Geopolitics on the rocks

Allison Fedirka

In the decades ahead US and Mexico will fight for control over Cuba

North America

Current lull in the bilateral competition will not last forever. And the rivalry will most likely resume in the Caribbean

U.S. dominance of North American seems certain and inevitable. After all, as a regional power, the U.S. has been unchallenged for more than a century, and as the sole global power for more than 25 years.

It can be easy to forget that Mexico briefly served as a foil to U.S. regional power. Looking at this facet of the U.S.-Mexico relationship requires examining how the countries compete and interact in the region.

Beyond the obvious shared border, their rivalry is expressed most notably in the Caribbean, particularly in Cuba, where Washington and Mexico City have competing strategic interests. We are currently in a relative lull regarding this bilateral competition in the Caribbean, but in the decades ahead there is potential for it to resume. 

Different Mentalities

In North America’s immediate post-colonial period, Mexico and the United States emerged as the leading candidates for regional powers. The two were rather evenly matched. It was not clear who would emerge as a regional power – if anything, by the early 1800s Mexico appeared to be the more likely candidate of the two.

After its independence from Spain, Mexico held territory stretching north nearly to Canada and west to present-day California. U.S. territory after its independence was initially relegated to the strip of land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

To survive and thrive, the U.S. would need to expand. The two countries thus had fundamentally different mentalities. The U.S. required ambitious expansion while Mexico needed to maintain its territorial status quo and fend off any European attempts at reconquest. 

U.S. expansionism threatened not only Mexico’s territorial integrity but also Mexico’s strategic interests in the Caribbean. The U.S. and Mexico had competing interests in the Caribbean, particularly over Cuba.

Situated as it is between Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula, Cuba is strategically valuable as a way to block maritime traffic from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. These waters are the only way out of the Gulf of Mexico; if closed, they impede the transit of goods between vital ports (New Orleans in the U.S. and Veracruz in Mexico) and shipping routes.

For the United States, Cuba represented an enormous economic vulnerability. The Mississippi River runs through the agricultural heartland of the United States and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. Other major rivers in the country’s main agricultural zones feed into the Mississippi as well, and in doing so enable massive amounts of agricultural exports.

Any major disruption in the maritime access from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean would cripple U.S. economic activity. It was for this reason that, in 1823, U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams informed U.S. diplomats of the U.S. desire to annex all of Cuba within half a century.

In the early days of independence, Cuba was an economic vulnerability and security threat to Mexico. When Mexico’s break with Spain was finally recognized in 1821, Cuba was still under Spanish control. Prior to its own independence, Mexico had strong trade ties with Cuba, which was both a market and transit hub for European markets.

After independence, trade subsided – Spain was not all that interested in helping an economy that was hostile to its interests. From a security standpoint, Cuba was a favorable location from which to stage an attack on Mexico, particularly by Spain to regain territory or by other European power seeking to scoop up the former colony.

To mitigate these threats, the Mexican government began to support separatist ideologies and movements in Cuba in the 1820s. The goal was to use separatists to prevent Spain from being able to reconquer Mexico. For Mexico, this would ideally entail Cuba’s breaking away from Spain. This would enhance Mexico’s position in the Caribbean Basin and raise the possibility of actually acquiring Cuba itself.

It’s little wonder that the U.S. and Mexico’s first major dispute in the Caribbean would be over Cuba, after the Mexican-American War. Washington’s victory gave it what is now the west and southwest portions of the United States, fulfilling its imperative of westward expansion.

Having secured the Mississippi River Basin, the lands west of it, and territory toward the border with Canada, the United States could begin to advance its interests outside the mainland to its periphery, starting with the Caribbean. Washington meant to secure its waterways from the Gulf to the Atlantic. It supported a pro-Spanish Cuba and at one point even attempted to buy the island from the Spaniards. Thus began the U.S.-Mexico competition for influence and security interests in the Caribbean. 

Decisive Control

Domestic issues in both countries put a momentary hold on this competition. The U.S. descended in to a civil war in the 1860s. During the same decade, Mexico went through its own version of a civil war over the reinstallation of a European monarchy in the Mexican government.

By 1868, hostilities had ceased and each country entered periods of reconstruction. Cuba, on the other hand, was descending into what would be a decade of war after failing to achieve full independence from Spain. By the time Cuba made its second attempt at independence (1895-1898), the U.S. and Mexico had stabilized and largely recovered from their domestic wars.

Once again, however, their interests pitted them against each other, this time during Cuba’s push for independence. For the U.S., the Cuban war for independence was an opportunity to expand into the Caribbean.

For Mexico, the war was more complicated. On the one hand, an independent Cuba helped ensure Spain’s departure from the region. On the other, Mexico and Spain had built strong trade ties. President Porfirio Diaz found himself with two strong opposing forces over the question of Cuban independence. Rather than risk alienating one of these domestic groups or Cuba or Spain entirely, Mexico pursued more diplomatic, indirect support for Cuban independence.

Less encumbered, the U.S. formally intervened in Cuba (and Puerto Rico). The result was Cuban independence from Spain but very much under the protection and influence of the United States. This influence was formalized in Cuba’s 1901 Constitution through the Platt amendment, which opened up the island to military installations and U.S. military activity in the event of another civil war or domestic problem.

Decisive U.S. control over Cuba ushered in an era in which the U.S. presented itself as the protector of the Caribbean while Mexico, for its part, presented itself as an alternative to and rejecter of U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. Washington followed up its actions in Cuba with subsequent government and military interventions in places like the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Mexico responded with attempts to counterbalance and, again, reject U.S. power in the region. Its primary tools in this regard included soft power (common language, historic and cultural ties, trade, etc.) and alliances and cooperation with Europe. The U.S. used hard, military power, which was superior to Mexico’s.

Meanwhile, Europe was already dealing with the geopolitical tensions that would ultimately lead to World War I, relegating support to Mexico as a secondary interest. In short, Mexico had only limited options in curbing U.S. power in the Caribbean.

After its military incursions into Mexico in 1914 and 1917, the U.S. emerged as the victor in the bilateral competition for regional power. In 1910, Diaz announced plans to step down from office after serving as the country’s head of state for more than 30 years.

This milestone political transition led to a decade of revolutions and counter-revolutions in Mexico. The fighting and general chaos were detrimental to U.S. business interests (to say nothing of the damage they inflicted on Mexico). Pressure grew on Washington to protect its interests and eventually resulted in the occupation of the port of Veracruz by the U.S. Navy for seven months in 1914.

Subsequently, fighting in northern Mexico spilled over in the United States, which had its army and cavalry ready to meet and pursue Mexican forces to ensure there was no additional spillover. Mexico spent the next two decades trying to consolidate political power and reconstruct its government. So focused was Mexico on its domestic issues – and the associated unrest they caused – that it could not project power abroad.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. has solidified and maintained its status as the uncontested regional leader in North America. Mexico’s domestic problems hamstrung its ability to enhance its power, while the U.S. continued to prosper.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Cuba once again stood at the forefront of competing U.S.-Mexican interests in the Caribbean. But by this time, the U.S. was significantly more powerful than Mexico and the latter could do little to challenge or compete with the former.

Mexico opted for a cautious approach toward Cuba, whereby it recognized and accepted the Castro regime on the grounds of self-determination and nonintervention. It thus supported a regime counter to U.S. interests but did not adopt any ideology or policy that would merit U.S. retribution or action against Mexico for showing such support.

Analyzing the competition between the U.S. and Mexico in the Caribbean in the 20th century is an exercise in brevity. Simply put, Mexico could not compete.

Never Static

While present-day Mexico is not in a position to challenge the U.S. in the Caribbean, it would be remiss to assume this will always be the case. Power dynamics are never static. Mexico had the geopolitical advantage over the U.S., and then lost it, in just the first 100 years of its independence. It’s not unreasonable to think Mexico could overtake the U.S once again in the next 100 years.

Understanding why this is so requires an understanding of how geopolitical power shifts over time. Between the two world wars and the fall of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, the seat of global power moved from Europe to North America.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, North America was spared the ravages of World War I and World War II, at least on its own territory. Its development and prosperity were therefore relatively uninterrupted. North America is, moreover, uniquely placed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for trade, which still takes place to an overwhelming degree in the Northern rather than Southern Hemisphere.

The most important source of geopolitical power in North America is access to these oceans. Other countries such as Canada or Mexico could assume the role of dominant power in the future. Such was the case during the European era. Spain, Portugal, France and the United Kingdom led the continent at different points in time.

Mexico isn’t yet as powerful as the United States, of course, but it is gaining ground. After spending much of the 20th century dealing with domestic political and economic turmoil, it has entered the 21st century on better terms and now boasts the worlds 15th largest economy. Mexico is not only awash in natural resources but is no longer dependent on commodities for economic growth.

Over the past few decades, the country has developed high-value manufacturing centers in the north and cheap, basic manufacturing in the south. While most of Mexico’s current trade revolves around the U.S., the country is now exploring other export markets.

Further contributing to its economic dynamism is the presence of technology-based industry and services as well as significant capital inflow through remittances and foreign direct investment. And, unlike in the United States, Mexico’s demographic trends will ensure that the country’s population will not shrink and it will have the workforce needed to sustain economic growth in the decades ahead.

Mexico possesses many of the same geographic advantages that form the bedrock of U.S. power. Its demographics and economic diversity bode well for continued economic growth. Mexican immigration into the U.S. will also benefit Mexico in the long term. The power gap between the two countries is wide, but there are indications that it may narrow over time.