One of the most common misconceptions regarding the origins of what has been described as a genocidal embargo imposed by the United States on the island nation of Cuba for nearly the past six decades is that it arose primarily as a method in the long and bitter Cold War initiated by the West against real and perceived Communism in the East. Even the most liberal writers sometimes talk about the embargo as if it’s just a remnant of a bygone era where Communism was on the rise and the State Department took whatever measures necessary to prevent its so-called “domino theory” from taking effect. But hostility towards Cuba arose not out of the Cold War per se; it arose out of the fact that that nation’s people would not accept being dominated by the larger empire to the north. Communism was the ideology Cuban revolutionaries chose to resist imperial dominance with. This would likely never have happened had it not been for the more than half-a-century of aggressive capitalism the northern empire raped the island with. From the earliest days of the republic the leaders of the United States have wished to dominate Cuba and extract from it its resources and exploit the labor of its inhabitants, as stated by none other than the so-called “founding fathers” themselves.
For a full account of U.S. imperialist designs on Cuba, one needn’t look to 1959, but to 1809. That is the year when then U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his Secretary of State (and soon-to-be president himself) James Madison saying,
“I candidly confess that I have looked upon Cuba as the most interesting addition that can be made to our system of states.”
This was an idea that never quite left Jefferson’s mind, as he was still harping on it eight years later while in political retirement, this time insisting that if the U.S. were to “seize Cuba, we will be masters of the Caribbean.” And finally in 1820, six years before he died, Jefferson urged one final time the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to make annexation of Cuba a priority, stating bluntly that they “ought, at first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.”
Even the supposedly firm abolitionist Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who would go on to become president two years later) referred in 1823 to Cuba, along with Puerto Rico and Guam, as “natural appendages of the North American continent”, designating Cuba in particular “an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union.” He also wrote, that same year, a threatening letter to Minister of Spain Hugh Nelson Adams declaring that Cuba would eventually fall under the control of the United States one way or another and that independence and self-determination for the island and its inhabitants was simply out of the question.
“Cuba, forcibly disjoined 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 off its bosom.”
As president, John Quincy Adams predicted that Cuba was soon going to fall “like a ripening plum into the lap of the Union.” The early abolitionist couldn’t have been too unaware of the fact that southern plantation owners had more than anyone cast their sights on annexing Cuba with the ultimate goal of incorporating it into their vast and growing slave economy. In this regard, Adams was essentially on the same page as pro-slavery advocate and future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, who as a Senator in the 1850s declared “Cuba must be ours.” (Also see the Ostend Manifesto, a secret document from 1854 outlining a U.S. plan to go to war with Spain in order to take possession of Cuba for the purpose of incorporating it into a southern slave empire. The leak of this document is believed by many to have brought down the presidency of Franklin Pierce.)
Though the Ostend Manifesto was never implemented, the U.S. government didn’t give up hope that it might someday achieve many of the main objectives that were in it, such as engaging a declining Spanish empire in battles where colonized Spanish territories fighting for their independence could simply be turned into colonized American territories. U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine stated as much in 1881 when he wrote,
“If ever ceasing to be Spanish, Cuba must necessarily become American and not fall under any European domination [due to Cuba being] the field for our most extended trade in the Western Hemisphere.”
“Though in the hands of Spain,” wrote Blaine, Cuba is an integral “part of the American commercial system”. The fact that Cuba was such a large trading partner for the U.S. was undoubtedly why one U.S. administration after the other were so adamantly opposed to slavery ever being abolished on the island, even after it had been formally abolished on the mainland.
A writer in the May 16, 1891 issue of the Detroit Free Press opined: “Cuba would make one of the finest states in the Union, and if American wealth, enterprise and genius once invaded the suspect island, it would become a veritable hive of industry in addition to being one of the most fertile gardens of the world… [The United States] should act at once and make [annexation] possible.”
Nothing would foreshadow the eventual U.S. relationship with Cuba as much as the official memorandum written by President William McKinley’s Undersecretary of War J.C. Breckenridge to Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles on Christmas Eve, 1897 in which he mapped out his country’s future policy towards Cuba (then a Spanish colony) thusly:
“…we must clean up the country, even if this means using the methods Divine Providence used on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
We must destroy everything within our cannons’ range of fire. We must impose a harsh blockade so that hunger and its constant companion, disease, undermine the peaceful population and decimate the Cuban army.”
This Breckenridge proposed as a means of dividing and decimating the Cuban inhabitants – whom he referred to as “vulgar”, “abject” and “immoral” – so that annexation of the island would be a cakewalk. The memo goes on to suggest the U.S., once Spain is defeated and driven away from the island, work to support a newly independent government of Cuba while simultaneously undermining it by working to “create conflict” and stir “unrest and violence” among other elements in the country who would then receive the backing of the United States. In other words, the strategy was as usual to divide and conquer.
“To sum up, our policy must always be to support the weaker against the stronger, until we have obtained the extermination of them both, in order to annex the Pearl of the Antilles [Cuba].”
From the earliest days of U.S. intervention of Cuba (the invasion commenced in 1898), the intention was never to help Cubans achieve independence for themselves, but to oust Spain from the island so that Cuba could be taken away from Cubans and incorporated as a vassal of the United States of America. The U.S. goal was always to be the new colonial master according to an editorial appearing in a June, 1898 issue of the Chicago Tribune which stated, “All of these islands [Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines] will belong to us by sovereign right of honorable conquest. They will be American soil from the moment the Stars and Stripes float over them. Annexation of all three is the natural outcome.” This did not come to pass in the way the imperialists hoped it would, through formal annexation. Resistance from native residents was much too formidable. However, indirect imperial control of Cuba was essentially achieved through the forced insertion at gunpoint of the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution in 1901, authored by United States Senator Orville Platt (who said that Cubans children “incapable of stable self-government”), guaranteeing the United States military the “right” to intervene in the affairs of Cuba whenever it pleased. It also “forced Cuba to lease in perpetuity to the USA a naval base at Guantanamo Bay”, currently home to the world’s most notorious political prison. The U.S. military would use the Platt Amendment to invade and occupy Cuba from 1906-1909 and again in 1912.
As soon as Spain was ousted from Cuba, American capitalist vultures infiltrated the island and feasted on whatever resources they could plunder. One of the earliest was the Island of Cuba Real Estate Company which essentially seized Cuban land and sold it to American big businesses. An apartheid or Jim Crow-like education system was immediately implemented which deemed Cubans with darker skin incapable of being “Americanized” and thus forbidden from admission to higher education in the U.S. Elections set up and overseen by the United States military in 1902 specifically prohibited women, Afro-Cubans and poor people from participation. All of the wicked aspects of the American empire were being systematically ingrained into the new Cuba, and before long the Mafia was allowed free reign in Havana under the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. All of this was just fine with the U.S. Empire, the dictator’s primary sponsor. After all, his iron rule ensured that U.S. corporations would have the ability to exploit the Cuban working class and reap the benefits of their labor without fear of meaningful challenge. “By 1959,” according to the Black Agenda Report, “US corporations controlled 75 percent of arable land, 100 percent of oil refineries, and 90 percent of all telecommunications.” All of these factors and the frustrations they caused paved the way for eventual overthrow of the existing order in the Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by none other than a young visionary named Fidel Castro.