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100 Years of Conflict
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 11 February 1998
HAVANA, Feb 11 (IPS) - Mystery still surrounds the sinking of the U.S. Maine, which served as a pretext 100 years ago for the United States to intervene in Cuba's war of independence and take over the island.
Just after 9:40 PM on Tuesday Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship was sunk in the Bay of Havana, and three-fourths of its 354 crew- members were killed.
According to historians, the Maine reached Havana on Jan. 25 on a "friendly visit" just when the United States and Spain were caught up in tension over Cuba.
"Its presence was just one more in a chain of pressures that the U.S. government had been exercising over Spain," researcher Gustavo Placer Cervera wrote in "the Explosion of the Maine, a Still Open Debate' in the weekly 'Workers', the publication of Cuba's central union.
The presence of the biggest battleship that had ever anchored in the bay "clearly constituted preparations for intervention in the war that the Cubans were successfully waging against the Spanish colonial regime," added Cervera, a former navy officer.
There had been many attempts to take possession of Cuba since President Thomas Jefferson said on Oct. 20, 1805 that "as the key to the Gulf, the possession of the Island is indispensable for the defense of Louisiana and Florida."
The United States put forth a number of proposals to buy the island, from Jefferson's offer to the king and queen of Spain to the last bid a few days before the declaration of war between the two countries in April 1898.
One clear reason for Washington's interest in Cuba was the dependence of the island's economy on the United States, which by 1860 already absorbed 62 percent of Cuba's exports, against a mere three percent that went to Spain.
On Sep. 23, 1897, Theodore Roosevelt, then under-secretary of the U.S. navy, said Spain would be unable to pacify Cuba, and added that he was confident that events would soon justify U.S. intervention.
U.S. policy towards the war between Cuba and Spain was defined by Roosevelt on Dec. 24, 1897, when he said his country would back the weakest against the strongest, even if that meant "the complete extermination of both, in order to annex the Pearl of the West Indies."
The United States at last found a pretext to intervene, the sinking of the Maine, when the press and the hawks in the United States called for U.S. involvement in the war, blaming the disaster on Madrid and Havana.
"Spain was not even able to guarantee the security of a U.S. battleship that was visiting Havana on a peaceful mission," said President McKinley in his request to Congress to put an end to the war in Cuba.
Cervera writes that Washington denied that the explosion was internal, as concluded by the Spanish investigative commission created two days after the disaster. Washington refused to participate in a mixed commission.
Presided over by navy Captain William T. Sampson, the U.S. commission determined that the warship was destroyed by a small external explosion which set off an enormous internal explosion.
The most serious attack on that theory came from an English expert on mines, John T. Bucknill, who wrote in the specialised British newspaper 'Engineer' that the most probable cause was spontaneous combustion in the ship's coal furnace, "a frequent occurrence in vessels of that era."
The controversy is still raging today. In his book on the destruction of the Maine, U.S. Admiral Hymar G. Rickover concludes that the explosion was internal, caused by a fire in a coal furnace. Others, like his fellow countryman Thomas Aller, argue that the explosion was external.
Spanish journalist Agustin Remesal revealed in his recent book "The Enigma of the Maine" that the U.S. navy considered the hypothesis of a self-induced attack and investigated John Blandin, officer of the ship's guard on the night of the disaster.
Cervera, meanwhile, says the Cubans were not responsible for the attack, arguing that "the aim of their struggle was independence from Spain, not U.S. intervention, which in practice meant a change of ownership."
The former navy officer denies that Cuba's independence fighters used terrorist tactics, and questions the logic of mining a battleship from a country that was supposedly an ally.
An external explosion, although theoretically possible, was impractical, he reasons, while tending towards the hypothesis of an internal explosion, either accidental or deliberate.
Cervera does not rule out the possibility of a deliberate internal explosion, "given the interest of the most aggressive U.S. imperialist circles in launching the country into the war."
But he does not go so far as to offer a definitive conclusion on the event that led the United States to enter the war in which Spain lost its last colonies, Cuba and the Philippines.
The United States governed Cuba from 1899 to 1902, when a constitution that included the so-called Platt Amendment went into effect. That amendment recognised the right of the U.S. armed forces to intervene in Cuba and retain - up to today - the Guantanamo military base.
The United States resorted to that right to intervene on several occasions, after which it deployed marines in Cuba for extended periods of time. For example, the United States threw its support behind Colonel Fulgencio Batista, a key figure in a turbulent period that began with President Ramon Grau San Martin's resignation in 1933.
Batista staged another coup on Mar. 10, 1952, which led to a dictatorship that cost 20,000 Cuban lives up to the Dec. 31, 1958 victory of the revolution by Fidel Castro's guerrillas.
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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