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A century 0f U.S.-Cuban relations

Out-Platting Platt: From Colonialism to Globalization

by Jane Franklin

[Editor's note: The Platt Amendment, written by the U.S. Secretary of War in 1901 for addition to the Army Appropriations Act, established Cuba as a virtual U.S. protectorate, asserting control of its foreign relations and Washington's military right to intervene whenever it deemed necessary (and simultaneously seizing the naval base at Guantanamo). Later the same year, with the island still under U.S. military occupation from its 1898 invasion, Washington forced the amendment's incorporation into the Cuban Constitution.]

As the 20th century opened, the United States was codifying future relations with Cuba in the Platt Amendment. As the 20th century was ending, the United States was trying to restore past relations with Cuba through the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts. These three documents project a revealing picture of revolutionary historical change and a corresponding transition of ideology.

The United States was born in an anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolution that helped inspire the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and 19th-century revolutions throughout Latin America. In 1898, having completed its transcontinental conquest but still guised as the champion of anti-colonialism, the United States intervened in Cuba's anti-colonial revolution as the pathway toward becoming a global empire.

Washington presented the Platt Amendment as if it would shield Cuba against colonization, while using it to turn Cuba from a colony of Spain into a neo-colony of the United States. At that time, 85 percent of the earth's land surface was owned and/or controlled by Europeans and their descendants. This was still true at the end of World War II. But between 1945 and 1949, a quarter of the world's population attained national independence from outright colonialism. In 1949, the Communist revolution in China triumphed, bringing independence to another quarter of the world's population. Confronted with this global revolution, the United States became the leader of global counterrevolution. No longer the champion of anti-colonialism, the United States was now the champion of democracy. Key theoreticians of 19th-century U.S. policy toward Cuba were quite frank. Thomas Jefferson viewed annexation of Cuba as part of an unprecedented "empire for liberty." John Quincy Adams compared Cuba to an apple that would eventually fall from its "unnatural connection with Spain" into the hands of the United States.

But that goal would be blocked by an independent Cuba. Hence the 1898 intervention, the Platt Amendment, more interventions in 1906, 1912, 1917, 1933, and U.S. policy ever since. The Platt Amendment merely formalized this policy of control for its historical period. As Secretary of War Elihu Root spelled out in 1901: "[The Platt Amendment] gives to the United States no right which she does not already possess." Even after the Platt Amendment was abrogated in 1934, the United States of course continued its economic and political control of the island.

But the 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution brought the worldwide liberation movement almost to the beaches of Florida. The Eisenhower administration immediately launched its counterrevolution. Overt laws and covert memoranda laid out the kinds of attack that the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts repackage and expand. A State Department memorandum of June 24, 1959, speculated that depriving Cuba of its sugar quota privilege would cause "widespread...unemployment" and "large numbers of people thus forced out of work would begin to go hungry." These words were secret--classified. Nobody openly talked then about this policy of deliberate starvation. By November 1959, CIA Director Allen Dulles calculated Prime Minister Castro would last around eight more months; he hoped that the Soviet Union would offer arms, thus providing a pretext for U.S. intervention; he regretted that there were not yet any Cuban forces in the United States ready "for possible future use."

>That word, "use," belies the popular belief that right-wing Cuban Americans determine U.S. policy. The tail does not wag the dog. Within a few months, training of Cuban émigrés for "future use" began and, in August 1960, the CIA recruited organized crime figures to assassinate Cuban leaders. Then came decades of attempting to overthrow the Cuban government by invasion, assassinations, sabotage, biological and chemical warfare, the trade ban, the travel ban.

Until 1991, the principal ideological justification for this relentless war of attrition was that Cuba had become a Soviet "puppet" or "base" or "proxy" or "colony." The professed anti- colonialism of the Platt Amendment appeared in an updated form, with the Soviet Union rather than Spain cast in the role of the threat to Cuban independence.

But in 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the United States entered an unprecedented period of history as a lone superpower intent on global hegemony. Ironically, the United States arrived at this stage without the control of Cuba that it possessed at the beginning of the century. If a Soviet threat had caused the state of siege, it could have ended then and there. Instead, the United States continued to pursue the age-old policy instituted long before the Soviet Union even existed. The Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 make no pretense of trying to save Cuba from a foreign power. Under the mantra of "democracy," they claim to be saving Cuba from its own government.<

The Platt Amendment is short--seven articles, each one sentence long (plus an eighth added at the time of the signing of the 1903 treaty). Three of the seven mention Cuban "independence" as a purpose of this amendment. There was no need for numerous details because these few words simply legislated continuation of U.S. authority. The laws of the current era are lengthy documents, tortuously trying to legislate from afar the daily lives of Cubans. The 1992 Torricelli Act is nine times longer than Platt. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act is six times longer than Torricelli.

In 1988, before getting financed by the Cuban American National Foundation, Representative Robert Torricelli visited Cuba, declaring, "Living standards are not high, but the homelessness, hunger and disease that is witnessed in much of Latin America does not appear evident." But the Torricelli Act states that a "collapse of the Cuban economy, social upheaval, or widespread suffering" would provide the United States "with an unprecedented opportunity to promote a peaceful transition to democracy."

How to accomplish that peaceful transition? Torricelli said bluntly that he wanted to "wreak havoc on that island." His "Cuban Democracy Act" is a blueprint for starving people into submission.

In 1898, no U.S. political leader would have publicly advocated depriving people of food. On the eve of war, President William McKinley urged continuing distribution of food "in the interest of humanity" and to save "the lives of the starving people of the island." Ninety-four years later, Congress voted to create conditions for starvation. But while forbidding trade in food, the "Cuban Democracy Act" offers "donations of food to nongovernmental organizations or individuals," turning food into bribes.

>Once Cuba installs a U.S.-approved "transitional government," "Food, medicine, and medical supplies for humanitarian purposes should be made available" as "calibrated" to Cuban obedience to U.S. commands. Although full of shibboleths like "human rights," "transition to democracy," and the "free-market economic system," this 1992 law does not mention "independence."

>Given a green light by the Torricelli Act, U.S. terrorists increased attacks. For instance, in October 1992, Comandos L shot up a hotel at Varadero Beach and publicly took credit. At a televised news conference in Florida three months later, the head of Comandos L announced plans for more raids against tourist targets in Cuba, proclaiming, "From this point on, we're at war."

The next month, Representative Torricelli voiced his support for terrorism: "A group of Cuban patriots at some point in the near future is going to recognize that no matter what the risk to themselves, it is time to take Cuba's future in their own hands." He predicted: "The end of that government will be measured in months and not years."

But as months turned into years, the Cuban American National Foundation and Senator Jesse Helms devised the "Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act" (the Helms-Burton Act). Its shibboleths are "free and fair democratic elections," "human rights," "freedom," "transition to democracy," "market-oriented economic system," and "private property." It mentions "self-determination" but calls for "liberty" and "democracy" rather than "independence."

With no red lights in sight, U.S. terrorists continued their rampage, including assassination attempts so blatant that they have led to arrests (but no convictions yet) in 1997 and 2000. Failure to effectively prosecute extreme acts of terrorism against the Cuban people is entirely consistent with the legal terrorism enacted by Congress. Before Congress voted for Helms-Burton, it first voted against an amendment that would have allowed sales of food, medicine and medical supplies. "By denying this amendment we are telling Cuban parents we are going to withhold medical treatment for your children," said Democratic Representative Jim McDermott, the amendment's sponsor. "This," he said, is indefensible."

No sooner had President George Bush signed the Torricelli Act into law than the UN General Assembly voted to end the U.S. trade sanctions. But Helms-Burton ignored UN opposition, demanding that the UN Security Council vote for a "mandatory international embargo." (The General Assembly vote against U.S. sanctions in the year 2000 was almost unanimous--167 to 3.)

>The primary writers of both Torricelli and Helms-Burton were members of the Cuban American National Foundation, established by the Reagan Administration in 1981 as an arm of policy toward Cuba. Now the organization has become a major instrument of U.S. globalization. These two omnibus laws include extraterritorial provisions that incorporate the U.S. government's view that the global market must conform to U.S. interests.

>One of Helms-Burton's many requirements for a "democratically elected government" is that it must be "substantially moving toward a market- oriented economic system based on the right to own and enjoy property." Title III certainly offers a unique method of owning and enjoying property. It would magically reverse time by claiming that property left behind by Cuban émigrés was U.S. property because those Cubans later became U.S. citizens. Thus Cuban property would convert to U.S. property. It aims to undo socialism by privatization--from abroad. Schools, clinics, union halls, private homes, public beaches, day-care centers, sugar mills, and other property could be confiscated. In U.S. courts, Cuban Americans could sue foreign investors who "traffic" in property they owned when they were Cuban citizens.

President George Bush will decide in July whether to continue the practice of not enforcing Title III because of opposition from U.S.allies. The Platt Amendment confined itself to Cuba, but Helms- Burton dictates to every country in the world. Helms-Burton acclaims "self-determination" and "free and fair elections" and "human rights" while subverting all three. In 1901, Washington arranged a so-called free election in occupied Cuba and called the resulting government democratic even though the racist Jim Crow Laws of the South were exported for use in that election. Helms-Burton decrees that a "transition government" must "recognize that the self-determination of the Cuban people is a sovereign and national right of the citizens of Cuba which must be exercised free of interference by the government of any other country." It then proceeds to interfere by spelling out exactly how Cuba must conduct elections.

Neither Fidel Castro nor Raul Castro can run in any "free and fair" election that would be certified by Washington. Back in 1952 when General Batista overthrew an elected government, suspended the Constitution and canceled elections, a young man named Fidel Castro was running for Congress. The U.S. coup kept him from running then and U.S. law says he can't run now. Part of the underlying logic of Helms- Burton is that Fidel Castro would lose in a "free and fair" election. If so, why have they made it illegal for him to run?<

One hundred years ago, the Platt Amendment guaranteed Cuba's independence by revoking Cuba's independence. The Torricelli and Helms-Burton laws legislate democracy for Cuba by dictating Cuba's economic, social and political system. In an era when the United States equates democracy with U.S.-style capitalism, these laws truly out-Platt Platt.

Jane Franklin is the author of Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History

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