Harvesting sugarcane
Sugarcane has been a major commodity in the Caribbean for centuries. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was grown in plantation settings using slave labor, under brutal working conditions. Slave revolts in Saint Domingue, which led to the establishment of Haiti and the end of French colonial rule, drove planters and investors to Cuba. Planters in the American South saw the slave-based sugar economy of Cuba as aligned with their own interests and supported “filibustering,” the unsanctioned attempts of American individuals to secure Cuba’s independence and subsequent annexation as a slave state. Most notably, in 1850 John Quitman, then the Governor of Mississippi, financed a failed invasion of Cuba led by Narciso López, a Venezuelan-born filibuster, which led to Quitman being charged for violating neutrality laws (he was acquitted).

The large-scale production of sugar was seen as inextricably reliant on slave labor. In his 1859 travel account of Cuba, the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr., after visiting a plantation, noted that while some managers advocated a more liberal approach to disciplining their slaves, ultimately “the whip, which the driver always carries, reminds the slave that if all else fails, the infliction of painful bodily punishment lies behind, and will be brought to bear, rather than that the question be left unsettled.”

The Cuban revolt against Spain in 1868 recruited slaves as allies and dealt a damaging blow to the plantation system that had relied on bonded labor; in 1886, slavery was abolished in Cuba. Sugar production, however, continued on into the twentieth century. The acquisition of the base at Guantánamo Bay in eastern Cuba, as well as the Platt Amendment, which allowed for American military intervention into Cuban politics, promoted renewed American investment in Cuban sugar with the understanding that American landowners could rely on American troops for assistance. Favorable trade agreements for the import of Cuban sugar to the United States continued until the late 1950s, when Castro came to power.

- Rutgers University