|A century 0f U.S.-Cuban relations
Out-Platting Platt: From Colonialism to Globalization
[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
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
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
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
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
>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