(The remarks below are part of a presentation that will be given at a conference co-sponsored by the Radical Philosophy Association and the University of Havana in Cuba between June 18 and 22.Revisiting the remarks of key foreign policy elites from the 1890s until now suggest the commonality of outlook that pervades how the United States views the Global South and particularly Cuba. Ironically not much has changed in that outlook.)
U.S. policymakers believe and/or propagate various illusions or rationales for United States foreign policy that become part of common political discourse. In relations with Latin America, and particularly Cuba, policy has been built upon economic interest, geopolitics, and ideology. The ideological discourse justifying U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Its modern exposition is surprisingly similar to significant declarations by foreign policy elites during the era of the Cuban war against Spanish colonialism.
For example, shortly after the U.S. victory in the Spanish/Cuban/American war, Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge articulated what was to become the new ideology of American empire linking economics to Godly purpose: “We will establish trading posts throughout the world as distributing points for American products.” “Great colonies, governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade, And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted” (in Greg Jones, Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream, 2012, 93).
In a campaign speech in Indianapolis, Beveridge articulated a spiritual call and rationale for a global policy that transcended mere economic gain. America’s destiny required the U.S. “…to set the world its example of right and honor…We cannot retreat from any soil where providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty, and civilization" (in Jones, 96). And speaking before the Senate justifying the colonization of the Philippines he proclaimed a U.S. mission that transcended politics; “It is elemental…. it is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” (Congressional Record, 56 Congress, I Session, pp.704-712).
Within a few years of the U.S. colonization of Cuba and the Philippines, President Theodore Roosevelt elaborated on the U.S. world mission. He spoke of the necessity of promoting peace and justice in the world: a project that required adequate military capabilities both for “securing respect for itself and of doing good to others.” To those who claim that the United States seeks material advantage in its activist policy toward the countries of the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt responded that such claims were untrue. The U.S., he said, is motivated by altruism: “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship.”
Cuba was an example, he said: “If every country washed by the Caribbean Sea would show the progress in stable and just civilization which with the aid of the Platt Amendment Cuba has shown since our troops left the island, and which so many of the republics in both Americas are constantly and brilliantly showing, all questions of interference by the Nation with their affairs would be at an end.” He assured Latin Americans in this address to Congress in 1904 that if “….if they thus obey the primary laws of civilized society they may rest assured that they will be treated by us in a spirit of cordial and helpful sympathy. We would interfere with them only in the last resort….” (“Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” President’s Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904).
During a presentation in Norway in 1910 Roosevelt praised the U.S. for leaving Cuba as promised after the war to return only temporarily because of “….a disaster…a revolution” such that “….we were obliged to land troops again.” The President proudly declared that: “And before I left the Presidency Cuba resumed its career as a separate republic, holding its head erect as a sovereign state among the other nations of the earth. All that our people want is just exactly what the Cuban people themselves want—that is, a continuance of order within the island, and peace and prosperity, so that there shall be no shadow of an excuse for any outside intervention.” (“the Colonial Policy of the United States,” An Address Delivered at Christiania, Norway, May 5, 1910).
Earlier on January 18, 1909 to the Methodist Episcopal Church (“The Expansion of the White Races”) Roosevelt applauded the increasing presence--he estimated 100 million people—of “European races” throughout the world. The indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been assimilated with their “intruders” with the end result “that the Indian population of America is larger today than it was when Columbus discovered the continent, and stands on a far higher plane of happiness and efficiency.”
And to highlight the missionary message Roosevelt added: “Of course the best that can happen to any people that has not already a high civilization of its own is to assimilate and profit by American or European ideas, the ideas of civilization and Christianity, without submitting to alien control; but such control, in spite of all its defects, is in a very large number of cases the prerequisite condition to the moral and material advance of the peoples who dwell in the darker corners of the earth.”
Before the reader dismisses these simplistic, racist statements, it is useful to examine more recent proclamations of the motivations for United States foreign policy particularly toward Latin America. It is worth remembering that recent U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, quote favorably from the words of Theodore Roosevelt on various subjects.
For example, in March, 1961, and clearly as a response to the Cuban revolution, President John Kennedy announced the creation of a new “Alliance for Progress,” in Latin American, “a vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work, and land, health and schools.” The Alliance was to be a ten-year program of social and economic development that would transform the hemisphere “into an historic decade of democratic progress.” Representatives of participating countries would prepare plans for their own development that would “establish targets and priorities, insure monetary stability, establish the machinery for vital social change, stimulate private activity and initiative, and provide for a maximum national effort.” JFK promised U.S financial contributions to stimulate economic reform and in the end transform “the fragmentation of Latin American economies.” The variety of programs—education, land reform, tax reform—would rebuild the region.
The United States also pledged its assistance to those countries whose independence might be threatened. And, of course, the President proclaimed that the United States supports an alliance of free governments and will work to eliminate “tyranny”. JFK expressed “our special friendship to the people of Cuba and the Dominican Republic and the hope they will soon rejoin the society of free men….” Sixty years after the proclamations of Teddy Roosevelt the United States remained committed to offer the blessings of freedom and democracy to the peoples of Cuba. (President John F. Kennedy “Preliminary Formulations of the Alliance for Progress,” March 13, 1961).
Twenty-two years later President Reagan again underscored the U.S. presumption of its special role in the Hemisphere, restating the U.S. role more in the language of Roosevelt than the subtler Kennedy. The speech was presented at a gathering of Cuban-Americans. Reagan praised assembled Cuban-Americans, such as Jorge Mas Canosa, who came to the United States motivated by a passion for liberty. Reagan spoke of descendants of pioneers and emigrants from various locales who started “fresh” in the “New World”; people who “share the same fundamental values of God, family, work, freedom, democracy, and justice.” (“Perhaps the greatest tie between us can be seen in the incredible number of cathedrals and churches found throughout the hemisphere. Our forefathers took the worship of God seriously.”)
Reagan then warned of the “new colonialism that threatens the Americas.” This, of course, was represented by the revolutionary government of Nicaragua, the revolutionaries fighting against dictatorship in El Salvador, and the enduring threat to freedom, Cuba. In the latter, the independent labor movement was destroyed in 1959, churches suppressed, all free speech eliminated, and young Cubans sent to faraway places to defend unpopular regimes. And remembering the sacrifices of the United States in the Cuban war against Spanish colonialism, Reagan regretted that “Cuba is no longer independent.” He promised that “we will not let this same fate befall others in the hemisphere….”
After endorsing 1980s policies such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative and Radio Marti President Reagan reminded his audience of the perpetual burden Americans face in defending freedom. He quoted Teddy Roosevelt; “We, here in America, hold in our hands the hope of the world, the fate of the coming years; and shame and disgrace will be ours if in our eyes the light of high resolve is dimmed, if we trail in the dust the golden hopes of men.” And Reagan ended: “finally, let us pledge ourselves to meet this sacred responsibility. And let us pledge ourselves to the freedom of the noble, long suffering, Cuban people.” (“Text of President Reagan’s Speech on Threat to Latin America, New York Time, May 21, 1983).
President Obama’s opening remarks at the Summit of the Americas (April 14, 2012) were different in tone than those cited above. He celebrated economic development in the region, encouraged continued economic globalization, praised the growth of Latin American nations such as Brazil and Colombia proving that “a lot of the old arguments on the left and the right no longer apply.” The challenge for the future, he said, was to continue distributing the benefits of globalization to more and more people and “giving businesses opportunities to thrive and create new products and new services and enjoy the global marketplace.”
The President called on the Hemisphere nations to continue training people to compete in the global economy, stimulate trade, establish more mutually beneficial trade agreements like the one he signed with the President of Colombia, become more energy efficient, and promote education. He concluded with some of the more traditional presidential language, albeit in less than messianic terms, about core principles of governance: “democracy and rule of law, human rights being observed, freedom of expression.” In addition, he mentioned “personal security, the capacity for people to feel as if they work hard then they’re able to achieve, and they have motivation to start a business and to know that their own work will pay off.”
President Obama emphasized the connections between “clean, transparent open government that is working on behalf of its people.” These features, he said, were important for business. “The days when a business feels good working in a place where people are being oppressed—ultimately that’s an unstable environment for you to do business. You do business well when you know that it’s a well-functioning society and that there’s a legitimate government in place that is going to be looking out for its people.” With that said, Obama praised both the governments of Colombia and Brazil.
The Obama comments at the opening Summit of the Americas in 2012, more paralleling the language of President Kennedy’s Alliance speech than the missionary statements of Beveridge, Roosevelt, and Reagan, still suggest that the United States, and some Latin American political and economic elites, reflect the interests and values of the masses of Latin America’s citizens. All the speeches offer a common standard to judge what is best for the vast majorities of the peoples of the Hemisphere; whether the region is moving toward or away from God, Democracy (defined in very selective ways) and Markets. And, whether stated or implied, the polar opposite of this standard is most starkly represented by the Cuban revolution.