Jose Rizal and American  imperialism

Published July 22, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Gemma Cruz Araneta


Gemma Cruz Araneta

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was described as inter-imperialist by no less than Lenin himself because it was a grab for existing colonies. That was how Dr. George Aseniero, eminent Filipino historian and authority on Rizal, began his brilliant paper, “The Game of Great Powers: Rizal on Imperialism.” The Spanish-American War was not fought in Spain nor in the United States but in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. These three were the only remaining colonies of Spain by the end of the 19th century, and the United States of America coveted them for strategic reasons. As you know, the USA was then the rising imperial power.

Were the intellectual leaders and moral guides of that period like Jose Martí of Cuba, Ramon Betances of Puerto Rico and our own José Rizal aware of those crucial changes that would inevitably affect their anti-colonial struggles for independence?  Because of the proximity of Cuba and Puerto Rico to the USA, Martí and Betances must have been known about  what was taking place in the neighboring country. As for  Spain, the “Mother Country,” its President, Antonio Cánovas of the restored constitutional monarchy,  vehemently affirmed that Spain would never tolerate the dismemberment of its Empire, or what was left of it!

By 1821, Spain had lost all its colonies in the South American continent.  Cuba had embarked on a 10-year anti-colonial revolution (1868-1878), momentarily suspended by the Armistice of Zanjón, similar to our Biak-na-Bato.  Puerto Rico made common cause with Cuba; Betances attempted to form an Antillian Confederation comprised of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti and Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic).

Marti and Betances warned that the USA would make their countries pontoon bridges to the South American continent, so it was urgent for them to unite.

What about José Rizal? He was much younger than Martí and Betances and had never lived in the USA, although in 1888, he did spend three weeks there travelling by rail from San Francisco to New York. Curiously, his travel notes were sparse. He was impressed with the progress of North America; it was a nice place but only for the whites. He also found Americans rather boisterous. However, in 1890, when he wrote “Filipinas dentro de cien años,” serialized in “La Solidaridad,” he expounded:

“Perhaps the great American Republic, whose interests lie in the Pacific and who has no share in the plunder of Africa, may one day think of overseas possessions. It is not impossible, since the example is contagious, greed and ambition are the vices of the strong, and [President] Harrison expressed himself in this sense over the question of Samoa. But the Panama Canal is not open, the territories of the United States are not swamped with inhabitants, and if she were to make this attempt openly, she would not be given free rein by the European powers who know only too well that the appetite is opened with the first bite. North America would be too troublesome a rival, once it gets into the business. Moreover, this would be contrary to her traditions.”

Rizal was living in Europe by then. There was press freedom and a lot of international news sources where he must have read about the conquest of Hawaii, Samoa and other islands in the Pacific by the European powers and the USA, all of whom wanted coaling stations for their naval and merchant fleets. The French were building a canal in Panama. Ferdinand de Lesseps who constructed the Suez Canal in 1859 wanted to duplicate his feat and connect two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic.

But the USA invoked their Monroe Doctrine of 1823 which forbade any European power to encroach in what was considered its hegemonic zone. In 1879, US President Hayes declared that the Panama Canal, “is virtually a part of the coastline of the United States.”

Since the canal had not opened, Rizal did not see its repercussions on Filipinas. He maintained that if Filipinas attained its independence after a heroic and tenacious struggle against Spain, neither England, Germany, France nor Holland would seize the colonies that Spain was unable to keep as they already had their own overseas territories in India, Cochin China, the Moluccas, Java, Sumatra. As for the USA, Rizal ingenuously believed it would not go against its avowed “traditions.”

China was not a threat for it was being dismembered by the Europeans. Japan was no longer the Japan he knew; Filipino revolutionaries could no longer depend on it as a source of arms; Japan had become belligerent.

Apparently, Rizal left many research notes, drafts and fragments of unfinished manuscripts about geopolitics.  Interestingly, one was titled “La política intercontinental.”

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