Caribbean Policy

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CARIBBEAN POLICY. The United States traditionally has had major national security interests in the Caribbean basin, loosely defined by U.S. policymakers as the Caribbean islands plus some Central American territories. Those interests are expressed not only in the military sphere but also in the political and economic arenas. In the early days of the republic, the United States engaged in trade with Caribbean territories, becoming the main trading partner of Spanish colonies like Cuba and Puerto Rico, from which it purchased sugar and molasses. In 1823 the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine underscored the growing diplomatic role of the United States in the region. By the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. interest centered on the lush island of Cuba, but diplomatic overtures to purchase it from Spain failed. U.S. policymakers then turned their attention to the Dominican Republic, which the Grant administration tried to annex as a state of the union, but the 1870 annexation treaty failed to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In the 1890s, U.S. interest in the region was revitalized by the opportunity to build a canal across the Central American isthmus and also by the rekindling of the independence war in Cuba in 1895, which policymakers believed could cause Cuba to fall into the hands of another foreign power—most likely Great Britain—unless the United States intervened. As a result, U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean basin became increasingly more aggressive, culminating in the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898. The war was short and easy for the United States. With the ratification of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the United States became an imperial power through the acquisition of colonies in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Cuba was also acquired, and after four years of U.S. military occupation it was finally granted its independence in 1902, but only after the Cubans agreed to incorporate into their constitution the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the unilateral right to intervene in Cuban affairs to protect its national interest.

Having become the New superpower in the region, the United States quickly moved to consolidate its status. After negotiations stalled with Colombia for rights to build the canal, the Theodore Roosevelt administration encouraged and supported a rebellion in the Colombian province of Panama in 1903. The United States immediately extended diplomatic recognition and military protection to Panama, which in turn granted the United States exclusive rights to build the canal. In 1905 the president issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States would assume the role of the region's policeman. Gunboat Diplomacy and later Dollar Diplomacy would lead to further U.S. meddling in the region in order to protect perceived interests. Concerned about the practice of European powers of sending warships into the region to force collection on debts, U.S. agents assumed control of the Dominican Republic's customs houses in 1905, paying the Dominican Republic's external debt to the European powers and establishing a payment schedule guaranteed by 50 percent of Dominican customs revenues.

The next logical step, political control, would be taken by the Wilson administration. After the inauguration of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the start of World War I, U.S. military concerns over the region quickly escalated. In 1915, after political instability led to the assassination of Haiti's president by an angry mob, U.S. Marines invaded, leading to a prolonged and controversial military occupation (1918–1934). Shortly thereafter, the U.S. military occupied the Dominican Republic (1916–1924). These military occupations changed the face of these Caribbean nations as the marines modernized governmental administrations and infrastructure. On the other hand, the U.S. military repressed the local populations, censored the local press, limited freedom of speech, and created constabulary military forces to guarantee order after the marines' departure. In 1917, the United States purchased the Danish Virgin Islands and granted citizen-ship rights to Puerto Ricans, and in 1927 marines were landed in Nicaragua, beginning another long-term occupation in the region, which ended in 1932.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration established a new, noninterventionist policy toward the region known as the Good Neighbor Policy, which ended U.S. military occupations, abrogated the Platt Amendment in 1934, and favored diplomacy over military action. Unfortunately, the policy also happened to support strongmen in the region, as long as they remained friends of the United States, including Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. World War II consolidated amicable relations with the region's nations, as the United States sought to forge a hemispheric defense shield against Nazi incursions in the region. A main outcome was the forging of a new working relationship with its colony in Puerto Rico, which became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952, giving Puerto Ricans control over their internal affairs while remaining a U.S. territory.

During the Cold War, U.S. relations with Caribbean nations were determined by the new political realities of a contest for world supremacy with the Soviet Union. In 1954, CIA-backed Guatemalan exiles overthrew the elected administration of Jacobo Arbenz, a moderate leftist who had been carrying out an ambitious land reform program that threatened the lands of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. On 1 January 1959, the triumph of the Cuban revolution presented a major challenge to U.S. national security interests in the region, as the administration of Fidel Castro quickly came at odds with the United States. After the Eisenhower administration implemented a trade embargo and cut off diplomatic relations in 1960, the Kennedy administration supported the Bay of Pigs Invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961, which ended in a total fiasco. Castro then declared the revolution socialist and fully embraced the Soviet camp. This was followed by the tense standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Elsewhere, concerns about a possible communist takeover led the Johnson administration to dispatch U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 to quell the country's ongoing civil war. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States watched with apprehension as military regimes in Central America were threatened by leftist insurgents. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and quickly encountered the opposition of the Reagan administration, which isolated and undermined the Sandinistas through the support of counter-revolutionary armies while propping up besieged regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala with millions of dollars in military hardware and training. In 1983, similar concerns led to the Grenada Invasion after the tiny island's self-styled "revolution" had established trade and aid relations with Cuba.

The end of the Cold War after 1989 led to a return to more traditional concerns about general instability in the region. In 1989, the George H. W. Bush administration ordered the Panama Invasion to capture strongman Manuel A. Noriega, who had been indicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States. In 1994, the Clinton administration sent U.S. troops into Haiti to depose the country's military junta and restore to office the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and a massive wave of Cuban rafters led to the signing of migratory accords with Cuba, ending the special status that Cubans had traditionally enjoyed as political refugees upon reaching U.S. shores. Concerns over a repetition of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, in which more than 125,000 Cubans had arrived to southern Florida, led to the change in policy.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, U.S. policy toward the Caribbean basin continues to be characterized by its reliance on military over diplomatic solutions, by its reactive—rather than preventive—nature, by the growing asymmetry in power between the United States and Caribbean nations, and by the prevalence of dependent trade links with the United States among the region's nations. Today, however, after displacement of the European powers and later the Soviet Union, the United States is unquestionably the region's hegemonic power.


Langley, Lester D. The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century. 4th ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Maingot, Anthony P. The United States and the Caribbean: Challenges of an Asymmetrical Relationship. Boulder, Colo.: West-view Press, 1994.

Martínez-Fernández, Luis. Torn Between Empires: Economy, Society, and Patterns of Political Thought in the Hispanic Caribbean, 1840–1878. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.


See alsoCuba, Relations with ; Dominican Republic ; El Salvador, Relations with ; Guatemala, Relations with ; Haiti, Relations with ; Nicaragua, Relations with ; Puerto Rico ; Spanish-American War .

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Caribbean Policy

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