Book Review Essay: Insurgent Cuba, Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 by Ada Ferrer

September 25, 2007

Issues of race and racism are emerging as pivotal to the political and cultural debates fueling the contentious re-imagining of Latin America’s national identities. Long subdued by the rhetoric of the official discourses of mestizaje and “racial democracy,” denied by the cynical posturing of Creole elites too quick to denounce U.S. or apartheid-era South African racism, or subsumed in radical or progressive analysis as secondary expressions of class, questions of race and racism have at best occupied a marginal place in contemporary Latin American intellectual and political debates. But now, in the face of indigenous uprisings in Mexico and Ecuador, Afro-Brazilian protest against official celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese conquest and the ongoing Mapuche mobilizations in defense of their lands in Chile, racial issues have dramatically and forcefully been brought to the fore.

The two books reviewed here constitute remarkable examples of the critical and revisionist analyses that have recently tested the long-established assumptions of the non-racialist nature of Latin American states and cultures. Through painstaking scrutinies of archival and contemporary nationalist sources, and careful ethnographic observations and compilations of oral history, the authors have recovered and reconstructed the epic and ordinary deeds by which nonwhite subaltern classes have left their imprint in the histories and cultures of Cuba and Guatemala. Moreover, drawing sensibly and creatively on a vast array of literature, Ferrer and Grandin probe the political and historical trajectory of blacks and Indians as a means to explore and unveil the racialization by which the “dangerous nonwhite classes” have been incorporated into the supposedly nonracialist nationalist discourses and nation-state formations of Cuba and Guatemala.

In her Insurgent Cuba, Ada Ferrer offers a stimulating and animated narrative of the unprecedented movement that unified the black, mulatto and white individuals who for three decades carried on an unrelenting struggle for freedom and independence in the last stronghold of Europe’s oldest American empire. The movement had its origins in the eastern part of the island when a sugar planter, slave owner, poet and lawyer emancipated his own slaves and invited them to participate as citizens in the struggle for independence and emancipation. Defying the racist and colonialist understandings of the times, tens of thousands of white and nonwhite men, planters and slaves, artisans and professionals joined forces in the creation of an unusual liberation army. Although during its early stages the hierarchy of the patriot army tended to reproduce the social structure, by the eve of the 1895 third—and final—insurrection, its leadership was in the hands of the popular and widely respected mulatto Antonio Maceo. Many other black and mulatto officers also occupied important positions. More importantly, anti-racism constituted the pivotal factor shaping the practice and ideology of the movement. Thus, the struggle against slavery and the conception of an anti-racist society emerged as the foundational elements of Cuban nationalism.

The long conflict, the brutal counterinsurgency, the colonial state’s manipulation of fear—especially racial fear—gradually undermined the racial unity of the movement. Against a reignited racial animosity, punctuated by the unexpected death of Maceo and the imminent defeat of the colonial army, the preoccupations of the movement shifted from the problem of racial inclusion to the search for the individuals most capable of leading Cuba’s multiracial society in its attempt to overcome slavery and colonialism. In spite of their popularity as military and political leaders, rustic, uneducated black and mulatto officials were forcibly demoted from key leadership positions and replaced with “civilized” and “cultured” newcomers to the movement. And as the war entered its final stage and U.S. intervention became more certain, urban educated men began to outnumber the more seasoned black and mulatto mambises in the ranks of the insurgent army.

Overall, in her careful and original examination of the tension between racism and anti-racism within Cuban nationalism, the author offers a plausible and convincing analysis of the apparently contradictory coexistence of anti-racist aspirations and the acceptance of a racial hierarchy. The tension between the racist and anti-racist impulses that shaped Cuban nationalism, she argues, were galvanized by the advent of independence and the imminence of establishing a sovereign nation-state in a racialized international order premised on white supremacy. Ferrer’s skillful and convincing analysis, however, departs from the accepted nationalist orthodoxy—inherited by the revolutionary regime—that puts blame for Cuban racism almost exclusively on U.S. imperialism. On the contrary, stresses the author, the responsibility for undoing Cuban nationalism’s anti-racism lay in the anxieties and misgivings about black empowerment and mobilization, and in the racialized assumptions about civilization and politics that shaped the movement for independence.

Unfortunately, Ferrer makes only cursory reference to the massive—and amply documented—participation of Chinese indentured workers (culíes) in Cuba’s liberation movement. In fact, the Chinese community’s participation led to its incorporation into the imagined community envisioned by the Martí/Maceo brand of nonracist nationalism. This disregard of other minority immigrant groups represents, indeed, a widespread problem in the examinations of Latin American nationalism, race conflicts and identity. Such studies focus exclusively on the black or Indian “others,” ignoring the sometimes crucial incidence of other groups, such as Chinese, Japanese, Jews and people of Middle Eastern descent, in the consolidation of Latin America’s racial formations.

Grandin’s book focuses on the emergence and trajectory of an alternative understanding of ethnicity and nationalism developed by Mayan elite patriarchs in the K’iche’ community of Quetzaltenango in the western highlands of Guatemala. In his fascinating and ambitious narrative of the political, economic, social and demographic dimensions of Guatemala’s history from the late colonial period to the counterrevolutionary coup of 1954, the author offers a highly critical and innovative reinterpretation of the histories shaping the making of the country’s nation-state, nationalism and cultural identities during the last two centuries. His work constitutes a radical departure from the long established and accepted model in which Ladinos and Indians have respectively been assigned the roles of the villains and the victims. The neglect of the intricate relationship binding Indians both to their communities and to Ladino society has not only shaped the idea that Indian cultures are separated from class and state power, it is also responsible for the condescending interpretation that attributes to the bourgeoisie the exclusive ability to articulate a nationalist discourse.

Contrary to this interpretation, Grandin traces the cultural and racial anxiety unleashed by Guatemala’s unremitting transition to coffee-producing capitalism. In the process he successfully bridges local and national histories, probes entrenched ethnic and class divisions and examines the divergent nature of Ladino and Indian nationalist discourses. The end result is one of the boldest accounts in recent Latin American historiography of the intimate relationship between national identity, power, race, violence and ethnicity. His emphasis on the historical role played by the popular classes in the dramatic transformations that swept Guatemala before and after independence proves indispensable for a better understanding of the deep-rooted and complex sources of the violence and turmoil of the past decades. Avoiding dependency theory’s attribution of omnipotence to the state and imperialist capital, and avoiding the fashionable academic emphasis on the autonomy of the subaltern classes, Grandin offers an approach aimed at explaining the endurance of both the state and popular culture.

In his chronological account running from the second half of the eighteenth century to the advent of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1954, the author delves with the same ease and sharpness into the domestic aspects of everyday village life, the commodification of land, labor and production, the conflicts that surrounded the cholera epidemic of 1837, and the political accommodation and resistance to the central state expansion and modernization. This thorough and far-reaching historical narrative provides an extremely insightful history of K’iche’ elites and their endurance as effective brokers between Indian commoners and peasants, the old colonial power and, later, the Ladino state.

Through his treatment of local politics and the changing relationship between K’iche’ commoners and elites, the author also examines the intricacies of Indian identity, state formation and the emergence of contentious nationalist visions. Unlike the Ladino nationalism that perceived Indians as an obstacle to Guatemala’s progress, Quetzalteco K’iche’ elites developed their own inclusive nationalism in which Indian peasants and workers were envisioned as crucial for the modernization demanded by Guatemala’s coffee capitalism. At the same time, K’iche’ elites enthusiastically welcomed and adopted the accoutrements of modernity (railroads, photography, telegraph, schooling), and cultivated a distinctive cultural nationalism through the erection of monuments commemorating Indian history and culture, the organization of Mayan beauty pageants and the use of Indian attire. At the same time, confronted with an increasing class stratification and weakening communal authorities, K’iche’ elites depended on the repressive and coercive functions of the Ladino state to maintain their privilege. Thus, paradoxically, Grandin asserts, “ethnic identity deepened while state power increased.”

In his concluding chapter the author analyzes the resolution of this contradiction during the 1944-1954 “democratic spring” when, faced by an increasing class struggle, K’iche’ elites confronted the indigenous peasants’ expectations for land and justice. Siding with the anti-Communist groups opposing peasant organization and the government-sponsored land reform, K’iche’ elites put an end to the dreams of a more inclusive nationalism. Furthermore, suggests the author, Quetzalteco Indian nationalism resonated in the counterinsurgency that made Indians the main target of its campaigns of annihilation. The only shortcoming of this rather remarkable book resides in its failure to pay careful attention to the role and participation of women in Quetzaltenango history. The book would have benefited from a nuanced examination of the interrelationship between gender, race and class in the sustenance of capitalist hegemony. On the other hand, one of the most important contributions of the book is its creative and interdisciplinary use of a wide variety of sources. The author skillfully makes use of his resources and provides a powerful and articulate voice to the popular classes otherwise condemned to silence and oblivion.

Overall, these two important books provide a needed examination of the juxtaposition of race, class and nationalism as factors of identity and mobilization in Latin American history, politics and culture. Their exhaustive and well-crafted narratives and sophisticated analyses are also important correctives to the tendency to see Latin American identity conflicts through the lens of an “exclusionist/race-centered” model drawn from the U.S. racial experience. Equally important, both of these works make it very clear that the inclusionary and culturalist principles articulating racial difference and national identities in Latin America are not necessarily more benign than those enunciated under the principle of blood and organized under strict Jim Crow or apartheid policies and dispositions.

Gerardo Rénique is associate professor of history at the City College of the City University of New York. He is author, together with Deborah Poole, of Peru: Time of Fear (Latin America Bureau, 1992). His current research is on Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, and the history of the Peruvian left and popular movements.


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