The intervention by the United States in the armed conflict between Cuba and Spain in 1898 represents a milestone in the history of the Caribbean. Since early in the 19th century, the United States had shown great interest in Latin America and especially in acquiring the island of Cuba. The Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed by President James Monroe in his annual message in 1823, made known the country’s hegemonic aspirations and put the young nation’s geopolitical and economic interests on the table when he declared: “[…] 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 colonization by any European powers.”

Cuba’s war of independence, declared in 1895, offered the perfect excuse and a setting for the United States to decide to meddle in the Caribbean island’s political affairs. After three years of intense fighting, it appeared that the Cuban forces were likely to win the conflict. The economic and political aspirations of the United States, already pursued since the dawn of the 19th century, played a deciding role in efforts to acquire the island. The United States could not allow a free Cuba. It would be counterproductive to its economic and political interests.

The Spanish colony of Cuba, therefore, would have to come under U.S. control. One of the main ideologists of the era, John Fiske, wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine on the United States’ responsibility to spread its language, institutions and democratic traditions beyond its borders. Fiske’s intentions were not mere pipe dreams. The self-proclaimed Anglo-Saxon superiority and its responsibility for civilizing the nations of the world were also proclaimed by the Reverend Josiah Strong, combining it, this time, with the work of evangelizing non-Christian peoples.

The consolidation of new political power required, according to Alfred T. Mahan, total control of the seas bordering the areas of interest to the nation. A. T. Mahan was possibly one of the most prolific and influential writers of the era. His works, compiled in the book The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, promoted political, economic and military expansion with the goal of consolidating the young nation’s hegemony in the Americas. The Caribbean was essential to achieving these goals. The ideological basis was established. U.S. foreign policy found the economic, religious and military justification it needed for a military intervention in Cuba.

In April of 1898, William McKinley, president of the United States, sought approval from the U.S. Congress to get involved in the issue and intervene in the conflict between Spain and the Cuban revolutionary forces. In his speech to Congress, he foreshadowed U.S. intentions toward Cuba. The Spanish, in their desire to hold on to the last vestiges of their waning empire in the Americas, refused to withdraw their troops from Cuban territory and recognize the island’s independence. With no time to lose, U.S. troops under the command of William Rufus Shafter landed on the island of Cuba, just as Nelson Miles did in Puerto Rico. General Miles and the Navy troops who filled the streets of the towns on the south coast of Puerto Rico did not encounter great resistance. In Cuba, although the Spanish troops fought with spirit, they could not stop the invasion. The final Cuban war for independence became, through the intervention of U.S. troops, the Spanish-American War. A war of national liberation was converted into a war of conquest, said historian Louis Pérez Jr.

The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, put an end to the war and opened a new era of political and economic hegemony by the United States in the Caribbean. Cuba came to be a protectorate of its huge neighbor to the north. Senator Orville Platt and War Secretary Elihu Root proposed limiting the island’s sovereignty to safeguard the interests of the United States. The Platt Amendment, as it was known, asserted the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the new Caribbean republic. This allowed the United States to maintain control and to ensure that its geopolitical and economic interests would be jealously protected.

Puerto Rico’s fate, once it was no longer a battlefield, was different. The island became war booty and was occupied by the military for two years. In 1900, the Foraker Act created a new political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States and established a civilian government for the island. There was no question, however, that the United States did not trust Puerto Ricans to govern themselves. Under the Foraker Act, the president of the United States appointed the island’s governor and other members of his cabinet, which was also the upper house of the legislature. Puerto Ricans could only aspire to the lower house and their powers were greatly limited by the veto. A colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico continues today.

The Spanish-American War gave the United States geopolitically important overseas possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The 20th century saw the consolidation of the United States as the undisputed political and economic power in the region. During the early decades of the 20th century, U.S. foreign policy tended toward direct intervention in Caribbean and Central American territories.

Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: March 02, 2012.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.