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As Latin Americans nations fought for their independence and tried to establish themselves as new nations, they faced the challenge of needing to develop a national identity as well as finding their place within the western hemisphere. Some Latin Americans saw the need to develop an American identity that celebrated the diversity and potential of Latin American nations, and defy the western powers that they overthrew not too long ago. Others sought to westernize or at least open themselves up to western ideals and relations, lured by the desire to develop European-style and perhaps maintain political and social structures that kept certain classes privileged within Latin American society. And the United States, of course, as an emerging power on the global scene, eyed its own interests in Latin America, and certainly developed a certain outlook toward the American continent as a whole. And while these competing visions often seem so starkly different, people often supported some elements and sentiments from both. In the latter half of the 19th century, a tension arose among Latin American writers between the need to be post-colonial and rely on what is Latin American, and the need to modernize, especially with regards to the United States.
In “Our America,” José Martí exalts Latin America’s rich history and culture, laments the increasing influence of outside powers in her affairs, and challenges Latin Americans to claim Latin America for themselves. Martí, viewed as one of the fathers of Cuban Independence, proclaimed Latin America’s greatness and rejected the notion that she must compare herself to Europe or try to emulate Europe. He argues that the Latin American politician must “know the elements that make up his own country, and how to bring them together, using methods and institutions originating within the country,” rather than be educated in European or North American conventions of government. Following this institutional critique, he says “the history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked.” (124) Thus, he really calls upon Americans to develop a national identity that values histories and ideas that are truly American. This identity also must reject intervention on the part of the United States, whose ways are also foreign to the rest of America and whose interests and intentions shouldn’t be trusted. “The scorn of our formidable neighbor,” Martí writes, “who does not know us, is Our America’s greatest danger.”
In his letter to the editor of the New York Herald, on the other hand, Martí sings a very different tune, defending Cuba’s struggle for independence, explaining her people’s otherness, and inviting the United States to support and involve itself in the new nation’s development. Martí spends most of the letter detailing the reasons for Cuba’s need to break from Spain, and how oppressive and extractive the nature of Spain’s relationship to Cuba is. When he talks about Cuba’s identity and its emergence as a new nation, however, his tone is far more moderated and less invigorated, and lacks the call to greatness that was present in “Our America.” Something that particularly stands out is his apologetic tone when he talks about Cuba’s black population, a sector that makes up a significant part of Cuba’s identity. He portrays them as passive and docile, as a people who seek “friendship with the fair-minded white man” and who do “not want to divide white men and Negroes.” Furthermore, he backtracks on his antagonistic position towards the United States. He tells the Herald that revolutionary Cubans are “turning their eyes to the North, as if looking for protection” and later on states that Cuba’s independence will “open to the United States the island which Spanish interests are closing to it.” By taking these stances, Martí undermines his call for authentic Americanism that he so gracefully made in “Our America.” However, the other side of the coin is that Martí and Cuba had a fine line to walk. The United States provided Cuba with the opportunity to buffer the damage of losing its primary goods market in Spain. Furthermore, Cuba was probably better off forming friendly relationships with its powerful neighbor, allowing Cubans to preserve their autonomy in the long run.
In his message to Congress in 1904, which would come to be known as “The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt adopts a very interventionist and neocolonial attitude toward the rest of America, viewing the continent as essentially subject to U.S. control and influence due to its proximity. Roosevelt frames this intervention as a measure of last resort, saying that “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society… may ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation.” However, with this there is a clear implication that the United States, due to its civilized nature, has the moral authority to decide under what conditions it should intervene. Further along in the document, Roosevelt adds, “adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States… to the exercise of an international police power.” This unprecedented assertion opens the door forceful action, which was previously not granted by the Monroe Doctrine. So while Latin Americans were trying to figure out their identity and what approach to take toward relating to the outside world, the United States had already taken proactive steps to ensure its interests in the continent.
In the post-independence period, competing visions as to what constituted an American identity emerged throughout Latin America. This was perhaps most evident in Cuba, whose impending independence from Spain left it vulnerable and required it to scramble to find its identity so that it could develop as a nation. José Martí tried to both develop a uniquely American identity and also open Cuba up to modernizing development in his essay “Our America” and in his letter to the New York Herald, respectively. And in President Roosevelt’s “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” we see the precursor of US intervention in Latin America to come.
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