8 Banana Wars & Global Battles


Hand drawn banana tree. Original from Biodiversity Heritage Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Public Domain. Free CC0 Image.
  • Topic- The Road To Independence 
  • Paper #2 Due TODAY! 

The colonial economy was fraught with disasters. From wars for independence and the end of slavery to natural disasters, the colonies or former colonies struggled to prop up their fledgling countries as well as their associated European economies.

One disaster spread fear greater than that of the race wars and that was the eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8th, 1902. This ushered in the century on a terrifyingly killer note. Yet, that volcano’s eruption and the US’s rise as a global power would dictate the tone of the century.

“Mount Pelée in Color” by Steve Bennett, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

The Monroe Doctrine 

The US rose to power and frequently exerted or displayed its might. Yet, the root cause was the need to keep Europe out of its backyard. In that vein, the US constantly pushed European powers away from the countries whose debt they were coming to collect. One such instance being those that came to get money the D.R. owed them; when there was no possibility or funds for such a payment to be made.

The US intervened on D.R.’s behalf by taking control of the country’s coffers and actually stabilizing the economy in 1911. This was the US’s way of getting their foot in the proverbial Caribbean door. All of this took place in an opportune time as the European hold disintegrated the US stepped in to fill the void. A void felt in Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Haitian lives as all other areas of the Caribbean still remained under the European thumb. Yet, even those territories did not hold much sway in their eyes as the focus had now turned to Africa following the Berlin Conference of 1884; the birth of the ‘scramble for Africa. Now more important than Caribbean sugar and produce was the natural resources of Africa such as rubber. Workers were no longer leaving for the Caribbean to find work, but, US industries had found their safe haven; the perfect place for cheap labor and high profit margins.

Cuba & Puerto Rico vs. The United States

As it had always wished, the US now had a chance at a political and economic intervention of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Corporations established themselves in the countries and not speaking the language forced cultural change to an extent. They also had no interest in mingling or staying but rather preferred to remain separate and profitable. Their presence and companies are protected by the almighty US. Fast becoming an empire the US would reshape itself and the Caribbean.

Politically speaking the relation between Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the US was that of colonizer and colony whereas with Cuba it was not. Cuba remained independent, yet, economically linked to the US following the short period of limited independence which ended in 1903. Ratified into the Cuban constitution in 1902, the Platt Amendment had stipulations in which the US  was able to defend Cuban independence and establish a military base in Guantánamo Bay. The Cuban people disliked the terms of this arrangement but the nation’s first president was not only American educated but also the US propped up candidate. The propping up of a preferred candidate would be a practice used by the US in all spheres where they were “needed to uphold democracy”; meaning Cuba would not be the only recipient of US “aid”.

“Sugar Cane” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Caribbean Sugar

The most important export for the Caribbean remained sugar but it had serious competition from European as well as American beet sugar. It reached popularity during the Napoleonic Wars as Napoleon sought its production as a replacement for Caribbean sugar and therefore a viable substitute for European sweet tooths as he blockaded the islands.

A politically complicated arena, Cuba along with Jamaica, DR, PR, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua, Guadalupe, Martinique, Barbados, and Trinidad all produced sugar. Those planters, however, found themselves praying for no political tensions, civil wars or wars of any kind. Although the Spanish colonies were the heart of the Caribbean market. With Cuba having a preferential deal with the US.

Övrigt-Arbetsmotiv “Working with sugar beets, Skåne, Sweden” by Swedish National Heritage Board – Riksantikvarieämbetet. No known copyright restrictions.

Cuban Sugar & the US

We know Cuba was the main sugar producer coming out of the Caribbean and that they had a trade deal with the US, yet, we also need to understand that US companies were buying up land in the country. During all this the countries government was faced with instability and finally exacerbated by a 1906 insurrection. Then president Tomás Estrada Palma responded to the situation by asking for US help in quelling it and promptly left office. As Estrada Palam left the US walked right in by sending William Howard Taft, the US’s 27th president, to be the countries governor and later Charles Magoon would serve in his place.

The tail end of 1908 would witness a presidential election and José Miguel Gómez become president by January 1909. With Gómez in power the country was once more independent although this did not mean there were no more insurrections. In 1912 an Afro-Cuban revolution would have to be put down. Their attempts to have a political voice was crushed because of its Haitian connection, as the movement’s leader was a descendant of Haitian refugees and the embodiment of the elites greatest fear; a Haitian styled race war. Although initially suppressed the movement gained momentum and in response Gómez had Pedro Ivonnet, the leader, killed along with 2-5 thousand of his compatriots in July of 1912. The turmoil was also felt in the cane fields as its workers demanded better pay and better contracts.

The Panama Canal

With the completion of and success of the Suez canal its engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, decided he could replicate it in Latin America. However, the terrain was different and mother nature soon destroyed his plans in 1889. Yet, the US thought it a brilliant idea and were of a mind to finish what he had started. After the eruption of Mount Pelée, the US avoided any countries with volcanoes and bought what the French had left behind, for $40 million, to build the canal themselves. There, however, was one problem and that was getting the Colombian government’s permission. Hard to come by, the US resorted to backing a “revolutionary” movement and installed Panama’s first president; Manuel Amador Guerrero. The independent nation of Panama was established, they were recognized by the US, and the US got the rights to build the canal and control of its surrounding areas for cheap.

Finding those willing to build the canal was not a problem as many were unemployed or barely surviving on their dying sugar jobs. However, it was soon clear that working on the canal was back breaking work and while fewer European workers came those of the Caribbean continued to come, for work, in droves. Yet, we must note that these workers came with their families; often refusing unless such a thing was allowed.

“Panama Canal” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

All too soon, horrible conditions and low pay would once again cause problems as skin color determined what they received. American segregation found its way into is foreign establishments. Yet, despite all these difficulties the canal would open in 1914 and the economic instability of the region returned.

Nearly 400 years after the age of the first explorers, the East and West were connected and no 6 or 10 month voyage was necessary. Although mother nature did still have her say.

“Panama Canal Ships” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Lets Go Bananas!

In 1923 the hit song was “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and it spoke to the latest craze of the people… bananas! Though the fruit had travelled throughout the world for centuries before its American fame it was not until the late 1800s when it really took off in the US markets. With its popularity small US distributors were put out of business or bought out by one firm, and soon to be leader in the market, United Fruit from Boston.

United Fruit set up banana plantations throughout the Central American coast as well as in Cuba. The US once more getting involved with Cuba around 1902. This corporation, however, soon became the representation of the US government in the areas in which it controlled; earning it the nickname ‘octopus’. El Pulpo, grew to be hated by the workers and people alike! They would kick people off their land, force them into a debt cycle to the company, and they didn’t even speak the language! United Fruit, caused the migration of many immigrants who were in turn not well received by the Hispanic locals and, in a classic “divide and conquer” policy, this hatred was cultivated. Exports skyrocketed and the division cased any movements for better pay or better contracts to lack substance since the two groups were always busy fighting amongst themselves. All of this was coming at time in which the nations identity was being established and black people were not part of the program as the nations people were either white or certified white.

Marcus Garvey

Garvey spent the majority of his life fighting to reorient the people towards their African roots and to moving back to the continent. However, his ideals and attempts to realize these goals were met with theories of conspiracies to start a new Haitian like revolution. A particular problem for the US as well as Britain, although it would be the US who would imprison Garvey.

Yet, despite his controversial goals and staunch opponents attempting to discredit or destroy him, Garvey created the rhetoric and foundation for many a movement that exist today. Movements that have galvanized the people who protest in the streets today across the country and the world.

World War I

Despite the disagreements and abuse the Caribbean were more than willing to join in the fight and lay their differences aside. In the British territories, the British West Indies Regiment was created for its patriots, those seeking a paycheck, and those who sought to use their honorable service as a means for changing their conditions at home once the war was over.

Yet, unfortunately, the treatment they experienced at home followed them into war. When word reached back of working as ditch diggers, janitors, and discrimination being rampant, many of those waiting to enlist began to second guess their plans for enlistment. This did not stop enlistment, however, and by the end of the war about 1,256 British Caribbean soldiers were dead and over 600 were injured.

Many other Caribbean soldiers would die serving on the part of France and so on. The US would also be involved in the Caribbean by buying the Danish Virgin Islands and its subsequent dereliction of duty to them would cause other colonies to count their blessings. The islands level of poverty made even British colonial government seem like a better fate.

War & the Great Depression

As we have continuously discussed, the US has made several attempts to get control of Caribbean territories and at the end of the war we see more of the Caribbean fall into their hands. Yet, the wars end ushered in a period of glitz and glam that would be followed by an economic depression and an unimaginable level of poverty; for the US and the world.

Prior to this and during the war Cuban sugar reached prominence once more as the waring destroyed beet sugar productions in Europe. As this happened, US investors saw their golden opportunity, buying up land as well as financing sugar plantations on the island. This, however, would end with the start of the Great Depression which saw the government scrambling to protect its own beet sugar farmers. The Caribbean in turn was dealing with protests and strikes as they too were hit by the depression. The people were once more demanding better pay, working conditions, job requirements as well as government regulation of the foreign, often US owned, corporations that sought to exploit them. Further exacerbating the situation was the plight of the returning veterans and their  inability to find work along with the happenings in Russia. As the people learned more of the governing framework, it became clear to them that Communism could be the solution to their problems. All of this added fuel to the already delicate life left behind by the depression and coming at a time in which moves were made to abolish the evolved form of slavery that had come to exist.

“Central America” by Ryan Henderson, licensed under a creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Strikes & Nativism

The British colonial empire started to disintegrate with the Caribbean strikes and protest, however, it would not be until the movement in British Honduras that collapse became imminent. The Honduran people and its economy had suffered with their dwindling trade in wood and the situation further deteriorated when they were hit by a hurricane in September of 1931. The hurricanes aftermath and the lack of work to be had in timber, which had carried their economy, meant the fed up people took to the streets with pure rage.

By the end of the mid 1930s strikes and protest were a common thing and the racial underpinning of these movements was quite evident. Simultaneously, those who had migrated to Panama to work on the train tracks, and later the canal, decided to stay rather than return home. Despite the low pay and atrocious living conditions they also had to struggle with class issues as the proliferation of illegitimate children, with the mixing of the natives, blacks and Indians, meant that the ability to obtain British citizenship was non existent. In addition to the periodic revival of Panamanian nativism, additional migrants were refused entry and a the debates continued as to what to do with the immigrants already within its borders.

“United Kingdom Flag Fingerprint” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Power to The People!

The Bahamas and Trinidad experienced similar unrest and the British were at their wits end.

  • St. Kitts | November 1953
    • Laborers whose job was to unload coal would go on strike seeking better pay.
    • Cane laborers went on strike to have their pay brought back to $11 following the 1932 pay cuts.
  • Jamaica | 1953
    • Britain, whose empire was in shambles, scrambled for a solution to the unemployment rates. The people took to the streets demanding jobs and economic aid.
  • Barbados | July 1937
    • Depression plummeting sugar prices, the economic base of the island, caused unemployment to skyrocket and the people took to the streets

Strikes & Independence

It’s important to note that these strikes, protests, and movements for better pay or simply for jobs were carried predominately by the black populations of the Caribbean and not the West Indians. Although a sizable amount of those affected by these conditions were indeed West Indian they staunchly remained uninvolved in the movements taking place. This, of course, was not only an issue as it served to divide those affected by ethnic groups but it was also cause for concern in that blacks were being paid more than West Indians as a rule.

These movements often led to the creation and involvement of unions which would become the base or foundation of the future independence movements. This because the people soon began to equate British incompetence, given the situation, with just cause for an end to colonial rule. It was not long before these movements had British officers leaving London to inspect the extent and validity of the claims and reports that they had been receiving. Strikes put the Caribbean on the map once again, with sugar being the initial launcher, and imperialist tendencies were once more focused on the territories thought to have been securely controlled.

“BatistaDC1938” by Harris & Ewing, “No known restrictions on publication.

Cuba & Strikes

Cuba, no stranger to strife and upheaval, was also not spared the happenstance of strikes or protests. Quite the contrary, Gerardo Machado y Morales dictatorship experienced a general strike in 1933 which saw cane workers who took over mills and effectively halted the country’s production of white gold. Simultaneously, attacks were carried out against Afro-Cubans and blacks who were seen as the source of the movements. The perceived reappearance and recreation of the Haitian Revolution; the race war the elite had always feared.

The US, due to the depression, began shipping its foreign born laborers back home and the threat perceived in Cuba manifested itself on US soil; albite with different outcomes. The violent repression of the rebellion saw the rise of Rubén Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar within the army and later as the master puppeteer behind a series of Cuban presidents. Batista would finally take power in his own right, under a new constitution, in 1940 systematically ending any form of the rebellion.

“Haiti occupation president Dartiguenave haiti” by Rationcultec’estsa, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Hispaniola & The Marines

The island once the site of the greatest revolution and the whipping of 3 world powers was now entirely under the occupation of US Marines. In July 1915, the US used the pretext of several assassinated presidents as ground to land Marines on Haitian shores. Without consent or even a mention to congress, Woodrow Wilson sent the troops to set up a military presence, to take over the customs house, and clear up Haitian debt. Taking an estimated $500,000 worth of gold bricks ($12,692,772.28 today) to pay debts that Haiti had owed the US; without any impediments the US sailed away with the funds. Puppet president Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave was installed and treaties signed ushering in a 20 year occupation.

During said 20 years, the Marines trained a national guard styled army, built roads and bridges, as well as installing forms of communication to prep the country for its capitalist intentions. Well aware of the wealth of natural resource in the land, the US came with plans to extract it all and using Haitian laborers to do so. However, the people did not lay quietly and submit to these extravagant plans and hence the birth of the cacos whose mission it was to drive out the invaders; although they would fail. Declaring martial law and executing Charlemagne Péralte, the fighter leader, the resistance was destroyed.  The strikes of the depression also reached Haiti adding even more tension to the roiling occupied country.

The strikes and protest caused by the depression reached its peak with the fight that took place in Aux Cayes, where Marines shot at and killed 12 Haitians. The “incident” had people back home calling for an end to the occupation and it would finally take place in 1942; the US having joined World War II in late 1941 after the Pearl Harbor attack.

“Trujillo 1952”, Official photograph published in several Dominican newspapers. August 1952. Copyright expired (D.R. copyright is life plus 50 years). This work is in the public domain in the United States and the source country.

During this period, however, the US was also in control of the D.R. and its occupation  of that side of the island began in 1916. Having ordered the people to turn over their customs funds to pay supposed debt, the Marines were sent in when they were refused. With no puppet figure head available martial law was immediately established and infrastructure was built using the locals as laborers; they also trained up a national guard. Yet, not having similar political issues the people back home began calling for the removal of troops. By 1924 the Marines were gone but control of the customs houses would not be returned until 1940.

D.R. would soon fall under the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas “El Jefe” Trujillo Molina, a product of the US established national guard, who stole the countries 190 election and became president. For 30 years Trujillo ruled the country with an iron fist and ruthlessly suppressed any who dared to breath wrong; this was the age of blood, unscrupulousness, and absolute savagery. Despite being the grandson of a Haitian woman, Trujillo would set about exterminating Haitians or deporting them to whiten the country who looked to Spain for its national identity.

Trujillo’s savagery knew no bounds and became evident to all during the culling that took place after he ordered all Haitians living in the Cibao region killed. Known as el Corte (the cut) or kout kouto-a (the harvest), Trujillo indirectly killed about 25,000 Haitians with many fleeing across the border back into Haiti. After being pressured to submit, Trujillo would eventually agree and sign, on December 31st, 1938, to pay Haiti $750,000 in restitution, although he only paid $250,000, and that D.R. was not liable for what took place. Yet, he was the grandson of one such Haitian who crossed the border looking for work; perhaps in the very cane fields of the Cibao.

Based on what we’ve discussed in this lesson & thus far in the class, answer this question:

What is Politics?

  • Topic- The Road To Independence 
  • Paper #2 Due TODAY! 


© 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Licensed by Mahalia Méhu under a Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Caribbean Since Columbus Copyright © 2020 by Mahalia Mehu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book