How a Colorado Senator Prevented Cuba From Becoming a U.S. Territory

President Obama at the Wazee Supper Club last July
President Obama at the Wazee Supper Club last July

Last week, President Barack Obama announced the full restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That means that there will be an American embassy in Havana for the first time in more than half a century, and travel and trade between the two countries will become significantly easier.

But if hadn't been for a stubborn Colorado senator, Cuba might have become a U.S. territory -- and we could have avoided decades of hostilities.

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Republican Henry M. Teller was a U.S. Senator from Colorado when he sponsored an amendment to a joint resolution of Congress on April 19, 1898. The resolution was in response to President William McKinley's famous War Message.

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In February of 1898, the USS Maine, a U.S. Navy ship, had exploded in Havana Harbor. The ship was there to protect American interests in the area. When it sank, three-fourths of the crew was killed. At the time, Cuba was fighting for its independence from Spain.

Two months after the loss of the Maine, McKinley asked Congress to give him the power "to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the government of Spain and the people of Cuba, and to ensure in the island the establishment of a stable government, capable of maintaining order and observing its international obligations, insuring peace and tranquillity and the security of its citizens as well as our own, and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes."

The resolution that Congress came up with demanded that the government of Spain withdraw all forces from Cuba, and relinquish political power. Teller's amendment was added to this resolution, and ensured that the United States would not establish permanent control of the island after Spain withdrew.

There are some who argue that Teller fought for his amendment in order to protect the sugar beet farmers who then flourished in Colorado. He feared that cheap cane sugar from Cuba would flood the market if trade with Cuba was opened.

Colorado sugar-beet farming got its start in Littleton in 1859. OVER the years, sugar beet farming grew steadily, finding high yields from crops in the South Platte River Valley area. During the Spanish-American War, the need for domestic sugar production increased significantly, and the first Colorado beet sugar manufacturing plant opened in 1899.

True to the promise made in the Teller Amendment, the United States occupation of Cuba until 1902 was not an attempt to annex the island.

It seems the attitudes of Colorado politicians have gotten an update since Teller's reign. Back in 2009, Senator Michael Bennet co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit the President from regulating or limiting the travel of Americans to and from Cuba. Have a tip? Send it to editorial@westword.com.


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