Friday, March 6, 2015
“The Haitians in Cuba: A Forgotten History?” by Matthew Casey
With the 1944 publication of Les gouverneurs de la rosée, Jacques Roumain left his permanent mark on Haitian literature and forever transformed the way people viewed rural Haiti. Curiously, he conveyed this world through the gaze of a character who spent most of his life outside of it. His protagonist, Manuel, was a native son who lived and worked in Cuba for fifteen years before returning to Haiti. This was more than a literary vehicle; it was a recognition that one could not understand the rural Haiti of the 1940s without recognizing Cuba’s role in transforming it. Roumain’s novel was published on the heels of four decades of intense exchanges between the two countries. Seasonal migrants like the fictional Manuel transformed both places in crucial moments of their histories. Although the movement of Haitians to Cuba coincided with migration to the Dominican Republic, the former largely stopped by the 1940s and has since been overshadowed by the better-known movement that continues across the Massacre river. At the time, however, both were considered of equal importance.
Approximately 200,000 Haitians traveled seasonally to Cuba during the first three decades of the twentieth century representing about six percent of the country’s population. Their movements occurred as the United States consolidated its political, economic, and military domination of the Caribbean. In 1898, U.S. troops invaded Cuba in what would be the first of numerous, relatively brief military occupations of that country. U.S. policies in Cuba encouraged large-scale sugar production and ensured markets for the crop in the United States. A few years later, U.S. troops landed in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and in 1915, Haiti. Despite efforts by U.S. officials, occupied Haiti received substantially less foreign investment than its Caribbean and Central American counterparts. Nevertheless, Haitians participated in this regional economic transformation as migrant laborers in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Despite the difficult work conditions that awaited Haitians in Cuba, the migratory movement itself was not the imperially-driven “slave trade” that writers in Cuba and Haiti have glossed it. For one, Haitians and Cubans moved between the two countries before the Cuban government began recruiting immigrant workers or the U.S. occupied Haiti. By the 1910s, numerous local and global factors provided the conditions for a dramatic increase in the number of Haitians who traveled to Cuba. World War I (1915-1934) created new demands and exorbitant prices for Cuban sugar, promising some of the highest agricultural wages in the region. Meanwhile, the effects of the U.S. occupation were being felt in rural Haiti. For most students of the occupation, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of rural Haiti under U.S. control is the Marine violence connected with forced road-building projects and repression during the Caco Rebellion. As counterintuitive as it is, the Haitians who migrated to Cuba were distant from both of these well-known phenomena. Until 1920, the vast majority of the Haitians who traveled to Cuba were from the rural areas outside of Port-au-Prince and the coastal areas of the southern peninsula. These were distant from Hinche and other regions where people like Charlemagne Peralte and Benoît Batraville led anti-occupation rebellions. Even the significant miles of new roads, which were constructed with forced Haitian labor and often held up by apologists as proof of occupation progress, were constructed away from the Southern peninsula. The movement to Cuba, then, requires a closer look at the day to day rural disruptions of life under Marine rule.
Shots did not have to be fired for Haitian peasants’ livelihoods to change under foreign rule. As Kethley Millet and other scholars argue, the strict enforcement of taxes in the countryside placed new demands on rural households and disrupted lives there. Vagrancy laws outlasted the unpopular corvée throughout Haiti, converting Haiti’s rural and urban poor into a pool of convict labor. Furthermore, occupation intelligence is rife with moments when basic construction and infrastructure projects had disastrous consequences for rural dwellers. Marines cleared peasant gardens and uprooted trees to build airstrips, barracks, telegraph lines and other physical trappings of a centralized state--often with little regard for their owners. Customary access to grazing lands and sources of food were annihilated by seemingly benign structures like golf courses and survey stations; Haitians responded to these in a number of ways—young men, and some women and children, often traveled to Cuba; others moved to urban spaces, doubled-down on subsistence production, or joined new occupation institutions like the Garde d’Haiti or the Agricultural school at Damien. Even when migrations occurred under highly inauspicious circumstances, leaving Haiti was always but one of increasingly narrow choices for migrants.
By the early 1920s, observers commented on the goods and money that were flooding into the rural South from Cuba. The occupation government began regulating and taxing recruitment and migration, which made the migratory movement the largest source of internal revenues for the Haitian government. State officials were split as to whether migration to Cuba was the solution to the Haitian government’s fiscal woes or the death knell of Haiti’s agricultural exports.
The majority of Haitians found work in Cuba’s expanding sugar industry. By the early twentieth century, Cuba had become one of the world’s largest producers and Haitians were the second largest group in a diverse array of immigrant laborers working there. Writers and politicians throughout Cuba opposed the entrance of Haitian immigrants, who were accused of being primitive, unhygienic, and even politically unruly. The anti-Haitian racism of the Cuban nationalist press was coupled with a different kind of racial calculus among sugar plantation administrators. Plantation managers from Cuba and the United States imagined an ideal labor hierarchy divided by race and nation. In this plantation cosmology, Haitians would be cane cutters and in theory, would have little contact with the Afro-Cubans, Asians, or British Caribbean immigrants who would inhabit other sectors of the production process.
Research I conducted in Cuba reveals a different story. At the level of local communities, Haitians, British Caribbean peoples, and Cubans created dense networks of exchange, community, and worship to survive the world of sugar. Whatever ideas of race that immigrant workers held, they did not operate the way that Cuban journalists or sugar administrators expected. The hours and spaces outside of work provided places where men and some women interacted to create rural working class communities that cut across national lines. Even the fights that broke out among immigrants were motivated by work issues, love triangles, or efforts to show masculinity; ideas of race and nationalism are absent from worker accounts of the conflicts. Haitian Vodou and other spiritual practices, which so bothered Cuban writers, actually appealed to migrants’ rural counterparts who worshipped alongside Haitians and sought out their guidance for spiritual and physical healing. Better-off Haitians in Santiago de Cuba opened an active branch of l’Union Patriotique, the Haitian organization to oppose U.S. occupation.
The formation of communities and social networks among workers should not overshadow the difficulties of life on a Cuban sugar plantation. Cutting cane is dangerous even in ideal situations and agricultural laborers died of preventable accidents, treatable diseases, police violence, and even starvation. Migration was always a gamble; some returned home with nice clothes and money while others came back in poor health and totally broke.
Haitians were required to return at the end of every sugar harvest but in most years the Cuban state had little capacity to enforce these laws. This all changed during the 1930s, when around 38,000 Haitians were forcefully deported and Cuba closed its borders to further immigration. Their numbers were diminished but Haitians did not disappear form Cuba. To this day, Haitian descendants in Cuba continue to commemorate Haitian religion, dance and folklore for Cuban audiences, as anthropologist Grete Viddal has shown.
The migrants who returned to Haiti in the 1930s arrived as U.S. troops were leaving. State officials watched from the ports with a combination of excitement and fear. On the one hand, a cohort of experienced agricultural workers would be coming back to work in the Haitian countryside at the moment the government of Sténio Vincent was trying to increase and diversify exports. On the other, some migrants came back to Haiti with nice shoes and clothing and sought to try their luck in Port-au-Prince, inserting themselves into the informal economic sector and growing urban working class. On the political front, it was impossible to know whether return migrants would participate in the bourgeoning radical movements associated with Communism or Noirisme. It was in this context of Haiti’s political flux that Jacques Roumain wrote of Manuel. He was not alone; Maurice Casseus, Jean-Batiste Cinéas, and Pierre Marcelin and Philippe Thoby-Marcelin all recognized that Haiti’s physical and political landscapes were impossible to understand without taking Cuba into account.