The Seldom Taught History of the Banana Wars

How an American led cycle of instability, exploitation and intervention engulfed a region for nearly four decades

Grant Piper
May 27 · 11 min read
The Spanish American War kicked off the Banana Wars (Goff, 1899)

The Spanish American War was the start of an era in American history. It is widely seen as America’s first serious step into becoming a global empire rather than a regional power. Indeed, less than twenty years following the end of that war, the United States will intervene in The Great War and embark on a well known period of global expansion, military might and economic growth as the world had never seen before.

Underlying the well-told story is another lesser-known story. The story of the Banana Wars and America’s heavy handed involvement in Central America and the Caribbean is a seldom taught period of American history. After the end of the Spanish American War, the United States embarks on a campaign of meddling, military occupation and police actions in a variety of countries to our south. We invaded Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and more. These so-called Banana Wars stretched from 1898 all the way until 1934 and is rarely discussed today.

This period of history is especially noticeably absent in modern discourse considering that the large presence of countries such as Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela have in our news cycle today. The rhetoric, behaviors and actions of both the governments and people of the Central American region are largely colored and affected by years of American foreign policy that took place in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. Without knowing about the Banana Wars and the United State’s behavior towards the people in this region, it is impossible to understand everything that is happening today.

Overview and Statistics

The Banana Wars were a period of American intervention in Central America and the Caribbean that ranged from police actions, election meddling and full out invasions of neighboring countries. Like most imperial actions throughout history, these were fueled primarily by economic interests in the agricultural trade of valuable crops such as bananas, sugar and tobacco as well as securing its influence over important global positions such as Cuba and the Panama Canal.

  • Time period: 1898–1934
  • Countries affected: Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Cuba, Panama

Occupations

  • Cuba: Intermittent 1899–1922
  • Nicaragua: 1912–1933
  • Haiti: 1915–1934
  • Dominican Republic: 1916–1924
  • Honduras: Intermittent 1903–1925
  • Mexico: 1914, 1916–1917

These actions ended when President Franklin Roosevelt withdrew troops from Haiti in 1934 and announced the beginning of a new Good Neighbor policy which would see US actions in the region cease to be so heavy handed. The Banana Wars saw the term banana republic coined, the seizing of Guantanamo Bay, and increased suspicion and distrust of the United States in many of these countries. Some of these old wounds and mistrust still persist to this day.

The Early Years (1898–1904)

A political cartoon from early 1900 depicting the annexation struggle revolving around sugar (Library of Congress)

Fresh of their decisive international victory over the Spanish Empire in 1899, the United States immediately moved to secure its interests in the region. While the Spanish had not been a serious world power for some time at the outbreak of the Spanish American War, their influence in the Caribbean and Central America were still being felt until the 20th century.

Following the end of the war, the US wanted to wrest control of the Caribbean from Spain and put it firmly under American influence for the first time ever. The first countries to feel the pressure of the United States were Cuba and Panama who had long been coveted as strategic positions both economically and militarily in the region.

Cuba fell under American military occupation in 1899 following the end of the Spanish American War. Despite being a key war goal, the United States had agreed to allow Cuba to remain autonomous after the war as not to upset the international community. The United States could not legally annex Cuba, long a goal of jingoistic Americans throughout the 19th century, so they instead moved to exert an out-sized amount of influence over the island nation.

The initial occupation lasted from 1899–1902 as part of the agreement laid out in the Treaty of Paris in 1899. The United States oversaw the creation of the Republic of Cuba which was officially born in 1902. However, during the initial legal occupation, the United States Congress passes a bill which contains something called the Platt Amendment.

The Platt Amendment was quietly passed with in a larger bill and drastically changed the terms in which the United States would leave the island. The bill severely hampered the new Cuban nation from negotiating or entering treaties with other foreign powers other than the United States. It also gave the United States an almost entirely free hand in interfering with Cuban affairs in the interest of protecting “Cuban independence”. The stipulations of the Platt Amendment are added to the Cuban constitution in 1902 which paves the way for US withdrawal from the island but also opens the door to future intervention by American troops.

At the same time, the United States is working behind the scenes to help orchestrate the Panamanian separation from Columbia. Their work comes to fruition in 1903. While the United States did not overtly enter into this struggle, their finger prints are clearly visible. This becomes expressly apparent when one of the first things the newly independent Panamanian nation does is sign the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. This treaty established the creation of the Panama Canal Zone and initially promises United States control of the Panama Canal and the land directly surrounding it “in perpetuity”.

In four short years following the cessation of the Spanish American War, the United States has legally codified its ability to interfere in Cuba and Panama for the foreseeable future and begins to patrol the waters in the Caribbean with navy ships and marines in order to “protect US interests” in the region. The vacuum the Spanish left following their demotion on the world stage is quickly filled by the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

Carrying the Big Stick (1905–1920)

Central American agriculture was a huge driving force behind American interventionism in the region (International Bureau of the American Republics, 1903)

President Teddy Roosevelt is famous for many things but one of them was his foreign policy. He summed up his foreign policy in the now eternal words “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”. The period starting with Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901 sees the use of America’s stick a lot in the Caribbean.

After pursuing their legal routes the United States begins to find excuses and incidents in order to intervene in neighboring countries. This period of ramping up involvement in the region sees the United States military get involved in Cuba again, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti. The geopolitical scene in Central America was chaotic following the Spanish withdrawal from the region leading to many revolutions, wars, rebels and other instability that was spreading through these nascent nations. The United States used this instability as reason to get involved. And get involved they did.

The increasingly lucrative export of bananas and other valuable cash crops in Central America began to pick up steam at the turn of the century as more modern modes of business and transportation began to percolate through the region. Large companies began to construct their own ships and railroads in order to export their crops from Nicaragua and Honduras. These infrastructure projects were private and not public leading them to be considered vital private interests in the region — something the United States said they would protect from harm.

In 1912 a revolution struck Nicaragua and the besieged Nicaraguan president invited the United States to intervene on his behalf. The US sent in over 2,000 regular troops and marines to beat back the insurgency. The conflict resulted in the regime keeping its power and in return ceded the majority of control the Nicaraguan financial sector to United States interests.

Drawing of a US military installation in Honduras, 1929 (Library of Congress)

In neighboring Honduras, a similar takeover was taking place. Through a campaign of vertical integration three fruit companies had began to take control the country’s infrastructure, financial system and agricultural land. As in Nicaragua, the ownership and capital involved in these ventures were overwhelmingly foreign and the majority of the money was being made outside of the country’s themselves.

These large foreign companies with their massive amounts of so called “private property” and “vested interests” called on the United State’s help in all manner of problems from domestic disputes with local authorities to international issues over land rights and sovereign territory. The United States answered the call. Honduras for example, was invaded by US forces seven times between 1903 and 1925.

In the Caribbean, the American’s invaded Cuba once again in order to protect the all important American interests on the island and to oversee the election of a new pro-American president. That intervention lasted two and a half years between 1906 and 1909.

In 1915, the United States invades Haiti in order to protect American interests following the assassination of the Haitian president. Woodrow Wilson, sends in over 300 Americans to occupy the capital city of Port-Au-Prince with the aim of protecting the Haitian American Sugar Company. In 1917, the United States oversees the creation of a new constitution in Haiti that loosens restriction on foreign investment and land ownership in the country opening the door to the expansion of American companies on the island.

The Haitian occupation would start a long campaign on the island that was fraught with racism, unpopularity and heavy handed control of the population via various pro-American puppet regimes.

This ramping up period of the Banana Wars is marked by American interest in the lucrative agricultural trade of the region. The expansions of the railroads and safer seas around the Caribbean made trade easier and more profitable than ever before and the United States had no intention of allowing the profits flow into local and native coffers.

This interest in agriculture not only gave this turbulent period its name but also started a viscous cycle that looked as though it could go on forever. The United States and associated companies would weather local instability, they would use their assets and interests as an excuse to go in and secure or quell the trouble, the aftermath ceded more rights and capital to the foreign companies which would then have more exposure to future instability and the whole thing started over again.

The instability was never allowed to naturally stabilize due to the large amount of money flowing out of the country and the United State’s inability to allow for a natural government to emerge.

Interventionism and Backlash (1921–1934)

Bananas being offloaded in an American port (Library of Congress)

By the early 1920s the United States was heavily involved or occupying the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Haiti. Pro-American governments had been established in Cuba and Nicaragua as well as Panama. The US military had been making overt excursions into Mexico at the tail end of the 1910s to pursue guerillas in the northern part of the country along the US-Mexico border. American involvement in the region was at its peak and at its most heavy handed during this period.

Following the end of WWI in 1919, American sentiment against interventionism began to change. Seeing the aftermath of the war and the conflict that global empires had caused, people in the United States began to turn against the idea of occupying countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The United States began planning to put in place more permanent pro-American governments in the occupied territories in order to try and pullout without losing their control over the interests in each country. The United States oversaw the election of an overwhelmingly pro-American president and congress in the Dominican Republic in 1924 before withdrawing their troops.

They had similar plans for Haiti but continued insurgency and guerilla fighting in the country prevented a secure American government from being established.

In 1927 the United States once again entered Nicaragua to try and quell a growing civil war. They did not leave that country until 1932 and even then troops were left behind to protect American interests.

The American public’s taste for foreign intervention crashed in 1930 as the Great Depression took hold in force. In Europe and Asia fascistic powers began to rise and flex their muscles regionally and Americans at home returned to an overwhelmingly isolationist policy. This extended from involvement in Europe to involvement in the Caribbean.

Sensing the changing American attitude towards foreign policy Franklin Roosevelt runs on a platform of non-interventionism and coins the term Good Neighbor Policy to describe his desire to withdraw from local countries and return to being good diplomatic neighbors.

Being a Good Neighbor, Ending the Banana Wars (1934)

Franklin Roosevelt becomes president in 1933 and immediately moves to enact his Good Neighbor policy in Latin America (Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt declared in 1934 a whole scale change to American foreign policy in Latin America. In 1933 he announced a cessation to all US military activity in Nicaragua. In 1934 he announced the withdrawal of US troops from Haiti, ending a nearly 20 year conflict in the country. He also rewrote the treaties governing US-Cuba relations and made it much more difficult for the US to intervene in their neighbor’s politics. In 1938 Roosevelt negotiated a compensation package to the Mexican government for US actions in their country up to that point. His new policy was true to form and focused on making the United States a good neighbor to the smaller, poorer nations in the region.

“No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.” — President Roosevelt, 1933

President Roosevelt managed to enact his policy with relative success in the middle 1930s as he oversaw a large scale drawback of United State’s military and economic occupations of many Latin American countries. He came out vocally against armed intervention in Latin America and returned America to their more traditional position of regional counselor and isolationist power.

If not for a stark change in American sentiment and the decisive action by President Franklin Roosevelt, the cycle of instability and intervention in Latin America could have continued indefinitely.

Legacy

The Good Neighbor policies and sentiment lasted through WWII and into the 1950s but were eroded once more during the Cold War. New interventionist policies for Latin America were put in place to combat the spread of communism in the region.

The exploitation and meddling by the United States and foreign companies harmed Latin America’s ability to settle, develop and grow following the withdrawal of the Spanish at the end of the 19th century. A lot of money and capital were siphoned away from the local people during this time and the lack of economic development can still be seen in places such as Haiti.

The Banana War period created a widespread distrust and antagonism towards the United States and US interests which still pervades certain parts of Latin America today. Language about American exploitation and imperialism has been used by the leaders in Venezuela and Cuba in the years following the Banana Wars.

A very similar pattern of economic interest, instability and intervention is playing out now in the Middle East. There are strong parallels between Western actions in the Middle East today and the Banana Wars of the early 20th century. History is nothing if not repetitive and illuminating.

This is another period of American history that is not taught well or in much depth but colors our interactions with our neighbors today in the 21st century.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of…

Sign up for Manuscript of the Month! from History of Yesterday

In order for you to never miss a story, you can subscribe to this monthly newsletter that will keep you up to date with the latest and greatest articles published each week.

Create a free Medium account to get Manuscript of the Month! in your inbox.

Grant Piper

Written by

Everything is a story, if you know how to tell it. Sharing stories of history, politics and religion. grantpiperwriting@outlook.com

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Grant Piper

Written by

Everything is a story, if you know how to tell it. Sharing stories of history, politics and religion. grantpiperwriting@outlook.com

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store