Harvest of Empire

by Juan González

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Part 1: Roots, Chapters 2–3 Summary

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Chapter 2: The Spanish Borderlands and the Making of an Empire (1810–1898)

Gonzalez argues that, contrary to popular historical myths about the United States’ expansion in the nineteenth century, Anglos relied on the annexation of Spanish colonies. Settlers, mercenaries, and businessmen alike took advantage of the weak governments in the last Spanish viceroyalties.

By the time of the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth century, the US had amassed land in the Southwest—including Texas—Florida, the Caribbean Basin, and Central America. Four US Presidents supported this territorial growth, despite the negative effects it had in Latin America. Thus, Anglos seized control of their new territories’ land rights and resources, allowing them to exploit Latinos for cheap labor to fulfill the demands of the mainland. Gonzalez says this process is responsible for the eventual swell of Latin Americans migrating to the US.

Gonzalez then delves into the factors that contributed to Latin America’s independence from colonial rule. Criollos, a term that refers to whites born in the colonies, like the famous soldier Francisco de Miranda, pushed for better treatment by the Spanish crown, who bestowed most of the economic and political power on peninsulares, or those born on Spanish soil. At the same time, tensions rose in the colonies among its racially diverse population, which led to a splintering of rebel groups who sought independence from the motherland.

Furthermore, international wars for independence in the US and France served as ideological inspiration among Latin Americans, who formed juntas and militias to seize local control. Unwilling to relinquish control, Spain responded with force, leading to prolonged and deadly wars that nearly halved the populations of the colonies. Once the fighting ended, Latinos attempted to ally themselves with Anglos, yet the United States only saw Latin American nations as a source of financial and political gain.

Gonzalez asserts that many Latinos who had aligned themselves with the US during its revolution were shocked when the Anglos did not reciprocate. However, Gonzalez claims that this lack of support should have been anticipated. Many Latin American countries abolished slavery immediately after their independence, stoking fears from US slaveholders who worried that supporting Latin America would be an endorsement of anti-slavery sentiment.

In the Spanish borderlands, Anglos and Latinos frequently clashed with one another over control and policy. As white settlers migrated farther into Florida, they began a system of filibusters to gain control. This process entailed a band of Anglos capturing a town, then declaring its independence from Florida. Over time, the increase in filibusters convinced Spain to cede control of the colony to the US, hoping it would satisfy the Anglos’ obvious desire for Spanish territory.

The loss of Florida signaled the decline of Spanish influence in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine prohibited further European colonization, while the US continued its expansion. In the rest of the chapter, Gonzalez discusses in depth the various success of these expansion efforts in Texas, the western frontier, Cuba, the West Indies, and other territories. The eventual result was American economic and political monopolization of Latin America.

Chapter 3: Banana Republics and Bonds: Taming the Empire’s Backyard (1898–1950)

Gonzalez notes that American territorial annexation ceased after 1898, but “gunboat diplomacy” and financial exploitation allowed the US to continue dominating Latin America. War or military occupations provided the opportunity for US banks and businesses to take control of major industries throughout Latin America as well. To further its interests, the US supported dictators in many countries as a way to exert control. Simultaneously, the US issued predatory loans to these same dictators. 

Different groups were recruited for...

(This entire section contains 1265 words.)

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labor needs in other territories—such as the West Indians who built the Panama Canal. This meant that Latino workers were often kept in Latin America, even as they fulfilled Anglo needs. After World War II, however, US businesses began recruiting Latinos for domestic labor, ushering in an era of Latino migration.

Gonzalez views Puerto Rico as the most egregious example of how the US treated Latin America. In a series of laws and Supreme Court cases, the US disenfranchised Puerto Ricans and eliminated the island’s sovereignty. With no voting representatives in Congress and its government leaders appointed, Puerto Rico was rendered powerless. Despite this treatment, many Puerto Ricans supported American occupation in the hope that statehood would be imminent. Over time, Puerto Rico became an incorporated commonwealth, its people American citizens. Ultimately, this led to locally elected government, diversified industry, and higher average income. While these changes looked good on the surface, Gonzalez suggests that they were part of appeasing Puerto Rico while maintaining absolute control over it.

Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba proved to be difficult for the US to control. A series of rebellions and occupations over decades left the country in near-constant turmoil. American support for the cruel dictators Machado and Batista engendered anti-American sentiment among the Cuban people. A crumbling Cuban economy after Batista’s second coup allowed for Fidel Castro and his rebel army to seize control, effectively ending US influence.

In Panama, the US formed a militia that would declare a new nation altogether after the federal government’s attempt at negotiating a Canal Zone with Colombia failed. Once the US controlled Panama, it recruited thousands of West Indians to work in the canal project, which took ten years to complete. Gonzalez notes the disparities in how white, West Indian, and black canal workers were treated, citing both living conditions and death tolls that suggest favoritism for white laborers.

None of these examples of Anglo domination of Latin America is as catastrophic, according to Gonzalez, as what occurred in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. In the final sections of the chapter, Gonzalez explains how the military occupation of Dominica under President Woodrow Wilson led to soaring profits for American sugar growers as the locals faced martial law, harsh labor, and extreme poverty. The influx of workers from other Caribbean islands like Jamaica increased racial tensions, and eventually, the US propped up notorious dictator El Jefe, a ruthless tyrant who used violence to maintain absolute power. Having wreaked havoc for decades, El Jefe was assassinated in 1960 with support from the CIA—indicating the fickle nature of US support.

In Nicaragua, liberal President Jose Santos Zelaya was able to institute one of Latin America’s most stable and successful governments. Because of his nationalism and skeptical treatment of foreign business, Zelaya became an enemy of US interests. This led to military conflicts with other Central American countries—once again backed by US support—and punitive policies that crippled the Nicaraguan economy from the outside. Furthermore, the US forced Zelaya’s resignation after his armies quashed the internal rebellions that the Americans had instigated. After the US set up corrupt replacement dictators and deployed Marines to quell popular uprisings, the people of Nicaragua united against the dummy government. Liberal figures including the popularly-elected President Sacara and rebel fighter Sandino eventually succeeded in regaining control of their country.

Despite this success—one that demonstrated how the US could lose in Latin America—the American government once again subverted Nicaraguan authority when its lingering Marines helped install Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a ruthless dictator whose family would rule the country for over fifty years.

In the chapter’s conclusion, Gonzalez summarizes how each of these instances of American interference in Latin America contributed to the increase in Latino immigrants. Fleeing the unstable conditions of their homelands, Latino laborers flocked to the Southwest to work in the region’s booming railroad and mining industries. This mid-twentieth century immigration boom, Gonzalez says, cemented Latinos’ place in the US.


Part 1: Roots, Chapter 1 Summary


Part 2: Branches, Chapters 4–5 Summary