The Platt Amendment and US-Cuba Relations

Spanish-American war lithograph
(Original caption) The Duty of the Hour: - To Save Her, Cuba, Not Only From Spain - But from a Worse Fate, published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, May 11, 1898. Lithograph by Holrymple, del.; J. Ottman Lith. Co.

The New York Historical Society / Getty Images

The Platt Amendment set the conditions to end the United States military occupation of Cuba and was passed at the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was fought over which country should oversee the governing of the island. The amendment was intended to create a path to Cuban independence while still allowing the U.S. to have an influence in its domestic and international politics. It was in effect from February 1901 until May 1934. 

Historical Background

Prior to the Spanish-American War, Spain had control over Cuba and was profiting greatly from its natural resources. There are two major theories as to why the U.S. entered war: promoting democracy abroad and gaining control of the island’s resources.

First, the War of 1898 was popular with Americans because the government promoted it as a liberation war. Cubans and the well-known liberation force Cuba Libre began revolting against Spanish rule much earlier, in the 1880s. Additionally, the U.S. was already involved in conflicts with Spain throughout the Pacific in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, citing the European nation as an imperialist and undemocratic power. Therefore, some historians and politicians theorize that the war intended to promote democracy and extend the reach of the Free World, and the subsequent Platt Amendment was intended to provide a pathway to Cuban sovereignty.

However, keeping Cuba in the U.S. sphere of influence had great economic and political benefits. In the 1980s, the U.S. was suffering one of the greatest economic depressions in its history. The island had tons of cheap tropical agricultural products that Europeans and Americans were willing to pay high prices for. Further, Cuba is only 100 miles from the southernmost tip of Florida, so keeping a friendly regime protected the nation’s national security. Using this perspective, other historians believe that the war, and by extension the Platt Amendment, was always about increasing American influence, not Cuban liberation.

At the end of the war, Cuba wanted independence and self-government, whereas the United States wanted Cuba to be a protectorate, a region with a mix of local autonomy and foreign oversight. The initial compromise came in the form of the Teller Amendment. This stated that no country can permanently hold Cuba and a free and independent government will take over. This amendment was not popular in the U.S. because it seemingly barred the nation’s annexation of the island. Though President William McKinley signed the amendment, the administration still sought annexation. The Platt Amendment, signed in February 1901, followed the Teller Amendment to give the United States more oversight of Cuba.

What the Platt Amendment Says

The Platt Amendment’s primary stipulations were that Cuba became unable to enter into treaties with any foreign nation other than the U.S., the U.S. has a right to intervene if it is believed to be in the island’s best interest, and all conditions of the amendment must be accepted in order to end military occupation.

While this was not the annexation of Cuba and there was a local government in place, the United States had much control over the island’s international relationships and domestic production of agricultural goods. As the United States continued to expand its influence throughout Latin American and the Caribbean, Latin Americans began to refer to this style of government oversight as “plattismo.”

Long-Term Impact of the Platt Amendment

The Platt Amendment and military occupation of Cuba is one of the leading causes of later conflict between the U.S. and Cuba. Opposition movements continued to expand across the island, and McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, put a U.S.-friendly dictator named Fulgencio Batista in charge in hopes of countering the revolutionaries. Later, President William Howard Taft went as far as to say that independence would be completely out of the question if the Cubans continued to rebel.

This only increased the anti-U.S. sentiment and propelled Fidel Castro to the Cuban Presidency with a communist-friendly regime after the Cuban Revolution

Essentially, the legacy of the Platt Amendment is not one of American liberation, as the McKinley administration had hoped. Instead, it stressed and eventually severed the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba that has not normalized since.

Sources

  • Pérez Louis A. The War of 1898: the United States and Cuba in History and Historiography. University of North Carolina, 1998.
  • Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Basic Books, 2014.