The necessary neighbour

Cuban Emigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World
Dalia Antonia Muller
2017, University of North Carolina Press
306 pages, paperback

WHEN Fidel Castro, the greatest Latin American revolutionary after Simón Bolívar, boarded a small plane from Cuba to the Mexican resort of Mérida on 7 July 1955, it was not just because his destination was relatively close in distance to the patria.

It was because Mexico – even the Mexico of President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines – was close to the Cuban rebel’s understanding of one of the principal objectives of his proposed revolution: ending tyranny.

“Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government,” Castro recalled in one of the most important biographies of him, Guerrillero del Tiempo. “Every other nation in the region was ruled by tyrants.”

The 18 months that Castro spent in Mexico before sailing into history with 81 men abroad the Granma, a second-hand yacht built for 10, transformed the penniless exile into the leader of the most important revolution in the Americas since Mexico’s own tornado of 1910–17.

While it is often treated as a footnote in history, Castro’s Mexican sojourn was a crucially important chapter in this story for a number of reasons.

It gave Castro much better access to the Cuba exile community in the US – he once even swam the Rio Grande to cross the border near McAllen, Texas, as a mojado – and hence the ability to raise funds for his cause.

Mexico enabled Castro to forge alliances with common enemies of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, such as the former president Carlos Prio Socarrás who, if weak and ineffectual, had at least governed constitutionally until his term was cut short by Batista’s coup in 1952.

Mexico was also where Castro gained his preliminary lessons in guerrilla warfare from contacts such as the Spaniard Alberto Bayo, who had fought in the Spanish civil war and also hooked the Cubans up with other prominent Latin American revolutionaries.

Finally, Mexico was where Castro met that other towering figure in Latin American revolutionary history, Che Guevara – at the time an impoverished Argentine romantic whose impulsiveness initially proved detrimental to the small cell of Cubans that Fidel had gathered around him. This became what Simon Reid-Henry called a “revolutionary friendship that would change the world” based on a passionate shared commitment to anti-imperialism. There is little doubt that had Che not been part of this enterprise, the outcome of the Cuban revolutionary struggle would have been very different.

Mexico, therefore, and not for the first time, was an essential protagonist in Cuban history on the premise that Castro considered its revolution to be something of a precursor – even if Ruiz Cortines’ federal police arrested and jailed the Cubans briefly for stockpiling weapons. In short, Cuba’s revolution would simply not have been possible without the Mexican revolution that had preceded it.

How ironic, then, that it had been an earlier band of Cuban revolutionaries – émigrés from the violent years of war marking Cuba’s push for independence 70 years earlier – that had influenced Mexican disillusionment with the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and the country’s own position in the Gulf world that would ultimately culminate in the 1910 uprising.

Dalia Antonia Muller’s fascinating Cuban Emigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World provides an important piece of the ideological jigsaw comprising the history of revolutionary nationalism in Latin America.

By tracing the role played by Cubans who had fled throughout the Gulf sub-region during the island’s long independence struggle, Muller provides an important service – drawing attention to the international context in which this unfolded and also challenging a clear bias in the historiography of Cuba, largely written in the US, that presents the independence era and subsequent American occupation in self-contained, bilateral terms.

As the author writes: “… to frame Cuban independence as a process that evolved in Cuba and in relation to the United States alone is to constrain the past. In doing so, scholars reaffirm the original erasure of Latin America from what is a much broader history of Cuban independence.” [p 2]

In short, the Gulf sub-region shaped and was shaped by the Cuban independence conflict, which was international in scope: just as in this case it represented the last cannon shot in a long war against Spanish colonialism in the Americas, so did Castro’s later struggle represent a (first) cannon shot in the conflict against US imperialism during the Cold War that would spread across the continent. This is why Cuban Emigrés and Independence is an important book: it draws attention to what we all have in common in the struggle against imperialism, and Castro’s historical role in bringing that to the fore.

Muller demonstrates that, far from being an inward-looking exile community, Cuban migrants circulating around the Gulf of Mexico networked extensively across the region to nurture a nationalist revolutionary politics that was outward-looking and forged transnational solidarities.

Mexico became a seething cauldron of political conflicts between Cubans, Spaniards and Mexicans that sometimes bubbled over into violence and influenced the ways in which local citizens reflected on their own political condition. Muller writes: “As Mexicans took up the cause of Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) or Cuba Española, they used it to refocus and invigorate their own national struggles. The Cuban cause became a prism through which Mexican politics was refracted.” [p 4]

As the journalist Manuel Márquez Sterling noted – referred to by the author for his keen insight into the international dimensions of the Cuban struggle – the Cuban movement in Mexico represented a victory for americanismo, an ideal that could unite Latin Americans across borders and a forerunner of the latinoamericanismo that was subsequently epitomised by the Cuban revolution of 1959.

Muller writes: “The tendency to consider US-Latin American relations at the turn of the century as a struggle between a conquering Anglo race and a beleaguered Latin race left Pan-Hispanism as the central option for those who would take a stance against US imperialism. This position, however, does not leave room for the recognition of an ideology of solidarity like americanismo rooted in a vigorous rejection of both Spanish and US imperialism.” [p 6]