Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Perceiving Populism: United States Imperialism and the Paradox of Labour Struggle in Cuba, 1906-1909

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Perceiving Populism: United States Imperialism and the Paradox of Labour Struggle in Cuba, 1906-1909

Article excerpt

On the evening of 6 June 1907, several American soldiers joined a large crowd of Cubans for an open-air concert in the Parque Central of the provincial city of Cienfuegos. Nearly a year had passed since Liberal Party leaders launched a massive armed movement against the authoritarian state of Tomás Estrada Palma and the United States initiated a second military intervention in Cuba in October 1906. With the help of 5,600 US soldiers and 1,000 marines, Theodore Roosevelt's administration had successfully installed Charles Magoon, a federal judge, as provisional governor of Cuba. By mid-1907, an outward appearance of social peace reigned over the island. Still, widespread anger over how and when the new imperial state might respond to continuing calls for social change emanated from Cuba's working class and progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie. For leaders of the Liberal Party who had demanded free elections and Estrada Palma's Conservatives' who had repressed them less than a year before, the business of resolving internal ideological disputes over the nature of any future Cuban state and the character of the nation it served remained unfinished. Listening to music in Cienfuegos that evening, concert-goers collectively expressed the frustration that percolated through Cuban society in a culturally characteristic way: by showing a picaresque sense of humour in the face of political adversity. As one US officer later reported:

On the Plaza last evening, the Cuban [municipal] band was playing on the ground, and there were a few [US] soldiers listening to the concert. In the interval between pieces a member of the band took from his pocket a small United States flag, flirted it around to attract a Cuban audience, and with a significant glance at the soldiers blew his nose upon it. This thing was repeated a few times much to the satisfaction of his audience.2

Irked by the raucous laughter emanating from the crowd, the soldiers confronted the offending musician only to find his attitude equally irreverent. While a fellow band member tried to excuse his friend's actions with the alternate assertions that he was "ignorant" and "drunk", one soldier complained that "neither he nor the man accused denied the insult" or, for that matter, apologized for its implications.3

According to the commanding officer's report, the significance of the incident lay in its transcendence: "[This action] clearly indicated the contempt in which the American soldier and everything American is held; matters of this character are continually coming to my notice. It is the firm belief of the mass of the people in the vicinity that we are afraid of them."4 Pressed by the provisional governor's office, the mayor of Cienfuegos eventually agreed to fire the musician and promised to reestablish "cordial" feelings between the occupying soldiers and his fellow citizens.5 However, the US State Department's chief advisor in Cuba acknowledged just how highly strung anti-American sentiments were in Cienfuegos and beyond. As Colonel Enoch Crowder observed, prosecution was out of the question since the publicity that a trial would surely generate "greatly outweighed any advantages".6 Keeping news of the incident quiet, Crowder intimated, was the best way of keeping island-wide sympathy for defiance of the US presence at bay.

This example of the public "desecration" of a US flag beautifully illustrates how much had changed since the first US intervention (1898-1902), when Cubans proudly flew their flag in the company of its North American "sister" and the name of José Martí often accompanied that of George Washington in popular patriotic expressions and songs. By contrast, most Cubans during Magoon's administration did not participate in parades honouring US independence and no longer chose actively to appropriate its symbols.7 Indeed, any illusions that Cubans might have harboured regarding the "benevolence" of US intentions in 1898 had long since dissipated. …

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