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The Trump Administration’s removal of important historical documents on U.S.-Cuba relations from the public record bolsters commentators’ description of the President’s behavior as Orwellian and undermines understanding of key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).

Update: Venezuela-U.S. Tensions Rise

By CLALS Staff

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

AULA BLOG lets policymakers’ own words characterize the state of relations between Washington and Caracas.

Venezuelan Government Statements

I have ordered the Foreign Minister of the Republic … to declare persona non-grata y to expel from the country these three consular officers from the United States Embassy in Venezuela. We have been watching them for two months already, holding meetings in universities. The story is that they’re offering visas. … Well, let them go and conspire in Washington. …

The demands [made in a statement delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee to Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton] are unacceptable, insolent. I ordered a diplomatic response. In Venezuela, we are willing to accept all consequences in defense of democracy. I take orders from no one. …

The government of the United States should take responsibility, before the Venezuelan people and the world, for allowing U.S. institutions and individuals to finance, legitimize and promote the actions of persons and groups who attack Venezuelan society violently, and who look to twist the democratically expressed will of our people to build their sovereign destiny in peace.
—President Maduro, February 16
AP, EFE (CLALS translation)

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela forcefully rejects the statements made today, Wednesday, February 19, by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, insofar as they constitute new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country, made worse by being based on false information and baseless accusations.

This is an offense to the heroic land of the Aztecs, of Juárez, of Villa, and of Zapata; to the noble and courageous people of Mexico, the sister nation from which President Obama continues attacking a free and sovereign nation of Latin America and the Caribbean because its policies, principles, and decisions are the result the democratic expression of popular will.

The statement that the independent governments and people of the world await is that in which the government of the United States of America explains why it finances, encourages, and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country, and clears up what right Deputy Assistant Secretary [of State] Alex Lee has in sending a message from his government that tries to impose conditions on and threaten the Venezuelan state for having taken judicial action against those responsible for the violent acts of recent days.

As a final point, the Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to prevent U.S. agents attempting to cause violence and destabilization, and informs the world of the nature of the interventionist policies of the Obama administration in our country.
—Despacho de la Presidencia, February 20
(CLALS Translation)

I have just read recent statements by John Kerry – arrogant, interventionist and insolent – that confirm the terms of the threat that I denounced. John Kerry is threatening Venezuela with more violence through his statements giving the green light to violent groups to attack our people. Let the brutal and insolent imperialists know that we will continue defeating it with the force of our people, which is the force of Bolívar and Chávez.
—President Maduro, February 21
Tweets, via TeleSur (CLALS translation)

I call for a dialogue with you, President Obama. I call for a dialogue between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government. Accept the challenge. Let’s initiate a high-level dialogue and let’s put the truth out on the table. … I say this, and some will say, ‘Maduro is naïve.’ No, we will always find a new situation through political dialogue – a change in the historic relations between the U.S. elite and Latin America and Venezuela. … I propose therefore a grand dialogue, and that we name ambassadors, since they haven’t been accepted so far, so they can sit down and talk.
—President Maduro, February 21
Various media (CLALS translation)

There’s a global campaign against Venezuela. It’s a campaign to justify an intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela. … [There is] a brutal manipulation campaign, [which] has created a perception in the world that Venezuela is on the verge of civil war, that here in Venezuela we have a group of docile students opposing an illegitimate government.
—President Maduro, February 22
CNN

U.S. Government Statements

In general, when it comes to Venezuela, we’ve made clear that we’re open to having a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Quite frankly, we haven’t seen that – we have not seen that reciprocated, to be clear. So we also, I think, see a lot of conspiracy theories or rumors out there in the press about how the U.S. is interested in influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela, which is absolutely not true. It’s not up to us to comment on internal Venezuelan politics.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 13

So we are deeply concerned by rising tensions, by the violence surrounding these February 12th protests, and by the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. We join the Secretary General of the OAS in condemning the violence and calling on authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of peaceful protestors. We also call on the Venezuelan Government to release the 19 detained protestors and urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 14

The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela. Our condolences go to the families of those killed as a result of this tragic violence.

We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.

We join the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and others in condemning this senseless violence. We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.

Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.
—Secretary of State Kerry, February 15

The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 17

We have seen many times that the Venezuelan Government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the grave situation it faces. … With the OAS and our regional partners, we are working to urge calm and encourage a genuine dialogue among all Venezuelans. There is no room for violence by either side.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 18

In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue. And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.
—President Obama, February 19

Colombia: Giving Peace Talks Another Try

Photo by: ideas4solutions | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”  Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington.  U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.”  The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators.  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”

Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.”  Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered.  The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated.  The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down.  Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.

The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general.  Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part.  Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks.  Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process.  Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration.  The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force.  After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past.  Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.

NOTE:  This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks.  We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.