I’ve left out important parts of this story, particularly as regards Central America. We’ll pick up some of that along the way, but I want to keep pressing forward in time. At the end of the 19th century, Spain’s empire had been decimated; among the few remaining holdings, the most important by far was Cuba. Cuba had always been key to Spain’s American colonies and, as such, had received a disproportionate amount of attention and investment from the Spanish Crown. Cuba came to be seen more as a province of Spain than a colony.
When the Monroe Doctrine had prohibited European powers from colonizing in the Americas, Cuba was “grandfathered” as were Puerto Rico and other Spanish holdings. As pressure mounted for the building of some sort of canal that would link the Atlantic with the Pacific, the U.S. become concerned about being able to control the seas.
Naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan argued that whoever ruled the seas would rule the world, and he pushed the U.S. to establish strategic bases in the Caribbean and in Hawaii. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, was a great admirer of Mahan and actively lobbied for the U.S. to expel Spain from the Americas.
At the same time, José Martí, the leader of the Cuban independence movement strengthened ties with the United States, seeking support (and arms) for the coming revolution. Many Americans were sympathetic to Martí’s requests for aid, some wanting the U.S. to annex Cuba, others seeking freedom for the island.
As the unrest turned into open rebellion, Spain responded cruelly. They moved residents of the island into concentration camps, thereby cutting the supply lines of the rebels. People in the United States were outraged. The pressure for U.S. intervention continued to grow. Journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst published story after story documenting the atrocities of the Spaniards and the valor of the Cubans. Some of what they wrote was even true.
Finally a truce was negotiated between Cuba and Spain, and Cuba began functioning as an autonomous state on January 1, 1898. Then on February 15, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor. Studies as to the cause of the explosion have never been conclusive, but the public was convinced that Spain was behind the plot and pressured the administration to take military action.
Congress passed measures recognizing Cuban independence, renouncing all intentions of annexation and authorizing the President to take any military measures necessary to free Cuba from Spain. Spain took offense and declared war on the U.S. on April 23; the U.S. responded in kind on April 25. The war, which lasted four months, was fought in the Pacific and the Caribbean.
The U.S. gained most of Spain’s colonies, including the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. The question arose as what to do about Cuba. Annexation was now out of the question, yet the U.S. had no intention of allowing the island to determine its own course. The answer was the Platt amendment. The Platt amendment restricted Cuba’s ability to establish relations with other nations, to obtain loans from foreign entities and other such matters. It granted the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban affairs when deemed necessary. It also called for the establishment of a permanent U.S. naval base on the island. (i.e., Guantánamo Bay)
Understandably, the Cubans rejected the Platt Amendment outright. However, Washington soon made it clear that there would be no independence for Cuba if they did not accept the terms being offered. Finally, the Cubans decided that freedom with some restrictions was better than remaining under military rule.
Cuban revolutionary leader Juan Gualberto Gómez stated:
To reserve to the United States the faculty of deciding for themselves when independence is menaced, and when, therefore, they ought to intervene to preserve it, is equivalent to delivering up the key of our house, so that they can enter it at all hours, when the desire takes them, day or night, with intentions good or ill. If it belongs to the United States to determine what Cuban government merits the qualification ‘adequate’… only those Cuban governments will live which count on its support and benevolence.
His words would prove prophetic, not only for Cuba, but for all of Latin America.