Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State (White)
The Cuban Ambassador called on the Secretary on Friday, April 10. The Secretary said that he had asked the Ambassador to come in as the Ambassador is leaving shortly for Japan and he did not want to have him go so far away, breaking a close contact with Cuba, without discussing with him very frankly the Cuban situation. He asked if the Ambassador had any recent information or any light he could throw on the Cuban political situation.
The Ambassador said that he would talk very frankly to the Secretary. The situation is very difficult. He was in Cuba in January and had a chance to observe matters closely. The people in general are opposed to Machado but will not take any active measures against him. The upper classes are not only opposed to Machado but are very bitter against him and all the active opposition comes from the better elements in the Republic. This makes the situation of course very serious. The root of the whole matter is economic. Cuba has gone from great riches to poverty. It is not the fact of being poor that has affected the people so much as the change from affluence to poverty. A great many men who had been very wealthy before are now very poor.
The Ambassador said he thought President Machado had made a mistake last November when he indicated the possibility that he might resign. This stirred up the hopes of the Opposition and was, he thought, the direct cause of all the unrest that has occurred during the past winter. As soon as he heard of what Machado had done, the Ambassador had telegraphed him at once saying that there were three things that he should do: First, he should not give any indication whatsoever that there was any possibility of his getting out even a day before his term of office was over; secondly, he should immediately take strong measures to show that he had the situation in hand, and thirdly, he should then come out with a compromise solution.
The Ambassador remarked that during the War of Independence with Spain, Cuba never had more than about 25,000 men in the field. The day after the armistice with Spain was signed Cuba had an army of 100,000, which would have been enough to win the war had they not waited until after the armistice to join up. Also when there was a revolutionary movement against Palma, the revolutionists never had more than about 500 disorganized men in the field but the moment the armistice was declared the revolutionists numbered 12,000. The Secretary remarked that getting on the band-wagon was not confined [Page 52] to Cuba. The Ambassador said he realized that but it was a Spanish trait, nevertheless, to wait to see how things were going and then jump in, and that any sign of weakness on Machado’s part would make the situation much worse not only by encouraging the Opposition but by actually increasing its numbers. The Ambassador therefore thought that in the negotiations now going on between Machado and the Opposition the President should be very careful not to indicate what compromise settlement he would be willing to accept because if he should do so it would not solve the situation as the Opposition elements would immediately fall out among themselves. Mendieta and Menocal are very much opposed to one another and young Mariano Miguel Gomez is opposed to both. Torriente, Alvarez and Hevia are all hoping to be chosen as a compromise candidate. The Ambassador therefore thought-that President Machado should insist first, that the Opposition leaders should get together and agree on the minimum terms they would accept and inform the President thereof, and secondly, they should make a definite declaration and promise at the same time that they would not undertake a revolutionary movement. When this is done, then the President can indicate whether he accepts their demands.
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The Secretary said that he was very glad to have the Ambassador’s views so freely stated and that he would equally frankly tell the Ambassador how he looked at the matter and point out to him the difficulties from the Secretary’s point of view on account of the pressure that is apt to be brought to bear on this Government. The Secretary said that in this country, with the background of a six hundred years’ fight for constitutional liberties, the right of a man to be tried promptly is the one which most affects our people and that a denial of this right has an immediate reaction in this country. The right for a speedy trial or the right to sue out a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of anybody deprived of their liberty except by a judicial sentence is so fundamental with us that any infringement of that right immediately causes an outcry.
The Secretary said he remembered being told by Mr. Root17 that when we went into Cuba in 1898 we found prisoners the Spaniards had held, despite a Constitution providing for a prompt trial, for a period of eleven years without their having been tried. The publication of these facts caused a profound impression in this country and if anything of the sort should happen again there would be immediate pressure brought to bear on the Secretary and he would be [Page 53] charged with dereliction in that such a state of affairs would indicate that the Cuban Government was not adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty as provided in the Piatt Amendment.18
The Secretary said that we had looked into the matter and we had found that there were certain individuals who had been held for some time, and mentioned the case of Colonel Hevia who had been denied six times at least a writ of habeas corpus. The Secretary said that what he was saying was not the result of anything that has just immediately come before the Department or any new incident that has just arisen, but that he has been watching the situation develop for some time and, knowing the point from which pressure would be brought to bear on him, he had had this phase of the situation particularly in mind.…
The Ambassador remarked that the Hevia case was one before the military tribunals and not the civil tribunal.… The Secretary remarked that Colonel Hevia, although a former officer, is not now an officer of the Army, and that under our jurisprudence he could not be court-martialed. He remembered a case that arose in our Army Engineer Corps just before the Spanish-American War, in which a Colonel of Engineers was charged with conspiracy with two civilians to defraud the Government. The case made quite a sensation at the time because it was the first instance in over a hundred years in the existence of the Army Engineer Corps in which there had been any such charges made against any member of the Corps. The officer was tried by court-martial in New York and sentenced to Leavenworth Penitentiary. His two civilian accomplices were tried by the civil courts. The Ambassador said that the Spanish system of jurisprudence is opposed to the trial of a single matter before two different tribunals and that it was a question for the Supreme Court in Cuba whether the matter should come before a civil or military court. It was the Ambassador’s own feeling as a lawyer that the matter should only come before one court and that all the persons involved should be tried before the civil courts.
The Ambassador said that Colonel Hevia and not more than five or six others had been held in prison not more than three months. Apart from these five or six cases none of the others had been held more than a month. Some of them had been rearrested because after being released they had taken part in other riots or demonstrations or hostile acts against the Government, and the Secretary must remember that martial law was in effect in Cuba. Colonel Hevia has [Page 54] been released as have most of the others but nobody had been held more than three months and very often, in a case of this kind, in the ordinary course of events a person charged with such a crime is held for a period of much longer than three months while the formalities of the trial are taking place. They have in Cuban jurisprudence a provision regarding preventive detention for a period of six months, but that nevertheless a great many persons who have made demonstrations, et cetera, against the Palace, have been arrested, taken to the police station and then merely escorted home, and that this had hurt President Machado’s prestige very much. The Cubans are not imbued with the sense of legality that prevails in this country and there are two means of governing successfully there—one is through force, and the other through prestige. Being lenient with these people was damaging to Machado’s prestige. The Ambassador said that there was no question regarding the guilt of some of these people but it was impossible to get a conviction in the courts. The Secretary inquired whether the courts were acting against the Government and the Ambassador replied that, as he had already said, the upper classes were strongly against Machado and the whole influence of the wives and friends and social connections of the judges colored their views so that they would not convict a political offender.
The Secretary said he thought he had touched on the main points he had in mind in asking the Ambassador to come in and he hoped to show him the matter from our point of view. The Ambassador said he was very glad the Secretary had talked with him so frankly and that he wanted the Secretary also to consider the other side of the case and that Machado had really accomplished a great deal. He has worked hard for the good of Cuba; he has tried to maintain law and order and tranquillity; he has tried to increase the prosperity of the country through road building and public works; he has worked hard for the sugar interests and the tobacco interests, and he has really accomplished a great deal and a revolution would be most unfortunate.
The Secretary said he appreciated fully what President Machado had been up against and what he had accomplished, and that of course the thing that he most wanted to avoid was a revolution with its concomitant a possible intervention on our part.19
- Elihu Root, Secretary of War, 1899–1904; Secretary of State, 1905–1909; U. S. Senator, 1909–1915.↩
- For text of the Piatt Amendment (treaty of relations with the United States, May 22, 1903), see Foreign Relations, 1904, p. 243.↩
Two notations in ink in the Secretary’s handwriting at the end of the memorandum read:
“Ferrara also said more than once that he would report what I said directly to Machado. HLS”
“The foregoing memorandum is an excellent statement of what took place. HLS”