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  • Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation by Matthew Casey
  • Aviva Chomsky
Matthew Casey, Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 326 pp.

Between 1913 and 1931, hundreds of thousands of Haitians, out of economic desperation or by active choice, traveled to Cuba as temporary workers under contract with mostly US-owned sugar companies. They were not the first Haitian migrants to travel to Cuba, but new Cuban legislation made them part of “the first global generation of guestworkers” (3). Cuba, like other modern states, sought to establish its sovereignty in part by claiming control over its borders.

Matthew Casey places these migrants at the center of a history that emphasizes their agency while being attentive to the forces, local and global, economic and political, that structured their experiences. Not only did Haitian migrants pursue their own goals and shape their own lives, Casey argues, their decisions and actions intersected with those of the emerging Cuban and Haitian states, powerful sugar companies, and a growing US empire in the complex formation of the twentieth century Caribbean. The workers and these powerful institutions collectively made history, but none fully chose their circumstances, and all did so in tension and interaction with one another.

Labor history is filled with the struggles of employers to obtain and control a workforce, and of workers to carve out viable lives. One arena of struggle is that of mobility. In the Americas private interests used enslavement and indenture to bring distant workers to the point of production, in sometimes-uneasy alliance with colonial and postcolonial states. In postemancipation societies, workers and employers struggled over the meanings of “free” labor, and states intervened to control its terms and its mobility. If freedom for Caribbean rural workers meant access to land and control over their own labor, by the late nineteenth century this frequently meant migration. The Haitians who traveled to Cuba partook of one of many streams during this period.

Nation-building and state-building projects in early twentieth-century Cuba faced the specific labor demands of the foreign-dominated sugar sector [End Page 388] and a long history of ties between Haiti and eastern Cuba. Cuba’s political leaders sought to manage the labor question in the context of the racial dynamics of postemancipation, mobilization for liberation, and the island’s compromised independence. Racially restrictive immigration policies of 1902 and 1906 only revealed the new state’s incapacity to enforce what had become a global trend of border establishment and control. “Rather than legalizing migration in 1913” with the new contract labor law, Casey argues, “the Cuban state made it fully legible to their own control” (33–34)—or at least, it sought to do so.

In Haiti, the US occupation’s attempts at state building both pushed rural workers into the migrant stream and attempted to regulate the process. In Cuba, too, “regulating the migratory movement became a significant part of the state-building project itself” (63). Regulation took different forms over time: economic depression and new forms of nationalism led to the end of the contract system in 1931 and waves of deportations in the following decade. The nationalist revolution in 1933 enacted the Nationalization of Labor, or 50 percent, law, even as Haiti finally achieved independence from the United States in 1934. As Lara Putnam showed for the British Caribbean, the return of migrants and the closing of the migrant option brought changes at home as well, as returnees demanded rights using resources gained and ideas honed in their larger engagement with empire.

Casey makes extraordinary use of fragmentary sources to delve into the lives, motivations, and activities of Haitian migrants outside of the gaze and bureaucracy of the state. Although the majority were illiterate, and thus left no records of their own, their voices come down to us through court records and testimonies, through the filters of news articles, consular records, literature, censuses, and government agency reports. Casey has mined these sources and others in Cuba, Haiti, and the United States, making particularly fruitful use of provincial archives from eastern Cuba. He shows...


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pp. 388-390
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