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Comment & Analysis - A Taste For Regime Change - The US Approach To Overthrowing Iraq's Government ...It Began 104 Years Ago With The Spanish America War
By Richard Gott
September 19, 2002
The promotion of "regime change" in foreign countries is not a new phenomenon in American history. The tradition began 104 years ago when the US decided to invade Cuba in 1898 - and to seize Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam at the same time. American newspapers had long reviled the "evil empire" of Spain that had presided over these islands for nearly four centuries, and the American public had been thirsting for action. The veteran Spanish prime minister in Madrid, Antonio Canovas, and his satrap in Cuba, General Valeriano Weyler, were demonised in the 1890s as the figures responsible for "breaches of human rights".
With reason. Cuba had been ruled under martial law for more than 75 years, and Weyler, appointed by Canovas to crush a local rebellion, had embarked on a scorched earth policy, "waging war against his own people". Half a million peasants were "concentrated" into unhealthy camps outside the towns. Their sufferings were retailed regularly to the US readers of the new mass circulation papers by American reporters in Havana, who wrote about "a policy of extermination".
Two unlooked-for events accelerated US military intervention. The hardline Canovas was assassinated in the Basque country in August 1897 by an Italian anarchist funded by the Cuban rebels. It was an example of terror that worked. The impact of the assassination was immediate: Canovas was replaced by a new prime minister in Madrid who favoured home rule for Cuba. Weyler was withdrawn, and replaced by a more emollient officer, pledged to seek a negotiated end to the rebellion. The American press and the Cuban rebels were thrilled by the news, foreseeing an imminent victory for the Cubans. But anti-American sentiment was strengthened in Havana among the die-hard Spanish "empire loyalists", and early in 1898, the US battleship Maine was sent out to Cuba to provide protection for US citizens.
A second unexpected development, in February 1898, was the mysterious explosion and sinking of the Maine, at anchor in Havana harbour. As many as 258 American sailors were killed, and the Spanish were held responsible for the tragedy. The US declared war on Spain, and invaded Cuba. (No one claimed responsibility for the explosion, and it was revealed a century later to have been an accident.)
The American reaction to this affront was similar to that created by the destruction of the twin towers in New York in 2001. Arriving there in April 1898, the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, John Black Atkins, described scenes of public rejoicing: "The United States flag was everywhere hung across the streets and from the windows. Warlike sentiments and war bulletins were stuck in the shop windows ... Everywhere one saw the legend 'Remember the Maine!' "
Volunteers flocked to the colours, the most colourful regiment being the Rough Riders, led by Teddy Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy, and General Leonard Wood, President McKinley's doctor. Roosevelt claimed that the arrival of the Spanish fleet in Cuban waters, representing the "weapons of mass destruction" of his day, was more a threat to the US than to the Cuban rebels.
The Spanish empire collapsed in August, the Americans having destroyed its Atlantic fleet off Santiago in July and its Pacific fleet in Manila bay in April. Soon Wood was the governor of Cuba, and Roosevelt (after the assassination of McKinley in 1901) was the president of the US.
The Americans now embarked on "nation building" in their new colony, as difficult then as it is today. The US Congress had promised to "pacify" Cuba, and then "leave the government of the island to its people". General Wood had other ideas. He believed that "sensible" Cubans favoured annexation by the United States. If elections could be rigged to ensure that the "sensible" Cubans won, then Cuba could legitimately be incorporated into the union. Elections were easily fixed, but even the rigged franchise produced a majority for the supporters of independence.
After a four-year occupation, the Americans were obliged to withdraw - in 1902. But there was a fly in the ointment for the Cubans. Senator Orville Platt introduced an amendment in the US Congress that Cuba was obliged to incorporate into its new constitution. This gave the Americans the right to intervene in the country whenever they felt the need.
The Americans were to intervene several times over the next 30 years, sometimes at the request of the Cubans, sometimes on their own initiative. "Nation building" needed their constant attention, but many Cubans found the tutelage humiliating, and this fuelled the resentment that led to Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959 - and it lasts to this day.
The final clause of the Platt amendment gave the Americans a right to construct military bases on the island. The US naval base at Guantanamo is still there - in use for purposes that were never envisaged 100 years ago.
Richard Gott is writing a history of Cuba.