Coolidge’s visit to Cuba in part was intended to provide an occasion for the US president to give backing to Cuban president Gerardo Machado, who was facing intense popular opposition. Machado had been elected president in 1924 on a promise of reform that included raising workers’ salaries and protecting national industry. His strategy was to protect the interests of all, including the US financial oligarchy in Cuba, Spanish big merchants in Cuba, Cuban industrial and agricultural producers, and the Cuban popular sectors. However, his project of reform failed, ruined by a significant decline in sugar prices during 1927 and 1928. In a neocolonial context, such reform can only have success during high moments in the cycles of prices of raw materials exports (see “Machado and the promise of reform” 7/16/2014).
From the beginning of the Machado administration, there were strikes and demonstrations organized by labor and student organizations. The Machado government responded with a campaign of repression that included the assassination of several prominent labor and student leaders as well as imprisonment. The repression intensified the popular movement, and Machado eventually was forced to resign in 1933 (see “‘Democracy’ becomes tyranny” 7/17/2014; “FDR and US mediation in Cuba” 8/7/2014).
At the January 16, 1928 inaugural ceremony of the conference, Coolidge devoted considerable time in his speech to discuss the progress of Cuba as an independent republic, and he praised Machado as a president that had lifted the Cuban nation to a “high and honorable position” (quoted in López 2016). The support by the US president enabled Machado to proceed with plans for constitutional amendments to extend his time in office. With visible US backing, Machado was able to consolidate his power, at least for the time being.
The second reason for Coolidge’s visit was to give support to the Pan-American project of the United States. Pan-Americanism intended to institutionalize the participation of Latin American and Caribbean governments in the system of US neocolonial domination. To this end, prior to the 1928 conference in Havana, Pan-American conferences had been held in Washington (1888-89), Mexico (1901-2), Rio de Janeiro (1906), Buenos Aires (1910), and Santiago de Cuba (1923); and subsequent conferences were held in Montevideo (1933), Buenos Aires (1936), and Lima (1938). During this period of 1888 to 1938, the United States encountered opposition to the US project by a number of Latin American governments. In the 1928 conference in Havana, for example, the Latin American nations rejected the US claim that the United States had a right to intervene in Latin America in order to defend the lives and property of its citizens (“Pan-Americanism and OAS” 10/2/2013; Instituto de Historia de Cuba 1998:268-72).
During World War II, the United States emerged as the hegemonic core nation of the neocolonial world-system, with a global economic, financial and military dominance that enabled it to implement the Pan-American project, with the support of Latin American and Caribbean governments. The formation of the Organization of American States (OAS) was its culminating moment. However, although it was able to expel socialist Cuba in 1961, the OAS never functioned as an instrument of US neocolonial domination. Rather, US imperialism was carried out through unilateral US policies with respect to each Latin American nation, enabling US economic and financial penetration of the region (“Pan-Americanism and OAS” 10/2/2013).
The visit of Calvin Coolidge to Cuba, then, involved an effort by the US president to shore up a government that promoted US interests and to further advance the US imperialist project with respect to Latin America. These efforts were only partially successful: Machado eventually was forced out by the popular movement; and the US-created Inter-American organizational structure, designed to institutionalize the participation by the governments of the region in US domination and exploitation, never functioned as the US hoped, requiring the United States to engage in unilateral action, which had less credibility.
Today, as another US president visits Cuba, the situation is very different from that of 1928: Cuba has an independent government that defends Cuban sovereignty and not US interests; the United States is no longer a rising power with growing economic and financial resources; the world-system has entered a long structural crisis and is headed toward chaos; and the peoples of Latin America have formed movements that have brought to power progressive governments that are seeking to cast aside US neocolonial domination, establishing an opposition to US imperialist intentions that is stronger than in the time of Coolidge.
But some things have not changed. Then, as now, the president of the United States arrives in defense of US imperialist objectives, yet with pretensions of democracy (see “Obama and the imperialist web” 3/11/2016).
Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
López Civeira, Francisca. 2016. “Calvin Coolidge en La Habana, razones de una visita” in Trabajadores: Órgano de la Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (March 7, 2016), P. 5.
Key words: Obama, Cuba, Coolidge, Machado, Pan-American, imperialism