Conflicts in the Caribbean Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

American interests in the Caribbean region go back to the pre-independence era, when Great Britain was developing trade relationships between its Caribbean and North American colonies. After the United States won its Revolutionary War during the early 1780’s, it stood as the only independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. In the early nineteenth century, a wave of independence movements swept throughout Latin America. Ironically, although the Caribbean island nation of Haiti became the second country in the Western Hemisphere to assert its independence in 1804, most of the region’s islands–including all of Great Britain’s colonies– remained colonial dependencies throughout the rest of the century. Some did not become independent until as late as the 1970’s and 1980’s, and ten territories remained colonial dependencies into the twenty-first century.

American interests in the Caribbean region go back to the pre-independence era, when Great Britain was developing trade relationships between its Caribbean and North American colonies. After the United States won its Revolutionary War during the early 1780’s, it stood as the only independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. In the early nineteenth century, a wave of independence movements swept throughout Latin America. Ironically, although the Caribbean island nation of Haiti became the second country in the Western Hemisphere to assert its independence in 1804, most of the region’s islands–including all of Great Britain’s colonies– remained colonial dependencies throughout the rest of the century. Some did not become independent until as late as the 1970’s and 1980’s, and ten territories remained colonial dependencies into the twenty-first century.

The Monroe Doctrine

Meanwhile, virtually all the Spanish and Portuguese colonies on the continental land masses surrounding the Caribbean were becoming independent, and a new era of political disorder began. Most of the new national governments were unstable and appeared vulnerable to foreign intervention. Concerned about the possibility of other European powers moving into the region to fill the power void created by Spain and Brazil’s withdrawal, U.S. president James Monroe enunciated four foreign policy points during his 1823 state-of-the-union address to Congress that much later became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

The first point of the Monroe Doctrine was that the United States would not interfere in the affairs of, or conflicts among, European nations. The second point was assurance that the United States would respect the rights of European colonies that remained in the Western Hemisphere–most of which were in the Caribbean. The third point asserted that the Western Hemisphere was closed to further European colonization. The fourth point was an elaboration on the third, stating that the United States would regard any attempt by any European nation to control or threaten any Western Hemisphere nation as a hostile act against the United States itself.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of</sc> C<sc>onflicts in the</sc> C<sc>aribbean</sc>May 20, 1902Cuba becomes independent after four-year occupation by U.S. troops.Nov. 3, 1903With U.S. backing, Panama declares its independence from Colombia.Nov. 18, 1903United States signs agreement with Panama to build Panama Canal and assumes permanent sovereignty over a six-mile-wide zone bordering the canal.1904U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt articulates the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting that the United States has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any Western Hemisphere nation guilty of flagrant misconduct.Aug. 3, 1912-Jan., 1933U.S. troops occupy Nicaragua to quell political unrest.Aug. 15, 1914Panama Canal opens to shipping.July 28, 1915–1934U.S. Marines occupy Haiti.May 15, 1916–1924U.S. Marines occupy Dominican Republic.1930President Herbert Hoover’s administration rejects the Roosevelt Corollary and adopts the “Good Neighbor Policy” toward Latin America. Meanwhile, U.S.-trained Dominican army officer Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina seizes power in the Dominican Republic.Dec., 1956Fidel Castro launches Cuban Revolution.Jan.-Feb., 1959Castro’s Revolution overthrows Cuban government; Castro takes power as premier.Mar., 1960U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower authorizes the training of a Cuban exile force to be used against Castro’s government.1961United States severs diplomatic relations with Cuba.Apr. 17, 1961Bay of Pigs Invasion.Oct. 22-Nov. 3, 1962Cuban Missile Crisis.Apr. 24, 1965-June 1, 1966United States occupies Dominican Republic after coup overthrows President Juan Bosch.Feb. 7, 1974Grenada becomes independent.Mar.-Apr., 1978United States and Panama sign treaties designed eventually to give Panama full control over the canal.Oct. 13, 1983Grenadan army overthrows government of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who is killed six days later.Oct. 25-Dec. 15, 1983United States occupies Grenada.1987Army general Manuel Noriega takes power in Panama.May 7, 1989Noriega voids Panama’s presidential election after his favored candidates suffer a crushing defeat.Dec. 20, 1989-Jan. 3, 1990U.S. troops occupy Panama and arrest President Noriega after he survives a bungled coup attempt.Apr. 9-July 10, 1992Noriega is convicted on drug and racketeering charges in a Florida court and is sentenced to forty years in a federal prison.Dec. 31, 1999Panama assumes full ownership of the Panama Canal.

Under the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States saw itself as the protector of the Western Hemisphere–a view that has colored U.S. policy in the region ever since. Through the early nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine meant little, as the United States was militarily too weak to pose a serious threat to most European powers and because there was little interest in Europe in recolonizing Latin America. The first true assertion of the doctrine came during the 1860’s, when France attempted to install a puppet government in Mexico. Partly in response to U.S. pressure, France withdrew from Mexico in 1867. As the century wore on, and as U.S. military strength increased, succeeding presidential administrations broadened their interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine, and it became a partial justification for the U.S. intervention in Cuba’s revolt against Spain that led to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Roosevelt Corollary

Theodore Roosevelt won fame from his brief combat experience in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and was elected vice president of the United States in 1900. After President William McKinley was assassinated the following year, he became president. In 1904, he added what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Under Roosevelt’s doctrine, the United States asserted that it had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any fellow Western Hemisphere nations guilty of flagrant misconduct. Roosevelt justified the doctrine as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine because U.S. intervention would prevent the intervention of European powers seeking redress against misbehaving Latin American nations; however, the doctrine became a justification for U.S. imperialism against its own neighbors.

Caribbean Basin

During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States repeatedly intervened in the affairs of Latin American nations in the Caribbean and surrounding land masses. In addition to occupying Cuba from late 1898 through mid-1902, the United States sent troops into Mexico on occasion and occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and Haiti from 1915 to 1934. From the mid-1930’s until the mid-1950’s, the United States kept its hands off its neighbors. However, the relatively long period of nonintervention ended when Cold War tensions reached the Caribbean. In 1954, the United States backed an invasion that overthrew the left-leaning government of Guatemala. Five years later, socialist revolutionaries under the leadership of Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and the U.S. government moved to isolate the new government. This policy pushed Castro closer to the Soviet Union and transformed the Caribbean into a major Cold War arena.

The Cold War

From the mid-1950’s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all the U.S. military involvements in the Caribbean region had Cold War ramifications. In 1961, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and imposed a rigid trade embargo on the Caribbean’s largest island. That same year, the United States backed an attempt to overthrow Castro’s regime in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. In October, 1962, the world was poised on the brink of nuclear war when the United States forced the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles that it was installing in Cuba.

The Cold War again flared up in the region in 1965, when the United States occupied the Dominican Republic to suppress a popular movement to restore to power the country’s legally elected president, whom the U.S. government regarded as a potentially dangerous ally of Castro. Cold War politics were also behind the U.S. intervention in the tiny island nation of Grenada in 1983, which the U.S. government feared was falling under the influence of Cuba.

The motives behind U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989 had less to do with Cold War politics than with disciplining Panama’s President Manuel Noriega, a former U.S. ally who had gone too far in profiteering from illegal narcotics dealing. However, the occupation itself fell into the same pattern as earlier U.S. interventions in the Caribbean region and set the stage for U.S. military interventions in other parts of the post-Cold War world.

The United States sowed seeds for future conflict in the Caribbean Basin during the early twentieth century, when it built the Panama Canal and afterward administered the zone surrounding the canal as if it were sovereign U.S. territory. Panamanian resentment against the U.S. presence erupted in violence during the 1960’s that prompted a renegotiation of the U.S.-Panama treaty governing the canal and ultimately led to the United States turning the canal over to Panamanian control on the last day of 1999. (Library of Congress)

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