New Great War Episode: Banana Wars - US Marines Occupy Cuba, Haiti & Dominican Republic

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s March 1921 and Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso has become president of Cuba. But there are claims of electoral fraud, and US troops are sent to the island nation – this is just the latest case of longstanding US intervention in the Caribbean: it’s the Banana Wars.

In the early 20th Century, the United States was deeply involved in events in Central America and the Caribbean. To protect its interests and keep other Powers out, the US fought wars, intervened in politics, and even occupied some countries for years at a time. These conflicts have become known as the Banana Wars, and in this episode, we’ll take a look at three of them: in Cuba, in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic - and they were all going on exactly 100 years ago.

Since the 19th century, Latin America was no stranger to US presence – going back all the way to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. This doctrine still outlined US priorities 100 years later: keeping European influence out of Central and South America, and increasing trade with the independent republics. In 1898, the US put the doctrine into practice when Cuban leaders requested its help in their war of independence against Spain. American forces intervened and the US won the Spanish-American War in just a few months. This was a sign that American power and willingness to get involved abroad was on the rise.

In the years following the war in Cuba, the United States took on an important role in the country’s politics and economy.

Some US politicians thought that the country should annex Cuba, but President William McKinley refused. Instead, he created a provisional government under an American military governor that was supposed to introduce social, political and economic reforms to modernize the island. Congress also passed the Platt Amendment, which allowed the US to intervene in Cuba in the future, and gave the US Navy use of the territory at Guantanamo Bay. But for governor Leonard Wood, progress was too slow. Cubans had enjoyed a three-hour workday under Spanish rule, and Wood claimed that their experience as a Spanish colony made it difficult for Cubans to adopt what he saw as productive American habits:

“The great mass of public opinion is perfectly inert; especially this is true among the professional classes. The passive inactivity of one hundred and fifty years has settled over them and it is hard to get them out of old ruts and old grooves... We are much hampered by the lack of practical experience on the part of the really influential men and much tact has to be used to steer and divert them without offending or causing pain.” (Langley, Banana Wars, 9)

However, by 1902, the Americans decided that conditions were stable enough for US troops to withdraw and leave Cuba in local hands. But just four years later, in 1906, Cuba’s two main political parties, the Moderates and the Liberals, were clashing in pre-election violence. Cuban president and Moderate leader, Tomás Estrada Palma, was accused of using security forces to ensure his reelection. The Liberals, who were no friends of American involvement in the country in general, now called for the US to ensure free elections.

President Theodore Roosevelt chose not to intervene, and the situation in Cuba degenerated. The Liberals began to raise an army, and by September, they had 24,000 men under arms, controlled the railways, and were threatening the capital. The Moderate government only had about 3000 police – so this time the Moderate Party called on the US to come to Cuba.

Roosevelt still didn’t send troops, and instead called on President Estrada Palma to resign, which he refused to do while the Liberals were still armed. Meanwhile, the Liberals rejected to disarm unless they had US protection. So, in September, 2,000 Marines were sent to the island with instructions to accept the Cuban President’s resignation and again form a new provisional government. Fresh elections were held in 1908, and have been described by one historian as the “fairest in Cuban history.”

The Liberal candidate got the most votes, so with order seemingly restored, the US once again withdrew its forces in 1909. But some observers were worried about what might come next. US administrator and army officer Robert Bullard made a pessimistic prediction: “The U.S. will have to go back. It is only a matter of time.” (Langley, Banana Wars, 43) Bullard turned out to be right, and American marines returned to Cuba in 1912 to stop further violence.

So the US had fought a war in Cuba in 1898, and intervened numerous times in the years that followed. But with American’s growing influence and the outbreak of the Great War in Europe in 1914, Cuba wasn’t the only Caribbean island where the US was getting involved.

The completion of the Panama Canal in August 1914 and its importance to US interests presented a new strategic problem in the Caribbean. The Americans already controlled Cuba and Puerto Rico, but the island of Hispaniola presented a potential weak point in US defences of the eastern approaches to the canal. This sensitive point became even more of a problem for the US when Americans accused Haiti of getting too close to German influence.

Haiti covered half of Hispaniola, and had won its independence from France back in 1804. The country’s leaders had been unreceptive to US diplomatic advances, and sometimes dealt with German businessmen who had married into the local elite. By 1914, US authorities considered Haiti to be aligned with Germany, and they would not tolerate a foreign power’s influence in the region, or the lost opportunities for American companies. They also felt that given the population’s African origin, Haitians would not be able to govern themselves. In the view of the Haitian government, they were simply acting as would any sovereign nation. The US began to make plans for an intervention, but events soon overtook them.

Haiti had long struggled with political instability, and since 1911, seven presidents had been assassinated or deposed. From the American point of view, it was this type of chaos that was making it possible for German influence to grow. Inside Haitian society, the situation was more complicated. The island was ruled by a privileged French-speaking elite that considered itself apart from the poorer Creole-speaking majority. The violence that often broke out usually involved armed groups known as cacos. To some observers, the cacos were revolutionaries for hire, who periodically captured Port-au-Prince for the highest bidder before returning to their villages. But to others, including many Haitians, they were the expression of the population’s desire to resist unscrupulous leaders and soon, foreign occupation.

In July 1915, a new round of political violence came to head. Just a few months earlier, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had ordered the execution of 167 opponents of his regime. When the sentence was carried out, the population rose up against him under the leadership of Dr. Rosalvo Bobo. Bobo was an intellectual who had supported popular uprisings against previous Haitian rulers, and opposed Sam’s closer relations with the United States. During the July uprising against Sam’s executions, Sam was dragged from the French embassy where he was hiding and killed by an angry crowd.

When news of the assassination got out, Rear Admiral William Caperton was in command of a nearby US Navy cruiser squadron. Without waiting for orders, he landed five companies of marines and sailors and made for Port-au-Prince. Resistance was light, and US troops were soon in control of the city, even though this was a violation of international law. Caperton said that he had acted to protect foreign lives and property, establish order, and maintain Haiti’s constitution.

President Woodrow Wilson approved the occupation and in the following months, Caperton appointed Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave as president of Haiti. He also forced through a treaty that made Haiti into a virtual colony of the United States. The treaty gave the US control of Haitian finances, trade, diplomacy, and gave the US the right to occupy the country for 10 to 20 years. Some of the French-speaking elite in the country was supportive of Caperton, but most of poorer Creole-speaking population was not, and wanted Dr. Bobo in power and the Americans out.
Haitian journalist Elie Guerin wrote of his hopes for the future of the country: “The Monroe doctrine, the Yankee imperialist’s doubt will deteriorate before long. [We Haitians] we must strive, with courage, to still suffer physically more and more, that is to say until the end of the European War...In that case we ought to be patient, calm and proud, while at the same time enduring suffering, as the hour for our liberation is the coming collapse of the Monroe doctrine.” (Roberts, Haitian Studies 241)

Relations between US troops and the local population were predictably tense, made worse by the racial attitudes of most of the Americans. It didn’t take long before the cacos began a simmering guerilla war against the occupying forces, under Charlemagne Peralte and Benoit Batraville. In fall 1915, the marines began to patrol more aggressively outside of the capital, and in a single November raid, killed 50 Haitians in ten minutes at Fort Riviere. The Marines had stormed the fort with the help of machine guns, while the rebels had been armed with rifles, sticks, and stones. No US soldiers were killed in the attack.

These types of Marine patrols continued, and by January 1916, Caperton reported optimistically about the military and financial situation:

“All Haiti quiet… Military control of situation and status quo being maintained… Naval paymasters under paymaster Conard continue in charge of the customs service and fiscal matters. Practically entire Haitian financial system is now being so administered.” (Posner 250)

And so, with US troops in control of Haiti and a US-friendly President installed, American authorities turned their attention to the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbour and the other state on the island of Hispaniola.

After gaining independence from Spain in 1868, the Dominican Republic had developed into decentralised state where many of its people identified more with their home region than the new nation.

This made the country more susceptible to foreign influence, including from the US. From 1900 onwards, the US took control of vital Dominican industries, including plantations and mining. This control intensified under President Wilson who also sought moral leadership over what he considered “uncivilised” peoples.

Like Haiti, the Dominican Republic suffered from internal turmoil. In 1916, American-friendly President Juan Isidro Jiménez was at the head of a provisional government. But his real power was limited to the capital, and areas outside Santo Domingo were dominated by regional strongmen known as caudillismo.

In May 1916, Minister of War General Desiderio Arias led a coup against the President. Jiménez fled the country and reluctantly accepted US offers for intervention. The US threatened to bombard Santo Domingo, so Arias fled to his regional stronghold of Cibao. Further violence seemed inevitable, so Jiménez resigned, as he explained to the US authorities:

“I cannot keep my word with you. I can never consent to attacking my own people.” (Langley, The Banana Wars, 135)

Despite his protests, in June the US sent in the marines anyway. At Puerto Plata, around 500 Dominican fighters resisted an amphibious assault of 130 marines. Once ashore, Marine machine guns and supporting naval fire quickly defeated the defenders.

Meanwhile, more marines landed at Monte Cristi. After taking the town without resistance, they were attacked by local militiamen on the outskirts. According to Marine commander Captain Frederick Wise, around 150 fighters charged down the hills directly at his machine guns. He concluded they had never seen such weapons before:

“[They dropped] all up and down the line… I could see sheer amazement on their faces.” (Langley, The Banana Wars, 139)

Wise’s men then advanced along the Yaque del Norte River, with instructions to meet with the Marines who’d landed at Puerto Plata outside Arias’s capital of Santiago. When the Marines arrived, Arias had already departed, and most of his forces melted back into the population.

However, upon arriving there on July 4th, they were informed Arias had departed, with much of his forces simply dissipating. On July 6th, the marines entered the city without resistance. Santiago fell to the Americans without a fight.

So, with Arias defeated, US control of the Dominican Republic seemed secure. However, back in Santo Domingo, the US was unable to find a pro-American presidential candidate. Instead, in November 1916, they took full and direct control of the country, and installed a US military government under Captain Henry Knapp. Unlike in Haiti, there would be no pretence of an independent government.

So by 1916, the US had taken control of Haiti and installed a puppet government, and the US military was running the Dominican Republic. But these were not the end of American intervention in the region, and soon, the Marines would be sent to familiar places once again.

By mid-1917, the level of political violence in Cuba had decreased, even though there were still some areas where it persisted. American businessmen in Cuba were particularly worried about the safety of their sugar plantations. In previous struggles, plantations had often been torched or abandoned, and so in August 1,000 Marines were sent in to protect them. This operation was disguised as a training exercise to avoid trouble with Cubans who opposed American influence and in the country.

By 1921, major political instability returned to Cuba, which resulted in yet another US intervention. This time There were claims of electoral fraud concerning the election of Moderate candidate Alfredo Zayas. When new elections were held under Marine guard in March 1921, Zayas once again won.

Now, desperate for capital, he called on US banks to fund his government. J.P Morgan Jr. agreed, to the tune of $50 million, but only if Zayas introduced wide sweeping political and economic reforms, including cutting the government budget in half. Zayas agreed, but anti-American reaction made his position looked vulnerable.

Instead, once Zayas got hold of the cash, he embarked on an extensive spending programme, fired many of his American supported ministers and became increasingly resistant to following US orders.

Meanwhile, Haiti was still an American satellite state. In 1918, the US-backed government forced through a new constitution that allowed foreigners to own property, which had previously been forbidden. Although voters in a subsequent plebiscite overwhelmingly supported the new constitution, only 5% of the population had actually voted.

US authorities in Haiti had also started infrastructure modernisation programmes, such as rail and road construction. To do this, they revived a French colonial labour system known as the corvée. On paper, this gave Haitians the choice of providing unpaid labour or paying a special tax. Since the vast majority couldn’t afford the tax, they had no choice to work – and this seemed like a return to slavery in the eyes of many. The policy was scrapped in late 1918, but left lasting resentment.

In 1919, a caco leader Charlemagne Peralte launched a renewed revolt against the Haitian government and their American sponsors. His call to arms revived memories of Haiti’s own struggle for self-liberation:

“Haitians! [A] day like the 1st of January 1804 will soon rise. [For] 4 years the Occupation insults us in every way, every morning brings us a new sadness... No fear! We have arms! Let us drive out that ravenous people whose ravenousness is represented in the person of their President Wilson: traitor, vagabond, rioter, thief. [Y]ou will die with your country.” (Schreadley, 157)

Peralte rallied about 5000 fighters and attacked Port-au-Prince, but failed to take it. On November 1st 1919, two US marines - with blackened faces and wearing caco clothing - snuck into his camp and shot him dead. They took a photo of Peralte stripped naked and tied to a door, which was distributed to send a message to his supporters. Instead, it drew comparisons to the crucifixion of Christ and turned Peralte into a martyr.

Overall, the period of the Banana Wars saw the US Marine Corp, and Navy generally, taking on a central role in US geopolitics. These so-called small wars would challenge the infrastructure and abilities of the Marines, as well as create a controversial legacy.

On the ground, few forces could rival the training and firepower of the Marines, but many were also unprepared for the nature of fighting in the tropics. Furthermore, for a mission centric organisation like the Marines, the lack of clear policy and orders proved frustrating. Col. George C. Thorpe, a veteran of the Dominican occupation, wrote in 1919:

“It would seem that it would be a fine thing if troops.. in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, were told exactly what their mission is… Uncertainty is always unsatisfactory. Men can face a very black future if they but know what it is. But an uncertain future, even with bright possibilities is annoying and unsettling.” (Johnson 143)

These issues were compounded by the inherent racism prevalent in the Marine Corps. The US Navy even prioritised sending commanders from southern states because they thought they would be better at dealing with people of African origin. These attitudes meant that the Americans often did not recognize or understand the political and social dynamics of different Caribbean populations. Instead, local people were usually lumped together based exclusively on race.

American attitudes cost the US politically, but they also cost local people’s lives, since a black resident’s life was not considered as valuable as a white American’s. In the Dominican Republic, Dominicans were beaten and fined for criticising the military occupation. Charles Merkel, a Marine officer known as the “the Tiger of Seibo”, gained a particular reputation for torture and burning villages. He was eventually arrested, but committed suicide rather than stand trial.

After the US entered the Great War in 1917, some Marine officers were transferred to Europe. The ones who weren’t often grew frustrated at missing out on the war in Europe, since the Caribbean was considered a second-rate posting. One Marine officer wrote to his commander:

“If I do a good job of clearing these… provinces of insurgents and kill a lot… it ought to demonstrate I’d be a good German-killer.” (Langley, Banana Wars, 147)

These frustrations were sometimes taken out on locals and the small, but influential, German population.

By 1920, stories of abuse began to emerge despite press censorship in the Dominican Republic. To a US public back home who saw themselves as rescuers, the accusations caused a scandal. Historian Jeannie Johnson summed up the controversy:

“Marines alone cannot be saddled with the blame for bringing racism with them—they did this by virtue of their American heritage—but they must own the belligerent actions they vindicated through this perceptual lens, actions that fell enough outside the American norm—racist as it was—that it was rejected by the Marines’ own domestic public and brought shame and indignation down on their service.” (Johnson 158)

Despite being overshadowed by larger conflicts of the period, the Banana Wars would leave legacies that shaped the region for decades. In the Dominican Republic, the occupation lasted 8 years, while in Haiti it continued for nearly twenty.

Economics undoubtedly played a large role in the Banana Wars, and the US frequently sought financial domination. But even though money was important, it was not necessarily the end goal for American policymakers. Financial control instead served to underpin geopolitical goals, and was seen as necessary for future democracy.

However, the frequent threat and use of American military might to push through unpopular treaties and constitutions also fundamentally damaged the reputation of democracy in the region. To many, the supposedly democratic governments were merely American puppets - a claim that was difficult to refute.

In some cases, the US presence did result in limited modernisation, especially in Cuba, but this was usually only in the capital cities. The US did create central security forces such as the Rural Guard in Cuba, the Gendarmerie in Haiti, and Guardia Nacional in the Dominican Republic. These forces did help to end the cycle of political coups that plagued the countries, but they also allowed power to be increasingly centralised. And centralized power would cast a long shadow on the history of the Caribbean in the decades to come.


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