Rodrigo Lazo. Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 264 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2930-1; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-5594-2.
Reviewed by Andrae Marak (Department of History and Political Science, California University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2005)
Cuban Exiles from Annexation as Independence to Anti-Imperialism as Independence
In Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States Rodrigo Lazo provides diplomatic and cultural historians with a unique transnational, gendered, and racial approach to understanding mid-nineteenth-century U.S.-Cuban relations and the changing understandings that Cuban exiles had of proposed U.S.-supported military intervention in Cuba. Lazo shows that the exiled Cuban publishers of transnational newspapers meant to gain support for the armed resistance (or filibustering) against royal Spanish rule both in the United States and in Cuba. They saw themselves as men of action, equal to those who actually took up arms against Spain. This book provides readers with a deeper understanding of the Cuban independence movement and all its many contradictions prior to the rise of JosÃ© MartÃ and the onset of the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898. Drawing heavily on source materials written in Spanish from both the United States and Cuba, Lazo demonstrates the value of and continued need for scholars to make use of Spanish-language sources, whether located inside or outside of the United States, when studying U.S.-Latin American relations.
While MartÃ, Cuba's famed patriot of independence, did not want U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs because he had watched U.S. imperialism in action from the United States, many of his fellow exiles, self-proclaimed filibusteros, attempted to use U.S. imperialism to their own benefit. These filibusteros saw themselves not as "soldiers of fortune who attempted to seize parts of Latin America" a la the earlier annexation of Texas by Anglos and William Walker's forays into Sonora and Nicaragua, but as exiled patriots set on expelling Spain from Cuba (p. 6). They wanted to tap into the U.S. Constitution's "promise of equality and freedom" at the same time that they tapped into U.S. imperialism, which looked to undermine that very same equality and freedom, to end Spain's imperialism on the island. Lazo demonstrates that the filibustero embrace of this seeming contradiction was not as contradictory as it appeared on the surface.
Numerous filibustero newspapers were published by exiled Cubans living in the United States, the most important of which were El Filibustero, La Verdad, El Eco de Cuba, El Independiente, and El Pueblo. It was in these papers that Cuban exiles fought with words over the multiple understandings of annexation and independence. El Filibustero, using General Narciso LÃ³pez's filibustering expeditions of the 1840s and 1850s as a model, pushed for a Cuban lead to the independence fight against Spain while hoping to attain U.S. financial and military support. They were trying to walk a tightrope between seeking the support of Manifest Destiny advocates within the Democratic Party and the southern plantocracy, which strongly supported the annexation of Cuba as a slave state, and those, such as the New Orleans Bee, which felt that Cubans were looking to the United States for help because Cuban Creoles were incapable of fighting on their own behalf. Part of the problem was that the exiled Cuban Creoles writing in El Filibustero and La Verdad both needed the support of Cuban society to win independence from Spain and yet feared the possible release of Cuba's 500,000 slaves in the process. They wanted a coup rather than a revolution. La Verdad in particular was heavily funded by and closely tied with "wealthy exiles, including slave-owning planters" who believed that annexation would benefit themselves as well as their U.S. investor backers (p. 66). Other papers, such as El Eco de Cuba, simply never mentioned slavery, hoping that their failure to take a stand would prevent the alienation of their subscribers.
In spite of these different approaches, many supporters of annexation also supported Cuban independence. Lazo does an excellent job of complicating our understanding of Cuban exile thought. Cuban exiles well understood that many U.S. supporters of Manifest Destiny saw the United States' previous acquisition of much of Mexico's territory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as the legitimate redemption of that land and its peoples. White Americans, following the white supremacist, U.S. exceptionalist line of the time, were destined to own this land and bring it to fruition. Cuban Creoles saw themselves as equals to their white brethren in the United States (though it is important to note that not all Americans viewed self-identified white Cubans as white) and the rightful inheritors of Cuba. They anticipated promoting the emigration of white Americans to Cuba after its independence in hopes that intermarriage would increase Cuba's white population. Hence, Manifest Destiny could be conceived of working in the favor of white Americans and Cuban Creoles. This was further enhanced by the imperium in imperio (an empire within an empire) understanding of states' rights and sovereignty in the antebellum United States. Given this understanding, the United States could annex Cuba, and Cuba would retain its sovereignty within the greater sovereignty of the United States.
The Cuban Creole "claims to a local and cultural right to control the island" and the newspaper El Mulato's support of abolition, however, flew in the face of Manifest Destiny (p. 143). Lazo's examination of El Mulato's support of abolition and independence not through annexation is definitely the shining moment of the book. El Mulato was joining the debate over the impact of Cubans of African descent on Cuban culture. Instead of portraying the filibustero push for Cuban independence as a battle between "Spaniards and the Creole elite," El Mulato recognized that blacks made up more than half of Cuba's population in the 1850s (p. 145). Other newspapers, such as La Verdad, had come out against the slave trade, but unlike El Mulato, their major concern was the negative influence of the Africanization of Cuba. Likewise, El Filibustero was against the importation of Chinese laborers mainly because of the negative impact that they would have on Cuban society. El Mulato exposed the racist underpinnings to Creole Cuban filibustering aims where white rule was seen as necessary due to the incapacity of the darker races to be economically viable participants in society, or to rule themselves.
Finally, Lazo examines Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia ValdÃ©s o La Loma del Angel (Cecilia ValdÃ©s; or, the Angel's Hill), one of nineteenth-century Cuba's most important novels. Lazo focuses on the Villaverde's rewriting of the novel, which originally appeared in 1839, but was republished in a much expanded form in 1882. In some important ways, Villaverde's rewriting of the novel is a stand in for changing Cuban ideas of filibustering writ large between 1850 and 1898, the move from Creole Cuban support for U.S. Manifest Destiny and independence through annexation to support for the abolition of slavery and independence without annexation: "Villaverde's ultimate position against slavery developed in tandem with his view of the United States as a power more interested in its own hemispheric ambitions than in Cuban independence ... Villaverde ultimately renounced annexation, denounced the United States, and wrote critically about slavery, positions that mirrored changes among other Cuban exiles in the United States" (p. 177).
As with any book, some parts are more convincing of others. Lazo's secton on Emilia Casanova de Villaverde feels forced. Following a section on ways in which Creole Cuban exiles writing in support of filibustering saw themselves as men of action through means other than military action, the inclusion of Casanova seems to have been done to strike a balance. But this balance did not exist historically as the vast majority of filibusterers, as Lazo readily admits, were men. Furthermore, unlike her male contemporaries, Casanova did not write for filibustering newspapers, but instead wrote a series of letters to advance revolution in Cuba. Overall, this is a minor quibble. I should also note that a review written for a different audience (or by a different reviewer) would probably have focused more on the role of nineteenth-century filibustero poetry.
In sum, Lazo does a fine job of "examining the relationship of culture to U.S. imperialism by considering questions of nation formation vis-Ã -vis othered peoples and hemispheric debates over race and slavery" (p. 15). By focusing on filibusteros, Lazo admittedly is spotlighting the inability of Cuban Creoles to direct the early independence movement from Cuba itself. Their failure to do so, however, has provided historians with a unique tool, filibustero newspapers, to better understand both the early Cuban independence movement and the early formation of Cuban identity. I highly recommend Writing to Cuba for all those interested in understanding Cubans' own understanding of their independence movement prior to the rise of JosÃ© MartÃ.
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Andrae Marak. Review of Lazo, Rodrigo, Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States.
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Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.