Sympathy and Sugar

THE idea of intervention, particularly in a neighboring Latin American state, is abhorrent to American opinion, yet recent events in Cuba are leading many disinterested people to feel that only by some prompt, definite, but restrained action is it possible to avoid the rapidly approaching evils of anarchy and bloodshed.


The island of Cuba, from our earliest beginnings as a nation down to the present day, has been a favored object of attention and sympathetic interest to the American people. While relations with other American states resemble as a rule those of near and friendly neighbors, between the United States and Cuba they approximate those of guardian and ward. American blood was shed upon Cuban soil for the winning of Cuban independence; the heroic sacrifice of American lives in the stamping out of yellow fever marks perhaps the highest level in American altruism, and after the ruinous wars for independence it was American money and credit that laid the foundation for Cuban economic prosperity.

In turn Cuba has shown abundant proof of her gratitude. During the four desperate years of world war no nation was so generous with its products, or asked less in return. We offered her sympathy and she gave us sugar; and until lately there has been no protest from Cuba that the bargain was not a fair and continuing one. Therefore to-day Cuba has claims of the highest consideration upon our sympathy and aid, and our obligation is clear to furnish the same, to the measure of our understanding and ability.

The strongest reasons for our friendly relations are of course geographical ones. Like Canada and Mexico, Cuba is our next-door neighbor, the frontier, instead of a contiguous one, being a mere strip of water less than a hundred miles wide, easily traversed by an airplane in sixty minutes. There are, however, noticeable differences. While for two thousand miles on either side of the Canadian or Mexican border the landscape, the soil, the climate, and in most places even the language are the same, and one crosses the border without consciousness of penetrating other than a political barrier, with Cuba the contrary impression is felt. In no journey of one hundred miles in any part of the Western Hemisphere is so great a contrast found as in passing from Key West to Havana. More foreign to Americans than many European capitals, alien in speech, distinctive in habits, customs, and political and historical background, Havana is at once a product and the flower of Hispanic culture in the Americas. One has to cross from Algeciras in Spain to Tangier in Morocco, thereby exchanging continents and civilizations, to experience anything like the same change within a corresponding measure of space and time.

It is more than the strait that separates our shores. Social and racial divergences eternally divide us, discouraging political union and challenging us to find with our nearest Caribbean neighbor some new and workable relationship, advantageous to both parties, such perhaps as the world has never seen before.

It was by a curious turn of circumstance that the island of Cuba, notwithstanding the declarations and intentions of our early statesmen, was left outside the sweep of our territorial expansion. The nation that did not pause at the acquisition of the Floridas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and California held off from Cuba, although those too were formerly Latin possessions and farther removed than Cuba from our attention and grasp. Not that we were unaware of its importance and value to the new United States. To the Fathers of the Republic, Cuba appeared always of immense strategic and economic importance through its control of the commerce between the Atlantic ports, the Gulf of Mexico, and the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

Cuba possessed, moreover, what the mainland lacked, the first-class harbor of Havana, one of the finest natural harbors in the world for commerce or defense and the only one of world importance between Charleston and Rio de Janeiro. In its possession lay control of the trade routes between the United States, Europe, and tropical America, and also, as we know to-day, through the Panama Canal to the nations of the Pacific Coast and of Asia.

It was in 1823, the same year that witnessed the pronouncement of the Monroe Doctrine, that John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, wrote to Mr. Nelson, the American Minister to Spain: —

These islands [Cuba and Porto Rico] from their local position are natural appendages to the North American continent, and one of them [Cuba], almost in sight of our shores, from a multitude of considerations has become an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union. Its commanding position, with reference to the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indian Seas; the character of its population; its situation midway between our southern coast and the island of St. Domingo; its safe and capacious harbor of Havana, fronting a long line of our shores destitute of the same advantage; the nature of its productions and its wants furnishing the supplies and needing the returns of commerce immensely profitable and mutually beneficial, give it an importance in the sum of our national interests with which that of no other country can be compared.

This idea was later followed by Mr. Buchanan, Secretary of State, in his instructions to Mr. Saunders, American Minister to Spain, in June 1848: —

It would be difficult to estimate the amount of breadstuffs, rice, cotton, and other agricultural as well as manufacturing and mechanical productions . . . which would find a market in that island, in exchange for their coffee, sugar, and tobacco.

With the possession of Cuba we should have . . . a free trade on a more extended scale than any which the world has ever witnessed. What state would forego the advantages of this vast free trade with all her sisters, and place herself in lonely isolation!

This happy and prosperous condition was founded upon the proposed inclusion of Cuba within the Federal Union and not as a special instance of international free trade; yet the idea put forward even at that date, of special consideration toward Cuban trade, with specific articles exempted entirely from duties, persisted and exists to-day in the minds of economists who see more than an ephemeral alliance between sympathy and sugar.


In the winning of Cuban independence private aid from sympathizers in America was given to the struggling patriots long before the Federal Government decided on war with Spain for their liberation. No return was expected and no motive needed other than the sympathy extended to all oppressed peoples, particularly to those at our own doors whose further suffering we could not endure.

Spanish rule of the island was harsh, the governors-general having been granted since 1825 such powers in dealing with the natives as were granted in Spain to the governors of besieged cities. The island was exploited as a source of revenue with all the worst features of colonial administration by a government too blind to apply the principles of ordinary economic aid. Spaniards were favored as against the natives by all manner of concessions, monopolies, and exemptions, while natives labored under heavy restrictions on trade and commerce, ruinous taxation, and exploitation of their labor, until what was potentially the richest island in the world had become a ruined battlefield over which raged a guerrilla warfare of extermination and destruction.

Revolt dragged on, supported financially although surreptitiously by organizations within the United States, until in 1895 matters came to a crisis with the arrival from Spain of General Weyler, ‘Butcher’ Weyler as he came to be known, principally through what were termed the ‘reconcentration ’ orders by which thousands of inhabitants, mostly women and children, were herded into the towns with no adequate provision for their support to die of starvation and disease, while the men took to the hills or were hunted down as rebels. Conditions in the island became horrible and intolerable. Congress urged action, or at least recognition of Cuban belligerency, but in vain, until finally, on February 15, 1898, the United States battleship Maine, which had been sent to Havana a month previous on a friendly visit and had been anchored over a site indicated by the Spanish authorities, was blown up with the loss of 264 men, including two officers. A wave of indignation swept the country resulting in an immediate demand for war, which then became inevitable.

Everyone knows the result of that war and its dramatic details; the trip of the U. S. S. Oregon around Cape Horn which brought home to Americans the need for the Panama Canal; Roosevelt and his Rough Riders; the naval battle off Santiago, where Admiral Cervera, hopelessly outweighed and under fire from land batteries commanding the harbor, came out to fight a foredoomed battle with courage and gallantry worthy of the traditions of ancient Spain. As a result Cuba is free, a visible and enduring expression of the sympathy of the American people translated into action.

This is, of course, pure sentiment; but through it Cuba is bound to us and we to her by ties of blood shed in her cause which do not exist with any other nation.

We did more, and where distress was evident assumed the stupendous task of restoring public order and national prosperity to Cuba. The world well knows how this was carried out, and the work of Major General Leonard Wood in the establishment of government, reformation of courts, stamping out of yellow fever, extension of highways, suppression of banditry, and maintenance of law and order, makes bright pages on the record of American colonial administration.

Forestalling, moreover, any question of annexation, on the very eve of the war with Spain Congress passed a Joint Resolution stating, ‘The United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people,’ a resolution conceived out of sympathy for the Cuban people and honorably carried out.

Where we might have taken, there we held our hand. Twice since, we have intervened militarily: in 1906, when President Estrada Palma asked for American aid in maintaining order, and again in 1917, when it was increasingly evident that the United States would soon enter the war against Germany and that the Cuban sugar crop would be indispensable to our country and to the Allies. Each time our troops were withdrawn at the earliest moment after reëstablishment of public order had been accomplished.


With this record of practical sympathy we may turn to sugar, the other and by no means unimportant side of the picture.

The very name ‘Cuba’ is synonymous with sugar, and it is now trite to call Cuba the world’s Sugar Bowl. We can scarcely realize, in these days of abundance, that in Queen Elizabeth’s time sugar was known as a condiment, like cloves and cinnamon to-day, and that the galleons of the Spanish conquerors often brought back cargoes of cane more valuable than the bar silver with which they ballasted the hold.

In the cultivation of sugar Cuba at once took a leading part, due to the richness and fertility of the soil, which is better adapted than any other region of the world for the production of sugar. This soon became the most important crop, and, by reason of proximity to the greatest consumer of sugar in the world, Cuba became the special provider of this product to the American people, furnishing until lately nearly three quarters of the total amount consumed.

The termination of a Reciprocity Treaty in 1894 resulted in a serious economic crisis in Cuba, further complicated by increased production of beet sugar in European countries under government stimulation. Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt both urged upon Congress ‘weightiest reasons of public policy’ why reciprocity with Cuba should be reëstablished, Roosevelt in his first message to Congress saying in his customarily direct way: —

We are bound by every consideration of honor and expediency to pass commercial measures in the interest of her material well-being. I urge the adoption of reciprocity with Cuba not only because it is eminently to our interests . . . but also because we of the giant republic of the north should make all of our sister nations of the American continent feel that whenever they will permit it, we desire to show ourselves disinterestedly and effectively their friend.

The resulting Reciprocity Treaty of 1902, still in effect, established a reduction of 20 per cent on sugar from the regular tariff rates. In this way, sugar under the Fordney-McCumber tariff paid a duty of 1.7648 cents per pound, which is 20 per cent less than that of 2.206 cents charged on sugars from other countries. In return, Cuba supplied the United States with sugar in constantly increasing amount, up to an average of nearly five million tons per year, producing a revenue of some $150,000,000 annually to the United States Treasury and making Cuba prosperous, contented, and entirely satisfied with the special relations existing between the two countries.

As with many other things, the war well-nigh destroyed the beet-sugar industry in the Old World. Europe suddenly became the consumer — and no longer a producer — of everything that could be used to feed its populations or carry on the war. Sugar began to be in demand and prices went up. The United States suggested to Cuba the artificial stimulation of production of sugar for distinctly war purposes, and this was gladly acquiesced in by Cuba for the same reasons. Nor was there anything half-hearted about Cuba’s entrance into the war at the side of the United States. The day after the declaration of war by the American Congress, April 7, 1917, the Cuban Congress met, and in thirty minutes, according to the telegram from the American Minister in Havana, the Senate unanimously passed a measure authorizing the President of Cuba to declare war on Germany. At 6.15 the House also unanimously passed the Act, the members standing and cheering! This last was spontaneous and voluntary and came naturally from ‘the historic ties and gratitude which bind us to the great American republic.’

Immediately upon their joint entrance into the war the two nations took steps to eliminate the profiteer and stabilize the price of sugar, it becoming Cuba’s sole and colossal task to provide the United States and the Allies with all the sugar they needed for the duration of the war at a price that war-burdened countries could pay. Cuba rapidly weighed the profits that could be made from unlimited exploitation of the Allied war needs with her duty to her neighbor, the United States, and faced the question squarely. A few weeks later the news flashed around the world that the United States had bought the entire Cuban sugar crop of 3,972,000 tons and fixed the price at 5 1/2 cents per pound f.o.b. Cuba. Since no one knew how long the war would last, Cuba was encouraged to plant more and more cane. Money was furnished liberally, prices of labor rose and were paid, thousands of hectares were placed under forced cultivation, producing an enormous crop and laying the foundation for the orgy of speculation that was destined to occur when the control was removed. It appears now that Cuba made but little profit from the war-time demand for her exclusive product, yet suffered all of the evils resulting from the subsequent overproduction and deflation. But through it all Cuba played her part nobly and faithfully and in complete accord with her big neighbor, flatly refusing to profit from the extraordinary conditions of the war.

What would the price of sugar have been had Cuba asked all that she could get for her one indispensable product?

Something of this may be gathered from what happened immediately after the war, when control was released. The beet-sugar industry throughout Europe having been ruined and an orgy of spending ruling the world, the price of sugar rose enormously, at one time reaching the incredible figure of 23 1/3 cents per pound. Cuba not only sold every bit she had, but learned as well that sugar could be borrowed upon. Whereupon Cuba borrowed; borrowed hurriedly and spent lavishly. Then were built the marble palaces that line the palm-bordered avenues of Vedado; then were bought the automobiles, the country estates, the private beaches, the jewels, the expensive trips to Paris; the gold and the ivory and the peacocks! Some families had new linen tablecloths for every meal. And all of it was paid for with money borrowed on the hope of 23-cent sugar, secured by mortgages on the sugar plantation and the mill.

Always there was an American bank to furnish the money, 15 and even 20 cents a pound on the coming crop; while the Cubans smiled over the foolishness of the Yankee and spent from a seemingly exhaustless store. That was the ’dance of the millions ’ — when everything could be bought at a price and money was without end. Then came inevitable deflation and the calling of the loans, and, since the plantations were pledged, there was no choice but that the American banks should step in and become the owners, in the place of the spendthrift Cubans, of many of Cuba’s larger sugar plantations and an even greater proportion of the mills.

In fact no one has been swindled. The money was fairly loaned and spent; yet many Cubans feel that in some way the price of friendship included a tremendous injustice. The trips to Paris are at an end; the cars are in the garage; the marble palaces remain, but there is no money to keep them up, and in many ways the Cubans think we are to blame when their young men take salaried positions in the American-owned mills that their fathers founded.

And something has got to be done about it; for, quite apart from the present plight of the Cuban people, there is the fate of some $1,250,000,000 tied up in American investments in Cuba on which these same plantations, now worth less than what was paid for them, are not producing any profit, while Cuban sugar, due to world tariffs, is selling at less than the low cost of production.

There are also the political relations of our country toward Cuba to be considered. Our adolescent ward, not yet arrived at maturity in a world of adult nations, wonders what it all meant when the Honorable Elihu Root, Secretary of War in President Roosevelt’s Cabinet, said: —

Correlative to this right is a duty of the highest obligation to treat Cuba not as an enemy, not at arm’s length as an aggressive commercial rival, but with a generosity which, toward her, will be but justice; to shape our laws so that they shall contribute to her welfare as well as our own.

And Roosevelt added: —

In the case of Cuba ... I most earnestly ask your attention to the wisdom, indeed to the vital need, of providing for a substantial reduction in the tariff duties on Cuban imports into the United States. Cuba has in her constitution affirmed what we desired, that she should stand in international matters in closer and more friendly relations with us than any other power, and we are bound by every consideration of honor and expediency to pass commercial measures in the interest of her material well-being.


The life of Cuba is in our hands, where she placed it when she accepted economic dependence and the role of a one-crop country, dependent upon her nearest neighbor and greatest consumer of her single product for her continued existence. We can save her only through our tariff; for it is not the high price to be obtained for her sugar that is worrying Cuba, — she can produce as cheaply as any country in the world and is closest to her biggest market, — but the necessity of finding any market at all. Although the cost of production is between 1½ and 1¾ cents per pound, — cheap enough in all conscience if the market were free, — there are tariff walls everywhere; a duty of two cents a pound into the United States, higher still in Europe, where every nation is throwing a wall around its own products and striving to break dowm that of its neighbor. To such a world Cuba presents her normal crop of nearly 5,000,000 tons, all of which must be sold abroad with the exception of a local consumption of 150,000 tons. Were this private business competition it might pass; but where governments, through their legislative and executive departments, strike deliberate blows at each other’s essential industries, bitterness, resentment, and mutual loss result.

It is not anybody’s fault that the world should be governed by self-interest; that behind these tariff walls a still vaster production of sugar is being prepared, not as cheaply, it is true, as in Cuba, but to satisfy the governments in giving protection to local producers. We have joined that movement where everybody is setting up barriers to international trade and accompanying goodwill. Let us slap Cuba in the face, treat her like a competitor, add further figures to the tariff that will complete her ruin, and ride over her body to some protectionist goal!

Or, rather, let us pause and consider whether a noble and generous action is not after all the best. Another war may come, when the Philippines and Hawaii and possibly Porto Rico will be cut off by enemy air power, and we may be thankful that Cuba is near our shores and urge that she again favor us with a preferential price on sugar — which she will as surely deny if we persist in our present indifference to her needs.

This is the time, now in the days of peace, to grasp the magnificent opportunity before the United States of throwing down the tariff wall entirely and by treaty admitting Cuban sugar, not under a partial reduction of tariff, but duty-free forever.

As to the economic factors involved in such a measure this article has little to suggest. Already one third of the sugar we consume is admitted free of duty, coming as it does from our island possessions of Hawaii, Porto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Philippines, or from continental United States. Free trade already binds those islands to us with bonds stronger than any legislative enactment, and the same would be the case with Cuba. No measure devised would as quickly break down the barrier between our country and the nearest neighbor of Latin America. Suppose for a moment that the same friendly measure should be extended to the other countries of Caribbean America to cover the special productions of those tropic lands: coffee from Costa Rica, cacao from Santo Domingo, sugar from Cuba, vegetable oils and coconuts from Panama, hardwoods, fibres, and lacquers from Central America, freely exchanged with the United States in return for our own wheat and lard and butter, machinery and manufactured products. The trade fostered in peace time would continue with comforting assurance in time of war. No need then for intervention by force or fear; nor for appeals to the Monroe Doctrine or Pan-Americanism!

Every nation in the Caribbean area would at this moment be overjoyed to enter into such an arrangement with an Uncle Sam who took of its products and gave of his own in return, without surcharges, customs, duties, or pleas for tariff preference. In fact, it would be difficult to keep these nations out of such a league; and great as would be the increase in production of raw materials from the tropics by opening free markets to them in the United States, even so great or greater would be the increase in the export of American manufactured goods to countries made prosperous by the mutual trade.

It has ever seemed foolish to the writer that all countries which, especially favored by nature, produce articles of a certain kind and of world necessity in great abundance and at low cost should not, by world decision, be induced and encouraged to produce these in ever greater quantity, by fostering their exchange with other countries, without burdens other than cost of transportation and fair profit.

This doctrine is perhaps too broad to be applied generally under present conditions; but what is to prevent its being applied between the United States and Cuba as a beginning? Between what two other countries could free trade in certain specific commodities be better advanced, with mutual benefit to both — as, for instance, sugar and tobacco from Cuba in exchange for foodstuffs, textiles, and machinery from the United States?

There would be, of course, the loss of specific duties; but who would suffer? The taxes on incomes on prosperous businesses yield always more money than revenue on imports; in our country nearly five times as much. Spain never learned that lesson, but taxed industry and commerce out of existence, when she might have skimmed the cream from a prosperity fostered by a wise administration and light taxation. So I predict that business with Cuba, already greater than with all the rest of Latin America combined, will, by abolishing the tariff on essential articles, increase by leaps and bounds. In the United States every consumer will rejoice that his sugar bill is cut in half; the refiners of sugar will not suffer, because with or without a tariff there will still be as much sugar as ever to refine; and the producers of sugar within the United States, already faced with increased importations of duty-free sugar from Porto Rico and the Philippines, have about given up the battle for the maintenance of an industry based precariously on the exploitation of cheap foreign labor.

There exists above all the larger factor of a wise international relationship, particularly with the neighboring countries of the Caribbean. Cuba being the ward of the United States, her problems can never be looked upon by us with indifference. Give Cuba a market for her sugar and there will be no revolutions or need for expensive military interventions. Go further and abolish the tariff on Cuban sugar altogether, applying that experiment advocated by Secretary Buchanan of ’a free trade on a more extended scale than any which the world has ever witnessed,’ and the gesture will not be lost on our Latin American neighbors in the Caribbean and may prove the foundations of a new Pan-Americanism — the interAmerican free trade of the Caribbean countries.

Sympathy and sugar can be made synonymous, and in their exchange both nations may profit. We extended the helping hand to Cuba and she has stood by us loyally. Social and racial differences make us incompatible under political union; but can we not tread the same economic pathway together, not in competition and isolation, but with coöperation and goodwill?