Thursday, April 19, 2018 marked the arrival of a new president of Cuba — Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. The New York Times refers to Mr. Miguel Díaz-Canel as “the handpicked successor” to Raúl Castro and someone who is “virtually unknown.”
Raúl Castro, the man Miguel Díaz is replacing, ascended to the presidency after his brother Fidel “provisionally” handed over presidential duties to him in 2006. He was officially made president February 24, 2008 by the National Assembly and was re-elected February 24, 2013. That much we know for certain. What many may not know is how Fidel Castro, Raúl’s brother, became president of Cuba.
Fidel Castro parted company with this world on November 25, 2016. He was 90 years old. That he was a brutal despot who imposed a communist state complete with death squads, torture, vicious imprisonments, and a secret police watching and listening for the slightest hint of discontent with his regime is unquestioned. Logically speaking, Cuba during Castro’s rule had to be a modern day hell-hole if Cubans were willing to risk drowning or being eaten alive by sharks to escape. However, the topic of Fidel Castro has an antecedent, a story before the story if you will.
Fidel didn’t just descend from the sky like a ray of sunshine to become the leader and murderous dictator of Cuba. He was the by-product of U.S. sponsored regime change.
Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow said this: “Castro was a pure product of American policy toward Cuba. If the Unites States had not crushed Cuba’s drive to independence in the early twentieth century, if it had not supported a series of repressive dictators there, and if it had not stood by while the 1952 election was canceled, a figure like Castro would almost certainly not have emerged. His regime is the quintessential result of a “regime change” operation gone wrong, one that comes back to haunt the country that sponsored it.”
To say that Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and the last stronghold of the Spanish empire, was having problems during the second half of the nineteenth century would be an understatement. The island was a mess. Unrest and turbulence reigned supreme.
A ten-year war for independence ended in 1878 with a tenuous truce. In 1879-80, the patriots of the just ended war rebelled again. A third rebellion took place in 1895, led by Jose Marti. He was a talented man and a gifted lawyer, diplomat, poet, and essayist. Marti’s success in uniting several factions within Cuba and expat communities was instrumental in luring two commanders from the first war — Maximo Gomez and Antonio Maceo — out of retirement. In the spring of 1895, Marti, Gomez, and Maceo landed on the island and began a new rebellion. Even though Marti was killed in one of the first battles, he left an important message behind. In an unfinished letter, Marti insisted that his fellow patriots free themselves from Spain. He also urged them “to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America.”
In spite of the brutal efforts of the Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler, the rebels made steady progress. As William Tecumseh Sherman rightly said, “war is hell.” And as a result of this war much of the Cuban population was severely impoverished. However, Cubans were more adamant and passionate than ever to gain their independence.
Fast forward to a couple of years to 1897.
William McKinley, a Republican from Ohio, is president of the United States. In the spirit of the U.S. as “policeman of the world,” McKinley held the position that Spanish rule of Cuba was at best a hindrance and at worse, a stain the U.S. could not abide. However, he was not in favor of Cubans governing themselves. McKinley didn’t think Cubans were incapable of governing themselves. To the contrary, he worried that an independent Cuba would look to its own interests to the exclusion of what Washington thought best for the island nation.
Moreover, American business interests would have been jeopardized by a free and independent Cuba. During this time, Cuban rebel leaders were openly talking about instituting reforms, including land redistribution. This alarmed American businessmen because they had some $50 million in Cuban investments, mostly in agriculture. While the fear of land redistribution and loss of invested dollars was probably real, it was not a good enough reason for the U.S. to insert itself into a sovereign nation’s business.
Early in 1898, McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana. Officially, the naval vessel was sent to make a “friendly visit.” However, most Cubans weren’t buying it. They recognized it for what it was, an in-your-face reminder of America’s intention to insert herself into the course of events in Cuba and the Caribbean.
The Maine remained moored at port in Havana without incident for three weeks. On the night of February 15, 1898 she was ripped apart by a violent explosion. Two hundred fifty sailors perished in the blast. To a man, Americans blamed Spain. And, when the navy stated that the explosion was external, blame turned to certainty. However, a naval engineer by the name of George Melville surmised that the explosion of the Maine was precipitated by a magazine explosion inside the vessel. This explanation seems to be the most plausible one.
With the tragic events of the Maine still fresh in the minds of Cubans, Spaniards, and Americans, the new Spanish prime minister, Praxedes Sagasta, tried repeatedly to negotiate a peace settlement with the United States during the spring of 1898, but was rebuffed each time. The rejections were not principled or sincere. McKinley and his supporters thought that negotiations would have led to an independent Cuba preventing the United States from having a military presence in the country. In addition, an independent Cuba would have mortified expansionists like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge (U.S. Senator from Massachusetts), and Alfred Thayer Mahan (West Point graduate and 37-year veteran of the Navy achieving the rank of Admiral). Lodge went on to warn that: “If the war in Cuba drags on through the summer with nothing done we [Republicans] shall go down to the greatest defeat ever known.” Years later, historian Samuel Eliot Morison had this to say about Spain’s efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Cuban situation: “Any president with a backbone would have seized this opportunity for an honorable solution.” Today it’s no different. Spineless presidents are the norm, not the exception. And Republicans were dedicated supporters of the military industrial complex then as they are now.
An honorable solution was not what McKinley wanted. He embraced crony capitalism in that he wanted to secure American business interests; and, much to the delight of the military industrial complex, he wanted U.S. military bases on the island. With this in mind, on April 11, 1898 McKinley asked Congress to authorize “forcible intervention” in Cuba. However, members of Congress and Americans were reluctant to send soldiers to aid the Cuban revolutionary movement.
To overcome the existing reluctance, Senator Henry Teller of Colorado authored an amendment. The amendment, named after the senator, was an amendment to the US declaration of war against Spain. It stated in part that “the people of the island of Cuba are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent.” The amendment ended this way: “The United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” In other words, the amendment specified that the U.S. would help Cuba gain her independence. And once achieved, they would pack up, go home, and leave the governing of Cuba to Cubans without interference from the United States.
On April 19, 1898, the amendment was passed by the House and Senate. The next day, April 20, 1898, the amendment was signed by president McKinley. The ultimatum was delivered to Spain. And on April 25, 1898, Congress declared war.
All told, the war lasted all of about 3 months. Not to minimize loss of life, but only 385 Americans were killed during the conflict with another 2,000 dying from wounds and disease. American statesman John Hay remarked that Spanish American conflict had been “a splendid little war.” War is framed that way by politicians who don’t have to risk life and limb participating in armed conflict where the possibility of dying is real.
With the war won and the “protocol of peace” signed on August 12, 1898, it was now time for the United States to abide by the Teller Amendment and “leave the government and control of the island to its people.” Not surprisingly, they did the opposite.
President McKinley, his administration, and those sympathetic to his intentions to control Cuba and the Caribbean worked to build public support in favor of reneging on the Teller Amendment. Journalist Whitelaw Reid, a close ally of president McKinley, proclaimed the “absolute necessity of controlling Cuba for our own defense.” He viewed the Teller Amendment as “a self-denying ordinance possible only in a moment of national hysteria.” Senator Beveridge believed the amendment was non-binding because Congress had approved it “in a moment of impulsive but mistaken generosity.” The New York Times advocated openly for breaking the promises contained in the Teller Amendment stating plainly that the United States should become “permanent possessors of Cuba if the Cubans prove to be altogether incapable of self-government.” This is the same paper that later fed the American public the lie that Iraq and Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Times change, but, apparently, the New York Times does not.
Over the course of the next year, McKinley and his ilk worked diligently to undermine the Teller Amendment through deception and lies.
The first lie was that American fighters had expelled the Spanish from Cuba, not Cubans. Never mind the fact that, for the space of about three years, the Cuban rebels, through the use of guerilla war tactics, had gained control of most of the island. They were in fact on a path to victory before the Americans arrived.
The second lie advanced the position that the Cuban rebels were cowards and watched in utter amazement as the Americans defeated the Spanish. Much like the main-stream-media today, this lie was advanced by correspondents working for respected newspaper companies.
These untruths were all too effective. Once Americans were convinced that Cubans were incapable of governing themselves, and cowards at that, McKinley and other government and military officials began telling Cubans to forget about independence. President McKinley stated that the United States would rule Cuba under “the law of belligerent right over conquered territory.” Attorney General John Griggs told Cuba’s provisional government vice president that the U.S. Army in Havana was an “invading army that would carry with it American sovereignty wherever it went.”
Understandably, Cubans were not pleased. General Maximo Gomez wrote: “None of us thought that American intervention would be followed by a military occupation of the country by our allies, who treat us as a people incapable of acting for ourselves, and who have reduced us to obedience, to submission, and to a tutelage imposed by force of circumstances. This cannot be our fate after years of struggle.”
General Wood assumed the governorship of Cuba. On July 25 of that same year he put forth an order calling for the election of delegates to a Cuban constitutional convention. Many of the candidates put forward by the Americans were rejected by the few Cubans that turned out to vote.
In the autumn of 1900, formal control of the Cuban government by the United States was secured by something called the Platt Amendment. The amendment, written Secretary of War Elihu Root, a leading New York corporate attorney, and Senator Orville Platt, chairman of the Senate Committee on Relations with Cuba, succeeded the Teller amendment and ceded “hands off” control of the island to the Americans.
The amendment was meant to maintain control of Cuba by ending U.S. occupation once an approved constitution was put in place giving it the right to have military bases on the island; it granted to the U.S. the right to veto any treaty between Cuba and any other nation; it granted the U.S. the right to supervise the Cuban treasury; and it gave the U.S. the right to interpose itself to preserve Cuban independence or the protection of life, liberty, and property through an adequate government.
What the Platt Amendment did was place the United States as a hegemon over Cuba. Cubans were free to govern themselves as long as their governing met with the approval of the U.S.
On February 27, 1901 the U.S. government’s subversive duplicity was complete. For on that day, by a senate vote of forty-three to twenty, the Platt Amendment was passed. Predictably, all the “yes” votes were cast by Republicans. Some days later, the House of Representatives approved the amendment. And on March 2, president McKinley signed the amendment into law.
Not surprisingly, Cuba descended into turmoil and chaos. One group delivered a petition of protest to General Wood; another group advised delegates to the convention to stand in opposition to American demands; public meetings sprang up all over Cuba protesting the American position as echoed in the Platt Amendment; and on March 5 speakers told a gathering in Santiago that if the U.S. held firm, Cubans should go to war.
Cuban delegates had a decision to make – accept or reject the Platt Amendment. Pressured by threats disguised as negotiations, they voted fifteen to fourteen to do the bidding of the United States.
A year later, under the guise of a free election, the Americans installed their puppet leader, Tomas Estrada Palma, as the first president of the Republic of Cuba. General Wood put into words what must have been obvious to those paying any amount of attention to the situation in Cuba. He said: “There is, of course, little or no independence left in Cuba under the Platt Amendment.”
The Republic of Cuba officially began on May 20, 1902. Four years later the country was placed under U.S. military rule after Cubans protested what they believed to be election fraud. Four years after that, in 1910, the American military left, but not before William Howard Taft, the current president, warned Cubans to stop fighting against their benevolent masters because it would never result in independence.
Opposition movements persisted in the 1920s and 1930s during Gerardo Machado’s rule. Anti-American sentiment ran rampant through the Caribbean during this time, but was most vehement in Cuba. Anti-Americanism among Cubans drove them into the waiting arms of the Communist Party despite the fact that it was banned by Machado in 1925.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided that the Machado rule had to come to an end. Instigated by Roosevelt, the Cuban army staged a coup, which led to the emergence of a sergeant named Fulgencio Batista. By the mid-1930s, he was ruling Cuba, and did so for almost 25 years.
Prior diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union were severed by Batista. He also cracked down on one of America’s most hated entities, the Communist Party. Batista also encouraged foreign investment in Cuba — by foreign investment we mean American investors. The result was a thriving tourism industry and the prospect of millions of dollars of profit to “connected” U.S. businessmen.
Batista’s most indelible achievement was the cancellation of the 1952 elections. A charismatic young lawyer and former student leader named Fidel Castro was to be one of the participants in the now canceled election. Absent the canceled election, it’s very likely that Castro would have sought out a career in politics. After all many American politicians were once lawyers and/or student leaders. Instead of politics, however, Castro turned to revolution.
About seven years later, on January 1, 1959, rebels, inspired by the fiery, patriotic Castro, ran Batista out of power and the country.
The next day, Castro descended from the mountains to the city of Santiago. It was there, in the central plaza, where he made his first speech as the leader of the revolution. Part of his speech contained the following: “This time the revolution will not be frustrated! This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will achieve its true objective. It will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country.”
This turn of events was mystifying to many Americans. It mystified them because of two things: rational ignorance and the assumed fact that Cuban history began in 1959. They had no idea that their government broke its word with regard to the Teller Amendment in 1898; they had little to no idea about the Platt Amendment and the condition therein which enshrined the American government as an absentee hegemon over Cuba in 1901; and, therefore, Americans could not comprehend the ungratefulness of the liberated Cubans.
Castro’s government moved swiftly to right the wrong perpetrated against the Cuban nation. He seized foreign corporations, outlawed capitalism, and led Cuba to become a close ally with America’s most reviled enemy, the Soviet Union. In 1961, exiled Cubans, sponsored by the CIA staged an unsuccessful campaign to depose Castro. Eighteen months later, the Soviet Union and America almost engaged in nuclear war as a result of Soviet deployed offensive missiles in Cuba. For several years after 1961 the CIA tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Castro. Understandably, he devoted most of his life to thwarting American interests in the Caribbean and Central America. Those actions installed him as an icon and hero to many millions throughout the world.
It would take reams of paper and a boatload of ink to detail the horror Castro visited upon his countrymen. Let’s just say his reign led to untold thousands upon thousands tortured, murdered, imprisoned, and only God knows what else.
That he was a brutal dictator and enemy of his people is without question. Also without question is the fact that he most likely would never have come to power and thousands upon thousands would never have suffered torture, premature death, and unjust imprisonment were it not for the American government sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. When will the U.S. government learn its lesson?