with his practice of rounding Cubans into reconcentrados (concentration camps), that caught the attention of a growing power to the North.
Cuban peasants forced from their countryside homes
By the time fighting in Cuba caught the eye of the United States, the US was at the culmination of 3 decades of expansionism fueled by economy, ideology, and foreign policy. The United States’ manufacturing capabilities had increased hugely, and with significant overproduction, manufacturers sought new foreign markets in which to sell their goods. Those Americans in support of expansion embraced theories of social darwinism and positivism, believing that it was the United States’ duty to “civilize” less developed nations, and that all things in society can and should be improved by human effort. American foreign policy was influenced hugely by Alfred Mahan’s work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, in which Mahan asserted that much-needed sea power could be gained through a strong naval and commercial fleet. Mahan’s argued value of sea power played a large role in the growth of the US navy and overseas holdings. This combination of factors led the American people to notice a moment of radical change in Cuba and desire intervention against the Spanish. Yellow journalism from Pulitzer and Hearst fueled the fire, driving Americans into a frenzy for war with Spain. After the explosion of the Maine in Havana Harbor, the United States declared war with Spain. Its first move in the fight to liberate Cuba was to seize the Philippines. After resounding victories at sea, the United States forced out the centuries-old Spanish regime and assumed control of its colonial holdings. Thus began a sort of “imperial experiment.” The United States decided not to relinquish control of its overseas holdings, instead waiting until the local governments were deemed ready for self-rule. The United States’ gain of strategic holdings in both Atlantic and Pacific transformed it into a dominant global entity. The US became increasingly interventionist, and began its dominion over the Caribbean especially as a “US lake.” Most of Cuba’s neighbors in the region had gained independence decades earlier, and even though they were often dysfunctional, they were somewhat independent. Unlike most Latin American nations, Cuba had gone immediately from the hands of one imperial power to another (which it would do again). The island had bore witness to the formation of an American empire and an era of intervention.
“Destruction of the War Ship Maine was the Work of an Enemy” in the New York Journal (February 1898)
US hegemony in Cuba was marked by sugar monoculture and economic as well as political dependence on the United States. The United States had begun to play the role of political arbiter and guarantor in Latin American domestic affairs, and Cuba was no exception. Upon taking Cuba from Spanish control, the United States passed the Platt Amendment as a set of conditions for Cuban independence from Spain. This provision prohibited any foreign debt or treaties that might compromise Cuban independence, established US naval bases on the island, and granted the US the right to intervene in Cuban domestic affairs to “preserve independence.” In addition, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 proclaimed that the United States would have the authority to exercise an “international police force.” This proclamation transformed the Monroe Doctrine into an offensive policy of intervention. The United States government believed it was their duty to intervene in Latin American affairs in order to maintain stability. Much like the Spanish regime preceding it, the US government perpetuated a Cuban economy of extraction. Cuba was unable to develop its own industry, instead relying entirely on the cash crop of sugar. In a strong resemblance to the old mercantilist system, Cuba relied on US market consumption of their sugar for prosperity. The colonial plantation economy remained, perpetuating age-old divisions in society along racial and class lines. An imbalance of payments in favor of the US further drained Cuba, worsening economic divides in the population.
Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar (1952)
US imperialist presence on the island of Cuba was less direct and forceful than at the turn of the century, yet continued well into the 1900’s, and by then a US-backed military regime ruled Cuba with an iron fist. Fulgencio Batista rose to power through a 1933 “revolt of the sergeants,” and effectively ruled Cuba into the late 1950s. Oppression and inequality had built up, and in 1953 the young revolutionary Fidel Castro led a failed attack on army barracks at Moncada. Castro and his brother Raúl were put on trial in Santiago. It was at the sentencing that Fidel gave his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech in which he criticized the members of the court for their involvement in the violent and unjust Batista regime, evoked the “Father of Cuban Independence” José Martí, and called for liberal reform he wished to see in Cuba. After exile in Mexico, Fidel returned to Cuba to fight, along with him Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The rebel fighters managed to gain a foothold in the Sierra Maestra, and from there used guerrilla tactics to eventually displace the Batista regime from Cuba. Castro rallied the Cuban people with patriotic calls for self-determination, to throw off the yoke of US hegemony and to bring lasting reform to Cuba. Fidel’s revolutionary movement came when Batista’s rule was waning and US attention was elsewhere. He had managed in a few years to take his country in a direction that would redefine the relationship between Latin America and the United States to this day.
The postwar period marked a transition in US foreign policy from a Good Neighbor Policy to a superpower rivalry with the USSR. The result was a policy of containment, dedicated to stopping the spread of communism and preserving US political interests globally. Strategic considerations and geography became more important, and US foreign policy shifted its focus to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Strategic concerns trumped economic ones, and political stability became a priority. In the 1940s, the United States considered the fall of China and North Korea to communism failures to contain, and the US would be entirely unwilling to make any more concessions. This shift in priorities marked a significant change in attitudes toward Latin America. The US was now willing to back right-wing dictators if they meant regional stability and a safeguard against communism. US anti-communist measures escalated over time. In Guatemala, socialist President Arbenz led land reforms that expropriated United Fruit Company holdings. A leftist movement that endangered US interests was considered a threat, and President Eisenhower began a “two-track policy” that prosecuted Arbenz publicly and plotted his overthrow covertly. CIA Director Allen Dulles encouraged a military coup by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas in 1954. In a system of superpower politics, the United States was willing to take more drastic measures to protect its political and economic self-interests, even if that meant measures that went against proclaimed values of freedom and democracy. A leftist revolution in Cuba fit exactly the criteria of a threat in US eyes.
The United States had its attention elsewhere, but with the rise of Fidel Castro, foreign policy efforts shifted to placating him or even removing him from power. Even though the US was now forced to pay attention to events in Cuba, the United States had little interest in Cuba and domestic Cuban affairs. The only concern was the threat of spreading political instability in a region so close to the US mainland. Fidel Castro even visited the United States in 1959, President Eisenhower would not even meet with him, and his meeting with Vice President Nixon went poorly. The United States was concerned that Cuba was heading into Soviet arms, and now aimed to weaken Cuba. Cuba traded their sugar for Soviet oil, to which the US responded by cutting their Cuban sugar quota. In response, Cuba expropriated American oil refineries on the island, and in turn the US broke diplomatic relations with the nation and began an embargo. This is where the United States and Cuba remain today.
A fallen plane from the Bay of Pigs invasion
The United States made several efforts to eliminate Castro after the break in relations. Since the US could not successfully use diplomacy, force was the next best option. The most notable of these attempts to use force was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA orchestrated a plan to train Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and start an uprising against Castro, all without any sign of US involvement. The plan was heavily flawed and had a poor chance of success, but the Kennedy administration was so set to gain an early victory against communism that they gave the green light anyway. The invasion was a debacle, and inadvertently gave Castro a perfect tool to unify Cubans behind him and against the United States. During the Cuban Revolution, Fidel had never claimed to be a communist, nor did he call the revolution a socialist movement. However, after a clear act of aggression from the United States, Castro went straight into the arms of communism. Only after the invasion attempt did Castro espouse Marxism or implement outright socialist policies. Ironically, the US attempt to prevent the spread of communism drove a strategically significant nation into the arms of the Soviet Bloc. Castro had been successful in establishing Cuba’s freedom from United States influence, but in a system of superpower politics, Castro had to trade one superpower for another, the USSR. Here again, in an attempt to establish self-determination, Cuba succeeded only in switching between influence of superpowers. The dualist dynamics of the Cold War again thwarted Cuban efforts toward true independence. Cuba was again placed in a unique relationship with the world’s powers.
For the rest of Latin America, events in Cuba reshaped relationships with the United States. The United States not only had watched another nation fall to communism, but this time pushed by their own policy and in their own “back yard.” Though Latin America had initially been denied any variation of the Marshall Plan (a foreign investment program designed to stimulate growth and recovery in postwar Europe), soon the Kennedy administration began the Alliance for Progress in order to prevent “a second Cuba.” The Alliance would promote social and economic reforms under US watch. Socialism would be permitted in order to promote peaceful social revolution. Even then, the aid that came to Latin America came with the condition that that money must be spent on US-manufactured goods. The United States took great care to promote their own self interests in the region, even in a program designed to improve conditions in other nations. It was for political reasons, to prevent more violence and defiance of US influence. With the prize of foreign investment also came the threat of intervention and use of military strongmen to protect US political interests. Although the policy of supporting right-wing dictators went directly against proclaimed American values of liberty and democracy, the government deemed regional stability and the containment of communism more important than the preservation of proclaimed ideals. In the dualist superpower system of the Cold War, the United States made the value judgement that the preservation of its own sphere and the containment of its rival trumped all. This judgement came at a cost to Latin America, making it into a playing field of the battle the US was fighting from a distance. Since the rise of communist Cuba, the US was stricter than ever and was set on full containment at all costs.
The Cuban Revolution (1959)
The Cuban Revolution marks the island of Cuba as a lone example of successful defiance of a regional superpower. A defiant nation in a submissive region radically changed US views toward their “backyard,” and changed the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Since the events discussed in this paper, the Cold War has ended and the international community has shifted yet again, including the dynamic between the United States and Latin America. Interestingly, the US’ official relationship with Cuba remains where it was in the 1960s, with only minor easing reforms. However, neither the Cuba nor the United States of today are the same as they were in the Cold War. The US has long dropped the policy of containment. Fidel Castro has stepped down from power, and his brother Raúl is leading slow but clear reforms moving back toward capitalism and entrepreneurship. Cuba is reconnecting to the international community, this time finally without being in any superpower’s sphere of influence. Cuba is in a position to come into its own right as an independent nation, and become a new nation. US policy toward Cuba has always evolved, perhaps it is time for that policy to change again. The United States now has no claim to intervene in or dictate the affairs of Latin American nations, even Cuba. The US no longer has the same role, and now we cannot be the ones who make the decisions in this hemisphere. The end of a dualist superpower era frees Latin America as a whole to become independent players on the global stage. Perhaps the end of an era calls for a new and redefined era for United States-Latin American relations, and the beginning of a true hemispheric partnership.