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Amending the Platt Amendment

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CUBA has long occupied a place of peculiar, if unrecognized, importance in our foreign relations. Probably the affairs of no other country have so continuously concerned our Department of State. In the first phase of this relationship, when Cuba was a Spanish colony, the island played an influential part in the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, in the development of our foreign trade, and in our territorial expansion, which was affected both by slavery and by the theory of "manifest destiny."

The second phase began with the sinking of the Maine and concerned a people suddenly made free, after four centuries of subjection to the "twin evil spirits of autocracy and exploitation." Our statesmen of the Spanish-American War period, fearful of the political inexperience of a country only 100 miles from our shores, and looking forward to a time when our capital would become actively engaged in Cuba, conceived a political relationship unique between two sovereign states. This found form in an amendment to an army appropriation bill, introduced in Congress by Senator Platt.

The Platt Amendment was based upon a letter from Secretary of War Root to General Wood, dated February 9, 1901, which gave a masterly presentation of the McKinley Administration's thesis regarding the proper relationship between the United States and Cuba. In defending the Amendment, Senator Platt prophesied: "I believe it will settle what may be called the Cuban question satisfactorily to the people of Cuba and satisfactorily to our own people." Its most important provisions imposed an obligation on Cuba in regard to her finances and recognized the right of the United States to intervene in Cuba under certain conditions. But the Amendment was greeted with bitter opposition by the Cuban Constitutional Assembly, particularly with respect to Article III, which states:

That the Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.

After protracted negotiations between the two countries, and after the visit to Washington of a committee from the Cuban Constitutional Assembly, the Amendment was finally accepted by the latter. The Cuban Constitutional Assembly was persuaded to take this action largely on the basis of the official interpretation of Article III made by Secretary Root on the authorization of President McKinley, as follows:

You are authorized to state officially that in the view of the President the intervention described in the third clause of the Platt Amendment is not synonymous with the intermeddling or interference with the affairs of the Cuban Government, but the formal action of the Government of the United States, based upon just and substantial grounds, for the preservation of Cuban independence and the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty and adequate for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States.

Shortly after my appointment as Ambassador to Cuba, in the autumn of 1929, I had an exhaustive compilation made of the applications of the Treaty in order to see just what its consequences had been. This study made it apparent that the United States had not been consistent in the applications of the Treaty and had not strictly adhered to Secretary Root's official interpretation of Article III. The history of the varied applications of the Platt Amendment ever since the termination of our military government in Cuba is an interesting one. I cannot set down that history in the space of an article,[i] but it may be summed up in the following statement: There has been a laissez-faire policy and there has been a tutorial policy; there have been lectures, admonitions, and threats; there has been a policy based on a strict construction of the Platt Amendment; and there has been a policy based on a broad construction.

In view of this confusion it seemed desirable to obtain a clarification of the policy that would govern my acts as Ambassador to Cuba. In September 1930, therefore, I asked Secretary of State Stimson for a declaration of policy for my guidance, and he reaffirmed the Root interpretation. I believed then and I believe now that the policy which we conscientiously pursued, despite misinterpretations in both Cuba and the United States, was less objectionable than any other that the United States might follow under the Treaty. But I have felt a steadily strengthening conviction that the real difficulty was not with any particular policy, but with the Treaty itself.

In a dispatch dated January 20, 1933, I said in reference to our policy:

In reviewing in my mind the events of this (present) period and in comparing them with the history of our relations with Cuba from 1909 to 1929, I have come to the conclusion that the Cuban Government responds to friendly suggestions, not backed by direct official pressure, only when one of the following conditions is present:

1. When it fears that failure to respond will result in intervention by the United States under Article III of the Permanent Treaty;

2. When it is seeking a foreign loan for which it must secure the approval or acquiescence of the Government of the United States;

3. When it fears that the Cuban opposition party is strong enough to oust it from power, but hopes that the adoption of reforms may placate the opposition or enlist the support of the Government of the United States.

Numerous historical examples could be cited in support of these conclusions, but I believe it will be sufficient to recall the experience of the late General Crowder, who undoubtedly commanded the respect, admiration and affection of the Cuban people to a degree greater than any other representative of the United States in Cuba. Despite his wide knowledge of Cuban conditions and his undoubted influence upon the Cuban Government, his friendly and expert advice apparently was followed only under one or more of the three conditions just laid down.

I ventured the conclusion that this experience would be found to recur again and again, regardless of the particular individuals involved, and in view of these facts, added:

The continuance of the policy does not commend itself as a thorough, progressive or final solution of the Cuban problem. It does not itself remedy existing conditions in Cuba, and because of its misinterpretation, the Cubans do not feel wholly free to demonstrate their own capacity to do so.

It therefore became my conviction that we should voluntarily offer to negotiate a new political treaty with Cuba, as well as a new commercial treaty. I recommended, however, that the conclusion of these new treaties should be made contingent upon certain constitutional reforms and the reëstablishment of truly representative government in Cuba. This, of course, meant interposition in Cuban affairs, but under circumstances that would have been fully justified as an exceptional measure, and the "United States would have the satisfaction of again starting Cuba on the road to democratic government, but this time only after disposing of an obligation that is both irksome to Cuba and useless, if not actually harmful, to the United States."

Such effective action on the part of our Government would have been welcomed in Cuba, as well as in other Latin American countries. The Cubans felt, with some justification, that the United States had exercised a paternal supervision over Cuba at various times in the name of humanity and in the interest of law and order. They believed that by the same token the United States once again should make representations to the Cuban Government for the protection of Cuban life and liberty, in view of the breakdown of constitutional processes. If such representations were coupled, as I believed and recommended they should be, with a voluntary suggestion to negotiate new treaties, they would be twice blessed.

In my dispatch of recommendation, mindful of the imminent change in administration in the United States, I said:

I am aware also that the modification of the treaty suggested above represents a drastic departure in our relationship with Cuba which, even though you might approve in principle, you might perhaps feel could not propitiously be inaugurated at this time. I feel none the less compelled to draw it to your attention, reiterating in conclusion my conviction that if we are to follow the Root interpretation and not to intervene in the internal affairs of Cuba, it would be better to adopt a more progressive policy in our relations with that country by modifying the Permanent Treaty. On the other hand, if we are ever to abandon the Root interpretation of the treaty for more active interest in Cuban affairs, good faith to Cuba should compel us to do so now.

There is, of course, one alternative to the modification suggested above, and that is a reënforcement of the Treaty to permit a close, compelling and final supervision over Cuban affairs, supported by armed intervention whenever necessary. This policy would seem to be in violation of Cuba's rights as a sovereign state and of both the letter of the Permanent Treaty and its spirit as interpreted by Secretary Root.

In addition to the injustice involved, interference with the normal affairs of a Cuban Government would seem to be definitely unwise. Under such a policy the American Mission would become dictator of Cuba. Granted that this dictatorship might be benevolent and altruistic, it would not be omniscient, and in fact there is every reason to believe that it would not be able to cope adequately with Cuban problems. For example, if, inspired by our own traditions and institutions, we dictated a policy of freedom of speech in Cuba, we would have to accept the responsibility of deciding when free speech becomes seditious; and we would become responsible for any anarchy that might result from this decision. If we are to dictate to Cuba in order to administer the island effectively, we should occupy it outright. The Mission is unable to administer it. Armed intervention in Cuba as a result of carrying out this policy would undoubtedly be resented bitterly by an overwhelming majority of Cubans and Americans alike.

On the other hand, if in practice we are to avoid invoking Article III of the Permanent Treaty as a basis for exercising special supervision over Cuban affairs -- if we are to intervene in Cuba only when such intervention would be justified and pursued under similar circumstances in other countries -- we might well secure the benefits which would derive from the formal modification of the Treaty and avoid the evils resulting from our present undefined position. The inconsistency of our interpretation of the Treaty provides fuel for both Cuban and American abuse of it. Our relationship with Cuba is so intimate, and so ambiguous, that every act of omission or commission of the American Mission in Cuba, no matter how innocent, is invested with some deep political significance.

In spite of the unpopularity of the Platt Amendment since its inception, the Cubans have not hesitated to use it as a political weapon of their own. The two edges of this sword as wielded by the Cubans can be graphically demonstrated by reference to two paradoxical comments of the American Minister to Cuba in 1912 and 1913. On November 5, 1912, he telegraphed the Department of State, in connection with the victory of the Conservatives that year, that the Department must be prepared for an outbreak any day, since the Liberals refused to accept the result and said they preferred American intervention to a Conservative victory. On March 31, 1913, he stated in a despatch: "There is scarcely a Cuban with political aspirations who would dare to come out openly with expressions of friendship for the United States." These apparently contradictory statements are an indication of what has happened under the Platt Amendment. It is publicly denounced, secretly utilized. Candidates for office have always been able to rally popular support by standing on a platform of Cuban nationalism, advocating the abrogation of the Permanent Treaty.

A distinguished Cuban jurist, Cosme de la Torriente, has said:

In principle, an individual who has attained his majority and the full enjoyment of civil and political rights cannot be given a guardian to watch his steps and correct his mistakes -- the individual in question grows accustomed to such guardianship and ends by being unable to do anything by himself. But, in practice, the right of intervention tends to embitter political struggle and furnish occasion for disturbances of the public peace. Certain people will always be found disposed to appeal to the foreign power, alleging that their lives are in danger, their property insecure, their liberties disregarded. If such appeals come from citizens of the intervening power, some attention may be paid to their complaints, and threats or protests may follow on grounds which are either well or badly taken. But if they come from nationals of the weaker country, no attention will ever be paid to them. At the most their petition will be published in the press, and their situation made more difficult than it was before. [ii]

No doubt some American citizens with large investments in Cuba would vigorously oppose modification of the Permanent Treaty. They would probably assert that their investment in Cuba had been made in reliance upon the Treaty and in the belief that in Cuba they would receive from their own government a special protection which would not be extended to them in other countries. This theory, although supported by certain past precedents, seems to rest upon a mistaken and unofficial interpretation of the Treaty. Under any circumstances, present and prospective investors would no doubt welcome a clear understanding of the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

In negotiating a new Treaty, we should assume that Cuba must work out her own salvation regardless of the mistakes that she may make. I am in complete agreement with the dictum that it is far better for Cuba to make her own mistakes than to have our government make mistakes for her. Our relationship with Cuba, insofar as the special protection of the lives and property of American citizens is concerned, is and should be clearly understood to be similar to our relationship with other American republics under international law.

The special circumstances which influenced the device of the Platt Amendment at the close of the Spanish American War have no longer the force which they had at that time. We then felt a moral responsibility for the new state which we had brought into being. We felt the necessity for protecting the Spanish residents of Cuba from the anticipated reprisals of the liberated Cubans. At that time we had a real fear of foreign invasion in Cuba. And, finally, we must bear in mind that the draft of Article III, as enacted and in force today, is not the draft originally prepared by Secretary Root; the force of circumstances at that time compelled him to accept a change in phraseology which naturally modified his original draft, subsequently still further modified by his official interpretation.

In my opinion a number of changes in the Treaty would be advisable.

Our present treaty consists of eight articles, of which Article I reads as follows:

That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said Island.

This article, which has not been objected to by Cubans, should remain intact. It confirms a right which the United States by doctrine claims. It is essential to the preservation of the independence of a "country so small as Cuba, so incapable as she must always be, to contend by force against the great powers of the world." The Cuban Government in a note of February 9, 1912, had occasion to remind the United States Government of the need for protection. When France, England and Germany jointly made demands for claims of foreigners, the Cuban Government said: "If the Platt Amendment and the treaty in which it was embodied give the United States the right to intercede in our country in certain circumstances, those instruments likewise particularly impose upon it the obligation to defend us when those who are stronger than we menace us for reasons that are opinionable and debatable."

Article II reads:

That said government shall not assume or contract any public debt, to pay the interest upon which, and to make reasonable sinking fund provision for the ultimate discharge of which, the ordinary revenues of the Island, after defraying the current expenses of government, shall be inadequate.

This article imposes upon the United States Government a moral obligation which it cannot adequately meet unless it undertakes a thorough supervision of Cuban Government fiscal matters. This is impracticable and undesirable. The difficulties of administration are illustrated by numerous attempts of Cuban administrations to evade Article II in the past and by the fact that on several occasions it has been successfully circumvented by the general accumulation of large floating indebtedness in a time of inadequate revenues. In addition, the assumption of any public debt by the Cuban Government, in the absence of objection by the United States, leads to the erroneous inference that the United States guarantees that the ordinary Cuban revenues are sufficient to pay the interest and amortization. The bankers' advertising circular for the $50,000,000 loan of 1923 carried the following notice: "Issued with the acquiescence of the United States Government under the provisions of the Treaty May 22, 1903."

Article II might well be eliminated from a new treaty. But in fairness to those of the public who have purchased Cuban Government securities on the basis of that article, there should be a provision in the new treaty providing some protection to the holders of these securities until they are redeemed or refunded.

Article III reads:

That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.

The history of our relations with Cuba indicates that the utility of this article is outworn and that it is now inappropriate. In spite of a policy by the United States of strict non-interference in Cuban affairs, the existence of this article contributes to the ever-present threat that intervention may be deliberately provoked. In place of it might be substituted a guarantee of Cuban independence similar to that contained in the Treaty of 1903 between the United States and Panama.

Article IV reads:

That all acts of the United States in Cuba during its military occupancy thereof are ratified and validated, and all lawful rights acquired thereunder shall be maintained and protected.

This article should be eliminated, as it has lost the importance which it had for some years after the termination of the United States military occupation.

Article V reads:

That the government of Cuba will execute, and as far as necessary extend, the plans already devised or other plans to be mutually agreed upon, for the sanitation of the cities of the Island, to the end that a recurrence of epidemic and infectious diseases may be prevented thereby assuring protection to the people and commerce of Cuba, as well as to the commerce of the southern ports of the United States and the people residing therein.

This article was proposed by General Wood to assure a continuation of the sanitary plans of the military occupation, especially the fight against yellow fever. The article has outlived its usefulness and should be eliminated from a new treaty.

Article VI reads:

That the Isle of Pines shall be omitted from the proposed constitutional boundaries of Cuba, the title thereto being left to future adjustment by treaty.

The "adjustment" has been made and therefore this article has no place in a new treaty.

Article VII reads:

That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.

The United States Government is now in possession of a naval base at Guantanamo in Cuba. When Article VII was proposed by the United States, Cuba feared that the projected naval bases might be used as points for watching over the domestic actions of the Cuban Government. This fear has been dispelled. There is general recognition, in the light of the history of the past thirty years, that United States occupation of a Cuban naval base is only in the interest of protecting both the United States and Cuba. So far as concerns the protection of American life and property in Cuba in times of disorder, United States ports on the Atlantic seaboard offer more suitable points than Guantanamo for the rapid dispatch of protecting forces to Havana and other important Cuban districts. This article should be modified to assure the United States Government perpetual use of adequate facilities at Guantanamo.

The final Article VIII provided for the ratification of the treaty.

The Reciprocity Treaty, governing commercial relations between Cuba and the United States, has been in force for thirty years. In that time, great economic and social changes have taken place in both countries. This Treaty should be adjusted in the light of past experience to meet more satisfactorily the present commercial needs of the two countries. Without attempting here a detailed analysis of the products exchanged between Cuba and the United States, and of the tariff schedules imposed upon them, we can lay down certain principles. Cuba's peaceful progress, in fact her very life, is dependent upon sugar. In the interest of Cuba, in the interest of the 126 million consumers of sugar in the United States, and in the interest of the United States exporter who will benefit from the island's greater purchasing power, Cuba should be granted a fair quota of the United States sugar consumption and an effective reduction in tariff rates.

Cuba's social development has come to require adequate diversification of her crops, and her economic life has become more dependent upon crops other than sugar, as the United States has restricted its sugar market more and more to its own domestic sugars. Taking this into consideration, Cuba should adjust her tariffs so that Cuban consumers will purchase from the United States whatever cannot be economically produced on the island. And, finally, the new treaty should include adequate and complete protection to American business interests in Cuba from the difficulties which have been present in the past. During the life of the Reciprocity Treaty, Cuba has enjoyed a favorable trade balance with the United States of over two billions of dollars. She will undoubtedly continue to enjoy large favorable balances. In return, she must make her adequate contributions for the proper and just protection of the commercial interests of the United States.

Senator Platt predicted that the Platt Amendment would "settle" the Cuban problem. It did not do so. Similarly, the modification of it will not "settle" all Cuban difficulties; but it will, in my opinion, remove the most serious obstacle to better relations between Cuba and the United States, two countries closely connected by nature and mutual interest.

By a modification of the Permanent Treaty we can make a most important contribution to the development of Cuba's self reliance. We also shall finally fulfill our pledge recorded in the joint resolutions of the United States Congress of April 20, 1898: "That the United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people."

[i] I propose to do so fully in a forthcoming book.

[ii] "The Platt Amendment," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1930.

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