Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

The Treaty of 1903 Between Cuba and the United States Determining their Relations: The Continued Struggle for Cuban Independence and Stability

By: Ignace Van Den Steene (KU Leuven)

After over four centuries of Spanish colonization of the Cuban island (1492–1898), a revolutionary movement led by José Marti (1853–1895) started to gain traction among the Cuban population, culminating in civil unrest and mass casualties on Cuba’s path towards independence. American involvement in the Cuban war (1895–1898) led to a direct confrontation with Spain, thereby starting what would later be known as the Spanish-American war. As Spain suffered a devastating defeat, it surrendered control over the Cuban island and ceded it to the US in the Treaty of Paris of 10 December 1898 (187 CTS 100). It was hence only in 1898 that the Cuban independence movement finally managed to free itself of its Spanish colonizers and proclaimed the existence of a sovereign Cuba. Henceforth, it was to be the US that was under the obligation to maintain order and government on the Cuban island. This treaty obligation and the desire for control in the region led to the US’s armed intervention of 1898, which was followed by an occupation that lasted for five years, halting Cuba’s efforts to attain full independence. In other words, instead of finally attaining a full measure of self-government, the withdrawal by Spain merely meant that another—at that time still emerging—superpower laid claim to domination over Cuba, hence a sovereign nation in name only. Then US President William McKinley nevertheless emphasized that US involvement was merely the result of a ‘special relationship’ between both nations, meant to aid Cuba in its recovery after its war for independence.

As hegemony over the Cuban island proved hard to achieve through the means of occupation, the American government soon began exploring alternatives to implement their agenda, including formal (international) legal obligations. This was largely in line with the US’s overall foreign policy that sought to create an ‘empire of nation-states’, whereby sovereign equality was formally embraced while hierarchies of power were permitted and sustained in practice. The early 1900s witnessed intensive deliberation within the US Congress as to which form these international obligations ought to take. Emphasis was put on the importance of limiting voting rights to a select group of people whom the US deemed ‘sufficiently competent’ to choose a government capable of providing a stable and independent Cuban nation. This ultimately led to the US Congress’s adoption of the Platt Amendment of 1901, which stipulated the terms upon which the American government was willing to transfer ‘ownership’ over the island back to Cuba as a sovereign nation. While the previously adopted Teller Amendment of 1898 had prohibited the US from retaining formal ownership over the Cuban island, the Platt Amendment sought to establish the parameters of US control and the limits of Cuban sovereignty, thereby effectively turning Cuba into a US protectorate. The American government had unequivocally refused to recognize any Cuban constitution that would fail to incorporate the terms of this amendment. Following this political pressure, the Platt Amendment was subsequently adopted by the constitutional convention of Cuba and attached to its new 1901 constitution. In 1903 it was eventually reiterated in the form of a formal international treaty, which entered into force in 1904.

Naturally, the 1903 Treaty between Cuba and the United States Determining their Relations (193 CTS 198) must be interpreted and analyzed in light of the ongoing occupation of Cuba during the negotiating and drafting stage. International law in the early 1900s was ambivalent regarding the consequences of a treaty concluded under duress, which was not formally regarded as a voidable legal ground. Certainly, under contemporary international law, such a treaty would be liable to be regarded as void, given that the circumstances under which it was concluded could have obstructed Cuba from expressing its free will in the terms of the eventual treaty. In some ways, the treaty may even be regarded as a substitute for annexation, serving as a more ‘civilized’ way of achieving US hegemony over the island. The heavily one-sided nature of the treaty did not help to alleviate the concerns that its main purpose was indeed to subjugate the sovereign nation of Cuba to US control, as it severely limited Cuba’s room for manoeuvring on the international plane. Furthermore, the US did not hide the fact that it was actively trying to restrain Cuban independence by installing a regime it thought was capable of delivering on goals that served American interests. US officials broadly justified these actions by emphasizing their desire to safeguard the welfare of the Cuban people who had to be saved from their own ruling upper class. According to the American government, the treaty merely constituted a necessary instrument to uphold its own international obligations under the Treaty of Paris. Then US Senator Thomas Collier Platt (1833–1910) was very clear in that regard as he fervently believed that this obligation could only be fulfilled through active intervention in Cuban (political) affairs.

The 1903 treaty limited Cuba’s ability to freely conclude treaties with other nations in cases where these would threaten to ‘impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba’ (Article I). Furthermore, the US’s distrust and lack of faith in the Cuban political system led to the treaty’s stipulation that the American government could exercise its right to intervene ‘for the preservation of Cuban independence’ and the maintenance of an adequate government capable of safeguarding fundamental rights (Article III). Interestingly, the term ‘preservation of Cuban independence’ was left undefined, therefore leaving the door open to a far-reaching interpretation that could have allowed the US to intervene whenever it so desired. It is thus no surprise that this clause was ultimately regarded as the primary point of contention on the part of the Cuban regime. These terms were interpreted as a major limitation of Cuba’s sovereignty and of its ability to freely govern in the way it saw fit. The American government therefore had no choice but to specify and assure that it would not use its rights under Article III of the treaty to discretionarily interfere in the affairs of the Cuban government, but only as a last resort to uphold the island’s independence as a sovereign nation ‘from threats of aggression from European nations’. Senator Elihu Root (1845–1937) further specified that US intervention would hence only be legitimate if Cuba were to reach ‘a state of anarchy’—the absence of an effective government—or when it could be justified in the face of a ‘foreign threat’. Perhaps these statements were early signs of the later evolution of US foreign policy in South America, whereby the US would seek hegemony in the continent based on continental consent instead of blanket coercion and interventionism. On closer inspection, Root’s statements reflected a middle ground between the Monroe Doctrine, which favoured interventionism as a civilizing and beneficial way of achieving Cuban independence, and ‘Pan-Americanism’, which sought to disguise US hegemony as an anti-colonial process.

As a final sign of the US’s lack of confidence in the Cuban government and its ability to maintain an independent nation, the island’s right to assume or contract any public debt was denied. Scholars such as Jules Benjamin have implied that these measures were largely implemented to obstruct the island’s quest for economic independence and to thwart Cuban nationalism in general. This was deemed necessary by the US to avoid the resurgence of the ‘revolutionary ideology’ that characterized Cuban civilization during the preceding decades. It was this ideology that was regarded as the true threat to US control and hegemony over the island. Enabling the Cuban government to freely implement its own foreign investment policy would always have left the door open to decisions that could seriously have undermined American interests in the nation.

While the Cuban revolution that had sought to gain its independence from Spanish colonization appeared to have been successful, it ultimately resulted in a manifestation of limited sovereignty, this time imposed by the Americans. The treaty of 1903 was certainly not subtle in conveying who was actually in control of Cuba’s fate. Many of the important elements that are generally associated with state sovereignty would seem to have been limited in such a way that the idea of Cuban sovereignty appeared like a smokescreen for US hegemony and control. Moreover, the 1903 treaty had ensured that colonial property relations were maintained to the benefit of American owners and corporations, while the economic and humanitarian situations of Cubans only further deteriorated in the wake of the treaty’s entry into force. This strain on the economic and personal lives of everyday working Cubans continued throughout the following decades, leading to a relationship between the US and Cuba that turned increasingly bitter as time went on.

(Treaty) Law

The Platt Amendment of 1901, Encyclopedia of U.S.-Latin American Relations (Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE/CQ Press 2012).

The Teller Amendment of 1898, Encyclopedia of U.S.-Latin American Relations (Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE/CQ Press 2012).

Treaty between Cuba and the United States determining their Relations (signed 22 May 1903, entered into force 2 July 1904), 193 CTS 198.

Treaty of Peace between the United States and Spain (signed 10 December 1898, entered into force 11 April 1899), 187 CTS 100.


Paolo Amorosa, Rewriting the History of the Law of Nations: How James Brown Scott Made Francisco de Vitoria the Founder of International Law (Oxford: OUP 2019).

César J. Ayala, American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898–1934 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1999).

Jules R. Benjamin, The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution: An Empire of Liberty in an Age of National Liberation (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990).

Benjamin Allen Coates, Legalist Empire. International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: OUP 2019).

Jorge Ibarra, Prologue to Revolution: Cuba, 1898–1958 (Boulder: Lynne Rienner 1998).

Louis A. Pérez, Cuba under the Platt Amendment, 1902–1934 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press 1986).

Marifeli Pérez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy, 1st edn. (Oxford: OUP 1993).

Juan Pablo Scarfi, The Hidden History of International Law in the Americas: Empire and Legal Networks (Oxford: OUP 2017).

Peter H. Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.–Latin American Relations, 1st edn. (Oxford: OUP 1996).

Mary Speck, ‘Closed-Door Imperialism: The Politics of Cuban-U.S. Trade, 1902–1933’ The Hispanic American Historical Review 85(3) (2005) 449–83.