Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States / Edition 1

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In the mid-nineteenth century, some of Cuba's most influential writers settled in U.S. cities and published a variety of newspapers, pamphlets, and books. Collaborating with military movements known as filibusters, this generation of exiled writers created a body of literature demanding Cuban independence from Spain and alliance with or annexation to the United States.

Drawing from rare materials archived in the United States and Havana, Rodrigo Lazo offers new readings of works by writers such as Cirilo Villaverde, Juan Clemente Zenea, Pedro Santacilia, and Miguel T. Tolon. Lazo argues that to understand these writers and their publications, we must move beyond nation-based models of literary study and consider their connections to both Cuba and the United States. Anchored by the publication of Spanish- and English-language newspapers in the United States, the transnational culture of writers Lazo calls los filibusteros went hand in hand with a long-standing economic flow between the countries and was spurred on by the writers' belief in the American promise of freedom and the hemispheric ambitions of the expansionist U.S. government. Analyzing how U.S. politicians, journalists, and novelists debated the future of Cuba, Lazo argues that the war of words carried out in Cuban-U.S. print culture played a significant role in developing nineteenth-century conceptions of territory, colonialism, and citizenship.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A well-written, cogently argued book that packs an incredible amount of analysis into a short space. . . . An excellent book."
Cuban Studies

"Informative and rewarding reading for scholars in both historical and literary fields."
New West Indian Guide

"Lazo's is the first and only complete study of the essays, periodical articles, poetry and fiction of this important literary corpus, and it is the first study to suggest the new paradigm of transnationalism, a paradigm that can be applied to all of the writings of Hispanics in the United States. . . . It will make a strong contribution in the fields of Latin American studies and literature, cultural studies, Caribbean literature, and American studies. It is a model for the type of scholarship that needs to be conducted in recovering the historical and literary past. (Nicolás Kanellos, University of Houston)"

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807855942
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/21/2005
  • Series: Envisioning Cuba Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

A former staff writer for the Miami Herald, Rodrigo Lazo is assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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Table of Contents

1 El Filibustero : symbol of the battle for Cuba 21
2 Annexation and independence : newspaper wars and transnational Cuba 63
3 Men of action : revolutionary masculinity and women writers 99
4 El Mulato : race, land, and labor in the Americas 141
5 A Filibustero's novel : Cecilia Valdes and a memory of nation 169
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First Chapter

Writing to Cuba

Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States
By Rodrigo Lazo

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2930-7

Chapter One

El Filibustero

Symbol of the Battle for Cuba

In 1853, Representative Abraham Venable called on the U.S. House of Representatives to take an etymological inventory of the word "filibuster." "We have taken the liberty of altering it, and clothing it in American dress, as is our wont in such cases," Venable told his colleagues. The "dress" to which he presumably referred was a republican outfit, a reference to arguments that the filibuster embodied a noble opponent of monarchical government. But, Venable went on, a filibuster is "still a freebooter." He warned, "If the policy of any Administration is to make the United States the brigands of the world; if we are to become a race, a nation of buccaneers; if we are to adopt the policy of falling upon our weaker neighbors and appropriating their possessions, and thus fill the measure of national iniquity, I utterly denounce the policy." Venable thus invoked the filibuster's etymological ancestors, the buccaneer and the freebooter. In doing so, he issued a stinging critique of the expansionist impetus of the United States and, in particular, movements to filibuster and annex Cuba supported by members of President Franklin Pierce's cabinet.

Four months later, Cubans in New York began publishing El Filibustero, a newspaper that called for armed attacks against Spanish forces in Cuba. In its first issue, El Filibustero featured a bold defense of "nineteenth-century filibusterism" as a natural impulse to battle the outrages of tyrannical government. Echoing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the newspaper argued that "all oppressed people have the right to rebel against their oppressors." By these terms, filibusters were carrying out an Enlightenment imperative to bring about equality among people and establish a just and peaceful society in Cuba. Spain was described as an "absolutist empire" that had trampled the laws of nature and "flooded the earth with blood." The newspaper argued that Cubans, lacking the necessary arms to combat the tyrants, had turned to "a powerful and free people" (the United States) as an "extreme measure to save ourselves of the eternal servitude with which the oppressor Spain threatens us." By painting the filibuster as a freedom fighter, the newspaper attempted to highlight the anticolonial dimensions of the Cuba filibustering efforts and to emphasize that the island's inhabitants had a right to govern themselves.

These radically different interpretations of the word "filibuster(o)" and the vehemence with which each party defended its reading show that much more than semantics was at stake. Venable's charges that the United States was appropriating the territorial possessions of others and El Filibustero's reference to tyrannical government indicate that battles in language were intricately connected to military events and the possibility that Cuba's governmental apparatus would change. The United States, Spain, and England as well as a rapidly growing U.S.-based Cuban exile population were engaged in a contest over national rights to territories and the role of military and political powers in the Americas. As such, "filibuster" functioned as a keyword of empire, a sign of battles for control of territory in the hemisphere, allowing for positions both favoring and opposing U.S. expansionism and Spanish colonialism. "Filibuster," a term that was debated and a military enterprise, crossed national borders and prompted the publication of texts in transnational contexts in the mid-nineteenth century.

By publishing newspapers, Cuban filibusteros attempted to connect the material of print culture with military organizing and armed combat to gain territorial control. They sent out their articles and poems as weapons in a battle for Cuba, seeking to stand again on Cuban land and convince readers that they should fight for a new government on the island. In other words, these writers attempted to establish an ideological connection between reader (subject), Cuba (ground), and republicanism (government). In this chapter, I discuss the newspaper El Filibustero and show how Cuban exiles promoted the filibuster to develop a sense of the Cuban subject with a right to the island. I explicate how writers featured poetry as an important dimension of transnational writing. The filibuster helps provide an understanding of the importance of antebellum political culture to Cuban exiles, even as the transnational newspapers published by Cubans help shed light on the multilingual and multiethnic dimensions of filibustering movements.

Because the filibuster aspires to possess a territory, it is a particularly apt metaphor for framing the literary history of writers whose status in the mid-nineteenth century is one of dislocation rather than national position. The filibuster's condition-simultaneously seeking territory and experiencing the separation from that territory-is akin to the deterritorialized condition of transnational writing. In the latter part of this chapter I discuss the concept of deterritorialization in relation to Cuban exiles and their print culture. I begin by showing how in the nineteenth century, filibustering had a pronounced relationship to the publication of newspapers and books.

From Pirate to Patriot: Manifestations of the Filibuster

In "Los Filibusteros," contemporary poet Ernesto Cardenal looks back on William Walker's invasion of Nicaragua in 1855:

O vinieron por ciento sesenta acres de tierra de Centro América

(para venderla) y veinticinco dólares al mes,

y pelearon por nada al mes, y seis pies cuadrados de tierra.

O venían en busca de gloria: un nombre

que quedara escrito en las páginas de la Historia.

[Or they came for one hundred and sixty acres of Central American land

(to sell it) and twenty-five dollars a month,

and they fought for nothing a month, and six square feet of land.

Or they came in search of glory: a name

that would remain written in the pages of History.]

Proclaiming himself president of Nicaragua before a Central American unified army booted him out, Walker became the best known of the filibusters in mid-nineteenth century United States. Cardenal practically quotes Walker, who issued the following proclamation as he was tossed out of the region: "Reduced to our present position by the cowardice of some, the incapacity of others, and the treachery of many, the army has yet written a page of American history which it is impossible to forget or erase." A page of history would appear to be little consolation for a general being escorted away from the territory he conquered temporarily. Why, then, does Walker grant the written text such value? Walker's The War in Nicaragua (1860) betrays an inordinate faith in the written word. Published to raise money for yet another filibustering expedition to Central America, Walker's "history" displays his awareness that the objects of representation are not static but rather are subject to a process of textual inscription and interpretation. Shortly after taking power in Nicaragua, Walker established a newspaper, El Nicaragüense, "as a means of diffusing information concerning the natural resources and advantages of Nicaragua, no less than as a chronicle of current events." Articles from El Nicaragüense regularly made their way into the U.S. press. At the same time, some of Walker's associates functioned much like present-day spin doctors, attempting to persuade the U.S. public to support their cause by publishing books and articles.

Walker shared with Cuban filibusteros a commitment to using newspapers and books to promote the cause of filibustering. While Walker fashioned himself as a writer of history, Cubans in exile saw themselves as participating in a historical movement and thus adopted the term "filibuster" not only as a political badge of honor but also as a description of what they were doing as writers. Cuban exiles saw filibustering as part of a historical telos leading to liberation from colonialism and democratic rule in Cuba. They believed that newspaper articles and poems would bring about this historical transformation by persuading readers that they should support the seizure of an area and accept the filibuster's new geographical, social, and/or political relocation. Putting that another way, Cubans were intent on entering debates about critical terms and political programs to usher in what they believed to be an inevitable republican future for Cuba.

Cuban filibusteros wrote on two fronts: the U.S. theater of public opinion and the Spanish-controlled colonial setting of Cuba. In both places, the filibuster was a vexing symbol that inspired debate and attack. In one of the most elaborate defenses of the word "filibuster," the anonymous author of The Destiny of Nicaragua traced the term back to the French port of Cape Finestre. From this port, the book argued, a French captain had sailed to avenge a massacre carried out by Spanish troops against a French outpost in Florida. "Sailors and those coming by sea are frequently designated by the port of their departure, and it would be natural to call this company Finibusters or Finibusterers.... Thus it will be seen that this term of Filibustier is not so great a reproach as some conservative old diplomatic fogies imagine." In this etymological lesson, the author sought to claim an origin to the word based on an opposition to Spanish atrocities. By doing so, the author sought to associate filibustering with justice. William Walker took a different tact, disclaiming the word "filibuster" altogether from his expeditions: "That which you ignorantly call 'Filibusterism' is not the offspring of hasty passion or ill-regulated desire; it is the fruit of the sure, unerring instincts which act in accordance with laws as old as the creation. They are but drivellers who speak of establishing fixed relations between the pure white American race, as it exists in the United States, and the mixed Hispano-Indian race, as it exists in Mexico and Central America, without the employment of force." Dressing his expeditions in the cloak of the racial ideology that fueled Manifest Destiny, Walker disclaimed the "ill-regulated desire" that readers might have associated with pirates.

But precisely because expeditions justified their projects by invoking notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, some people saw filibusters as pirates. John Greenleaf Whittier's abolitionist poem "The Haschish" (1856) equated filibusters with proponents of slavery who were intoxicated with the profits of cotton, the "mad weed":

The man of peace, about whose dreams

The sweet millennial angels cluster,

Tastes the mad weed, and plots and schemes

A raving Cuban filibuster! Whittier was able to gloss "filibuster" in a radically different manner than Cuban filibusteros because of a connotative ambivalence in the word. One person's republican defender of liberty was another's opportunistic land grabber. Whittier's poem, an orientalist panorama that includes whirling dervishes, situates the filibuster outside of U.S. culture and thus calls attention to one of the challenges facing Cuban exiles. Whittier's "Cuban filibuster" is part of a catalog of exoticism, most of it linked to the "Orient," its "marvels with our own competing." The poem's references to "Paradise," "Cathay," and "some Caliph's daughters" resonate with travel writings that described Cuba in orientalist terms. Julia Ward Howe, for one, compared the treatment of upper-class women in Cuba to the "seclusion of women in the East." In Havana, Howe wrote, "They of the lovely sex meanwhile undergo, with what patience they may, an Oriental imprisonment." With the connection of Cuba and orientalism circulating in U.S. society, Cuban exiles faced a discursive context in which a filibustero might easily be seen as alien to U.S. culture.

A sense of filibustering as inappropriate and even antidemocratic is how the word made its way into the U.S. Congress. In one of the earliest known uses of the word "filibuster" in a legislative chamber, Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1853 and accused a fellow Southern Democrat of "standing on the other side of the House filibustering, as I thought, against the United States." The question under debate was whether the United States should annex Cuba. Brown wanted to see the island enter the Union as a new slave state, even if that meant wresting Cuba away from Spain in a military engagement. He was surprised that a Democrat had spoken on behalf of the "other side," the Whig position against annexation. Given the legislative setting of this exchange, it would appear that Brown accused his colleague of "filibustering" in the contemporary sense of the word, but the filibuster is possible only in the Senate, not the House. In effect, Brown used "filibustering" to accuse his colleague of taking political ground by inappropriate means and even crossing over to a less legitimate "other" side in a debate about the future territorial holdings of the United States. In other words, Brown inverted the charges of filibustering hurled at annexationists. This type of accusation that elected officials were obstructing the legislative process by resorting to stalling tactics is how "filibuster" came to refer to the Senate extended-debate clause in the 1860s. The contradictions of the word "filibuster," which simultaneously connotes opportunism and idealism, remain apparent today in the U.S. Congress. The contemporary Senate filibuster, as monumentalized in Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), emphasizes individualism and resistance to brute strength. Jefferson Smith, a Boy Scout troop leader standing against a corrupt and entrenched political machine, filibusters to establish a camp for underprivileged boys. He connects his legislative speech act directly to U.S. democratic institutions by reading passages from the U.S. Constitution. The importance is that as senator sans sleaze, Smith (Jimmy Stewart) brings a wholesome dressing to a power play. In the words of the CBS radio announcer, the filibuster is "democracy's finest show, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form." He goes on, "The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet." The international history of the term and the military associations are erased as democracy's Boy Scout replaces soldiers of Manifest Destiny in the nation's ongoing filibustering drama. No longer a person, the "filibuster" is now a legislative maneuver and its verb form. In the process, the rules of Washington are contained within the nation, and the film erases imperial history.


Excerpted from Writing to Cuba by Rodrigo Lazo Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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