Between empires

An examination of the effort at ‘annexation by acclimation’ by the occupying US in late 19th-century Cuba offers clues to contemporary antipathy between the countries


A Cultural History of Cuba During the US Occupation 1898-1902
Marial Igelsias Utset, translated by Russ Davidson
2011, University of North Carolina Press
211 pages, plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ANYONE who wants to understand the complex sentiments within Cuba towards the US, and the depth of nationalist antipathy that has coloured the relationship since 1959, would do well to pick up this book by Marial Igelsias Utset.

For the US occupation of the Caribbean island – in military terms, brief – established cultural markers that were profound and have persisted.

As if we didn’t know, A Cultural History of Cuba reveals that the US enterprise in Cuba was full-blown imperialism of the European variety, aiming not merely to control the country but to change it: how it did things, how it communicated, how it thought.

In this period the flag of the US flew over the fortress of El Morro and English replaced Spanish as the official language of the bureaucracy.

But vernacular Anglo-American phrases and patterns of behaviour also began to creep into daily life as Cubans began to shape their reaction to an all-powerful occupier. Barberías became barber shops, US products filled the stores, high society began to hold tea parties, Thanksgiving Day was imprinted on the national calendar. For Cuba, modernisation came with a high cultural price.

Igelsias Utset aims to recapture this complex crossroads in Cuban history when the end of the War of Independence against Spain was followed by US occupation at the twilight of a century. Cuba was, literally, “between empires” in this period, she points out, and battle raged between more strident nationalists, advocates of Americanization, and the apologists of Spain.

One result of this was reflection, and the new political and cultural norms championed by the occupying power led Cubans to scrutinise their national culture and elaborate new narratives in order to do so.

Quotidian focus
The author focuses on the quotidian, small-scale expressions of these processes in an effort to find out how the bigger, institutional changes in the country were reflected at street level. She examines how symbols of Spanish colonial power were dismantled, the policies governing celebrations, attempts by the US authorities at linguistic colonization, and such narratives and symbolism about patriotic heroes, the idea of country and in civic culture.

It is clear that the author is particularly interested in how English began to permeate the language, and she explores an entire glossary of neologisms entering the vocabulary from the then contemporary US and how these so often symbolized modernity or progress.

Igelsias Utset shows how the use of words and phrases in English began to extend beyond middle or upper-class circles, with the language of baseball a popular pioneer. Even strident advocates of independence such as Máximo Gómez enthused about learning the language – and even the shoeshines and beggars began to solicit in the imperial tongue.

Nonetheless, behind this spontaneous process of assimilation, the US military government began a more systematic project to foster acculturation by reforming public education to ensure that US norms and values were firmly on the curriculum.

An initiative led by HK Harroun, a US educator, through the Cuban Educational Association took college-age Cubans (and Puerto Ricans) to study in US higher education institutions as part of a broader civilizing mission based uncompromisingly on traditional racial stereotypes about Latinos from the period. Key to this was learning English, and Harroun’s proposals for the Cuban educational system suggested, among other things, that the study of English be made obligatory.

Comprehensive English teaching did indeed permeate the Cuban education system in this brief period, enthusiastically supported by publishers and philanthropists, aiming to accomplish in a short period what the US military governor Leonard Woods described as “annexation by acclimation”.
It was denounced by Cuba’s nationalist press, of course, and the threat posed to Spanish sent a frisson of cultural panic through the elite, exposing one of many contradictory tendencies among enthusiasts of annexation. As the author writes:

“The campaign to preserve the Spanish language, now seen as something inextricably linked to the Cuban ‘national soul,’ ranks as another of the many paradoxes of this period. Cubans were pulled in different directions, unable to unite ends and means. As an article of faith, they believed that political and cultural modernization demanded a process of ‘de-Hispanicisation’. Yet they also believed that the modernising project had to be anchored in the familiar terrain of their cultural inheritance with its deep Hispanic roots.” [p. 85]

A Cultural History of Cuba During the US Occupation 1898-1902 provides an excellent analysis of the US control of the island and its motives. More than 100 years later, understanding this period will be of value to students exploring the roots of antipathy in Cuba towards the US and the latter’s refusal to recognize Cuba’s independent status and sovereignty.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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