NGOs: The New Missionaries

What NGO workers embroiled in scandal in Cairo could have learned from the trials of early 20th-century Cuban missionaries.

Earlier this week, after pleadings from the U.S. State Department, Egypt postponed a trial of forty-three workers from foreign-funded democracy-promotion groups. The defendants included sixteen Americans whom Egyptian authorities have accused of meddling in domestic political affairs. While diplomats may have defused the situation for now, the flap has raised the profile of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), institutions first formally defined by the UN that have expanded rapidly in the postwar era. But Americans have long supported nongovernmental groups that set out to save the world. And one such case—missionaries in Cuba—also backfired when fervent advocates of the American way upset the indigenous culture and authorities.

Deliverance from Misgovernment

On March 17, 1898, two weeks after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Vermont Republican Redfield Proctor delivered the findings of his investigative trip to Cuba in a speech to his Senate colleagues. Since 1895, Cuban insurrectionists had been waging a protracted guerrilla offensive against Spain’s occupying forces. Proctor understood the horrors of warfare, having served as colonel of the Fifteenth Vermont Volunteers during the Battle of Gettysburg and, later, as secretary of war for two years under President Harrison. But as became evident during his speech, the wartime sufferings of Cuba’s civilian population under Spanish subjugation shocked even this combat-hardened legislator.

Proctor’s remarks to his fellow senators detailed the atrocities Spanish troops inflicted on their colonial subjects. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler’s policy of reconcentración, in which entire Cuban villages found themselves uprooted and relocated to fortified military encampments, had devastated the local population. Proctor described the conquered region outside Havana as rife with “desolation and distress, misery and starvation.” The lack of food had left “little children . . . walking about with arms and chest terribly emaciated, eyes swollen, and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size.” Cuban doctors confirmed Proctor’s worst fears. Their prognosis for the youngest victims of Spain’s inhumane conduct was “hopeless.” “Deaths in the street have not been uncommon,” said Proctor, before estimating that “out of a population of 1,600,000, two hundred thousand had died within these Spanish forts.” Any hope of eventual recovery appeared unlikely to the senator, as “nearly all the sugar mills have been destroyed.” The New York Times praised Proctor for shining “the clear light of truth upon the actual situation” on the war-torn island.

But Proctor endeavored to do more through his speech than merely detail Spanish crimes against Cuban civilians. He presented his oration as a call to arms for the United States to help the Cuban insurrectionists expel their Spanish oppressors. Unless American forces intervened against Spain, Cubans would never be “free from molestation,” unable to “rebuild their homes, reclaim their tillage plots, which quickly run up to brush in that wonderful soil and clime.” In one counterintuitive rhetorical flourish, Proctor downplayed the gravity of both “the barbarity practiced by Weyler” and the sinking of the Maine. Instead, he cited “the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge” as the “strongest appeal” for American intervention. Like countless optimists who have advocated military ventures with unrealistic posthostility expectations, Proctor dreamed of a “wonderful prosperity that would surely come with peace and good home rule.” After evicting the Spanish colonial masters, “the large influx of American and English immigration and money” would guarantee Cuba’s recovery in Proctor’s estimation.

Boots on the Ground

American Protestant missionaries sought to make Proctor’s hopes for Cuba a reality. One month before the December 1898 signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war between Spain and the United States, a group of high-ranking officials from the American Methodist Church set sail for Havana, Cuba, aboard the steamship Mascotte. Leading the contingent was Bishop Warren A. Candler who, when not focused on the church’s missionary enterprise, spent much of his time attending to the spiritual needs of his brother Asa Griggs Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Company. Accompanying Candler were Dr. W. R. Lambuth, then secretary of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Dr. Charles A. Fullwood and the youthful Reverend Hubert W. Baker, who had grown up among Cubans in Key West, Florida. As the ship prepared to dock near Havana’s Morro Castle, Reverend Baker led the enthusiastic preachers in a spontaneous singing of the “Doxology.”

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