American Eyes On Cuba

Reading the below passage, I was reminded of the Cold War attitude and actions toward Cuba. This included the failed invasion and nuclear showdown during Kennedy’s administration.

There has been a longstanding antagonism between the US and Cuba. The US relationship to Cuba has involved paranoia, intrigue, and acquisitiveness. This has also involved conflict in both places, especially conflicts related to race and slavery, but also regional and partisan conflict in the US and class conflicts in Cuba.

The difference back then was that the feared superpower was the Spanish Empire, instead of the Soviet Union. Still, it was the same basic jostling for political power, imperial expansion, and military positioning.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 2109-2145

Upon arriving in Madrid, Soulé immediately alienated the Spanish government. He denounced the monarchy and cavorted openly with revolutionaries. He got into a duel with the French ambassador after one of the ambassador’s guests made a disparaging remark about Mrs. Soulé’s plunging neckline. For this affront the ambassador suffered a debilitating leg wound. From the outset, Soulé also made it clear that his mission was to acquire Cuba by hook or by crook. By this time, moreover, the Spanish, as well as every other European power, had heard that Quitman was raising troops to invade Cuba.

In September 1853, the Spanish government responded. It appointed the Marqués de la Pezuela captain general of Cuba, a post that put him in command of both the military and the government, with orders to take steps to defend Cuba. In December he issued decrees that among other things cracked down on those illegally engaged in the slave trade and gave citizenship rights to blacks illegally imported before 1835. At the same time, he recruited free blacks into the militia. Coming from a government that had no interest in abolishing either slavery or the African slave trade, Pezuela’s policy of “Africanization” made it clear that he was willing, if necessary, to use black troops against Quitman’s invaders and against any Cuban planter who sympathized with them.

Pezuela’s policy was also risky. It sparked fears of slave rebellion throughout the white South and calls for reprisals. It also aroused militants in the Mississippi Delta. They wanted action quickly. In response, the Louisiana legislature demanded “decisive and energetic measures.” Quitman, however, was unwilling to move until he had three thousand men, one armed steamer, and $220,000 at his disposal.11

Meanwhile, the Pierce administration decided that it might be possible to purchase Cuba if firebrands like Quitman were temporarily restrained. On April 3, Secretary of State William L. Marcy sent new instructions to Soulé, authorizing him to purchase Cuba for up to $130 million. If Spain refused, Soulé was then to concern himself with the problem of how to “detach” Cuba from Spain.12 Eight weeks later, the administration announced that it would prosecute all men who violated U.S. neutrality laws. The New Orleans grand jury then required Quitman to post a $3,000 bond guaranteeing his adherence to the neutrality laws for the next nine months. In the interim, in Cuba, Pezuela arrested more than a hundred pro-American planters and put some to death. Later that same year, Pierce called Quitman to Washington and showed him evidence that Cuba was strongly defended.13

Meanwhile, in Madrid, Soulé had no luck trying to buy Cuba. So the Pierce administration decided to let him confer privately with the other ministers in Europe—James Buchanan at London and John Y. Mason at Paris—and decide if it was feasible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. Meeting in Ostend in October 1854, the three diplomats put their names to a dispatch that came to be known as the Ostend Manifesto.

The dispatch was a bombshell. Written mainly by Soulé, it urged the United States to immediately buy Cuba at any price up to $120 million. It also proclaimed that if Spain refused to sell and if its possession of Cuba seriously endangered the “internal peace” of the slave states, then the United States would be justified in seizing Cuba “upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”14

News of this saber-rattling manifesto sent shock waves through the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. They had just suffered huge election losses that fall. They had entered the election holding ninety-three seats in the House. They now had only twenty-two.15 What, many asked, was the Pierce administration up to? Didn’t they realize that the “burning house” rhetoric would provide Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune with even more ammunition to attack the party faithful? One Democratic newspaper after another thus distanced itself from the manifesto, even branding its authors “brigands” and “highwaymen.”The Pierce administration also ran for cover, disavowing the proposal and letting “the three wise men of Ostend” fend for themselves.16

That December, enraged by the reaction, Soulé resigned as minister to Spain. Several months later, in April 1855, Quitman gave back to the Cuban junta the powers it had bestowed upon him. No longer did either warrior have much hope of acquiring “the pearl of the Antilles” to offset the addition of California as a free state.

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