H-Diplo Article Review 759 on “‘Between Two Communities So Diverse’: Confrontation and Collaboration in Cuba, 1898–1902.”

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Article Review

No. 759

19 April 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Joseph Gonzalez.  “‘Between Two Communities So Diverse’: Confrontation and Collaboration in Cuba, 1898–1902.”  Diplomacy & Statecraft 28:1(2017).  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2017.1275471.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR759


Review by Michael Donoghue, Marquette University



Joseph J. Gonzalez has written an intriguing article on early U.S.-Cuban relations following Cuba’s final break with Spain and its problematic new association with the United States. The overarching question that frames his argument is why the United States decided to grant Cuba a limited independence following the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War while at the same time it chose to annex the Philippines (and Puerto Rico, one might add, although Gonzalez does not address this issue in his discussion).  A more specific and controversial focus of the essay rests on divisions among Cuban nationalists of varying degrees and more collaborative Cuban elites on whether to accept ‘independence’ under the restrictive conditions that the U.S. military and the McKinley administration insisted upon—or rather to forge a purely Cuban path to sovereignty in a costly and perhaps hopeless insurgent war against the occupying North Americans. These were certainly hard decisions to make in the wake of a devastating war that scholars estimate cost 300,000 Cuban lives and wrecked the island’s economy, the third such conflict in thirty years.[1] According to Gonzalez, a slim majority of Cuban nationalists, when faced with these hard realities and cognizant of the need for U.S. capital and trade to rebuild their shattered economy, decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and accept significant U.S. management in the formation of their new state, specifically the 1901 Platt Amendment. That measure, which U.S. officials insisted be included in any deal that ended their formal occupation, gave birth to a stillborn republic. Under the amendment’s articles, the United States held veto power over any treaties the new nation might negotiate with foreign states, reserved the unilateral right of military intervention to preserve order, and granted Washington sites for naval and coaling stations which would perpetuate the presence of the U.S. military on Cuban soil for decades to come—as well as provide handy sites for intervention on the island and against its neighbors in the circum-Caribbean region. The Cubans either had to accept this millstone around the neck of independence or, as General Wood, commander of U.S. forces in Cuba threatened, be subjected to occupation ad infinitum.  The whole affair boils down to Lar Shoultz’s thesis in his Infernal Little Republic that Thucydides’s doctrine that “great states do what they will while small states do what they must” is apt for Cuba.[2]


Gonzalez’s article differs somewhat with this assertion and thus opens an historiographic can of worms. Revisionist U.S. historians have long argued that the Platt Amendment was forced upon the Cuban political leadership, which resisted it (at least rhetorically), in order to create a U.S. neo-colony that replaced the formal Spanish colony that existed from 1511 to 1898. Louis A. Pérez Jr., the leading U.S. scholar on Cuba, claimed in The War of 1898 that the Platt Amendment provided the perfect device to circumvent the Teller Amendment, which had been passed in a wave of altruistic emotion as part of the U.S. declaration of war on Spain, and which forbade American annexation of the island. The Platt Amendment, according to Pérez, provided a means to virtually annex Cuba without formally doing so, or rather to gain all the benefits of annexation for the United States minus the problems an official incorporation might garner.[3] Certainly, most post-1959 Cuban scholars viewing this process through a Marxist lens felt likewise, as they still refer to the Cuban government from 1902 to 1959 as the neocolonial republic, though a few limited that date range from 1902 to 1934 when the Cuban government abolished the Platt Amendment following the 1933 Cuban Revolution (though a key part of the amendment, the U.S. naval station at Guantánamo remained in Washington’s hands despite this abrogation).[4]


Gonzalez sees this process as a much more complex situation, which it no doubt was. But at times, he appears to be splitting hairs on key issues of coercion and power. Yes, Cuba Libre leaders resented the dictums of the proposed Platt Amendment, especially the U.S. carte blanche intervention clause. They hoped to get around them or ameliorate them in some way perhaps even in the near future. And yes they had the ability to exercise a limited agency in negotiations with Americans. But many Cuban nationalists, even such stalwarts as Máximo Gómez and Calixto García, heroes of both major wars for independence (1868-1878 and 1895-1898), were also realists who saw it as inevitable that the ‘Colossus of the North’ would exercise considerable sway in the new republic’s future. Better to come to an accommodation with Washington, no matter how painful this would be in the short term, for the longer-term benefits of alliance, investment, and trade. True sovereignty would flower gradually or in stages firmly anchored to a largely beneficial U.S. alliance. Gonzalez admits (in his footnote #7) that he uses the term “collaboration” and “co-operation” interchangeably in his analysis without acknowledging at times the important differences between these concepts. These terms should have been defined more clearly at the outset; at a minimum, Gonzalez should have defined them in terms of his approach. Also phrases, such as “Cuban nationalists’ and “Cuban veterans of the wars of Cuba Libre” are very general and includes a varying range of folks and attitudes. Some in latter group did work with Americans, often out of economic necessity, others did not and greatly resented the continued U.S. presence.


One factor that Gonzalez might have stressed a bit more is the incredible power differential that was in play here, which certainly impacted much of the Cuban decision-making. Cuba was a small country of 1.6 million inhabitants that had been largely impoverished and wrecked by nearly thirty years of war. The United States, coming out of the War of 1898, was one of the most powerful nations on earth, an industrial and economic dynamo, clearly the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere with widespread and growing investments throughout the Caribbean Basin. With a population of seventy-five million it was nearly sixty times larger in populace than Cuba. Washington’s supreme position was further enhanced by Great Britain’s decision in the mid-1890s to cede regional hegemony to the Americans and move the bulk of its naval assets from the Caribbean to the North Sea and the Channel to face the growing German naval threat to the home islands. The Caribbean after 1898 was a U.S. lake, the mare nostrum of the new American Empire. The idea that Cubans could win in a power struggle with such a force no doubt appeared fantastic to realistic Cuban officials of that period, though as Gonzalez correctly argues it might have come to this if McKinley had called for outright annexation, a catastrophe that Cubans avoided. Their history of heroic sacrifice against the Spaniards, which was well known to U.S. leaders, must have influenced Washington’s thinking here as well. Sixty years later Fidel Castro did manage to wrest total independence from the U.S., but only through an alliance with another superpower, a nuclear one: the Soviet Union. No such anti-U.S. superpower was present in the Caribbean in 1898. Cubans stood alone in the face of U.S. power.


Another grave setback, which is not mentioned by the author, is that José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the two principal firebrand Cuban revolutionaries who might have mobilized a moral stand against the Platt Amendment regardless of the cost, were both dead, victims of independence war’s incredible violence. Martí was the supreme ideological and spiritual leader of Cuba Libre, who had presciently predicted the dangers of U.S. neocolonialism for years, while Maceo embodied its foremost and nearly superhuman military genius. Imagine for a moment how the U.S. negotiations with the British Empire might have proceeded in Paris from 1782-1783 had George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all been killed in the struggle. Marti personified both the genius of Jefferson and Franklin as the intellectual and inspirational leader of the independistas. How might the history of the U.S. early republic have been affected by the absence of such giants? Might not such an environment have led American delegates in Paris to accept more compromises regarding their goal of total independence in the short term? Certainly, similar thinking obtained among Cuban negotiators with the U.S. military government of 1898-1902.


Still, as Gonzalez notes, it remains striking that when that government helped organize elections to Cuba’s Constituent Assembly as a first step towards ending occupation and beginning ‘independence,’ the more conservative and accommodative candidates whom Washington hoped would win, experienced large-scale defeats. Cuba Libre candidates won instead, but they still had to face the same difficult imperial reality vis-à-vis the United States. As Gonzalez notes, racial attitudes certainly marked U.S. views on the Cuban capacity for self-governance and forming a ‘civilized’ society. The fact that nearly a third of Cuba’s population were people of color no doubt informed the U.S. rejection of the annexation option as many Southerners and other racist Americans felt the U.S. already had enough ‘dark people’ without opening the possibility of annexing more into the Union and perhaps even bringing them in as full citizens of co-equal states. This did not discourage annexation in the Philippines, where the strategic paramountcy of the archipelago as the principle outpost to trade with China and project U.S. power in Asia overcame such concerns. The U.S. already had decided to annex Puerto Rico, which had a much smaller population of color and could satisfy U.S. desires for bases if Cuba failed to do so. The large black and mulatto population of Cuba further constricted U.S. desires for outright annexation when the other forms of imperial management, such as protectorate status, i.e. the Platt Amendment, would suffice to get American leaders what they wanted.


The ongoing war in the Philippines clearly weighed on U.S. officials’ minds regarding the dangers of annexation as well. Gonzalez is correct here. The Anti-Imperialist movement marshalled public opinion against President William McKinley’s annexation policies in the archipelago and would certainly widen their focus to Cuba if necessary. As Gonzalez notes, the majority of Cuba’s revolutionary shock troops, the mambises, were soldiers of color. These men had a very special relationship with their genius mulatto commander, General Maceo, whose death removed a powerful and potential anti-U.S. guerrilla leader. As a further precaution, most of the revolutionary army was demobilized shortly after the conflict, paid off, as Gonzalez points out, when the combatant surrendered his rifle, with $75, a considerable sum in 1899 Cuba. The U.S. military government hired others for the Cuban Army and reconstruction projects. In this manner, much of the revolutionary army was defanged early in the occupation strengthening the U.S. position in future negotiations.


It should be noted that many lighter-complexioned Cuban elites also feared the potential for violence of these colored troops, their former (or descendants of their former) slaves. As Gonzalez states, Juan Gualberto Gómez, an Afro-Cuban politician, voiced the clearest objections to the Platt Amendment in the face of Cuban elite’s ambivalence on the issue, which was personified by Tomás Estrada Palma, first President of the new republic who accepted the controversial amendment. Such elite Cuban suspicions of Afro-Cuban ambitions emerged in horrific violence several years later in the Colored War of 1912, when the Cuban government crushed efforts by colored Cubans to seek greater rights. The intervention of U.S. marines played a key role in this debacle. In an age of eugenics, both elite Cubans and U.S. officials sadly shared similar views on darker races’ incapacity for self-government. Even with all these factors in play, the vote to accept the Platt Amendment only passed 16-11, with 4 abstentions, no landslide in favor of the accord. U.S. troops also ringed the palace when these deliberations took place for ‘security purposes.’ Yet despite this coercion, the Cuban people held huge demonstrations across the island protesting the restrictions of the Platt Amendment on their sovereignty.[5]


Gonzalez logically ends his article with the Cuban delegates’ reluctant acceptance of the amendment as the price for independence and the end of the U.S. military occupation on 20 May 1902, which created a compromised sovereignty for all Cubans. But three other factors that Cubans who voted in 1901 and 1902 could not have fully predicted, further weakened Cuban independence shortly thereafter. The Convention of Commercial Reciprocity between the Republic of Cuba and the United States was signed on 11 December 1902 which established the sugar quota by which Washington would purchase the bulk of Cuban sugar and Cuba in turn would agree not to impose tariffs on U.S. imported manufactures. This accord firmly established the neo-colonial economic relationship between the two countries, cementing the U.S. preponderance of power. This was followed by the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty of Relations that officially ceded the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station and three other sites, Bahía Honda, Cienfuegos, and Nipe Bay, to Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration insisted only on maintaining the Guantánamo base (and briefly Bahía Honda, relinquishing claims on the other two sites).  This act irrevocably established the permanent military presence of the United States on Cuba, compromising its true sovereignty and ending hopes of early U.S. concessions on the Platt Amendment. The third ongoing phenomenon was the continuous buying up of Cuban properties by U.S. carpetbaggers on the island to the point that they soon held nearly 60% of all Cuban property.[6] A more thorough U.S. hegemony on Cuba, barring outright annexation, is difficult to imagine. As Gonzalez notes, the long and bloody counterinsurgency war in the Philippine at the time further convinced U.S. officials that the Platt Amendment, combined with these later economic and strategic initiatives, was the wiser path to follow. Such a course towards informal empire would bestow more than sufficient benefits and avoid the troubles that formal empire might provoke as it had in the Philippines.


Gonzalez correctly notes at the core of his article that Cuban delegates theoretically had the right to reject the Platt Amendment and many did so. But a slight majority chose to accept it with a combination of hopes and reservations. Still a larger question remains, one that backs up the older historiography on this issue: what choices did the Cubans really have given the military and political realities in the age of unbridled imperialism that Gonzalez covers. Intelligent and educated Cuban leaders knew this. And just as members of the U.S. Congress do when voting on tough, unpopular measures, Cuban leaders no doubt could allow as many of their members as possible to vote negatively so long as enough votes were available for the necessary though unsavory passage. This way political cover could be granted to as many patriots as possible. Ovidio Diaz Espino’s 2003 book, How Wall Street Created A Nation on the U.S. acquisition of the Panama Canal elicited strong criticism from many Panamanians when it was published for among other things the way he portrayed Panamanian acquiescence to the infamous 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty that granted the U.S. extraordinary rights to Panamanian soil and sharply compromised that new nation’s sovereignty.[7] Officials further passed the hated Article 136 of the Panamanian constitution that gave the U.S. a similar right to unilateral intervention on the isthmus that the Platt Amendment afforded Washington in Cuba.[8] Contemporary nationalists expressed understandable anger at Diaz Espino’s failure to portray their forefathers in a more heroic light.[9] But in 1903-1904, Panamanian leaders faced a similar dearth of choices as Cubans did when confronted by overwhelming U.S. power. The self-interest of some of them who thought they might profit from U.S. alliance no doubt shaped votes, as Gonzalez correctly notes in the Cuban context. But the sheer preponderance of U.S. power must have proven the most determinative factor in all such deliberations.


Michael E. Donoghue is an associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 2006. Among other works, he is the author of “Murder and Rape in the Canal Zone” in Jessica Gienow-Hecht, ed., Decentering America: Culture and International History II (New York: Berghahn Press, 2008), 277-311; “Race, Labor, and Security in the Panama Canal Zone,” in Philip Muehlenbeck, ed., Race, Ethnicity, and the Cold War: A Global Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), 63-90; and “Harry S. Truman’s Latin America Foreign Policy 1945-1953,” in Daniel S. Margolies, ed., A Companion to Harry S. Truman (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 389-409; and “Roberto Durán, Omar Torrijos and the Rise of Isthmian Machismo” in David M.K. Sheinin, ed., Sports Culture in Latin American History (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 17-38 His book Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) was published in 2014. He co-authored, along with Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, and Robert Brigham, et al, American Foreign Relations, A History, Volumes I and II (Boston: Cengage, 2015). Professor Donoghue is currently working on a monograph on U.S. Military-Cuban Relations, 1939-1964.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] Louis A. Pérez Jr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 5th ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 150-151.

[2] Lars Schoultz, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[3] Louis A. Pérez Jr., The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

[4] Roig de Leuchsenring, Historia de la enmienda Platt (Havana: habana imprenta el siglo XX, 1972): Julio E. LeRiverend, La República: dependencia y revolución (Havana: Editorial De Ciencias sociales, 1971); Grupos de Estudios Cubanos, La República neocolonial (Ciencias Sociales: 1975-1979); Teresita Yglesias Martínez, Cuba: primera república, segunda ocupación (Havana Imprenta Editorial, 1977); and Yunaisy Rodriguez Osorio, Dinámica del pensamiento plattista en la República Neocolonial: Una problemática desde la “larga duración” (Havana: Editorial Académica, 2012).

[5] Pérez, Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 5th ed., 149.

[6] Pérez, Jr., 156-59.

[7] Ovidio Diaz Espino, How Wall Street Created A Nation: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Panama Canal (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

[8] Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: the Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 33.

[9] Russell Mokhiber y Robert Weissman, “Cómo Wall Street creó una nación,” Economía, 6 May 2003; Renán Vega Canto, “Teodoro Roosevelt, Wall Street y la ‘independencia’ de Panamá” Tendencias, 25 October 2003; Claudio Scabuzzo, “Panamá, una nación creada en Wall Street,” La Terminal, ida, y vuelta a la realidad, 6 April 2008.