Front Door to Cuba

United States Occupation and the Platt Amendment

Excerpt from
Cuba: A Country Study

On January 1, 1899, the Spanish administration retired from Cuba, and that same day General John R. Brooke installed a military government on the island. This was the beginning of the United States occupation of Cuba. However, the United States government was bound by the Teller Amendment, which placed Cuba in a category different from the other areas previously controlled by Spain. Furthermore, the strong annexationsist drive had waned in the United States; the realities of Cuba as economically destroyed by the war and having a large black population were responsible for the change in United states attitudes toward the island.

Brook's administration restored some services while controlling customs, postal services, sanitation; and health agencies. In December 1899 General Leonard Wood initiated the second period of United states administration in Cuba. Wood was a very energetic man who led the most impressive United states-administered reconstruction programs in Cuba. As a former United States surgeon general, Wood undertook a campaign for the eradication of malaria and yellow fever in Cuba. Dr. Walter Reed, an army surgeon, worked on epidemiology and tropical parasitical diseases projects using research results obtained previously by Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay of Cuba. A census taken in 1900 gave a bleak picture of the island's population of 1.5 million (200,000 less than in 1895), in both economic and educational terms. Schools were built, students were enrolled, special training was provided for teachers, and the University of Havana was restructured. Several public works programs were also established for the improvement of railroads, roads, and bridges.

The road to Cuban self-determination was prepared under United States guidance. In 1900 a new electoral law was passed that established a limited franchise for Cubans to elect officials at the municipal level. A constituent assembly convened and drafted a constitution that provided for universal suffrage, a directly elected president, a bicameral legislature, and the separation of church and state. The United States conditioned its approval of the constitution on the acceptance of a series of clauses that would preserve its upper hand in future dealings with "independent" Cuba. These clauses, which were to be appended to the draft of the constitution, were prepared by United States secretary of war Elihu Root and attached to the arms appropriation bill of 1901; they became known as the Platt Amendment. It provided that Cuba should not sign any treaties that could impair its sovereignty or contract any debts that could not be repaid by normal revenues. In addition, Cuba had to accept the legitimacy of all acts of the military government, permit the United States to purchase or lease lands for coaling and naval stations, and give the United states special privileges to intervene at any time to preserve Cuban independence or to support a government capable of protecting life, property, and individual liberties.

The Platt Amendment represented a permanent restriction upon Cuban self-determination. Cuba's constituent assembly modified the terms of the amendment and presented it to the United States only to be turned down. The United States-imposed amendment was a tremendous humiliation to all Cubans, whose political life would be plagued by continual debates over the issue until its repeal in 1934. On June 12, 1901, Cuba ratified the amendment as a permanent addendum to the Cuban constitution of 1901 and the only alternative to permanent military occupation by the United States. Nevertheless, the United States acquired rights in perpetuity to lease a naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay into the 1980s, under the terms of the May 1903 Treaty of Relations (also known as the Permanent Reciprocity Treaty of 1903) and the Lease of Agreement of July 1903.

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