The Déjà-Vu of President Trump’s Statement on Cuban Independence Day – Marie Pittman

The Déjà-Vu of President Trump’s Statement on Cuban Independence Day

    Six months after the end of the American embargo on Cuba and Fidel Castro’s death, one could expect the links between Cuba and the United States to be getting less tense. However, Donald Trump’s election at the White House and his ambiguous stance on that matter bring back the question of democracy in Cuba and the role of the US on the island. Today, the 20th of May 2017, marks the 115th anniversary of the Cuban Independence. On that occasion, President Trump declared in a statement from the White House:

The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights, and my administration is committed to achieving that vision.

This discourse is quite reminiscent of President McKinley’s State of Union Address at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in Cuba, after the destruction of the Maine warship. The US felt compelled to save the oppressed Cuban population from Spanish domination, and therefore launched a war against Spain, leading Cuba to its independence on May 20th, 1902.

In 1898, the American war ship Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor in Cuba, causing the death of almost seven hundred and twenty people, including two hundred twenty-eight American sailors. Cuba was by then a Spanish colony, and the Cubans were trying to gain independence. From 1868, when a Cuban revolt started, a guerrilla was continuing against the Spanish forces that would send Cuban civilians to jail; many Americans felt as they had to free the Cubans.[1] Indeed, as written in the telegram sent by Fitzhugh Lee, the US Consul-General in Havana, a few months before the attack, Cubans were kept in “reconcentration camps” that were supposed to be a safe place for them, protected by Spain. But his telegram shows another reality: “four hundred and sixty women and children thrown on the ground (…) some in a dying condition”. These horrors made the US want to help Cuba. Immediately after the explosion of the Maine, the press declared that the attack came from Spain:

George Eugene Bryson, the Journal’s special correspondent at Havana, cables that it is the secret opinion of many Spaniards in the Cuban capital, that the Maine was destroyed and 258 men killed by means of marine mine or fixed torpeda.[2]

However, a few people actually believed that it was just an accident, such as Secretary Long, who thought that it looked more like an accident than an actual attack. Captain Schuley could not believe the Cubans or Spaniards had found the Maine’s weakness, that could put it on fire, while it was kept under guard the whole time.[3] A few days later, as Spain had refused a cease-fire in Cuba and Cuban independence, president McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, and it was accepted.

        In December 1897, so not even three months before the attack, Fitzhugh Lee had written a telegram to the Assistant Secretary of State to tell him he thought that two war ships should be at Key West, Florida, and prepared to move if anything happened; this telegram shows that he thought Americans were not completely safe on the island of Cuba. With the Monroe Doctrine, the United States of America did not want to interfere in Europe, however they felt it was their duty to keep strong relations with the American continent. The sentence “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European powers” from the speech of President James Monroe in 1823 shows that they genuinely wanted to keep these countries independent. Cuba being part of the Spanish Empire was therefore a sort of threat to the American power, which could explain why they chose to attack Spain and help Cuba become supposedly independent so fast after the explosion of the Maine and without even having proved that Spain was indeed the attacker, which turned out to probably be wrong.

In his State of the Union Address, President McKinley listed all the reasons to declare war on Spain so that the Congress would vote it. His first arguments were “in the cause of humanity”, “we owe it to our citizens in Cuba”, “a various injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people”, but he showed his fourth argument in another light “of the utmost importance”: therefore, using the sinking of the Maine to make Congress accept his request. This idea of necessity to fight for the Cuban people’s rights, along with the Maine attack, can thus be considered a pretext for the United States to recuperate Cuba; both were used to make the American people actually want to declare war on Spain.

As we can read in the song of Marie Elizabeth Lamb “Awake United States!” written just a few weeks after the sinking of the ship, the American patriots were largely in favor of war: “Comrades will you go? Avenge the cruel blow!” There was a real desire to make Spain pay for what happened to the Maine.

However, more than just wanting to help Cuba become independent, the US actually wanted to be able to govern it to a certain extent. It seems that they wanted to extend their empire just like Germany or Spain, something that was made very clear by Beveridge in his March of the Flag speech in 1898 with the common argument that “The rule of liberty that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government”. After the US won against Spain, Cuba became independent; however, the US wanted to keep its power on it. It also shows in the drawing “Miss Cuba Receives an Invitation” published by the Chicago Record-Herald in 1901, in which Miss Cuba looks less ‘civilized’ than Miss Columbia, who is educating her and asking her to be the forty-sixth star of the American flag. Miss Cuba’s feet look finally free from a ball and chain in which “Spain” is written, showing that Cuba is finally free and that the US who helped Cuba become free, could help it become a greater nation. It is a sort of propaganda for American imperialism.

            What was first a crusade to help Cubans in their search for freedom turned into a desire to avenge the Maine’s destruction, before becoming an imperial venture. This imperialism was proven true as, despite the Teller Amendment[4], President McKinley forced Cuba to approve the Platt Amendment, in which the US could intervene any time, along with a permanent lease in naval stations all over Cuba. The sinking of the Maine was thus only a pretext for the USA to fight Spain and gain power over this gateway to South America.

After President Trump’s ambiguous declaration and its curious timing, one could wonder if the US might declare war on Cuba to try to free its population, as it did in 1898. While this could have happened in the past, it is now highly unlikely, thanks to the role of the United Nations, who would veto any American unilateral action against the island. However, economic actions could, once more, be taken against the Cuban government.

Marie Pittman

M1 Anglais

[1] “The Splendid Little War”, Becoming a World Power – chapter 17 of Give Me Liberty by Eric Foner

[2] “Destruction of War Ship Maine was the Work of an Enemy”, an article of the New York Journal, February 17th 1898

[3] “Maine Hull Will Decide”, an article of The Times, February 17th 1898

[4] With The Teller Amendment, the US declared that they had no intention of neither annexing nor dominating Cuba.


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