Guantánamo Public Memory Project

U.S. as Empire

The United States as empire.  The phrase seems unsettling or inappropriate.  Throughout a K-12 education, one comes to understand the US as leader of the free world, bastion of liberty, promoter of democracy and defender of the downtrodden.  Indeed, lobbying for Cuban inclusion in the peace treaty of their own independence, Cuban General García invoked the Revolutionary American patriot arguing, “We are a poor, ragged army, as ragged and poor as was the army of your forefathers in their noble war of independence” [Jonathan M. Hansen, Guantánamo: An American History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011) 113].  How might we reconcile the US’s seemingly contradictory rhetoric of freedom with policies of intervention?  They might be better understood, not as contradictory, but as the two sides of imperialistic paternalism.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Cuba and Guantanamo Bay.


In the early twentieth century, the US’s neighbors, like Cuba, were seen as children incapable of self-governance or providing the necessary economic conditions to foster US business.  In assessing the need for the naval base in Cuba, Admiral Francis Higginson argued, “Strategically [Guantanamo] is without price…covering routes to the Isthmus, and tactically there is nothing a have seen equal to it…” (Hansen 129).  His presupposed conclusion for the base’s necessity, implicit in assessing its use for the navy, rests on the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine, which was initially established to keep foreign influences out of the Western Hemisphere and maintain stability in the region for national and economic security.  The inference is that Cuba and other Caribbean nations would be unable to provide their own national security to ward off another colonizer, such as Great Britain, so it was best in their interests that the US assume the role of protector (Hansen 126).


Furthermore, Cuba was seen as unable to develop the appropriate business climate for US sugar interests.  Boston Herald journalist Herbert Williams captured this popular sentiment toward Cuba noting, “Left to themselves, the Cubans would never develop their country,—not in centuries” (Hansen 123).  One might argue that many of the projects that emerged from this relationship were good for the country, such as the development of infrastructure.  However, this sort of development underlines the notion of the father and child yet again and undermines the capacity of the Cuban people for self-development and self-governance as Jana Lipman astutely notes [Jana K. Lipman Guantánamo: A Working Class History Between Empire and Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) 105]. The imperial colonial rule of Spain was traded for that of the US, who sought to implement their understanding of hemispheric security and “develop” the country as they saw fit.


Today one might ask, has US foreign policy changed?   In the Iraq war, the US tried to “build” a nation in its image ( In universities and non-profit organizations it is increasingly popular to work in “development projects” in “developing” nations.  In many ways, our foreign policy and foreign interaction seem to act today in the same paternalistic fashion exporting the US model of governance imperialistically from father to child, but phrased under the rhetoric of spreading democracy and freedom.  The age of imperialism for the US as empire appears with the Spanish-American War in our high school history books, but is the history of US as empire really a closed chapter?


Michael Jordan, M.A. Candidate at New York University


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group