Engaging Neighbors: Controlling Puerto Rico and Cuba

Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico are shown in color.
Americans of Puerto Rican origin celbrating Puerto Rican Day in New York.

As explained in the previous chapter, an American war against Spain in 1898 resulted in both Puerto Rico and Cuba coming under the United States’ sphere of influence. For Puerto Rico, this meant that the U.S. took complete control, and even gave all of the island nation’s inhabitants American citizenship. Thanks to their new status as U.S. citizens, a steady stream of Puerto Ricans thereafter legally moved to American cities like New York and Philadelphia in search of better economic opportunities.

Guantánamo Bay

In Cuba, the United States did not claim sovereignty as they did in Puerto Rico. However, they still came to wield important economic and political influence here. Among other things, Uncle Sam made sure that Cuba had U.S.-friendly governments installed, and also pushed through a treaty that allowed a permanent American military base to be located at Guantánamo Bay, on Cuba’s southern tip.

A backlash against American influence in Cuba came in 1959, when Fidel Castro led a successful military coup against Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. U.S.-friendly strongman Batista was now replaced by Castro, another strongman, who nationalized U.S.-owned companies in Cuba and firmly opposed American involvement in the country’s domestic affairs.

Cuban political refugees

The new Castro regime, in addition to its expropriation policy, dealt firmly and violently with political opponents, particularly those believed to have ties to the United States. In doing so, the Cuban leadership professed to stand on the side of the Cuban people, against imperialistgringos”. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the Castro regime’s actions, a large number of Cubans felt so threatened that they sought asylum in Florida, the American state closest in distance from Cuba.