Undesirable Aliens: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Comparison of Haitian and British West Indian Immigrant Workers in Cuba, 1912-1939

By McLeod, Marc C. | Journal of Social History, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Undesirable Aliens: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Comparison of Haitian and British West Indian Immigrant Workers in Cuba, 1912-1939


McLeod, Marc C., Journal of Social History


In late March 1937, Cuban soldiers descended upon the sugar central Ermita in eastern Cuba and rounded up a "numerous contingent" of Haitian cane cutters who had been working in Cuba for years, including the "elderly" couple Elisa Dis and Enrique Francis. The soldiers "intimidated" the many haitianos who were "unwilling to go," transported all of them to a concentration camp in Santiago, and shipped them back to Haiti.(1) Elisa Dis and Enrique Francis thus found themselves in the midst of a massive deportation effort marked by "injustices" and "extortions" which had begun one month earlier.(2) The repatriation process proceeded at a rapid pace as the sugar harvest wound down. By mid September, Cuban authorities had banished nearly 25,000 Haitians; in contrast, only 253 British West Indian immigrants had also left the island.(3)

The events of the 1930s pose an intriguing question. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, as many as 600,000 Haitian and British West Indian workers migrated to the neighboring island of Cuba.(4) Most of these antillanos arrived as agricultural wage laborers, ready to cut cane in the sugar fields blanketing the easternmost provinces of Camaguey and Oriente; tens of thousands of them - Haitians and British West Indians together - still resided in Cuba during the mid 1930s. Clearly, however, Cuban authorities singled out the Haitian community for forced repatriation. In addition to the 1937 deportations, around 8,000 haitianos were expelled in 1933-34 and at least another 4,900 in 1938-39.(5) During this same period, a small number of British West Indians left Cuba, but all of them voluntarily.(6) Why, then, did Cuban government officials permit thousands of British West Indian immigrants to remain in Cuba, while at the same time they forcibly deported Elisa Dis, Enrique Francis, and nearly 38,000 other Haitians?

As black laborers in an economy dominated by North American capital and a society commanded by white Cubans, Haitian and British West Indian immigrants shared the most central features of their experiences in Cuba: racial discrimination and economic exploitation. While all Afro-Antilleans confronted and struggled against race- and class-based oppression - what anthropologist Philippe Bourgois has termed "conjugated oppression"(7) - Haitians and British West Indians also came from distinct national and sociocultural backgrounds, characterized by languages, literacy rates, and religious practices different from Cubans and from each other. The parallel migration of two distinct black Antillean groups to Cuba during the 1910s and 1920s thus offers a unique opportunity to unravel the connections among culture, nationality, and race. As the comparative histories of Haitian and British West Indian immigrants in Cuba suggest, rather than analyzing the histories of black populations solely through the lens of race, we must also consider the ethnic and national identities which distinguish different groups of the African diaspora from one another.(8)

Previous studies of twentieth-century black Caribbean migration to Cuba present a broad but incomplete outline of the subject.(9) Distinctions between Haitians and British West Indians, while not ignored entirely, have not been analyzed in a systematic manner. These studies also tend to overlook the mass deportations at the end of the decade and, to a lesser extent, those of late 1933 and early 1934.(10) Two main reasons for this gap in the historiography stand out. In the first place, issues of class and labor have predominated over those of race and culture within Cuban historiography. Rolando Alvarez Estevez, who acknowledges the differences between Haitians and British West Indians as much as anyone, still privileges class over race: "Racism . . . is a product of society divided in classes"; therefore "racism constitutes a manifestation of class struggle."(11) In the second place, many studies have used the "revolution" of 1933 as a (perhaps unduly) convenient cut-off point, thus de-emphasizing the continuities between the late 1930s and earlier periods. …

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