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US Military Dictatorship in Cuba, 1898-1902

by Don Mabry

     As the Spanish prepared to leave Cuba, looting as they went, United States troops poured into the island until there were 45,000, many of whom swaggered and misbehaved. There was no indication that the "Cuban Republic in Arms," the Cubans who had fought almost all the war for independence, would be recognized. Instead, a US military government was proclaimed with General John A. Brooke named as the commander of the military government. He officially took over in Havana from the departing Spanish governor-general on January 1, 1899. The Cubans were denied the privilege of parading their troops in capital. The Cubans complained of American high-handedness. Americans complained over the lack of gratitude of Cubans.
     The US did not know what to do with Cuba. The Cubans were in a pitiful condition; they had suffered from the war of independence. One-third were blacks, by US calculations. This disturbed the basic racism of the US. When Americans realized how many "blacks" lived in Cuba, sentiment for making it a state or to even annex it declined. The US didn't believe that Cubans were ready to govern themselves.
     The Red Cross and army sources distributed food and medicine. Cuban soldiers laid down there arms and went back to farms. Things were getting back to normal.
     John Brooke's government consisted of a cabinet with Cuban ministers who operated the remainder of the bureaucracy. Police and rural guards were restored. Each province had a Cuban governor and an American general at its head (who controlled the provinces). Most of the municipal governments were restored. US tried to build strong municipal government. Americans took control of the customs house, the principal source of revenue; the postal service, and the sanitation and health agencies. In the most disorganized areas, Oriente province for example, the US took stronger steps. General Leonard Wood in Oriente province took stern steps to restore order. Began to intrigue for Brook's position,
     Disarming the Cubans was a painful problem. The US was afraid of possible future insurrections. Cuban General Maximó Gómez and his associates thought that the US should pay Cuban forces for their services since 1895 because the US was treating the Cubans as if they had been fighting only in the service of the United States; in other words, if the US was going to take over the war, it should pay for it. Doing so would have cost $60 million. The US said no but offered $3 million, about $75 for each soldier who turned in his rifle. Gómez finally agreed but was deposed by Cuban "government." After a tense period, Cuban soldiers began surrendering their arms.
     The US government took a number of constructive measures, which had been begun by Brooks but completed by Wood who took ever in December, 1899. It conduced a census in 1900; built 3,000 new public schools; trained 1,500 Cuban teachers in the summer at Harvard; restaffed and reequipped the University of Havana; and created more courts. Church and State were separated. The US started a number of public works programs. The railroads were restored. US citizens circumvented Foraker Act which forbade railroad franchises to Americans. Dr. Carlos Finlay, Cuban, had been arguing that mosquitos carried yellow fever and malaria, but did not have the funds to test the hypothesis. Army man Walter Reed had the money; tested the theory; and got all the credit, something which Cubans have resented.
     The problem of what Cuba's status was continued. The conservative and Spanish classes and a few independence leaders wanted annexation by the US, but there was not much support for annexation in the US. It was clear that US did not believe that it could let the island be completely independent. After all, the population was not like the "white bread" people who ran the United States.
     The electoral law of April, 1900 granted suffrage to adult males who elected Cuban citizenship and who were literate, or had served in army, or owned $250 worth of property. In June, elections for municipal governments were held. Independence movement people (revolutionaries as they also called) won most of the seats. A constituent assembly was called and 301 delegates were chosen by the 30% of electorate who bothered to vote. The assembly adopted universal male suffrage; popularly-elected President, Senate, and Chamber of Deputies; and separated Church and State. The Constitution was completed in early 1901.
     The US defined its position. It was the work of Elihu Root, the Secretary of War. Cuba was to make no treaty which would impair its sovereignty; no foreign debt the interest on which it would be unable to pay after meeting ordinary government expenses; the US could intervene in Cuban affairs if the Cuban government did not behave, especially if it did anything that might provoke non-US intervention. Cuba was to continue the sanitation program the US had started. Cuba had to give up the Isle of Pines. The US was to receive coal or naval stations. All of this was incorporated into a rider to an army appropriations act of 1901, the Platt Amendment.
     Cubans disliked the terms, but it became clear that Cubans were being given no alternative. On June 12th, by a divided vote, the Cuban convention finally agreed. Formal relations between the countries were initiated by the Permanent Treaty of 1903. The tariff act of that year gave Cuban sugar a 20% reduction in duties, signifying the special relationship between Cuba and the United States. The US continued its dictatorship until May, 1902. The US supervised the presidential election which Tomás Estrada Palma won against Bartolomé Masó, who opposed the Platt Amendment. Even Estrada Palma had doubts about the nation's future as an independent nation.