The Pearl of the Antilles

Swathes of beauty, large potentials for wealth and a unique population - Cuba.
Swathes of beauty, large potentials for wealth and a unique population – Cuba.

The United States has been obsessed with Cuba in some way, shape, or form since the conception of the nation. The first administrations recognized the potential wealth of this island, especially at the time, through sugar. Additionally, the geopolitical implications of expansion by Manifest Destiny, and even later, by the implications of the Monroe Doctrine and the subsequent “Good Neighbor Policy”, Cuba has been a target of United States foreign policy.


December 24, 1897 was the day J.C. Breckenridge, the United States Undersecretary of War released his memorandum calling for the harsh military treatment of Cuba, ranging from a strict embargo, to a policy of supporting insurgencies until the island was “cleansed” of undesirable citizens. Only following the execution of these actions would the Pearl be, as John Quincy Adams put it, “ripe” for the picking.

A few weeks later in February 1898, the USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbor to protect the interests of the United States during the Cuban War of Independence. Controversially, the war ship exploded in the harbor and the United States used the event as an excuse to intervene militarily on the island.

Now known as the Spanish-American War, the United States supported the Cuban insurgency against the Spanish crown. At the end of the “splendid little war” of ten weeks, the United States walked away with the control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as colonial territories. Cuba was granted independence through the same Treaty of Paris, however, they were not permitted to sit at the negotiation table.

This marked an important point of American-Cuban relations. Prior to the war, Congress passed the Teller Amendment promising two things: 1) that the United States was not planning on annexing Cuba if victorious against Spain and 2) following victory, there would be a formal Cuban independence.

Following the war, the Platt Amendment was passed and ratified by both governments, limiting the Cuban ability to engage in world affairs. In short, Cuba could not conduct in diplomacy with nations other than the United States or contract public debt. However, the United States retained the right to intervene military at any time that Cuban independence was deemed threatened and to create military bases around the island. This led to the creation of Guantánamo Bay, which evolved into the US military prison it is known as today. In short, the United States controlled the entire island without actually annexing it as a territory. Cuba was an American colony in all but formal name.

Subsequent occupations and varying forms of control took place throughout the twentieth century. At one point, 80% of all Cuban exports were flowing into the United States. Under Batista in the 1950s, who was formally backed by the United States, Cuba had some of the highest wages in the world. Additionally, it had a large consumer culture (with some of the highest spending capabilities in the region), which favored the United States over Latin America. Health care, education and public services were comparable or exceeded those of European nations of the time – and continued to be a point of pride following the revolution.

Even with their positive economic fortunes, many Cubans were dissatisfied with the disparity between the wealth of the United States and Cuba. Furthermore, economic policies of Batista eventually led to a large disparity between union workers and the rest of the population, further deepening dissatisfaction with the regime. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro took advantage of this dissatisfaction and led a successful revolution against the Batista-backed regime.

The revolutionary himself... as seen in January 2016.
The revolutionary himself… as seen in January 2016.

Castro represented the faction of Cubans that were deeply against the influence the United States had enjoyed over the past century and sought to be truly independent. Their status as non-official colony of the United States was not a title they were proud of and in turn, rejected the United States, their treaties and attempted to re-establish the status quo. However, this attitude led to two courses of action by the United States: 1) the beginning of covert operations to assassinate and otherwise overthrow Castro and 2) a strict trade embargo.

The embargo began as a feud solely between the United States and Cuba. This policy was harmful, as much of the trade conducted by the island passed through American ports, but not crippling. Trade can always be replaced on the open market – and Canada and Europe filled the void for a time. However, the US eventually used its role as a world power to pressure countries into choosing: trade with the United States or trade with Cuba – foreign shipments could not make stops in both locations. As the United States was and is the leading economy of the world, the choice became clear.

Isolated from the majority of the world trade, Cuba has continued their way of life under the leadership of Castro. Communism (although labeled socialism on the island itself) reigns supreme as a policy force, but the resourcefulness coursing through the island ensures the survival of their situation. Cars that have been in commission since the 1960s, homes even older and a sense of pride dating back to the very first inhabitants all create an environment quite different from any others.

There are so many of these, that a week after being on the island, you won't even think its strange.
There are so many of these, that a week after being on the island, you won’t even think its strange.

As of January 2016, the relations between the United States and Cuba are warming and the air of apprehensive expectation and regional friendship is tangible on the island. Many Cubans will tell you about their experience, but during our time on the island, it was often expressed in a “it is about time!” type manner when pressed on their thoughts about the “opening” of Cuba to the United States.

In contrast, the government propaganda gives a contradicting atmosphere of victory through their various signage promoting the “breaking of el bloqueo,” for example.

Government propaganda of the warming relations between the United States and Cuba.
Government propaganda of the warming relations between the United States and Cuba.

The experiences referred to in this blog took place with the conflicting interests of the preceding paragraphs – one of an interest in humanity and personal relations and one of governmental interaction and foreign affairs. The referred to history stirred the interest to travel to the island in the first place, and in turn, set the stage for the environment and attitudes that we would encounter during on travels across the Pearl of the Antilles.

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