When we last left professor Louis Perez Jr, Cuban revolutionaries seemed on the verge of independence. The United States was willing to help overthrow the Spanish empire, but many US politicians seemed to have self serving motives.
To make a long story short, 1898 was a big year. The USS Battleship Maine mysteriously exploded on a peaceful visit to Havana Harbor and the North Americans used this as a pretext to invade Cuba. Led by Theodore Roosevelt, the US military helped overwhelm Spanish forces around the Caribbean.
In theory, this was a humanitarian campaign to free refugees from colonial rule. In practice however, the US often ignored local forces and began to set up a Cuban government that was sympathetic to big business.
The island became a kind of US “protectorate” and the North Americans reserved the right to intervene as they saw fit. To many Cubans, this was simply a new form of colonialism.
Professor Perez describes the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-Cuba-American War and evaluates the legacy of this time period. Why do North Americans and Caribbean Americans view this history differently? How does this history affect us today?
Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and the Director of ISA. His most recent books include Rice in the Time of Sugar: The Political Economy of Food in Cuba (2019) and Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba (2017) Pérez's principal teaching fields include twentieth-century Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba. Research interests center on the nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean, with an emphasis on Cuba.
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Editing and production by Jordan Hawthorne
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Welcome to turn of the century, a podcast about the turn of the 20th century. I'm Joe Hawthorne and today we're talking about the terrible fantastic no good freedom loving Neo colonial and fiercely contested republic of Cuba. In the first part of the 20th century, when we last spoke with Professor Lewis Perez, Cuban revolutionaries seemed on the verge of Independence, the United States was willing to help overthrow the Spanish Empire. But many us politicians seem to have self serving motives, or after all, isn't cheap. To make a long story short 1898 was a big year, the US battleship Maine mysteriously exploded on a peaceful visit to Havana Harbor, and the North Americans use this as a pretext to invade Cuba. In theory, this was a humanitarian campaign to free refugees from a colonial rule. In practice, however, the US often ignored local forces and began to set up a Cuban government that was sympathetic to their big businesses. The island became a kind of protectorate, and the North Americans reserve the right to intervene as they saw fit. many locals especially darker skinned Cubans saw this as a kind of Neo colonialism. Professor Perez describes the immediate aftermath of the Spanish American Cuban war evaluates the legacy of this time period. Why do North Americans and Caribbean Americans view this history differently? How did these events affect Fidel Castro, communists and the Cold War? How does this history affect us today? Let's find out. Welcome back. Today we're talking again with Professor Lewis Perez, about Cuban and North American history, Cuban United States history and the legacy of 1898 of US involvement. In what before then, was Cuban war or wars of independence. Professor Perez, thank you so much for returning.Louis Perez Jr.:
Thank you.Joseph Hawthorne:
So we were talking before we started recording about the anniversary, the 100 year anniversary of 1898. And some of the interesting lessons about historiography about Spanish Cubin different views of the same history. So can you go ahead and talk about that story?Louis Perez Jr.:
Sure, sure. I did not. Yeah. And it in 1998, there was a commandment of 100 100, the centennial of the of the war was observed in Europe, of course, in Spain, in the United States, of course, university campuses and programs and conferences, and of course, in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in the Philippines. And, you know, and all the parties who were involved in this war, which was in its own, in many ways, a global war, stretched from the Philippines, to Europe to the Caribbean. And there was a moment of what how would I have ironic passos, I guess, that happened in Cuba in the summer of 1898. The time in which the United States had been applying extraordinary diplomatic, political and economic pressure on Cuba, in the aftermath of the of the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe, period is known in Cuba as a special period, which was an economy that had just bottomed out. And during these years, as the United States continued to put, put the pressure added pressure on Cuba, to torture celiac in 1992, and Helms Burton 1996. And happens in 1998. We celebrate this this centennial. And now without tomorrow, any the country that seemed most disposed to engage Cuba, at the time was Spain. And again, there are several ironies here one that if the Americans went into Cuba in the 19 1890s to help Cuba, the Spanish went to Cuba, the 1990s to help Cuba against the Americans. Until part of this kind of warm and fuzzy relationship that's beginning with the with between Spain and Cuba, there's a moment in which the summer of 1998, the city historian of Cuba, of Havana, and the Spanish ambassador in Cuba, bought a helicopter and fly over the entrance or exit to the harbor, the port of Santiago, which is very narrow. And it was on this site that the that the devastation to the Spanish Armada took place because it's a Spanish Armada came out, ship by ship, in 1898. This was a naval battle. One by one, they got blown out of the water by the US Navy. And it was devastation. And, and so, on this occasion, in the summer of 1998, the city historian Havana, and the Spanish ambassador to Cuba flew over the harbor and dropped flowers petals flower petals over the the waters just outside the port of together in commemoration of the lives lost in the naval battle with the United States. It raised some eyebrows. Because there is a there is a sense that a spanner had waged a wicked war against the Cubans. And that the politics of the late 20th century visa v. Cuba, the United States and Spain, would result in honoring Spanish, the Spanish Navy, this way, just didn't quite sit well with many people. And so again, this is the way that this war continues to expand into the into today's environment. And the war, of course, sets in motion, so many different things. It's a war that projects the United States in the Philippines and the Pacific. And then, of course, the seizure of Guam, and Puerto Rico and then more or less Cuba. You know, it is it is difficult, I think, for many historians in the United States to look at this as a war that is nothing but nothing more than a naked form of territorial aggrandizement. It is a war that as far as Theodore Roosevelt is concerned, who is an Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It behooves the United States to seize colonies as a measure of greatness. In the low hanging fruit of colonies, in 1898, was the remnant to the Spanish Empire, which was the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico and Cuba. The first blow struck against Spain was not Cuba. It was on the other side of the world and the Pacific against the Spanish and the Philippines. And only a month or two later to the Americans landed in Cuba. And after the Spanish indicated a willingness to sue for peace. The United States held them at bay, while they while the US Army invaded Puerto Rico to seize Puerto Rico. So the Spanish would have been perfectly happy to surrender. But the US would not accept an armistice until it had seized control of Puerto Rico. So one fell swoop this war that lasts effectively from the declaration in April of 1898 until August 12 1898, what's that six months really now sets the United States and establishes global presence for the United States.Joseph Hawthorne:
And so looking forward, past 1898 what's the effect of this war in the Caribbean? What happens to Cuba and you also mentioned Puerto Rico other islands that the US innovatesLouis Perez Jr.:
um, you know, it's there is a the war second Just briefly sketched out what happens the war the the United States, the Americans coming to Cuba. they seize the Cuban war for independence. It's important to stress and as often as lost sight of that the Americans did not start a war. They joined a war in progress. The Spanish American War phase of the Cuban war for independence was 45 days. And so the United States went to Cuba to seize control of the war, displaced the Cubans made a treaty which made an armistice with Spain in which the Cubans did not participate, signed a treaty with Spain that the Cubans did not participate and began a military occupation on January 1 1899, in which effectively, President McKinley said our authority in Cuba is on the authority of a conquered territory. So the Americans arrive to Cuba in the guise of allies but stay in the role of conquers the the US proceeds then to for the want of a better word refurbish the social system that has supported Spanish Spanish colonial administration for the previous nearly 100 years, a began to discredit the proposition of Cuban independence. It repudiate the capacity of Cubans to exercise self government invokes all the racist tropes that Spain had used to justify colonial administration. It evokes the fear of race war, evokes the metaphor of Haiti, which is the standard in metaphor for race war. And then proceed to, as I said, refurbish the social constituencies and the economic Coalition's that had underwritten Spanish colonial rule, but kept Spain in Cuba since the beginning of the 19th century. And effectively, what do I say it at a Visser rates, anything but the most cynical definition of what sovereignty means, so that, by the time the United States ends the military occupation of Cuba, Cuban sovereignty Cuban independence is more apparent than real. It is at this point that the United States in occupied Cuba seizes control of territory that will become the American Naval Station in Guantanamo. And the continuing legacy of 1898 is that the Americans still control that territory on the southeast coast of Cuba. So the degree to which Cuban aspiration to a compromised those aspirations for national sovereignty and self determination, those aspirations of Cuba for Cubans those aspirations of independence to address the grievances that had summoned Cuba to two arms in the first place, all that remained unfinished, all that remains unresolved. And, and what the set in motion and this can be is could be followed with was was was considerable clarity is that it leaves a legacy of unfinished revolution. Ned wood had summoned Cubans to arms in sacrifice for more than 30 years and cost Cubans hundreds of 1000s of lives. those goals so the aspirations to his objectives that had seven Cubans to sacrifice and struggle for more than 30 years, we made that finished. So it introduces into the Cuban polity, it introduces into the Cuban political imagination. Almost immediately, let's say I was immediately starting in 19 192. And continuing for the decades that followed. This, this idea that each generation of politically active and politically aware of Humans had a responsibility, a duty to make good on the aspirations that had some in the wars for independence, this unfinished revolution, these unfinished goals. The aspirations of national sovereignty and self determination that had been had be stirred Cubans in the 19th century now become a legacy to which Cubans in the 20th century feel that they are heir to, and it's up to them to try to make good on that, on that on those aspirations. So if we, if we look at politics of Cuba, in the first half of the 20th century, we see two perhaps three generations of Cubans in the 19 from the 1920s 1940s 1950s, kind of picking up the mantle and picking up the the the cause of 19th century liberation. In other words, this is not an idea that goes away. This is an idea that that insinuates insinuate itself deeply into, into human memory to Cuba and imagination, that something really went wrong with the American intervention that, you know, Americans like to think that that they did something big that they did something for Cubans. And the Cubans believed that the Americans did something to Cubans. And so this idea then continues to just kind of percolating just below the surface, and sometimes it erupts. The young people of the 1920s, in the struggle against Machado, you know, raised the banner of the 19th century awards for independence. And of course, the person who brings us to fruition is Fidel Castro, who picks up, picks up and raises to remarkable clarity and clarion call for revolution. If the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro in the 19th in the 1959, is any resonance any salient at all? It is the theme of national sovereignty and self determination. If one knows nothing else about the Cuban Revolution, those are the twin pillars that have sustained that and continue to sustain Cuba to this day. In other words, the Cuban Revolution leadership, however hollow that may sound in 2020. It continues to be the lay motif of a revolution that proclaimed itself heir to the 19th century struggles.Joseph Hawthorne:
And I'm really glad you mentioned that that was definitely something I was going to ask about. I'm curious, can you talk a little bit more about how narratives of the Can you talk a little bit more about how the US narratives and the Cuban narratives of 1898 have diverged or always diverged? You know, because you mentioned at the very beginning, you were talking about Spain and Cuba. But what's the divide between these two histories?Louis Perez Jr.:
Well, I think you start from the proposition, you know, one starts with a proposition that, to this day, I saw, I saw just yesterday, a long essay that was written by a couple of folks on the Spanish American War. And the construction of that title, and I'm not the first in them, and it's many, many scholars, both in this country and abroad, who wins every time they hear this described as a Spanish American War. Because that construction denies the participation and presence of cubics. And it continues to perpetuate the trope that the Americans were the ones who freed Cuba, and somehow the previous three and a half years of Cuban warfare against Spain, seem to matter Not at all. So the very construction of that of that, of that war, which takes what was almost a four year war and encapsulated into 45 days, serves to negate and deny the presence of Cubans in their own war, it would be as if people will call the American war for independence, the Franco Anglo war, okay. And somehow the Americans had nothing to do with it. So we start from that, and increasingly more and more historians of calling this the Spanish Cuban American war and sometimes the Spanish Cuban Filipino American war. What is not acceptable is to identify this as a Spanish American War because it clearly It certainly the the facet of it that took place in Cuba is far more complicated and has a far deeper history than quote unquote, Spanish American War would suggest.Joseph Hawthorne:
What do you call it?Louis Perez Jr.:
Well, I can call it the war of 1898. Sometimes I will say the Spanish American War phase of the Spanish Cuban war, because it is a phase of that war. And sometimes, I would say the Spanish Cuban American war.Joseph Hawthorne:
So you mentioned this, or you kind of alluded to this. But I'm curious, you know, what ways do you think that scholars, including yourself, are updating the history or the historiography of this time period?Louis Perez Jr.:
I don't know I did a book on the anniversary of the war 19 came out 1998, in which I looked at, spent a long time taking a look at American history textbooks. how, you know, starting from the 1910s, and 20s, right up through the 1980s and 90s, how the war was, was depicted and described and evaluated and analyzed. And I would say that, with some notable exceptions, the historiography, the US historical orography of this war continues to be more or less unchanged. A few days ago, I think they made perhaps it may be time to revisit this literature to see what has been, what to the textbooks for the last 20 years, have they they reflected any change? Or have they arrived at a deeper understanding of what 1898 means? Because in point of fact, what happens, what happens in 1959, in 1960, as the queue at the leadership of the Cuban Revolution began to begin to hurl criticism against the United States, for for having interrupted and precluded the war for independence, per the Cuban historians. That narrative, that political rhetoric that came from Havana in 1959, in 1960, arrived to the United States, to the complete bafflement of Americans, because all this time, all this time. The Cubans who were at the receiving end of American history, all this time, Americans thought, in not surprisingly, given the historic the history and historians they read, believe that the United States did a noble deed that the United States with sacrifice of life and treasure, went to Cuba and to institute to aid and assist the struggling Cuban people when their independence against the liquidus Spanish administration. And his Americans, and including American politicians took umbrage at the Cubans would assume such a hostile tone to the United States, because after all, the United States had helped them win their independence at the United States, it helped them you know, pick them up when they fell down. And so you have these two narratives that just totally miss each other, that are not engaged in any any remote conversation with one another. And the you are talking about two nations that exist in in talking about the same history, but coming from this in parallel universes.Joseph Hawthorne:
And as you're talking about that, I'm curious if you think, you know, things, it may be easier to improve the the historical record or update the historical record, because at the time you're talking about in the middle of the 20th century, a lot of those historians or politicians, you know, either they lived through those events, and had formed the opinions they had, or their parents, let's say, had fought in the wars or form the opinions they had, you know, do you think that with time, especially from us literature, or, or us scholars, that it's easier to update the record now, or is it mostly been unchanged?Louis Perez Jr.:
I don't know. As I said, I, not just days ago, in anticipation of speaking with you. It occurred to me, you know, what does what does the the historical scholarship What What do American textbooks say today, the last 20 years? Like I said, I did this book, I completed the research for that book by 1998. So more than 20 years have passed. And so I do not know, I do not know how historians of the United States, I know how to historians of Cuba dealing with this mostly. But I do not know how historian to the United States who are writing histories of American foreign policy history of American Foreign Relations history histories of the United States in the 19th and 20th century. Just to focus just to focus on that one, you know, how, how is 1898 explained to in a textbook that is meant for you know, you know, history 101 to the incoming freshman class? I do not know. Yeah. Okay.Joseph Hawthorne:
And so, then, I think, a good question to wrap up on which you've alluded to already. you've answered a lot of ways already. But why is this important? You know, do you think that by updating this record by, I guess having the views of history coming into a little bit more of alignment or understanding, you know, do you think that will help change the relationship between the US and Cuba today? Do you, why is this important?Louis Perez Jr.:
Why is it important? I would first say that it's important to understand, to get a fuller appreciation of over history, from, as I said, from the receiving end of the United States intruded into human history and deflected a historical process that had already been in motion for it, two generations, three generations, and profoundly changed the course of human history. And I think it's important. And this is a role that historians can play to the best of their ability to peel back the layers and try to understand what were the forces that are operating in Cuba in 1898? To what degree were the Cubans? What's the word deceived, preempted from the history. And I understand the difficulty. This precludes that the historian of the United States should to get that insight must read Cuban materials and Cuban sources, and that everybody has reading capacities in another language. So that blocks off that for the access for many. It's important to understand, you know, this, what we call, you know, blowback, that events that happened 10 1520 100 years ago have consequences, that the past is really not past. And it's important to try to understand the key point of view of how these, these grievances do not go away. In I was I was struck by when Obama in renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, December reference was that it was time to put the Cold War to rest, that the the difficulties in the in the in the hostility between Cuba and the United States was a Cold War origins. And he did not appreciate that the hostility and the difficulties between Cuba and the United States preceded the Cold War, they are historic. And if you want to fix a point, just to kind of pinpoint on a chronology, it is probably at 98. Good appraise, if any, to begin to, as a point of departure to understand the difficulties of Cuba us relations.Joseph Hawthorne:
I think that's a good place to wrap up. And as we're recording now, we'll have a connection to that Obama presidency. Joe Biden's gonna be coming into office soon. So perhaps you know, he will look to 1898 instead of the Cold War. So, thank you so much, Professor, professor. Thank you so much, Professor Perez, for joining. I really appreciate having these several conversations with you. Now, if people have enjoyed your perspective, are there any books works that you are finishing up that you're excited about right now that you want to share?Louis Perez Jr.:
Well, I think went up, but it won't be available for another year or two. So if anybody wants to follow up 1898 the book I did 22 years ago and the war of 1898.Joseph Hawthorne:
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much and thank you for listening. Please subscribe rate review, and make sure to tell your friends about this show. It helps us get discovered and make more amazing content. So much. Bye