Queeley on Casey, 'Empire's Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation'

December 6, 2017
Empire Guest WorkersQueeley on Casey, 'Empire's Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation'Author

Author: Matthew Casey

Reviewer: Andrea Queeley

Matthew Casey. Empire's Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation. New York: Cambridge University Press, April 30, 2017. 326 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-12769-2.

Reviewed by Andrea Queeley (Florida International University)
Published on H-LatAm (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49748

Empire Unmasked

Making a much-needed contribution to the historiography of the Caribbean, Matthew Casey’s Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation (2017) is a remarkably comprehensive study of the early twentieth-century migration of Haitians to Cuba and back again. It offers a close examination of Haiti under occupation as well as a consideration of US economic and political dominance in Cuba and the global shift in regimes of labor of which this Haitian migration was a part. While situating the Cuban guest worker program within the context of US empire, Empire’s Guestworkers argues that Cuban and Haitian migration policies were shaped by the history of the relationship between these two nations, independent of US intervention, as well as by migrants themselves. Indeed, one of this book’s greatest strengths is that it meets its objective of documenting “how migrants experienced the unevenness of empire and the contradictions of post-colonial rule in the Caribbean” (p. 30) while skillfully representing intersecting local, national, regional, and global realities.

With meticulous research and a critical reading of the archive, Casey puts himself in the company of the likes of Lara Putnam, Frank Guridy, Millery Polyné, Rebecca Scott, Brenda Plummer, and Kathleen López, whose work makes beautiful sense of the snarled intersections out of which Caribbean histories are created. A truly transnational social history, Empire’s Guestworkers fills a void in the modest but growing collection of work on the Haitian migration to, and presence in, Cuba (most recently that of historians Aviva Chomsky and Marc McCleod, anthropologists Grete Viddal and Yanique Hume, and filmmaker Gloria Rolando). The author puts forth four principal arguments: (1) Haitian migrants were not disempowered victims of national, regional, and global affairs; (2) the Haitian experience of and response to US occupation varied across time and place, and legal and political contexts (something that Chantalle Verna's work on the post-occupation period also speaks to); (3) rather than being an isolated group of homogeneous communities living on or around sugar cane and coffee plantations, Haitian migrants were a diverse group of people whose experiences varied based on gender, class, education, occupation, region, time of arrival, and rural or urban settlement; and, (4) the Cuban labor force of the early twentieth century was relatively diverse and integrated, with race and nationality acting as less of a basis of economic and social division than is claimed in existing scholarship, indicating a chasm between the experience of race and how that experience is represented by “lettered” social actors. Fundamentally, Empire’s Guestworkers calls into question the nature of modern power through an insightful and engaging analysis of the migration. While there are certain shortcomings and missed opportunities that I will elaborate upon in this review, this study is a gem that holds tremendous value for scholars in a number of fields.

Over the course of seven chapters along with an introduction, prologue and epilogue, Empire’s Guestworkers challenges predominant understandings of not only Haitian laborers but also the US occupation and state power. The main chapters feature detailed explorations into the migration and deportation, Haiti prior to and under US occupation, and various facets of Haitian migrant experiences on sugar and coffee plantations, in urban environments, and in religion and politics. The structure of the book and content of the chapters support the sense of discovery one gets when manipulating a kaleidescope, viewing the changing forms and colors assembled inside. With each turn, there is a new perspective revealed, a previously underappreciated reality and configuration of ideas that takes shape.

This is in part due to the impressive collection of sources that Casey draws upon, the breadth of which, ironically, casts in stark relief the limitations of a historical record that keeps one yearning for the unfiltered voices of the migrants themselves. The desire for more is in some ways a testament to Casey’s convening and reading of an impressive range of documents; as he states, he mined “judicial sources, consular correspondence, military intelligence, company records, censuses, memoirs, travelers’ accounts, and novels … housed in eighteen archives and libraries in Cuba, Haiti, and the United States to produce something of a mosaic depicting Haitians’ lives” (p. 23). Indeed, the analogy of a mosaic is quite fitting as Casey has done the painstaking work of assembling the shards, arranging them, and sealing them together to create a coherent, nuanced portrait. However, we are always aware that these pieces were once part of a whole and thus left wondering what remains unearthed and how that might alter the shape, color, and texture of the author’s conclusions. Casey acknowledges the limitations of the archive in the introduction, which he concludes with a moving excerpt from “Children of the Sea” (1991), a short story by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat in which a Haitian journalist who has left the island in a fragile vessel is forced to throw his journal overboard, insight into his interior world lost to all. Empire’s Guestworkers is the groundbreaking—or, perhaps more accurately, the waterbreaking—work that will inspire other researchers, particularly oral historians, to seek out that journal wherever it has settled.

The dominant narrative that Casey dismantles throughout the book goes something like this: the Cuban state legalized migration from Haiti between 1913 and 1931 and, as a result of the land seizures and violence of the US occupation (1915 to 1934), rural Haitian laborers, victims of imperial designs and corrupt Haitian state officials, were driven to migrate to Cuba to cut sugar cane for US companies, where they toiled away at the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder in a nation segregated by race and national origin. The first aspect of this narrative that buckles under the weight of Casey’s interrogation is the arc of the migration itself and the many implications that a revised timeline has for understandings of not only the agency of Haitian migrants but also the workings of state power. Unveiling the distinction between legislating and enforcing racist immigration policies, Empire’s Guestworkers argues that the emergent Cuban state did not have the capacity to enforce its restrictive immigration policies, as is evident in the number of Haitians who migrated to Cuba in the first decade of the twentieth century, prior to its legalization. Borrowing James Scott’s concept of legibility to interpret the relationship between Haitians’ mobility and the state’s impulse and ability to define and quantify individuals within its borders, Casey proposes that Haitians themselves shaped immigration policy through their movement, movement that was outside the gaze of the state.[1]

Casey further points out that the increase in and increasingly regulated migration was an outgrowth of global trends brokered by nation-states in which foreign temporary contract workers were replacing indentured labor. Documenting the global shift in technologies of state power through this case of Haitian migration to Cuba, Casey engages debates about free labor and the concept of freedom itself. While he includes the perspectives of some Haitian officials in this debate, we are reminded that we know nothing of how the migrants themselves conceptualized and experienced freedom. Again, this is not a limitation in Casey’s work, but rather of the archives themselves. Regardless, this engagement illustrates the ways in which this book is fundamentally making an argument about modern power. In claiming that neither the Cuban and Haitian states nor US corporations and policymakers consistently possessed the capacity to determine migration flows, Casey is pointing to the limitations of those who presumably exercised absolute power over Haitians’ lives.

Another way in which Casey destabilizes an assumption about Haitian migration to Cuba is by arguing that the US occupation was not the predominant force that “pushed” Haitians to seek work and refuge in Cuba. In addition to establishing that the migration existed prior to the occupation, something that Aviva Chomsky also points out in her essay “‘Barbados or Canada?’: Race, Immigration and Nation in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba” (2000), Casey unearths the multiple factors that influenced when, from where, and why people went to Cuba. He presents evidence that migrants did not come from areas where Haitians were being displaced from their lands by US forces and subjected to violent repression. Rather, migrants were more motivated by access to marine transportation to Cuba as well as food shortages and economic instability. While Casey recognizes that these conditions were likely largely created by the occupation’s state-building projects, he maintains that the relationship between occupation and migration was more complex than causal. For instance, further questioning the logic of this narrative, Casey analyzes the patterns of migration, taking into account time and region to conclude that the availability of land rather than the expropriation of land pushed Haitians to migrate to Cuba, where they would earn enough money to return home and purchase or lease the available tracts, which many return migrants did indeed do.

Similar to the work of Robin Derby and Richard Lee Turtis in the case of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, Empire’s Guestworkers challenges depictions of Haitian migrants as a monolithic group. Rather, it argues, there was tremendous diversity even among field workers and while Haitians certainly predominated in cutting cane, they were by no means confined to this type of labor. Indeed, one of Casey’s most compelling observations related to the social construction of Haitian migrants is that company managers and journalists labeled any black seasonal cane cutter as “Haitian” regardless of actual national origin. This illuminates the emergence or existence of a trope: the Haitian as slave: that is, a dark body that performs the most back-breaking, poorly remunerated work and occupies the lowest status in the social hierarchy. Without a close reading and critical approach to the archive, such significant social and ideological processes would be lost.

A related phenomenon that Empire’s Guestworkers could have benefited from elaborating upon concerns Haitians’ perceived proximity (cultural and racial) to continental Africa, represented as the ultimate site of savagery and home of the justifiably subjugated. The connection to Africa is worthy of mention in explanation for how Haitians were read, not only by the state and companies but also by other social actors (Cubans across the racial spectrum, British West Indians, etc). This in part might explain not only the repression that they experienced in the sphere of religion but also the solidarities that they developed with non-Haitians. Both are indicated in the quote from the Guantánamo newspaper La Voz del Pueblo describing ritual objects confiscated from a gathering of Haitians and Cubans as “artifacts appropriate for … a museum in Madagascar or Senegambia” (p. 195). This oversight notwithstanding, Casey skillfully argues that the trope of the Haitian cane worker (and cane worker as Haitian) served to obscure the reality of labor force diversity as well as overstate Haitian isolation. Rather than existing in siloed units, he argues, individuals were embedded in “dense networks that linked Haitian workers of different skill levels to other native and immigrant laborers, rural guardsmen, US colonists, and company administrators” (p. 125), pointing to the existence of multinational, lingual, cultural, racial communities in rural Cuba, of which Haitian migrants were a part.

In Empire’s Guestworkers, Casey escorts his reader to small, previously obscured windows through which we can peer into the complex social worlds of early twentieth-century working-class Cuba through the Haitian experience. We are convinced that, contrary to the picture painted by company administrators and state officials, Cubans, Haitians, and British West Indians across the racial spectrum labored, loved, traded, fought, gambled, and played alongside each other. What we are left wondering is why such a chasm between official representations and day-to-day reality existed and what might a conflicting narrative such as this one tell us about the ways in which racial ideologies themselves and processes of racialization function. Also at issue here is the leap that Casey makes from the absence of a strict division along national or racial lines to a reduced significance of race in the social order on and off the plantations. He writes, “The networks that Haitians and other workers created dispel the notions that the former were isolated or that sugar companies were able to divide their workers effectively. More fundamentally, they show that the ideologies of racial and national difference that lettered populations constructed did not have the same power among the diverse workers who formed communities and networks in rural Cuba” (p. 125). I would propose that it is not that they did not have the same power, but that this power manifested itself in ways other than strict spatial and social segregation. As countless studies of race in Latin America and the Caribbean tell us, working, playing, and sleeping together does not reduce the power of race; indeed, this apparent racial harmony serves to obscure the deeply rooted, tenacious, and systemic racial inequality that has devastating consequences for people of (more) African and Indigenous descent.

Citing conflicts as supporting evidence for the claim that race and nationality were not at the root of divisions, Casey states that “conflicts among fieldworkers centered on the realities of rural life more than race or nationality” (p. 170). Such a conclusion tends to deny the complex workings of racism and xenophobia which cannot be so easily disaggregated from other factors that might influence the presentation and outcome of court cases or other official procedures that brought Haitian migrants into the historical record. For instance, Casey supports his claim about the folly of “lettered visions of race and nationalism” in its failure to depict realities on the ground through an exploration of the religious sphere. He finds cases that go against the grain of narratives depicting racist whites disparaging African-based religions as a threat to national progress and argues that the press only published those stories that could be deployed to reinforce their racist construction of black people, native and foreign alike, as savage, violent, and criminal practitioners of brujería. Turning an eye toward local stories, he argues that race and nationalism recede and conflicts are more reflective of heterogeneous religious and spiritual communities. With particular attention to religious repression and the accusations to which Haitians were subjected, the author cites a case in which a Haitian husband accuses his Haitian wife of brujería when she delivers and then somehow disposes of their child, leaving a rodent in the crib. Casey’s conclusion that “his denunciation, which led to the incarceration of his wife, was motivated by something other than race” (p. 199) is dependent upon a particular understanding of race and racism that takes into account neither the intersections of race, gender, and Africanity, nor the ways in which Haitians themselves (the husband in this case) might either internalize or manipulate the misperceptions of blacks, Haitians, and women to their benefit. Were Casey to incorporate a critical-race approach, his readings of such incidents would allow him to consider how the pervasive ideology of black and African inferiority might have dictated not only the husband’s perception of his wife but also his knowledge that the dominant thought linking blackness, sorcery, and Haitianness (and perhaps femaleness given the figure of the child-kidnapping and murdering sorceresses in Haiti described on p. 202) would support a favorable outcome in his court case. In other words, while Casey is certainly correct when he asserts that there were multiple factors apart from race that influenced Haitians’ experiences in Cuba, the uses of race are far more complicated than Casey allows for. Adopting an intersectional approach would have given him the tools to render an even more nuanced analysis of the considerable archival material he introduces.

In addition to documenting the religious practices, leisure activities, domestic arrangements, and the many occupations that Haitians in Cuba performed in the rural environments of sugar and coffee plantations, Casey devotes a chapter to “lettered” Haitians who lived and worked in urban Cuba in order to contest the anti-imperialist narrative that represents Haitian migrants as helpless victims of sugar companies rather than people who were “attempting to take control over their lives in the context of US military and economic penetration” (p. 214). There is a robust discussion of Haitian political activism (unions, Rosalvo Bobo’s exile, the Santiago branch of the UP, an anti-occupation organization), and Haitian consuls who, according to Casey’s research, were not exclusively corrupt pariahs who successfully victimized Haitian migrants. Rather, the migrants adopted a variety of positions towards the consuls and engaged in various strategies to get their concerns addressed and needs met. Casey illustrates that the lettered compatriots of Haitian laborers were a part of the global network of middle-class people of African descent among whom ideas about black realities, politics, and racial uplift circulated. For instance, Casey explores the Indigénisme turned noiriste movement in chapter 7, recognizing that Haitians in Cuba were very much a part of the African diasporic political, cultural, literary, intellectual movement of the early twentieth century. One detail that would have been interesting to consider is that people of African descent in the United States were also a part of this movement (i.e., the Harlem Renaissance, Garveyism); thus one wonders at the role that the US occupation and black Americans might have played in the participation of middle-class Haitians in both Cuba and Haiti in this global movement.

A related silence in the text that is curious as it could potentially have provided a rich source of material regarding Haitian urbanites as well as Cuban perceptions of Haitians across class and color is the voice of the very vibrant Afro-Cuban middle class. Casey does not feature the official voices of the lettered Afro-Cuban population documented in periodicals such as Atenas (Havana), Lis (Camagüey), Avance, the Afro-Cuban women’s magazine Minerva, Gustavo Urritia’s column “Ideales de una Raza” (published between 1928 and 1931) in Diario de la Marina, and the column “Palpitaciones de la Raza de Color” that appeared in La Prensa. One is left to wonder what the black press as well as minutes of Cuban societies of color would reveal about the migration and migrants themselves. To what extent did Afro-Cubans use the press to challenge racist immigration policies? What did commentaries about the black foreigners in their midst contribute to debates about US occupation? Was there a similar rejection of Haitians as beneath the bar of civilization that middle-class Afro-Cubans set for themselves? Was there a recognition of the diversity among Haitian migrants that Casey argues for? Did elite Afro-Cubans and elite Haitians socialize and intermarry as did their working-class compatriots? Shedding light upon these relationships (or lack thereof) would add a potentially fascinating dimension of interest to students of intra-regional migration, Afro-Cuban politics, and the African diaspora.

In sum, Empire’s Guestworkers is an exceptionally rigorous, engaging, and thoughtful book that makes an invaluable contribution to existing scholarship. In illuminating the complexities that characterized these migrants and this migration, Casey calls into question constructions of migrants, nations, and empires across time and place. Given the immigration crises and debates across the globe from Barbados and the Bahamas to the United States and Germany to South Africa and India, the approach and arguments presented in this work offer insight into not only other historical migrations but also those occurring in the contemporary period.


[1]. James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

Source: https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/reviews/1005617/queeley-casey-empi...