The Banana Wars Part I

The Banana Wars were a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions in Central America and the Caribbean between the Spanish American War (1898) and the inception of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy (1934). However, to understand how the Banana Wars transpired, we have to return to an earlier time. We will have to begin with the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine

President Monroe 002Some scholars believe that the catalyst for the Monroe Doctrine was the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, a newly emerging United States government feared the re-imposition of European monarchies —and with good reason. France had already agreed to restore the Spanish monarchy, and Prussia, Austria, and Russia had already formed the Holy Alliance, defending monarchism, which authorized military incursions to re-establish Bourbon rule over Spain and its colonies—which at that time, were in the process of establishing their independence.

The 1823 doctrine stated that the United States would view as an act of aggression any effort by European nations to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America. The United Kingdom generally supported this objective for two reasons: first, the British had designs on Central American and Caribbean nations in pursuit of its own interests and did not wish to have any interference from other European powers. Second, the British knew as well as anyone that the United States did not have the military wherewithal to impose its will on anyone.

Roosevelt Corollary

Through two revolutions and a number of shifts in political power in Venezuela, European powers agreed to demand reparations for the destruction of property and persons of European origin; in some instances, the losses sustained were considerable. When President Cipriano Castro refused to pay his foreign debts, Britain, Germany, and Italy imposed a naval blockade. Castro’s stubbornness was as a result of his belief that the United States would evoke the Monroe Doctrine to protect Venezuela from these Europeans.

Roosevelt Big Stick 001At this time, Washington officials did not see the Monroe Doctrine in the same way as did Castro. The Americans regarded the Monroe Doctrine as preventing the seizure of territory, not a prohibition of military intervention. When the Europeans gave assurances that no seizure of territory would occur, Washington allowed the blockade to proceed.

The Venezuelan navy was quickly disabled, but even then, Castro refused to give in. In time, Castro did agree in principle to submit claims to a court of arbitration with Germany insisting that Venezuela pay its just debts. The Germans bristled, Theodore Roosevelt sent his large fleet to Venezuela and threatened Germany with war if it attempted to land troops in Venezuela.

In his state of the union address to congress in 1904, President Roosevelt issued his now-famous corollary: The United States of America will intervene in conflicts between European and Latin American nations to enforce legitimate claims of European powers, rather than allowing Europeans to impose their own terms directly.

The Corollary asserted Roosevelt’s contention that the United States of America has the right to exercise military force or police powers within Latin American countries in order to keep European powers out of the Western Hemisphere.

Since then, American presidents have asserted the Roosevelt Corollary as justification for American intervention in Cuba (1906-1909), Nicaragua (1909-1910, 1912-1925, and 1926-1933), Haiti (1915-1934), Honduras[1] (1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). The US additionally involved itself in Cuba (1898), Puerto Rico (now a territory of the United States), Mexico (1910-1919), and in the creation of the state of Panama and, subsequently, construction of the Panama Canal.

To be continued



[1] William S. Porter who wrote under the pen name O. Henry first used the term “Banana Republic” to describe Honduras in 1903.