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Matthew Montane

15, November 2018

Cuba’s Crazy Political World of Corruption

When one thinks of countries in the Caribbean Islands, they may think of countries such as Columbia or Costa Rica. However, the country of Cuba stands its ground as a prevalent and important country that has a significant role in history. Cuba is known for the wars that have taken place within its borders and the relationship with its neighbors, specifically the United States of America. I have selected the country of Cuba for my project since I have family members who once originated from Cuba. They had fled the country once Fidel Castro had risen to power. Ever since my father had explained his past to me, I desired to learn more about the wars and the social tensions of Cuba. Furthermore, I desire to learn more about Cuba’s relationship with its neighboring countries. As a result, I am going to analyze more about the Spanish-American War, the Cuban Revolution, and the outcomes that resulted from the wars, including the relationships Cuba has with its neighbors.

Before obtaining its independence, Cuba was originally a part of Spain. According to Jose M Hernandez, in 1898, Cuba had “remained one of Spain's two colonies in the New World” (Hernandez 2011). The other country that was placed under Spanish rule was Puerto Rico. Cuba had initially attempted to fight for independence from Spain in the “Ten Years’ War” from 1868-1878, despite Cuba not possessing the power to defeat a powerful nation such as Spain. Since many Cubans did not desire living under a Spanish leadership, they instead fled to Florida, retaining their loyalty to the country. According to the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, the United States assisted in war to protect the Cuban citizens that had fled from Spain’s rule in 1898, interested with Cuba as it struggled for independence. The United States had declared war on Spain on April 25th as a response to the USS Maine exploding and sinking in Spain’s territory near Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. Most of the war took place in Cuba rather than the United States. However, the war only lasted a few months, since Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, renouncing their claim over Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico. However, instead of becoming a territory of the United States, Cuba became its own independent country.

During its independence, Cuba was initially under rule by Tomas Estrada Palma. Palma’s political party was the Republican Party of Havana, forming the Cuban Republic. Palma is also known for enacting the Platt Amendment, which allows for America to ensure political and economic power over Cuba, signing it on March 2, 1902. Palma was also known for improving the infrastructure and public health of Cuba. According to Juan Santamarina, Palma was able to allow the U.S. to be Cuba’s trading partner in sugar cane due to a reciprocal trade treaty requested by the United States. While Palma claimed that the treaty was “outrageous”, he claimed it as necessary in order to accommodate the interests of the United States as a form of gratitude (Santamarina 2000, 58). A statue was erected of Palma in 1903. Despite Palma’s positive influence over the country, future rulers would not have a positive outlook towards political situations.

Three presidents governed over Cuba from 1909 to 1925 with more corruption than distinction. According to Arnedo-Gómez, Jose Miguel Gomez (1909-1913) allowed for the country of Cuba to prosper, although the government was accused of alleged racism by giving few offices to Afro-Cubans (Arnedo-Gómez 2012, 34). The protests by Afro-Cubans led to a government crackdown, resulting in thousands of Cubans losing their lives. The second president, Mario García Menocal (1913-1921), had been accused of nepotism. By employing fraud and violence, a war broke out against him in 1917. At the same time, although Cuba was receiving prosperity due to sugar’s high price, a financial crisis hit the country in 1920. This figure by Wakefield (1937) shows the market for sugar production and Cuba’s balance of trade, which became more erratic as time were to go on.

Figure 1. Cuban Balance of Trade 1914-1936, Foreign Commerce Yearbook (Wakefield 1937).

This figure shows the Cuban balance of Trade from 1914-1936, from Foreign Commerce Yearbook. Wakefield reports the collapse in the price of sugar from a record $2.02 per pound in May 1920 to $0.30 in December, then $0.18 a year later. Initially, there were 96 Cuban sugar refineries in 1920 with 62 US refineries producing over half of the output. Cuban sugars were then exempted from tariffs due to expanding U.S. ownership, as the U.S. abandons its right to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs in 1934.

To combat the financial crisis, Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso (1921-1925) introduced financial reforms, which allowed for the economic situation to improve. However, Zayas was charged with corruption, resulting in revolts breaking out against him. Zayas attempted to get renominated, though his own political party opposed it. As a result, Zayas made a pact with Gerardo Machado y Morales, who assumed office in 1925. According to Philip Dur, Morales was the first dictator of Cuba, and only made a few of his promises come true for the country before a rule of tyranny overcame the country in 1928 (Dur and Gilcrease 2002, 261). Machado adopted many harsh methods to decrease opposition, while Cuban exiles fled to the United States. When violence intensified, Machado was forced to flee the country in 1933.

Flashforward to the year 1940, when Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar came to power in Cuba. Batista was also the U.S. backed ruler from 1952-1959. Initially viewed as a hero by overthrowing the government of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes y Quesada, Batista was able to maintain his power through a string of puppet presidents and rulers such as Jose Barnet y Vinagreras (1935- May 1936) and Federico Laredo Brú (Dec 1936-1940), postponing elections and using dictatorial measures. As president, Batista crafted a new constitution which called for government intervention in the economy. He even legalized the Cuban Communist Party in the late 1930s under his puppet presidents, known as Partido Auténtico. For eight years, Partido Auténtico allowed for corrupt and irresponsible acts in Cuba’s government, with Batista placing his cronies into positions of power. According to Robert Whitney, the public was in shock that the revolutionaires of 1933 participated in the corrupt government (Whitney 2000, 436). In 1952, Batista was able to seize the new election, closing Congress until 1954 when calling for elections. Under new rule in 1955, Batista wanted to gain the acceptance of Cuba’s upper classes, desiring great fortunes. The support for Batista collapsed as sugar exports were placed in a future of uncertainty. As a result, a campaign of harassment against Batista was to occur.

Another man found that there was no possible option to legally move Batista, and organized a revolution. This man was Fidel Castro, a young attorney who had attempted to run for Parliament in the 1952 election. Richard Fagen explains how Castro was a powerful leader who had influence over the people of Cuba, claiming how Castro was a charismatic leader who was the creation of his followers (Fagen 1965, 277). Initially, Castro attempted to lead 160 men in a raid on a Santiago army on July 26, 1953. Although Castro wanted to start a general uprising against Batista, the raid failed, many revolters were killed, resulting in Castro and his brother Raul being arrested and imprisoned. When they were released in 1955, Fidel went to Mexico, and began to organize a force of Cuban exiles (Fagen 1965, 281). After Castro returned to Cuba in 1956, Cuba became in a state of a civil war. Batista launched a military effort against Castro and his forces, advancing to the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. A personal source who had lived in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution claims how the rebels were hiding in the foothills and would take anything they wanted from local businesses, as they required money and supplies (Personal Source). As the 1958 election drew near, Batista’s support had ceased. When the U.S. placed an embargo on arms, Castro was able to match Batista’s government in pitched combat. According to the Lawrence Van Gelder, Batista realized that hs could not win, so he relinquished the presidency on January 1, 1959, living his life in exile in Portugal until his death in 1973 on Marbella, Spain (Gelder 1973, 38). Castro claimed the role of prime minister on January 8, although according to Cody Carlson, 600 people linked with Batista’s government were put to death (Carlson 2013). Castro had begun his new rule by postponing elections indefinitely, beginning his rule over the country of Cuba.

As Cuba was in an economic crisis, and had failed to receive financial assistance from the United States, Castro turned to a heavier form of taxation. A personal source claims how one form of taxation was through ration cards that were given to the family. As a result, a family could only obtain a certain amount of beef per month and if anyone had more than what was allowed the parents were questioned (Personal Source). Castro formed a trade pact with the Soviet Union, and embraced Nikita Khrushchev, delivering a four and a half hour speech about denouncing the United States. As economic activity between Cuba and the United States ceased, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs commenced in 1961. The invasion at the Bay of Pigs was an attempt by Cuban exiles, although it was also backed by the U.S. to overthrow Castro’s regime. The Cuban Missile Crisis then ignited, as Castro agreed to allow the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. With nowhere else to turn, the United States retreated as Castro allowed his communist rule to commence.

Under communism, Castro was able to control every aspect of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its organizations. According to Jorge I. Dominguez, by exploiting the Cold War, Castro was able to rely on strong backing from the Soviet Union, and was even able to build reputable health and education systems (Dominguez 1997, 49). However, Castro was unable to diversify the economy due to U.S. trade sanctions. The figure presented by Bearman Cartoons (2013) is a political cartoon highlighting the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Figure 2. Capitalism at its Best (Bearman Cartoons, 2013)

According to Figure 2, Castro is disapproving of any form of capitalism in Cuba. The board game Monopoly is about making financial gain and capital. The board game was made during the Great Depression, further inducing the ideas of capitalism. The cartoon says that Fidel Castro has established such a strict and powerful communist power that not even the board games that promote capitalism can be allowed in Cuba.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Cuba was financially crippled as a result. The Soviet Union was Cuba’s main source of support, a crutch that Cuba could stand on, though now removed. As Cuba fell into an economic crisis, it was surprisingly able to barely hold itself together. Ruling for 56 years, Castro finally passed away in 2017, although his brother Raul was able to come to power in 2008. Raul was able to reopen embassies, as the United States removed Cuba from the terrorism list.  

Overall, Cuba’s relationship with its neighbors initially had a positive outcome. Though time after time, Cuba would either break free from an aggressive power such as Spain. However, Cuba became the dictatorial monster it attempted to avoid as a result of corruption from poor presidents. Furthermore, Cuba fell into an economic crisis due to the decreasing sales in sugar. The U.S. was once Cuba’s greatest ally, although it turned into one of its enemies as a result of the Soviet Union. While Cuba and the Soviet Union had a positive relationship, with the Soviet Union providing financial support for Cuba, when the Soviet Union fell, Cuba hit a greater economic crisis than ever before. Surprisingly, Cuba was able to hold itself together without the Soviet Union’s support. Finally, the world was able to breathe easier as Fidel Castro passed away in 2017. Although there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as Raul Castro reopened embassies, allowing for a less violent relationship with the United States.

Reference List-

Arnedo-Gómez, M. (2012). Uniting blacks in a raceless nation: Afro-Cuban reformulations of Afrocubanismo and mestizaje in 1930s Cuba. Journal of Iberian & Latin American Studies, 18(1), 33–59.

Carlson, C. (2013). This week in history: The Batista government falls in Cuba. Deseret News. December 31, 2013.

Dominguez, J. (1997). U.S.-Cuban Relations: From the Cold War to the Colder War. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 39(3), 49-75.

Dur, P., & Gilcrease, C. (2002). US Diplomacy and the Downfall of a Cuban Dictator: Machado in 1933. Journal of Latin American Studies, 34(2), 255-282. (261)

Fagen, R. (1965). Charismatic Authority and the Leadership of Fidel Castro. Western Political Quarterly, 18(2), 275.

Florida Center for Instructional Technology. (2002). Spanish-American War for Cuba's Independence.

Gelder, L. (1973).”Unending Exile,“. New York Times, 38. August 7, 1973.

Hernandez, J. M. (2011, June 22). Cuba in 1898, Library of Congress. Retrieved November 14, 2018.

Santamarina, J. C. (2000). The Cuba Company and the expansion of American business in Cuba, 1898-1915. Business History Review, 74(1), 41-83.

Wakefield, Roberta (1937) “Some Factors in Cuba’s Foreign Trade,” Economic Geography, Vol. 13, No, 2, pp. 109-131.

Whitney, R. (2000). The Architect of the Cuban State: Fulgencio Batista and Populism in Cuba, 1937-1940. Journal of Latin American Studies, 32(2), 435-459.

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