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Worker’s Movements and Imperialism in Early Twentieth Century Cuba

Image showing exterior of Biblioteca Nacional José Martí
Biblioteca Nacional José Martí. (C) Alex Doyle

Having devoured many a text on Cuba, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to visit and experience the country beyond the written word. I was awarded funding by SLAS to deepen my existing research on worker’s movements and imperialism in early twentieth century Cuba. Not only did consulting new archival material allow me to do this, but living in contemporary Cuba was invaluable because it helped me to understand the evolution of the history that I had studied. It highlighted the continuities and discontinuities, the remembering and the misremembering, which characterize the Cuban nation and its history.

I spent time in two Cuban national archives: the Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba and the Biblioteca Nacional José Marti. Prior to arriving I had planned to consult specific worker periodicals as well as correspondence between government officials. Throughout my stay at the two archives, I discovered an even broader range of source content and forms. This was typical of the gulf between expectations and reality when visiting archives in Cuba; whilst a European archive has its materials neatly categorized and available online, the Cuban archives were less structured. This diversity and ‘unknown’ element made for an enriching archival experience as it encouraged me to take steps back from my original research focus.

The documents I consulted enabled me to stretch out the timeframe of my specialisms. Whilst I had previously focused on the years 1899-1902, the archive trip gave me the possibility of examining the 1890s through to the 1920s. As a part of this, I consulted documents produced by the Liga antiimperialista, who, as early as 1925, were unraveling links between the U.S government and financial sector in their diagnosis of imperial power. The Cuban workers movements were therefore acutely aware of the international context and how it was affecting them. Whilst my research had focused on the interrelationship between Cuban labour movements and U.S. imperialism, these archival trips granted me a better awareness of the English and German presence in Cuba. The disputes waged by Cuban anarchist and nationalist movements which I had previously ascribed to being exclusively contests with U.S imperialists, were in many cases within factories owned by German or English capitalists. This trip was therefore instrumental in showing the desperate need for more research on the range of western powers with interests in Cuba in this period.

Interior image of Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, with worker, periodical and bust of national hero José Martí
Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, with worker, periodical and bust of national hero José Martí. (C) Alex Doyle

It was also particularly useful to consult papers headed by members of the Cuban conservative establishment, such as Diario de la Marina. Having previously granted greater focus to the publications of the labour movements themselves, broadening my study to comprise these establishment publications was important in demonstrating how the labour movement was perceived by the elite class, and thus gave a better indication of the power balance between workers and capitalists.

I acquired a stronger understanding of the precarity of Cuban workers as subordinates to the U.S. imperial government, but also as subordinate to individuals of the same class but of Spanish origin. In this sense, I was able to draw out the tension between class universalism and national identity. For example I consulted documents which detailed the difficulties faced by Cubans who had emigrated from Cuba in search of work under Spanish colonialism, only to return, following the dismantling of Spanish colonial political power, to a context marked by a continuation of imperialism, both through the U.S. occupation, but also through the economic dominance by Spaniards occupying managerial posts and being preferred employees.. This antagonism between Cubans and Spaniards was fundamental to class consciousness under the U.S imperial power, and was certainly significant factor in constraining worker struggle. A key source for this was ‘Alerta’, a nationalist workers periodical. Periodical mouthpieces were also coupled with formal political expression through nationalist worker unions such as the ‘Liga’ and parties such as the Partido Obrero Cubano.

As well as anarchist periodicals such as ‘Rebelión’ and ‘Germinal’, neither of which were possible to consult outside of Cuba, I also discovered fascinating secondary literature. One of these which was particularly interesting because it theorized the Cuban anarchist movement’s development from a Marxist perspective, a rare pairing given the typical dismissal of anarchism by Cuban marxists. Indeed, despite the pivotal role that the anarchist movement played to the development of worker radicalism and anticolonial struggle in Cuba, the movement is afforded very little space in the conversation of either contemporary or historical Cuba. The 1959 socialist revolution engulfs the popular imaginary of present-day Cuba such that the history I was studying, both for the period of focus and for not being strictly ‘communist, to some extent felt marginal.

Finally, the trip to Cuba was also valuable as I was able to collaborate with some incredible researchers, both Cuban and foreign. Our conversations guided my research in new directions, and were of significant inspiration in reaffirming the necessity of collective thinking and debate in a discipline which can be isolating and stifling. I am extremely grateful to SLAS for granting me this funding which has helped me to nuance my existing understandings, as well as in carving out new terrain for my research and PhD trajectory.

Alex Doyle

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