U.S.-Cuba: Orwell Redux

By Philip Brenner*

Political cartoon depicting U.S. Cuba relations in 1903

A political cartoon showing U.S. President William McKinley literally branding Cuba as a U.S. possession as a result of the Platt Amendment. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s removal of important historical documents on U.S.-Cuba relations from the public record bolsters commentators’ description of the President’s behavior as Orwellian and undermines understanding of key events in the past.  Double-checking the accuracy of citations for a forthcoming book on the history of Cuba, I discovered that the State Department “retired” its website entitled “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations.”  The Department claimed that the cost would be too great “to revise and expand this publication to meet the Office’s standards for accuracy and comprehensiveness,” but it assured readers that the “text remains online for reference purposes, but it is no longer being maintained or expanded.”  Not true.

  • Until May 9, 2017, the Milestones series provided an accurate account of the 1901 Platt Amendment, under which the United States gave itself the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs when it saw fit. That account is no longer available.  The only mention of the Platt Amendment occurs in a brief summary about President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Good Neighbor Policy:  “In 1934 at Roosevelt’s direction the 1903 treaty with Cuba (based on the Platt Amendment) that gave the United States the right to intervene to preserve internal stability or independence was abrogated.”  Milestones provides no further insights.

Suspension of Milestones hinders an understanding of this important chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations – beginning with the U.S. occupation (1898-1902), during which the military dictated a series of laws intended to prepare Cuba for economic domination by U.S. companies.  It removes from the official U.S. government record the fact that, by 1905, U.S. individuals and companies owned 60 percent of Cuba’s rural land (Cubans owned 25 percent), and iron mines in Oriente Province were almost all U.S.-owned.  Loss of Milestones also erases from the public record U.S. acknowledgment that the administration of President William McKinley (1897-1901) sought control by designating a list of acceptable candidates who could be elected to a Cuban constituent assembly in 1900.  When Cuban voters instead chose an independent slate to draft the new constitution, U.S. officials asserted the election proved that Cubans were irresponsible and unfit for self-government.  General Leonard Wood, the U.S. military governor, described those elected as among the “worst agitators and political radicals in Cuba.”  This helped lay the groundwork for Senator Orville Platt, a Republican from Connecticut, to include an amendment to an Army appropriation bill in 1901 written by Secretary of War Elihu Root.

  • While the United States at the time claimed the Amendment’s intent was to preserve Cuba’s independence and stability, the State Department candidly acknowledged one hundred years later in its Milestones series that it was really “to shape Cuban affairs without violating the Teller Amendment,” which in 1898 stipulated that the United States had no intention to remain in Cuba after the war and occupation. In addition to allowing U.S. intervention whenever Washington saw fit, it directed that Cuba would lease territory to the United States for up to three naval coaling stations; that Cuba could not enter into a treaty that offered a military base to any other country; and that Cuba could make no laws contravening prior U.S. military decisions.

U.S. cynicism and insincerity outraged Cubans when they were forced to write the Platt Amendment into their own Constitution in 1901 as a condition for the end of U.S. occupation.  U.S. observers who know about it share that outrage, but – without accurate accounts of history – understanding what happened is much more difficult.  It is like flying through a fog without instruments, and crashes are bound to ensue.  Perhaps even more important, as Orwell hoped his readers would see, when history is based on lies, people learn to live only in the present, and have no hope for the future.

 August 28, 2017

* Philip Brenner is a Professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and co-author with Peter Eisner of Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017).