Max Paul Friedman, nydailynews.com
image from article, with caption: Our man in Havana, last time
As President Obama heads to Cuba, we should remember that the last U.S. presidential visit to Cuba was also controversial. In January 1928, Calvin Coolidge carried an olive branch to the Sixth Inter-American Conference, a meeting of Latin American countries and the United States.
It was a time of high tension. U.S. Marines were occupying Haiti and fighting a bloody war against the peasant army of Nicaraguan leftist rebel Augusto Sandino. Coolidge had considered sending troops into Mexico during a dispute with U.S. oil companies there.
Cuba itself had only limited sovereignty under the Platt Amendment, a clause U.S. officials forced into the Cuban Constitution after the War of 1898 that gave the U.S. veto power over Cuba’s foreign and economic policy. As Coolidge sailed for Havana, many Latin Americans were denouncing “U.S. imperialism” in the region.
It did not help soften that image that Coolidge arrived on board a huge battleship escorted by a flotilla of destroyers. Nor was it a great moment in the annals of public diplomacy that the battleship was the U.S.S. Texas, which the Mexicans saw as a slap in the face evoking earlier conquests.
The Cuba that Coolidge honored with the first presidential visit was not a Jeffersonian democracy. It was ruled by the dictator Gerardo Machado, a former cattle thief and business tycoon who liked to throw student protestors and labor leaders into jail. He had some of his opponents murdered, including an editorial cartoonist who had drawn a picture mocking his sexual prowess. Time Magazine dubbed Machado “Cuba’s Mussolini.” Some U.S. investors in the sugar industry hoped he would rule for life, because he protected their interests. During the presidential visit, he made sure there were no demonstrations.
Still, the Cuban people were enthusiastic about Coolidge’s arrival. Tens of thousands lined his parade route from the harbor to cheer him on and throw red roses at his feet, then gathered around the balcony of his residence to catch a glimpse of him waving to the crowds. Thousands sought entry to the conference site, where Coolidge delivered a ten-minute speech.
Expectations were low for “Silent Cal,” thought to be cold and distant. He surprised the critics by giving a cordial address that called for equality between Latin Americans and the United States. He also declared that Cuba’s people “are independent, free, prosperous, peaceful and enjoying the advantages of self-government.” That was more aspirational than accurate, given Machado’s methods.
Protests were subtle. At the conference’s flag-raising ceremony, the flags of Mexico and Nicaragua, embroiled in disputes with the United States, received the loudest applause. And after Coolidge left, delegates from Argentina, Mexico and El Salvador introduced a resolution stating that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another.” The U.S. delegation blocked it, reserving the right to intervene to protect its interests. The conference was a failure.
But when Coolidge’s diplomats returned to Washington, they began to mull the extent of Latin American resentment of heavy-handed U.S. policies, and proposed a new approach that would end unilateral military intervention in the region. Five years later, that proposal flowered into Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, which brought the most harmonious era of inter-American relations in history. Machado was overthrown.
To sum it up, the U.S. President visited Cuba when it was ruled by a dictator and gave a speech that exaggerated the degree of freedom on the island. But he was received warmly by the Cuban people, and his visit was a significant step on the path to improved relations with Cuba and the rest of the hemisphere.
As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.
Friedman, professor of history at American University, is author of “Rethinking Anti-Americanism.”