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SHAFFER, Kirwin R. Anarchism and countercultural politics in early twentieth-century Cuba. Introduction (continued)
Article published on 12 May 2006
last modification on 27 April 2015

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The study of Latin American and Spanish anarchism also received renewed life as scholars shifted to a focus on cultural issues and conflicts. Dora Barrancos reflects this shift in the study of Argentine anarchism in her analyses of anarchist education and cultural issues like health and sexuality. Other studies by Barrancos and Maxine Molyneux illustrate the complex nature of Argentine anarchism by focusing on anarcho-feminism and the impact of female anarchists in a mostly male movement. The research by Barry Carr and Donald Hodges on anarchism in Mexico has shed light on the lingering impact of anarchism on Mexican politics, especially in the formation of the Mexican Communist Party. Anton Rosenthal’s study of turn-of-the-century Montevideo, Uruguay, illustrates how anarchists and the city’s leaders each used the streetcar to define their own ideas of progress. Scholars in Spain likewise have moved away from an institutional focus to emphasize culture, such as Lily Litvak’s examinations of anarchist art and aesthetics. In addition, lesser-known cultural dimensions of anarchism like the anarcho-naturists and their approaches to health and population issues have become topics of new interest, as pursued by Eduard Masjuan. Consequently, to study Cuban anarchism, one has to move beyond the workplace and labor disputes (though by no means forsaking them entirely) to explore and understand the cultural creations of anarchists, how they used their culture to put forth their own ideas and initiatives, and how they challenged those who ran Cuba.

Cuban Anarchism

The chapters that follow provide a cultural and political history of anarchism that unfolds in layers. Readers who expect a traditional chronological account of the anarchists in Cuba will not find it here. For that one may consult the often polemical but nevertheless useful accounts of Sam Dolgoff (The Cuban Revolution: A Critical Perspective, 1977) and Frank Fern‡ndez (Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement, 2001). Both focus primarily on the labor struggles involving anarchists from the 1800s to the Castro era. Rather, by building on trends in anarchist historiography since the 1980s, this book explores the cultural history of the anarchist movement topically. Each new topic adds another layer to our understanding of the complexity of anarchism in Cuba. The following chapters concentrate on three important aspects of anarchist cultural poli-tics in Cuba following 1898, what I see as “three sites of cultural conflict”: nationalism and internationalism; health and nature; and education and gender. Each topic has its own section in this study. The first chapter of each section follows a chronological overview of how anarchists addressed each site of conflict. Subsequent chapters in each section turn to anarchist culture, especially fiction, for a more thematic analysis of the topic.

Following chapter 1, which looks at the larger theoretical concerns guiding this study, I turn to part 1 to focus on the relationship between anarchism, nationalist politics, and issues of immigration and race. Chapter 2 addresses the anarchist critique of Cuban nationalism and how anarchists “Cubanized” anarchist internationalism after independence. Chapter 3 examines independence symbolism in Cuban anarchism by illustrating how anarchists avoided becoming “nationalists” themselves, yet still used the symbols of national independence to localize the international movement to fit Cuban reality. In particular, they interpreted important images of the island’s political culture — the war itself and José Martí — into their critiques of postwar social relations. Chapter 4 explores how anarchists addressed issues of Spanish and Antillean immigration to Cuba. While anarchists described workers of all countries in noble terms, they attacked other “foreign” immigrants like international business-men. These latter were portrayed as the immigrants that workers of all nationalities should see as their enemies. Chapter 5 examines how anarchists dealt with the particularly thorny issue of race in Cuba. This proved to be another means of localizing anarchist internationalism to meet the specific racial realities of the island. By addressing immigration and race, anarchists tried to overcome attempts by employers, politicians, and nationalistic labor unions to divide Cuban workers from Spanish, Haitian, and Jamaican workers.

Part 2 demonstrates how anarchists dealt with “real life” health and safety concerns of the popular classes. Chapter 6 shows how U.S. occupation forces from 1898 to 1902 and from 1906 to 1909 helped to control yellow fever and to develop improvements in sewers and sanitation. However, anarchists charged that such reforms did not go far enough and that rural and urban workers still suffered from unsanitary conditions both at home and in the workplace. Chapter 7 illustrates how anarcho-naturists helped to create health institutes that utilized alternative medicine and treatment, urged people to grow their own food and eat vegetarian diets, and at times promoted alternative lifestyles like nudism. These anarchists promoted such lifestyles as forms of preventative health care, but anarcho-naturists added a “social liberating” dimension to naturismo. Chapter 8 reflects the debate between anarchists over the impact of “Civilization” and its relationship to “Nature” by examining the role of Nature in anarchist statements and fiction. Anarcho-naturists promoted a rural ideal, simple living, and being in harmony with Nature as ways to save the laborers from the increasingly industrialized character of Cuba. Besides promoting an early twentieth-century “back-to-the-land” movement, they used these romantic images of Nature to illustrate how far removed a capitalist industrialized Cuba had departed from an anarchist view of natural harmony.

In addition to making people healthy, anarchists believed that Cubans needed an appropriate education. Part 3 addresses the anarchist critique of Cuban educational systems and anarchist educational initiatives, particularly as they impacted women and children. Chapter 9 describes how anarchists rejected state- and church-run schools and developed their own coeducational institutions. During the day, schools operated for the workers’ children. At night, schools taught the workers themselves. Anarchists recognized that for-mal schools could reach only a small number of people, so, as explained in chapter 10, they broadened their educational audience by utilizing their cultural meetings, newspapers, fiction, and theater to teach anarchist theories of freedom, egalitarianism, internationalism, and progress. These experiments in popular education also stressed the importance of avoiding greed, politics, and vice within the larger culture. Finally, chapter 11 analyzes how anarchist culture functioned as “texts” when directed particularly at women. Because anarchists saw the family as the seed from which to grow a cooperative society, they believed that women in particular needed to be targeted. Anarchist plays and stories served as educational tools that could instruct women and children on how to behave in an anarchist, egalitarian fashion while waiting for that revolutionary society to materialize.

Notes on Sources

In the fluid situation of Cuban cultural, political, and social life in the thirty years after independence, anarchists and most radicals on the Cuban political left understood that a social revolution was a long time away. Consequently, anarchists of all delineations believed that cultural work in the present was necessary not only to lay the groundwork for the future revolution but also to help people live better, healthier, more enlightened lives in the meantime. It was also essential to help Cubans imagine a reality and a future conducive to the anarchist agenda. To unlock this cultural history of Cuban anarchism, I have focused primarily on the printed cultural sources produced by anarchists themselves. These sources serve as the best surviving record of the movement, its actions, and its ideas and visions. Thus, to understand the anarchist critique and cultural vision, this book is based largely around three types of sources: anarchist ideological books and pamphlets, anarchist newspapers, and anarchist cultural productions like novels, plays, and short stories. When relevant, I have incorporated archival material such as intelligence reports on anarchist activity. I have also relied on censuses, other official governmental reports, and publications from the anarchists’ rivals and friends to provide context to understand just what the anarchists were challenging. Most of this book’s insights were gleaned from anarchists’ own political and cultural creations uncovered in institutes and libraries in Havana, Cuba, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Although I pay considerable attention to the men, women, and children whose names and activities emerge, disappear, and sometimes reappear throughout the record, I pay special attention to the literary works and activities of the two most prominent of these anarchists,Adrián del Valle (aka Palmiro de Lidia) and Antonio Penichet.

Del Valle was a core personality in Cuban anarchism from his first step in Cuba in 1895 to his death on the island fifty years later. He was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1872, and came of age in the politically charged atmosphere of late nineteenth-century Catalonia. By 1890, he wrote for and collaborated with the Spanish anarchist newspaper El Productor, for which he occasionally wrote under the pen names “Palmiro de Lidia” and “Fructidor.” In 1892, while living in New York City, he immersed himself in the city’s radical politics. He quickly became the manager of the Spanish-language anarchist newspaper El Despertar where he was exposed to the numerous Spanish and Cuban anarchists who passed through the city. As tensions between Spain and Cuba increased in the early 1890s, Spanish-speaking anarchists in the United States began to agitate for Cuban independence. In February 1895, Del Valle left New York and arrived in Havana, just as the island began to explode in its final war for independence. Soon, he befriended the leading anarchists in Havana, but, unable to get from Havana to the separatist-dominated sections of Cuba, Del Valle returned to New York where he wrote in support of the war in El Rebelde under the name “Palmiro de Lidia.” Following Spain’s defeat, Del Valle immediately returned to Cuba, where, in the first month of the U.S. occupation of the island (January 1899), he founded the anarchist newspaper El Nuevo Ideal.13

Over the following decades, Del Valle became a constant presence in not only the anarchist press that proliferated in Cuba but also mainstream literary publications. He regularly contributed columns for the leading anarchist newspapers ¡Tierra!, Rebelión!, and Nueva Luz. From 1912 to 1913 he edited the freethinking journal El Audaz. Then he began his largest publishing job by helping to found and edit the monthly alternative health magazine that followed the anarcho-naturist line Pro-Vida. While a mainstay in the anarchist press, Del Valle’s prolific pieces of social commentary won him a seat at the more mainstream table of Cuban journalism. He served a fifteen-year stint as an editor for the periodical Cuba y América before he became an editor of the highly regarded journal Revista Bimestre Cubana, published by the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del Pa’s in Havana. During his years at the Sociedad Económica he served as a librarian, and in that role he became a leading force in reorganizing the society’s extensive library holdings. This rather erudite existence isolated him from the day-to-day realities of physical labor in Cuba’s expanding rural agri-industrial complexes and urban shops. But it afforded him considerable time to interact with the leading authors of his day as well as write for newspapers and magazines. Immersed in the atmosphere of revolutionary politics, labor radicalism, and literary dynamism, Del Valle wrote a series of novels, plays, and short stories, which today serve as key sources in understanding the cultural vision laid forth by the anarchist movement’s leading artist. This cultural vision, which I describe throughout this book, was recognized by more than the anarchists who read and published his essays or fiction, staged his plays, and followed his advice on seeking alternative health regimens. In fact, he was recognized by Cuba’s literary elite; in 1927 he was the subject of a prestigious public reception at the National Academy of Arts and Letters in which the Cuban Socialist and novelist Carlos Loveira—author of important social novels like Los Inmorales, Juan Criollo, and Los Ciegos—gave the honorary speech praising Del Valle’s literary and social career. Del Valle remained a constant presence in Cuban anarchism until his death in February 1945.

Antonio Penichet

Antonio Penichet was Del Valle’s contemporary, who likewise produced anarchist fiction and short plays. Whereas the latter’s world mainly revolved around intellectual circles, Penichet’s world was that of a skilled laborer. As a young man, he arrived in Havana from the Cuban town of GŸines after Spanish forces drove out rural Cubans in their infamous “reconcentration” policy during the war in the 1890s. Upon arriving in Havana, Penichet stayed at the home of Manuel Comas Segu’, who not only taught Penichet the printer’s trade but also urged him to study anarchist ideas.14 Penichet helped to edit the printers’ Memorándum Tipográfico from 1913 to 1916, but during these years he shied away from openly supporting anarchism in the pages of the newspaper. This changed by 1918 when Penichet became a leading anarcho-syndicalist figure in a Cuban labor movement that rapidly recovered from several years of repression during World War I by staging a broad array of strikes. In 1919, Penichet and other anarchists were arrested for their involvement in the strikes. In June, while hiding from authorities, he managed to publish the novel La vida de un pernicioso and a short story “El soldado Rafael.” Coming on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution, which Penichet supported,“El soldado Rafael” was suppressed by authorities who feared its call for a military-worker alliance to overthrow the state. He landed in more trouble in 1920 when authorities accused him and other anarchists of inciting workers to engage in bombings throughout Havana.15

During the first half of the 1920s, when the labor movement surged in power, Penichet became one of anarchism’s leading voices. In 1922, he founded and became editor of the anarcho-syndicalist newspaper Nueva Luz, to which he contributed frequent columns on education, the historical and social importance of different inventions and technology, and the overall status of the labor movement.At the same time, Penichet became intricately linked with the FOH school for children. From this experience, he helped to found the CNOC in 1925 and led the organization’s Education Committee. To illustrate his prominence in the labor movement, he had to publicly reject efforts by delegates to name a special honor for him during the CNOC’s founding convention because Penichet believed such honors were inappropriate. Following the crackdown by the Machado government beginning in 1925, Penichet found himself on the run. He fled to Mexico for a time but returned to Cuba in the 1930s. His involvement in anarchist activities declined after that as he became a historian, an advocate for liberal education, and a librarian like Del Valle. He died in Cuba in 1964.16

Del Valle’s and Penichet’s works are worthy of study in and of themselves, but I focus on their literary works as primary sources that illuminate the anarchists’ cultural challenges. As outlined in the next chapter, their fiction and actions served as important cultural frames for the anarchist movement—frames that gave ideational shape to anarchist interpretations of Cuban reality and anarchist goals for the island’s future. At the same time these two men themselves were key actors in the movement’s educational and health initiatives. I do not argue that all anarchists agreed with everything written by these two key literary and political figures. In fact, many found Del Valle a little too “bourgeois,” especially considering his accolades from the larger culture and his life removed from hard labor. In addition, Penichet and Del Valle did not always agree; for instance, in the 1920s anarchists of all stripes debated whether or not to align with Marxists. Penichet and most anarcho-syndicalists thought it a good idea but Del Valle and the anarcho-communists kept their distance. Thus, in this regard, both their individual lives and their ideas, expressed in their plays and fiction, represented a cross-segment of the anarchist community at any given time on the island: some agreed completely with one, the other, or both, while people could easily sympathize or take issue with, say, Del Valle’s romantic rural landscapes or Penichet’s creation of heroines out of Havana’s prostitutes. However, to undertake a cultural history of a social movement, one must rely heavily (though not exclusively) on the leading cultural creators of that movement. In Cuba, many people staged plays, wrote columns, ran schools, and more; but among these activists, Del Valle and Penichet were the two most prolific, widely read, and widely heard cultural figures in Cuban anarchism.

Alan West has noted that “the artistic realm offers us a distinctive way of understanding both present and latent meanings of Cuban reality and history. The greater freedom in the aesthetic realm means that fiction, myth, folktales, popular music, and poetry can be brought to bear on the historical as a ‘dialogue between intentional subjects,’ as originating thought. And . . . I agree that ‘a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination.’”17 West’s “arts of the imagination” become central to understanding anarchism and anarchist culture in Cuba.West calls Cuban history and culture a manigua, a Ta’no word referring to a dense, lush landscape—practically a jungle, a “natural profusion of confusion, a locus of escape from oppression and a new spot from which to begin a life of freedom.”18

We require our own arts of imagination to slice through the dense layers of Cuban history and culture to make sense of the past. At the same time, we must recognize the arts of imagination used by history’s actors to understand the historical images they used to describe their present and shape a picture of Cuba’s potential future.Again, to this end, I draw heavily on the anarchists’ arts of imagination, especially their cultural creations. Literature can help us understand the values and attitudes of historical actors. As E. Bradford Burns once noted,“on one level the novel reflects the writer’s points of view [‘world view’] on a topic. On another level, it is a document of, a mirror to, a period.”19 Fiction helps us to understand what the anarchists were seeing, interpreting, and imagining. By the same notion, it helps us understand how anarchists tried to get their readers and viewers to imagine Cuba’s past, present, and potential future.

After all, anarchist culture was meant to be not only descriptive but also prescriptive; it was designed as a useful way to raise the consciousness of their audiences. In addition, people like Del Valle and Penichet tapped into the larger Cuban culture to write their fiction in their efforts to Cubanize the movement. Consequently, from a rarely heard viewpoint, literature and the arts can tell us a great deal about Cuba’s anarchists, their vision for the island, and the island itself.

For thirty years after Cuban independence from Spain, the island’s anarchists provided alternatives to the directions promoted by Cuba’s economic, political, and cultural leaders. At times, when their agendas overlapped, they cooperated with reformist groups. Sometimes they disagreed among themselves. However, anarchists of all stripes believed that over time, as the social environment became purified of injustice, oppression, and vice, the imagined anarchist New Dawn of individuals—free, thinking, healthy, and equal—working in a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid would evolve until a day, which they hoped would not be too distant, of a social revolution. Against a wide array of political, economic, and cultural forces, Cuban anarchists struggled to keep that hope alive in the unions, the health clinics, the shops, the schools, the literary world, and even the stage.

KIRWIN R. SHAFFER

END of the introduction to :
Shaffer, Kirwin R. Anarchism and Countercultural Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba
Univ Pr of Florida, 2005.
ISBN:0813027918 (Hard cover book)

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