February 27, 2011 0 Comments

William Walker


The persistent political disorder in Spanish America in the post-independence period greatly affected the region’s foreign affairs. In the 1850s, private U.S. citizens known as filibusters intervened militarily in Latin American affairs. Always encouraged by instability and sometimes invited by rival national political factions, U.S. citizens joined filibuster expeditions by the thousands in search of private wealth. Yet filibustering is mostly associated with the U.S. South seeking to extend slavery in the face of the North’s efforts to halt its expansion in the contiguous United States. William Walker, who succeeded in ruling Nicaragua for a short time in the mid-1850s, is the most famous filibuster. Although unsuccessful, the filibustering expeditions further contributed to anti-U.S. sentiment throughout Latin America. Many Latin Americans identified filibustering as a manifestation of U.S. imperialism and attempted territorial expansion inspired by ideas of manifest destiny.


Several failed filibustering attempts against Cuba began in U.S. ports, and played a significant role in triggering the Spanish-American War. Jefferson was the first U.S. president to consider annexing Cuba, but most U.S. officials opposed the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule because they feared Cuba’s slaves might take advantage of the conflict and seize power, making the island a second Haiti. They also worried that European powers could occupy a weak, independent Cuba and that democratic, self-governing Cubans would resist future U.S. annexation. U.S. leaders who advocated joining the late nineteenth-century European scramble for overseas imperial possessions were given their opportunity in 1895 when José Martí and Cuban rebels renewed their efforts to win Cuban independence from Spain.

"Destruction of the US Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor" oil on Canvas.

As U.S. leaders argued over intervention and fretted about the protection of U.S.-owned property on the island, U.S. president William McKinley sent the battleship Maine to Havana’s harbor. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded, killing 260 U.S. sailors. A subsequent investigation incorrectly determined that the accidental blast was caused by an underwater mine. The tragedy broke the will of U.S. leaders who had resisted the pressure of those calling for war, including Cuban lobbyists and emotionally charged U.S. citizens captivated by reports in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The victorious exploits of the Rough Riders fighting in Cuba helped their leader Theodore Roosevelt to win the U.S. vice-presidential nomination in 1900. Roosevelt subsequently became president in 1901 after an anarchist assassinated President McKinley.




Cubans and Puerto Ricans did not participate in the Treaty of Paris of December 1898 that ended both the Spanish-American War and the reign of the Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere by calling for Spain’s withdrawal from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession. Cuba became independent in May 1902, but a special U.S.–Cuban relationship was established. The Roosevelt administration granted Cuban independence while maintaining control over Cubans, whom it considered unfit for self-government, through an amendment to the U.S. Army appropriations bill for fiscal year 1902 known as the Platt Amendment. Named for Connecticut Senator Orville Platt, the amendment severely curtailed the new nation of Cuba’s autonomy. U.S. troops left the island only after the Cubans incorporated the amendment’s provisions into the Cuban constitution, where it remained until withdrawn with U.S. approval in 1934. The amendment granted the U.S. the right to militarily intervene in Cuban national affairs.


The United States demanded land for a naval base in Guantánamo Bay following U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s recommendation that overseas coaling and naval stations needed to be acquired to assert U.S. power around the world. The amendment provided that the Cuban government would not assume any extraordinary public debt, reflecting the U.S. fear of European intervention in the Caribbean to collect on defaulted debts. U.S. interventions to take over public finances and protect U.S. private capital in Central America and the Caribbean became a major theme in U.S.–Latin American relations at the beginning of the twentieth century.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Francaviglia, Richard V., and Douglas W. Richmond, eds. Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War: 1846– 1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2000. Gleijeses, Piero. ‘‘The Limits of Sympathy: The United States and the Independence of Spanish America.’’ Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (3) (October 1992): 481–505. Haynes, Sam W., and Christopher Morris, eds. Manifest Destiny and Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997. Johnson, John J. A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of United States Policy toward Latin America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898, 35th anniversary ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. Smith, Angel, and Emma Da´vila-Cox, eds. The Crisis of 1898: Colonial Redistribution and Nationalist Mobilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

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