A Wolfsonian Perspective on Two U.S. Presidential Visits to Cuba


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Less than a week after announcing an ease on travel restrictions to the Communist-ruled island of Cuba, Barack Obama will make history tonight by flying to Havana, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the island nation since Calvin Coolidge. There are both interesting parallels and differences between the state visits separated by eighty-eight years.

Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in January 1928 in order to attend and deliver a speech at the 6th Inter-American Conference held in Havana. At the time, Cuba was under the rule of President Gerardo Machado (1871-1939). The Machado family raised cattle and tobacco in Las Villas, though his father left to join the rebels during Cuba’s Ten Years’ War against Spain (1868-1878). Gerardo followed his father’s example when he joined the rebels in the struggle for independence in 1895, becoming one of the youngest to rise to the rank of brigadier general. Running on an anti-American imperialist and nationalist platform, Machado was elected president of Cuba and took office in May 1925, though once in office he cultivated close ties to Washington and Wall Street.


Mayor James Walker of New York confers with President Machado, February 1927

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Machado inaugurated a large number of infrastructure and public works projects, which included the construction of the Carretera Central (or Central Highway), and el Capitolio, the neo-classical Capitol building bearing an uncanny resemblance to the one in Washington, D.C.!


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Whatever goodwill Machado’s ambitious building and modernization policies generated early in his presidency, his tinkering with the Constitution to allow for a second (and extended) term in office, his violent crackdown on dissidents, and the murder of labor leaders and political opponents negated his popularity and transformed his presidency into a dictatorship until his overthrow in 1933.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

When Calvin Coolidge traveled to Havana to attend the Inter-American Conference, it was amid much anti-imperialist sentiment and skepticism among Latin Americans accustomed to U.S. “Gunboat Diplomacy.” At the time of the conference in Havana, the hated Platt Amendment (limiting Cuban sovereignty) was still in force, and U.S. troops were still occupying Haiti and battling against the populist Nicaraguan rebel leader, Augusto Sandino. It did not help the U.S. image that Coolidge arrived in Havana Harbor aboard the warship U.S.S. Texas and amid a flotilla of destroyers intended to project American strength.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In spite of the show of force, huge crowds gathered to cheer the arrival of Coolidge as his naval escort passed El Morro Castle at the entrance of Havana harbor. News reports described the spectators collectively as the “greatest crowd ever assembled together in the history of Cuba….”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

On January 16, 1928, Coolidge addressed the attendees of the conference, and praised the “progress” made by the “sovereign” Cuban Republic, exaggeratedly describing the Cuban people as “independent, free, prosperous, peaceful, and enjoying the advantages of self-government.”

As Miami and Miami Beach had been devastated by hurricane in 1926, Cuba had already become popular with American investors and wealthy tourists interested in booking a cruise to escape Northern winter weather and evade the U.S. Prohibition against drinking “intoxicating spirits.”



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Ironically, on the same day that Coolidge delivered his speech before the Pan-American conference, a Pan-American Fokker F-7 flew seven passengers from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba. This marked the inauguration of the first U.S.-flag scheduled passenger service between the U.S. and Cuba, and further augmented the flow of American tourists to the island republic.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

 President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba tonight with his family aboard Airforce One, with only the regular security detail that accompanies foreign state visits. Over the course of his brief visit, Obama is scheduled to confer with President Raul Castro, meet with Cuban dissidents, and to deliver an address to the Cuban people. But after his duties as a visiting head of state are concluded, it is expected that Obama and his family will also do some more typically tourist sightseeing, and to attend and watch an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. Perhaps it is these more mundane and down-to-earth activities that signal a new era in the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

A small exhibit in The Wolfsonian–FIU library titled Cuba: From Gunboat Diplomacy to Good Neighbor Policy can be seen by museum visitors at our location on Tenth and Washington in South Beach. The installation was curated by two Florida International University undergraduate students, Famirka Then and Francisco Salas, and examines the early period of U.S.-Cuba relations.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

This coming May 6th, The Wolfsonian–FIU museum will open to the public a new and larger exhibit titled Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction. Curated by myself in collaboration with Rosa Lowinger, author of Tropicana Nights, this exhibition is drawn primarily from a gift of more than 1,500 vintage photographs, pamphlets, posters, periodicals, postcards, and other rare ephemeral items donated by Vicki Gold Levi. While it will examine U.S.-Cuba relations between 1919 and 1959, the exhibit will not be focused on politicians and politics, but rather on the cultural communication and exchange that took place during this period of relatively warm and cordial relations.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


~ by "The Chief" on March 20, 2016.

One Response to “A Wolfsonian Perspective on Two U.S. Presidential Visits to Cuba”

  1. So interesting. I am researching why my great grandfather took a trip on the Turriable (United Fruit Company) in 1927. He had left Detroit after 13 years to live in Yonkers for 3 months and would disembark at New Orleans to take a job at the Geddes Buick Co as a mechanic. Next steps are to determine what was the draw to go to NO months after the great flood and how long had he been traveling with UFC. (He had been a mechanic in the Canadian Army Services Corps.) Thank you for posting.

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