The Pseudo-Republic was an era of Yankee colonization and domestic acquiescence. Economically, North America held sway. Politically, Washington called the shots. United States officers who spoke no Spanish, had never lived in a hot country, and had no notion of Spanish or Cuban history and ideals found themselves in charge of a tired, starving people and a devastated land wrecked by war. As Hugh Thomas suggests: “This continuous U.S. presence, benevolent though it often set out to be, paternalistic though it usually was in practice, fatally delayed the achievement of political stability in Cuba.”
Nonetheless, the United States pumped millions of dollars into reconstruction. Under General Wood, the U.S. authorities set up schools, started a postal system, established a judiciary and civil service, organized finances, paved roads in cities throughout the nation, and managed to eradicate yellow fever.
The United States installed its first president, Tomás Estrada Palma, who received his salary and instructions directly from Washington. Palma, though reelected in 1905, was too honest and weak to hold greedy politicians in check. Each Cuban president forged new frauds of his own and handed out sinecures (which the Cubans called botellas—milk bottles given to babies) to cronies.
The U.S. government was constantly influenced to support this or that Cuban who had given, or would give, opportunities to U.S. investors or had borrowed from North American banks. When U.S. economic interests were threatened, Uncle Sam sent in troops—“dollar diplomacy” it was called, a phrase coined by President Howard Taft. The United States landed Marines in 1906, 1912, and 1917. Dollar diplomacy was blind to the corruption, state violence, and poverty plaguing the country.
A U.S. Colony
The opening years of the Cuban republic were a time of great opportunity for everyone except Cubans. Everything was up for grabs. Cuba witnessed a great influx of capital as U.S. companies invested in every major industry—tobacco, railroads, utilities, mining, and, above all, sugar. Several thousand U.S. citizens settled, bringing their North American style and sensibilities to the city. In short order, every major industry was U.S. owned. U.S. interests in the sugar industry increased almost overnight from 15 percent to 75 percent. Cuba had become a giant Monopoly board controlled by Uncle Sam.
Thanks to billions of dollars of investment, the Cuban economy bounced back with vigor, though the mass of rural families struggled to survive. Although the sugar workers had no other way of earning a living, the sugar companies paid them wages for only half a year. Employment lasted only as long as the dry season, when the downtime began. Most workers and their families lived in squalor and suffered miserably for half the year. (Not all estates were of this model. For example, the Hershey company built modern homes for its Cuban employees and provided clinics, schools, and social services.)
Profits from sugar were so great that Cubans sold out their other properties and poured their money into the industry, deriving dividends from sweetening the desserts of the world. The peak of the sugar boom—the “dance of the millions”—lasted from 1915 to 1920, when the price of sugar climbed to US$0.22 a pound. Then came the crash. In 1924, Cuba produced more than 4.5 million tons of sugar. The next year it produced a million tons more—but the sugar sold for less than US$0.01 a pound.
Sugar money paid for massive civic constructions and public utilities and for the plush mansions in Beaux-Arts and art deco style then blossoming in cities all over Cuba. Havana—jewel of the Caribbean—wore a new luster. Cuba of the 1920s was far and away the richest tropical country anywhere, with a per capita income equivalent to that of Ireland, two-thirds that of Britain, and half that of the United States. As Prohibition and a wave of morality swept through the United States, Yankees flocked to Havana, which wrote Juliet Barclay, was filled with “milkshakes and mafiosi, hot dogs and whores. Yanqui Doodle had come to town and was having martini-drinking competitions in the Sevilla Bar.”
The Machado Epoch
In 1924, President Alfredo Zayas, having made his millions, declined to run for reelection. General Gerardo Machado y Morales (1871–1939) stepped into the breach. Machado acted on his promises to construct schools, highways, and a health care system, and initiated an ambitious development plan for Cuba. However, he was also a uniquely corrupt man susceptible to la mordida (literally, “the bite”—bribes), which undercut law and order. In 1928 Machado manipulated a phony election and became a tropical Mussolini, supported by a personal police force of 15,000. His politics were to make himself rich and to protect U.S. investments. His method was to assassinate anyone who opposed his government.
When the Great Depression hit, Cuba’s one-crop economy was dealt a death blow, bringing misery throughout the country. The United States raised its import tariffs on sugar, exacerbating Cuba’s plight. The Cuban economy collapsed, and the nation disintegrated into violent mayhem. Havana and other cities were swept by random bombings and assassinations. Machado responded to a growing number of hunger marches, strikes, and antigovernment demonstrations with greater repression. President Calvin Coolidge, of course, thought that “under Machado, Cuba is a sovereign state…. Her people are free, independent, in peace, and enjoying the advantages of democracy.” Finally, in the summer of 1933, a general strike brought the whole country to a halt. On August 11, Machado fled the country carrying a suitcase full of gold.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition