4 minute read

Anticolonialism in Latin America


When the Haitian sugar economy collapsed with the slave revolt at the end of the eighteenth century, much of this production shifted to the neighboring island of Cuba. As a result, while other colonial economies stagnated, leading to elite discontent with European rule, the Cuban economy took off, undercutting any impetus for a serious anticolonial movement. As a result, the island remained a Spanish colony until the end of the nineteenth century. José Martí (1853–1895) perhaps best represents Cuban anticolonial movements. Born to peninsular parents (his father was a Spanish official), he was a teenage rebel who was exiled to Spain for his political activities and later worked in the United States as a journalist. He was killed in battle on 19 May 1895, when he returned to the island to join the anticolonial struggle. Much of Martí's ideology emerged out of the context of nineteenth-century liberalism, but his contact with radical movements in the United States also imbued his anticolonialism with aspects of social revolution. Rather than seeking to merely change one elite for another, as had happened when colonialism ended in most other American republics, he wanted true social changes. He was an anti-imperialist and a revolutionary nationalist who worked against economic dependency as well as for political independence. Martí, like Venezuelan independence leader Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) before him and Argentine-born guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–1967) after him, called for a unified America to confront the common problems left by a legacy of European colonization.

After Martí's death, with Cuba on the verge of gaining its independence in 1898, the United States intervened in order to control the economic wealth of the colony for its own benefit and to prevent the establishment of another black republic on the Haitian model. Disguising its efforts as altruism, the U.S. Senate passed the Teller Amendment, which declared that the United States would not recolonize the island. Although this legislation thwarted the imperial intent of the United States to annex the island, the 1901 Platt Amendment declared "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" (Bevans, pp. 116–117). This led to a unique colonial situation, in which Cuba had a civilian government but not one that could be called a democracy. The island became an extension of Miami, and U.S. intervention promoted and perpetuated corruption, violence, and economic stagnation. This set the stage for the successful 1959 Cuban Revolution, which freed the country from economic colonization, much as independence in 1898 had freed it from Spain's political colonization. After the triumph of the revolution, Cuba became a global leader in postcolonial anti-imperialist struggles.

Although the Teller Amendment prohibited the annexation of Cuba to the United States, the legislation stood mute on Spain's few remaining colonial possessions in the Caribbean. Most importantly, this led the United States to occupy the island of Puerto Rico, a territory it continues to hold in the twenty-first century. In fact, after Namibia was freed from South African control in the 1980s, Puerto Rico became the sole remaining item on the agenda of the United Nations's decolonization committee, although anticolonial struggles continue elsewhere, notably in French Polynesia. For the United States, Puerto Rico remains an unresolved and seemingly irresolvable colonial question. In the early twenty-first century the island is an Estado Libre Asociado (literally, Associated Free State, but defined by the United States as a commonwealth), which means that it is an unincorporated territory that belongs to, but is not part of, the United States. This leaves Puerto Rico subject to the whims of the United States, and its residents with few legal avenues through which to address offenses committed against them. As an example of the colonial relationship, residents on the island were made U.S. citizens during World War I so that they could be drafted to fight in Europe, but even in the early twenty-first century they do not have the right to political representation in Washington. However, the economic advantages of their status, including the ability to migrate freely to the United States to work, create a situation where only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans favor independence for the island, but resentment at the island's colonial status is nonetheless widespread and deeply felt.

Anticolonial sentiments in Puerto Rico flourished during the second half of the twentieth century, and in part gained a focus around political campaigns to halt U.S. naval bombing practice at Vieques Island. In 1941, with World War II on the horizon, the United States military acquired most of the land at Vieques as an extension of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in order to develop a base like Pearl Harbor for its Atlantic fleet. Noise from bombs and low-flying airplanes engaged in practice maneuvers disturbed inhabitants and disrupted the fishing economy. The later use of napalm, depleted uranium, and other experimental weapons left the area heavily contaminated. The imperialist nature of the military's occupation of Vieques quickly gave rise to popular sentiments against the navy's presence and calls for them to leave. Finally, on 19 April 1999, two off-target bombs destroyed an observation post, killing David Sanes Rodríguez, a local civilian employee. This triggered a massive civil disobedience campaign that finally forced the navy to leave Vieques on 1 May 2003. Independence leaders such as Pedro Albizu Campos and Rubén Berríos Martínez provided leadership to the campaigns, seeing Vieques as an important part of an anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggle. Their slogan became "Today Vieques, tomorrow Puerto Rico."

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAnticolonialism in Latin America - Independence, Neocolonialism, Anti-imperialism, Non-spanish Caribbean, Bibliography