With America and Cuba reconciled once more, it’s instructive to remember the early days of their relationship. An 118-year-old photograph, dug out from the archives of the Library of Congress, reminds us that even during the honeymoon period, things were not as straightforward as they seemed.
The enchantingly surreal tableau depicts two battle-hardened soldiers – one in Confederate grey, the other in Union blue – shaking hands. Between them, an angelic child, wearing a crown inscribed with “CUBA”, triumphantly presents her broken shackles. The scene celebrates America’s role in freeing Cuba from Spanish rule in 1898. The Union’s first major military conflict since the civil war, it was a chance to heal deep scars – and to strike up a useful friendship with a neighbouring country.
Cuban rebels had been at war with their Spanish rulers for almost three years when America decided to intervene. Previous attempts to overthrow Spanish rule, the Ten Years’ War (1868-78) and Little War (1879-80), had ultimately come to nothing. With the help of American firepower, the Cuban War of Independence escalated rapidly into the Spanish-American war. Cuba gained independence from Spain in December 1898, only to be occupied by American forces.
Having a common enemy helped America recover from the civil war, with Northeners and Southerners, white- and African-Americans uniting to fight the Spanish. This conciliatory effect was promoted by photographs like “Cuba Libre”, which came from the Saint Louis studio of Fitz William Guerin, an Irish-American who had received a medal for bravery in the civil war.
Historians debate why America intervened in Cuba’s fight for independence, but it’s clear that it benefited economically from the war. The US won control of former Spanish provinces Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. During the three years it occupied Cuba, 80% of Cuba’s iron ore exports and 40% of the country’s sugar production fell into the hands of American companies. American citizens bought up almost a tenth of Cuba’s land.
On new year’s eve 1901, Tomás Estrada Palma was elected president, and in May 1902 Cuba finally became independent, with strings attached. A condition of the US exit was the Platt amendment, which set out a number of rules infringing on Cuba’s sovereignty, including the perpetual lease to America of Guantánamo Bay. Their relationship would soon take a more volatile turn, but America would always find it hard to let go of Cuba.