Maya Seligman
Nations & Nationalisms
Prof. Bruce Grant
Installment I
September 19, 1996

A Historical Look at Cuba's Nationalism

I started out by getting in touch with our country's history, its struggles, its wars of independence, its historic values. These are the things that make a first big impact on you: nationalism, patriotism, the heroes in our country's history, the sense of honor and justice, injustice, good and evil. Starting from these basic values, you have to start judging everything, determining your preferences and political and revolutionary passions.

--Fidel Castro, June 29, 1992

What has the power to invoke and influence the revolutionary passions in a nation? More specifically, what has the power to affect the national sentiments of the people on a little island in the middle of three oceans? As Cuba's commander in chief points out in the epitgraph above, nationalism is a strong force that taps into the basic values of humans, yet it is not easy to define. Authors Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson both explore theories that attempt to unravel the mysteries of nationalism through the various stages of humankind. The history of Cuba illustrates that Gellner and Anderson's theories of nationalism are certainly applicable to the "real world." By looking at the social elements (class differences, job mobility, education and mass media) of agrarian society contrasted with industrial society, we can see that nationalism is a force strong enough to control history.
According to Ernest Gellner, humankind can be divided into three stages: pre-agrarian, agrarian, and industrial. Focusing on the elements of the latter two periods reveals some consistent standards that influence any society. In an agrarian society, social classes are divided by sharp cultural differences. As Gellner explains in Nations and Nationalism, "the establishment of horizontal cultural cleavages is not only attractive, in that it furthers the interests of the privileged and the power-holders, it is also feasible, and indeed easy" (11). These chasms between the ruling class and the lower class can be effortless because the contrasts are ingrained into society as a seemingly permanent inherence, maintaining a natural order of non-friction. In this way, the popular majority (agricultural producers) are tied to a system of stratification, locked into their social positions for life. This fixed system often holds a family in their set job for generation after generation since it is passed down on a one-to-one basis (Gellner, 29). Education and literacy are reserved for the small minority of the ruling class. The rest of the population, a mass of illiterate peasants, are denied the privilege of reading and writing as they are locked into their static strata of agricultural production. Thus societies have little mobility in the agrarian age, molded by the rigidity of its system.
These classifications of agrarian society are illustrated by Spain's colonial rule over Cuba in the eighteenth century. As historian Louis A. Perez, Jr. recounts, Christopher Columbus was the first European to claim the Caribbean island, staking a Spanish flag in the soil of the northeastern coast of Cuba in 1492 (407). Nineteen years later, wealthy landowner Diego Velesquez left Espanola to lead a four year conquest of Cuba, forming the colonization of seven settlements (25). The island's population increased through the next century as commercial agriculture expanded significantly, particularly with the production of sugar and tobacco, offering many job openings in the field (43). Thus Cuba was then an agrarian society comprised of a lower farming class and an upper minority of colonial rulers. In 1717, the Spanish crown (owned by the French Bourbons) established a monopolistic company known as the Factoria de Tabacos to oversee the production of tobacco (a valuable export in high demand, showing that the popularity of Cuban cigars is not just a new trend). This act then led to the centralization of all political administration on the island, forcing Cubans to acquiesce to the overwhelming power of the Spanish rulers. Perez describes this period in his book, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution: "Bourbon policy increased the strength of the mercantile/commercial sector, largely Spanish, over the agricultural/ranching sector, mostly Cuban, and in so doing sharpened the distinctions between peninsular interests and creole ones" (53). This distinction is an illustrative example of Gellner's vantage on the agrarian age since the classes are divided culturally, enforcing the dynastic power of the upper-class colonizers.
By looking at the theories of Benedict Anderson, we can see that these disadvantaged creoles could not stand to live under the thumb of Spanish rule for too long without developing their own movements of nationalism. In his book, Imagined Communities, Anderson points out that Creole communities were some of the first in the world to develop the conceptions of their "nation-ness," even before the majority of Europeans (50). While the creole classes did not necessarily contain a group of intelligentsia due to their lack of educational access, movements of national independence still bubbled up from their communities, spurned by the oppressive grip of Madrid's tightening control (50).
Extreme rivalries developed between Cuba's two classes, exacerbated by the fact that the peninsulares received preferential treatment. As Cuba's exports engendered more and more wealth during the eighteenth century, money and stature were funneled solely into the pockets of the political administration*s upper positions; thus the creoles were not reaping any rewards for their agricultural investments in Cuban land and crops, which provoked bitter anger (Lima-Dantas, 12). According to the historical narrative of Cuba: A Country Study, by the end of the 1700s, "creoles were demanding an end not only to economic restrictions on colonial developments but also to political and human rights" (12). They then confronted the authoritarian monopoly with their rising nationalism through organized resistance and armed protests (Perez, 56). These actions sparked a sequence of violent conflicts between local interests and imperial authority as battles erupted throughout Cuba's countryside.
Looking at this situation in Cuba from a broader perspective, it is apparent that many other changes were contributing to the tumult of the time. Progress and growth manifested in a variety of ways -- economic, commercial, agricultural, social and technological -- all facets of an arising industrial age. Gellner calls this time "a period of turbulent readjustment, in which either political boundaries, or cultural ones, or both, were being modified, so as to satisfy the new nationalist imperative which now, for the first time, was making itself felt" (40). This claim is clearly illustrated by the simultaneous emergence of nationalism and the transition to industrialism occurring in Cuba (as well as in other regions around the world).
The industrial age indeed embarked some fundamental transformations in social systems, especially regarding job mobility and educational standards. While the agrarian age locked society into a rigidly stratified and static structure, the industrial system diminishes the divisions, creating a dynamic and progressive mobility. The range of careers shifts from the limited dominance of farm work to a plethora of different roles that lack the stagnancy of long-term positions. Society then becomes "exo-educational," meaning each individual is trained by specialists, not the local village or family. As Gellner explains, the industrial society "requires both a mobile division of labour, and sustained frequent and precise communication between strangers involving a sharing of explicit meaning, transmitted in a standard idiom and in writing when required" (34). Cuban creoles realized the importance of education when their social environment went through such progressive upheaval. Louis A. Perez explains this change in education: "The demand for institutions of higher learning responded in part to the recognition of the deficiencies of colonial society but also to the desire of elites to promote the structures of a society commensurate with their sense of past achievements and future potential" (67). Education was a matter of growing concern for Cubans, both in terms of the colony's social status and the pragmatism of its well-being.
This need for universal literacy leads to a standardization of the educational system, creating a monopoly for the only organization that can handle such a burden: the state. The importance of education was reiterated into Cuba*s infrastructure by Fidel Castro's revolutionary command of the state in 1959 (after overturning Fulgencio Batista's twenty-six year rule). Castro's implementation of a national school program brought the literacy rate up to ninety-eight percent in 1985, according to Cuba: A Country Study (xiv). Claiming that Cuba is one of the most educated of the lesser-developed countries, historian Jorge I. Dominguez writes that "'Education' in Cuba has also entailed active participation in a great many discussions about the affairs of the country, domestic and international, so that Cubans are very informed and aware of politics" (10). In this current way, Cuba demonstrates the power of the state in monopolizing education for a mass population, changing the consciousness of the nation
Returning to Cuba's colonial period in the eighteenth century, another important element was introduced with the industrial age: mass media. In 1791, a newspaper called Papel Periodico de La Habana was published, offering a medium for the exchange and distribution of many ideas (Perez, 66). The paper was a forum for the creoles to represent their unifying interests, which helped them to develop a strong sense of singularity. The creoles then quickly organized themselves around those interests, which "was nothing less than a change of consciousness, fundamentally a change in the way Cubans thought about themselves" (Perez, 67). This real world application enforces a theory of Benedict Anderson's, for he classifies the newspaper (and the novel) as a means of unifying a community on the simultaneity of their consciousness. His definition of a nation is an imagined thought -- a concept that can be modified by the mass produced commodity of a newspaper. As Anderson explains, each individual who reads the paper "is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion" (35). Thus the print language provides a base for group consciousness as it can facilitate the temporal act of imagining the mass of people that comprise a nation.
While Cuba may only be a small island in the Caribbean Sea, its history clearly illustrates the power of nationalism to shape the political, social and economic elements of society. The agrarian age of colonial oppression ended up sparking the formation of lower-class unity, which led to a violent transition into a industrial society. This time then became a period of mobility, education standardization and further explorations into the congruency of state and culture. Gellner and Anderson both had their own valid theories of the workings of nationalism which come to life with vivid colors upon examination of Cuban history.


Cuba | stories | writings | go to main page