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The Globe and Mail

Caribbean Felt Roosevelt's Big Stick; It Was A Year Of Triumph And President's ‘Dollar Diplomacy' In Resource-Rich Region Became Model For Future U.S. Interventions


December 31, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

It was Theodore Roosevelt's year of triumph and a watershed for the peoples of the Caribbean.

As 1904 opened, the 26th president of the United States wrestled with insurrection and a debt crisis in the Dominican Republic. In February, he turned Cuba over to a friendly government after four years of U.S. occupation.

In May, Roosevelt's agents took formal control of the Panama Canal. In November, he won resounding re-election.

By the end of the year, the Dominican crisis was all but settled. And Roosevelt had set the pattern for a century of U.S. strategic dominance in the Caribbean Sea and the lands around its rim.

"Speak softly and carry a big stick" was his catchphrase as he sought to counter European influence in the region and pave the way for U.S. commercial expansion. He dispatched diplomats and expeditionary forces to deal with tin-pot revolutions that broke out in country after country, often over defaults on debts contracted at extortionate rates.

He recoiled from the day-to-day affairs of people he considered shiftless and disorderly, to whom he referred more than once as "dagos." But he ended 1904 convinced that the United States would have to be prepared to act as the constable of the Caribbean.

"Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society . . . may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power," the president told Congress in his annual message on Dec. 6.

The declaration became known as Roosevelt's Corollary to the earlier Monroe Doctrine, which had warned the powers of Europe to stay out of the politics of the Americas. It formed the basis for repeated interventions over the next two decades in the Dominican Republic, and in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Roosevelt, elected as vice-president on William McKinley's Republican ticket in 1900, already had first-hand knowledge of the West Indies when he was catapulted into the presidency by McKinley's assassination in 1901.

He had resigned his government post when the Spanish-American War began in 1898, organized the Rough Riders volunteer cavalry regiment and headed off to battle in Cuba.

By 1904, the accidental president had made his mark as a corruption fighter, trustbuster and conservationist. But he had also been kept busy on the United States's southern flank.

Spain's defeat had left the United States in control of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

U.S. companies such as the banana-peddling United Fruit Co. were moving in on Central America, where British and German traders had held sway during the 19th century.

Roosevelt had long had his eye on the biggest coup of all – building an Atlantic-to-Pacific waterway across Panama. With Panama's secession from Colombia in 1903, that goal was now within reach.

But revolutions kept breaking out in the unstable Caribbean republics, complicating relations between the United States and the European powers whose investments were threatened.

Venezuela had been blockaded by Britain, Germany and Italy in 1902 to enforce debt claims against a rebellious government. The following year, unrest in the Dominican Republic (then known as Santo Domingo) broke out, and it appeared the new government might halt debt payments.

Of Santo Domingo, Roosevelt said he had "about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to." But he did not want a repeat of the European show of force.

U.S. warships were sent to protect American lives and property and ensure that Germany, whose lenders were owed substantial sums, did not intervene. But the unrest continued.

The Globe of Toronto on April 2 quoted a letter from a Dominican resident that said thousands had been killed and untold numbers wounded. "The most insignificant are left where they fall," it said, "and it is a fearful sight to see how the wild hogs drag away and devour these poor men before they are even quite dead."

By the end of the year, the rebellions had been put down and an arrangement had been worked out by which the United States would guarantee loan payments in exchange for control over Dominican customs revenues.

This muscular "dollar diplomacy" became the model for other episodes. Over the next two decades, the United States engineered the renegotiation of loans and customs-administration deals in half a dozen nations.

The Dominican affair was also a departure in presidential-congressional relations, according to U.S. historian Ralph Lee Woodward. "Roosevelt couldn't get the approval of Congress for this, so he did it on his own," he said. "It set the precedent for many subsequent interventions by presidents, ignoring the Congress."

Behind the diplomatic manoeuvring was the U.S. economy's growing appetite for new markets and raw materials.

Cuba offered vast sugar plantations. From Central America, New England entrepreneurs had brought home bananas. In time, timber, minerals and oil would flow north from the Caribbean Basin, and U.S. corporations became as well known for buying politicians as they were for selling commodities.

The jewel of the region, if it could only be built, was the canal.

French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps had abandoned his attempts, defeated by disease and the formidable challenge of hacking through the Panamanian isthmus. Roosevelt was determined that U.S. engineers would finish the job.

That required the separation of Panama from Colombia, which was balking at U.S. attempts to acquire land on either side of the canal route. Roosevelt gave tacit support to Panamanian secessionists and their private U.S. backers, and sent gunboats to block Colombian troops from putting down their revolt.

A treaty was signed with the new republic in November, 1903, ceding the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone to the United States in return for an annual payment. The Senate voted to ratify it on Feb. 23, 1904, and work began later in the year, although the canal was not completed until 1914.

Political opponents branded Roosevelt's big-stick Caribbean manoeuvring illegitimate, but it proved popular with voters. In November, he defeated Alton Parker of the Democrats by 7.6 million to five million votes. No one had ever won the presidency by a wider margin.

As the century wore on, U.S. intervention became its hallmark in the Caribbean. And when the United States intervened, it left U.S. culture behind. Jazz was assimilated, transformed and shipped back as a Latin original. Baseball became the national pastime of half a dozen countries.

But U.S. dominance, and the poverty it failed to relieve, spawned deep-seated resentment that led to popular uprisings and guerrilla wars. Washington's forays took on an ideological cast during the Cold War as it sought to overthrow governments in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba and Grenada.

The canal was handed back to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, and U.S. military bases there were closed. But the United States still monitors the Caribbean closely from Florida, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and the Dutch-owned islands of Curacao and Aruba. And the U.S. flag still flies over an arid corner of southeastern Cuba.

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, once considered a vital link in the canal's defences, is now being used to house more than 600 terrorism suspects. The United States sends Cuba $4,085 (U.S.) in rent for the base every year, but President Fidel Castro won't cash the cheques. The figure is the same as when Guantanamo's lease was first negotiated in 1903 – by a president named Theodore Roosevelt.

Banana-boat era

They called it the Great White Fleet. Its refrigerated banana boats were legendary symbols of U.S. commercial expansion. And they were among the ships receiving the first long-distance radio broadcasts – a feat accomplished by a Canadian electronics pioneer.

The fleet was born in 1904, when the United Fruit Co. set up a steamship subsidiary and launched the San Jose, Limon and Esparta, destined to carry billions of bananas from the Caribbean and Central America to U.S. ports.

In the early 1900s, powerful United Fruit was dubbed el pulpo (the octopus) by the Central Americans who toiled on its plantations and saw their governments dance to the company's tune. It faced a continuing challenge: getting bananas to market before they spoiled.

Banana boats were painted white to reflect sunlight and keep the fruit at the proper temperature. But United Fruit's owners wanted to be able to direct their ships on short notice to ports that were available for loading.

They developed one of the first large-scale commercial applications of radio technology. Through a network set up by Quebec-born Reginald Fessenden, Morse code messages were transmitted to crystal sets on ships travelling between Boston, New Orleans and Caribbean ports.

On Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden made radio history. Banana boat crews along the Atlantic seaboard heard his broadcast voice program – the world's first.

It included a Christmas message, a Bible reading, a recording of Handel's Largo, and Fessenden's violin and singing performance of O Holy Night.

The broadcast was repeated on New Year's Day, and banana boats in the Caribbean picked it up.

United Fruit shipped 15 million bunches of bananas in 1904. Its activities later inspired the term "banana republic."

Directly or indirectly, the company was involved in military coups in Honduras and Guatemala. Its successor, Chiquita Brands International Inc., still owns large banana tracts in Central and South America.

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