Grover Cleveland was not an enthusiastic backer of the then current notion that America should acquire an overseas empire. His actions in foreign affairs placed greater emphasis on the wants and needs of native peoples than was generally popular. Cleveland faced three major foreign policy issues in his second term:
Venezuelan Boundary Dispute. Much of the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela lay in dense jungle and had never been properly surveyed. This lack of precision mattered little until the discovery of gold in the disputed area. Venezuela, having broken diplomatic relations with Britain, prevailed upon the United States on several occasions to urge Britain to enter into arbitration, but those requests had been rebuffed.
Richard Olney, formerly Cleveland’s attorney general, became secretary of state in 1895. Hoping to increase U.S. influence in Latin America at Britain’s expense, Olney took a firm stand on the Venezuelan matter. During negotiations he stated boldly that the United States is “practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."
Cleveland increased the pressure with an address to Congress in December 1895, when he asked for funding for a survey crew and hinted at the possible use of armed force.
In the end, Britain agreed to arbitration, but not out of fear of American might. A crisis was brewing involving the Boers in Africa, which demanded London’s attention.
The Cleveland administration’s willingness to stand up to a great power was generally applauded by the public. Olney’s restatement of the Monroe Doctrine would later be adopted by Theodore Roosevelt.
Annexation of Hawaii. An attempt had been made at the end of the Benjamin Harrison administration to annex Hawaii. However, the change of administrations occurred before the Senate could ratify the treaty.
Cleveland studied the Hawaiian matter and found that the ranking American diplomat, John Stevens, had acted improperly by fomenting the change of government in the Islands. The president withdrew the treaty before the Senate could act and annexation was halted. Hawaii would remain independent until the Republicans regained power in the Senate in 1898.
Cuba. The proximity of Cuba to the United States ensured interaction between the two. In pre-Civil War times there was interest, particularly among Southerners, in annexing or controlling Cuba. The rationale was couched in terms of ending Spanish colonialism, but the attraction of another possible slave state was barely beneath the surface. The embarrassing Ostend Manifesto incident was an example of Southern interest in the neighboring island.
Following the Civil War, the Ten Year War (1868-78) broke out, pitting insurrectionists against the Spanish ruling class. Reports of the conflict were carried in American newspapers and provoked widespread anti-Spanish reaction. The Virginius affair during the Grant administration heightened American antipathy toward Spain.
In 1895, another insurrection developed, due in large part to the tariff policy of the United States. The McKinley Tariff in 1890 had placed foreign sugar on the free list, setting off a boom in Cuba`s sugar production. Four years later, the Wilson-Gorman measure placed a duty on foreign sugar entering the U.S., causing the collapse of Cuban businesses. This coincided with a sharp drop in demand for Cuban tobacco, which was attributed to the hardships brought by the depression following the Panic of 1893. Economic unrest in Cuba led to violence against the Spanish leaders.
Spain dispatched General Valeriano Weyler to deal with the situation. He oversaw the construction of reconcentrado camps to segregate trouble-making elements from the remainder of the population. The wire-enclosed areas were the scene of much suffering and disease, which became the topic of numerous newspaper articles and editorials. William Randolph Hearst was especially active with airing this issue.
Despite the build-up of public sentiment for taking action against Spain, President Cleveland showed his anti-imperialist stripes and resisted all calls for intervention.