The Colonial Roots

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History of Imperialism in Cuba

Cannons overlooking la Habana Harbor El Castillo Del Morro in Havana Harbor La Catedral de La Havana Monument to the Battleship Maine Colonial building in Old Habana
(click one of the historical landmarks of Havana to see an enlarged view)

Centuries of Conflict

Cuba's history is filled with conflict against imperial beliefs and powers.  Since it was discovered by Europeans until the eve of the 20th century it was held as a Spanish Colony.  The Spanish-American War and it's aftermath brought new conflict for Cuba and a new world power to deal with.  To understand the current situation in Cuba it is vital to understand past events in Cuban history.
Cuba's relations with Spain started early, with the arrival of Columbus on their shores.  At this time neither Columbus nor the Spanish government were concerned with the welfare of the Taino and Ciboney people indigenous to the region.  Columbus' first concerns were for gold and slaves, as illustrated in his journal, "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." (Zinn, 4) 
After Diego Velasquez conquered the Cuban island for Spain in 1511 the Taino and Ciboney were also used to work in the field producing sugarcane.  The Spanish who had control over Cuba at the time had little concern for the welfare of their subjects.  The indigenous population was decimated by hard work in fields and mines, disease and insurrections.  Spain's policy in Cuba led to almost complete genocide of the native population.  Native Africans brought into Cuba as slaves helped to replace this lost labor force.

Spanish Colonial Rule

Spanish rule in Cuba was incessantly tested for decades before America became involved in the struggle for Cuban independence.  From 1868 to 1878 a revolt was led by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a sugarcane plantation owner.  This revolt, known as the Ten Years War, ended the lives of 200,000 Cubans.  In 1895 another revolt surfaced under the cry of "Cuba Libre!" (Free Cuba!).  Jose Julian Marti, a Cuban poet and patriot, led the struggle for independence until he died in battle.
The Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule came at a time of widely different views in America.  There were three primary schools of thought in regards to foreign affairs.   One claimed imperialism as America's right.  This was often supported by a humanitarian rationale, many thought that it was the "White Man's Burden" to guide and rule the Cuban people, who were seen as incapable of self-rule.  Another point of view was intensely anti-imperialistic.  This viewpoint was also supported by a humanitarian rationale.  Many sympathies were aroused by Spanish cruelties.
Some also saw the Cuban rebellion akin to the American Revolution and were willing to support Cuban independence from an oppressive power.  Often these two viewpoints are the only ones considered, despite the importance of another group.  This group, as described by William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, was
a coalition of businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians who opposed traditional colonialism and advocated instead a policy of an open door through which America's preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world. (Zinn, 294)

The Spanish American War

Prior to the war many big business interests were against supporting a military engagement because they feared that a recession would result.  However, it became apparent to many that the door to Cuba would not open without American involvement in the War.   U.S. troops became involved in the fighting after the Maine, a United States battleship, exploded in February of 1898.  Many speculated that the explosion was wrought by Spain and that media hysteria soon led to war.
Imperialism and colonialism may not have been strong motivations for the war effort.  Before the advent of war economic neo-colonialism was the dominant concern, McKinley had even forsworn more direct control by promising to prevent the annexation of Cuba.  However, the war itself did much to inflate expansionist beliefs.  It was the most popular of all American wars and the relatively low cost of maintaining the war (which lasted only a short while) convinced many that colonialism and imperialism would have little cost.  Theodore Roosevelt was the quintessential imperialist during the war.  He led a volunteer army (the Rough Riders) to capture San Juan hill and referred to the Spanish-American War as a "bully fight" and as "great fun."   Commercial and industrial interest was increasingly converted to expansionism as business sought cheap raw materials and new markets for their goods.  The concept of the "White Man's Burden" also took a greater hold as Americans realized that this "humanitarian" concept supported their desire for further expansion, making neo-colonialism an "imperialism of righteousness."

United States Influence

While the United States had previously sworn off annexation of Cuba, the dominant neo-colonial opinion was still far too strong to deny.  U.S. business demanded economic presence and influence in the Cuban economy.  Since there was a strong chance that complete Cuban sovereignty would exclude this neo-colonial influence, many Americans demanded an influence more direct than economic superiority could provide.   This desire took hold in the Platt Amendment in 1901.  While it ended the war and increased the power and sovereignty of Cuba it also limited Cuba in many ways, restricting ability to make treaties, borrow money and change laws.  The United States also reserved the right to maintain a military presence (in the form of a naval base) and to intervene in Cuban affairs.  While this peace largely ignored the Cuban desire for freedom the Cubans had little choice since the treaty was negotiated between Spain and the United States.  The Cuban island had changed its status from Spanish colony to sovereign nation, a step forward despite conditional and incomplete self-rule.
The Spanish-American War and U.S. involvement in Cuba, exemplified in the Platt Amendment, arose largely from humanitarian interests and economic conditions.   The results were Cuba being left without complete independence and the continuance of American presence in Cuba.  The U.S. federal government still maintained political, economic and military influence over Cuban affairs.

Links to more information:

Hartford World History Archive
Anti-Imperialism League
Cuba History Timeline
Another Timeline
Cuba History Page
"A Splendid Little War"
Theodore Roosevelt and the Spanish American War

This page created by students

Elizabeth Allen / Peter Eames / Tony Suber

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Key Terms

Colonialism:  The system or policy by which a country maintains foreign colonies, especially to exploit them economically.
Neo-Colonialism:  The colonial exploitation by a foreign power of a region that has visibly achieved independence.

Imperialism: The policy and practice of forming and maintaining an empire in seeking to control raw materials and world markets by the conquest of other countries and the establishment of colonies.

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Uncle Sam: I Don't Like the Job,
Rudyard, My Boy!

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The White Man's Burden

By Rudyard Kipling
McClure's Magazine 12 (Feb. 1899).
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.

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Whiteman's Burden

The White Man's Burden

The Brown Man's Burden

by Henry Labouchère
Truth (London); reprinted in Literary Digest 18 (Feb. 25, 1899).
Pile on the brown man's burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the "niggers"
Who progress would impede;
Be very stern, for truly
'Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Pile on the brown man's burden;
And, if ye rouse his hate,
Meet his old-fashioned reasons
With Maxims up to date.
With shells and dumdum bullets
A hundred times made plain
The brown man's loss must ever
Imply the white man's gain.
Pile on the brown man's burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don't hesitate to shoot.

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Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

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Zinn, Howard.  A People's History of the United States.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1980
Hofstadter, Richard.  The American Political Tradition.   New York:  Random House, 1948 (poem and picture source) (Rough Riders photo)

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