Sunday, October 21, 2007

From Hatuey to Che: Indigenous Cuba Without Indians and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On October 19-20, 2007, Michigan State University College of Law was fortunate to host the 4th Annual Indigenous Law Conference. This year, the theme was American Indian Law and Literature. My thanks to Matthew Fletcher and Wenona Singel for an excellent conference. My own contribution to that event focused on my work in Latin America, and specifically Latin American engagement in international law and national self constitution. What follows is an abstract and then an extended version of my presentation at the Conference. Comments and reactions, as always, are most welcome.

ABSTRACT: Indigenous peoples have been quite useful to political elites in Latin America almost since the time of the conquests by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, indigenous people supplied the foundations for a trope, both literary and political, essential for the construction of cultural, ethnic, racial and political identities distinct from the traditional colonial masters of emerging Latin American states, as well as from that great power to the North. This paper looks at one aspect of this rich development by focusing on the “noble savage” and the construction of Caribbean (and principally Cuban) political identity and the formation of governance ideals. The heart of the paper examines essays of José Martí in the broader context of Latin indigenismo.



Indigenous peoples have been quite useful to political elites in Latin America generally, and in the Caribbean specifically, almost since the time of the conquests by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the 15th and 16th centuries. But they have been most useful dead. Or, where the vestiges of Taíno culture are hard to avoid, at least erased from living national memory. In their place, a political racialized mestizaje was deployed against the political purity of race deployed by North Americans in their quest to replace Spain as the dominant colonial power in the Hemisphere, and against Spanish race hierarchies of the colonial period.

Dead, the Indian could be transformed, generalized, denatured, and repackaged for the benefit of emerging elites. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, indigenous people supplied the foundations for a trope, both literary and political, essential for the construction of cultural, ethnic, racial and political identities distinct from the traditional colonial masters of emerging Latin American states, as well as from that great power to the North. This trope, in turn, was part of a larger discussion within Latin American pitting a mestisaje based political and literary theory among nations with large mixed populations and a more North American perspective in places like Argentina and Chile with smaller indigenous and African populations. Indigenismo thus fractured in meaning—pointing to either original peoples, or the blended post conquest populations, or the indigenous characteristics of a dominant European population in its new territory.

This paper looks at one aspect of this rich development by focusing on the “noble savage” as a transformative element in the construction of Caribbean (and principally Cuban) political identity and the formation of governance ideals. The focus will be on three people, separated by hundreds of years but all connected by the parallels of their lives and their place within Caribbean literary and political thought. I will start with the great archetypical figure of Cuban history—an Taíno Indian from the island of Hispaniola—el indio Hatuey. As recounted in stories popularized by the 16th century cleric ad author Bartolomé de las Cases in his indictments of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, Hatuey becomes a mythological figure of great power. His story, with significant Christological overtones—of ministry, journey, betrayal, torture, sacrifice and transfiguration, becomes a pivotal moment in Cuban history and Spanish literary tradition.

I will then turn to the second great martyr and hero of Cuban national and literary life—the great patriot José Martí. Like Hatuey, Martí’s life was one of struggle, journey, ministry, denial and ultimately of sacrifice in the vindication of the construction of the Cuban nation and the struggle for Cuban Independence. Martí like the Spanish before him, confronts the Indian in Cuban life. But unlike the Spanish, Martí deploys the Indian in the service of the construction of Cuban national Indigenismo. But a curious thing happens to el indio Hatuey and the Taíno on the road to Cuban independence. In Martí’s essays, the Indian is transformed into symbol, and that symbolic value is then naturalized in the colonial peoples of the Caribbean, who become the heirs to and the successors of the Indians exterminated by the Spanish. In the essays of José Martí the Indian serves as the basis for a political theorizing of race and ethnicity in Latin America that provides the point of comparison with and distinction from the great imperial power of the United States. The power of the extinct Indian, of Hatuey and the Taíno, reduced symbolic and past tense Indianism, serves as the basis for a new Indigenismo, to be built on an assimilation of the racial and ethic components, into a new and blended indigenous state. Caribbean indigenism of the 19th century required mestizaje and mulatería. To succeed, the pure Indian, like the pure blanco, must disappear within the blended ethnos that constitutes each new (and distinct) nation. For Martí and the new Cuban state, indigenism is built without the Indian.

The last great figure in the development of Cuban Indigenismo considered is Fidel Castro Ruz, the leader of Cuba since the successful conclusion of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The Indigenismo of Martí finds rich embellishment in the great speeches of Fidel Castro. With Fidel Castro we witness the maturation of the process of denaturing the Indian from Indigenismo. At the end of the 20th Century, it is Che Guevara who emerges as the natural successor of el Indio Hatuey. El indio has become a white man lamenting the passing of the Indian, and in Indigenismo has become the shroud whose shape describes the corpse of the Indian it envelopes. That corpse now occupies a pride of place only in beautifully illustrated books of literature or history and in the rhetoric of the people comprising the Cuban nation.

From Bartoloméo de las Casas to Martí and to Fidel Castro, the Indian has ascended in the estimation of the Cuban nation corresponding to their disappearance as fisical being and an autonomous people within Cuba. Cuban nationhood, it indigenismo, has no place for the Indian. Thus, the Caribbean strain of indigenismo acquires an ironic character in the hands of Martí, and thereafter of Castro. It is grounded on an Indianism in the past tense, and, ultimately, in an Indigenismo with no Indians. In the hands of these Caribbean theorists, el indígeno becomes powerful and sympathetic only at the moment of their sacrifice and extinction. The sacrifice of the pure Indian paves the way for a transcendant indigenismo into which the heroes of the Cuban Revolution can fall. And there will be great ironies in this progression from betrayal, imprisonment, torture and humiliation, death, and transformation into a transcendent ideal. These politico-religious tropes resonate in the lives of authentic Cuban heroes and serve as a bass for their authority and legitimacy as Cuban. In a Cuba without Indians, but where the memory of the Indian is revered, Cuba can seek to assert the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere, without having to confront the issue of their own Indians. In a construction of a social and ethnic order in which the Indian has disappeared, to assert the right of indigenous people in Cuba is to assert the rights of the Cuban nation as a singular but blended mass.


There are many versions of the story of the Indio Hatuey (Barreiro 1990; The Storey of the Cacique Hatuey 1998; El Indio Hatuey 2007). But most share the same major story lines drawn from the very sympathetic account of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1689) readily available in modern English translation. I will draw on the 1689 translation.

By 1511 Diego Velásquez had substantially subdued the Indians of La Española, the name then given to the Island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He then turned his eye to Cuba. Among his men was Hernán Cortez, who was eventually to conquer the Aztecs and establish what was to become Mexico. But Velásquez and his Spaniards were not the only people to sail from La Española to Cuba. Also coming to Cuba was an Indian cacique—going by the name of Hatuey—and his followers, numbering about 400 men, women and children. He came to Cuba to escape Spanish domination and to try to unite the Indians of Cuba to resist the Spanish invasion.

De Las Casas noted that Hatuey was not successful in warning the Taíno of Cuba. Though the effort was unsuccessful, de las Casas, following the literary style of Thucydides, related his version of the speech that Hatuey might have made:

You are not ignorant that there is a rumor spread abroad among us of the _Spaniards_ Arrival, and are sensible by woeful experience how such and such (naming them) and _Hayti_ (so they term _Hispaniola_ in their own language) with their Inhabitants have been treated by them, that they design to visit us with equal intentions of committing such acts as they have hitherto been guilty of. But do you not know the cause and reason of their coming? We are altogether ignorant of it, they replied, but sufficiently satisfied that they are cruelly and wickedly inclined: Then thus, he said, they adore a certain Covetous Deity, whose cravings are not to be satisfied by a few moderate offerings, but they may answer his Adoration and Worship, demand many unreasonable things of us, and use their utmost endeavors to subjugate and afterwards murder us. (de las Casas 1689)

The speech has served future generations well as an indictment of Spanish duplicity, and of the hollow promise of religion in the service fo the state. But at the time the speech fell on death ears for the most part. Some stories suggest that Hatuey then led a somewhat successful guerilla campaign against the Spaniards in the Eastern part of the island, around the places where centuries later the Cuban revolutionaries would base much of their military campaign against th4e Spaniards, and sixty years later Fidel Castro would find a base for his operations. Some stories then suggest that, like many saints and martyrs in the West, Hatuey was betrayed to the Spaniards by someone in his entourage. De las Casas describes the end of Hatuey.

When the Spaniards first touched this Island, this _Cacic_, who was thoroughly acquainted with them, did avoid and shun them as much as in him lay, and defended himself by force of Arms, wherever he met with them, but at length being taken he was burnt alive, for flying from so unjust and cruel a Nation, and endeavuoring to secure his Life against them, who only thirsted after the blood of himself and his own People. Now being bound to the post, in order of his Execution a certain Holy Monk of the _Franciscan_ Order, discours'd with him concerning God and the Articles of our Faith, which he never heard of before, and which might be satisfactory and advantagious to him, considering the small time allow'd him by the Executioner, promising him Eternal Glory and Repose, if he truly believ'd them, or other wise Everlasting Torments. After that _Hathney_ had been silently pensive sometime, he askt the Monk whether the _Spaniards_ also were admitted into Heaven, and he answering that the Gates of Heaven were open to all that were Good and Godly, the _Cacic_ replied without further consideration, that he would rather go to Hell then Heaven, for fear he should cohabit in the same Mansion with so Sanguinary and Bloody a Nation. And thus God and the Holy Catholick Faith are Praised and Reverenced by the Practices of the _Spaniards_ in _America_. (Id.).

Thus dies the first martyr of Cuban nationalism—though el indio Hatuey did not know that at the time. Hatuey might have thought he died as one of what would be a growing number of Indian patriots resisting the aggressive and undocumented migration of European peoples into their lands. Thus the first irony. More than that, Hatuey died a martyr for a reformed Catholic Christianity by a noble death, a martyrdom really, and one which was served up by Bartolomé de las Cases as an indictment of the practices of Spanish Catholicism. Thus the second irony. Yet, this religious dimension, made more explicit in the coming centuries, will serve the African slaves in Cuba more than their Spanish Catholic masters. The extinct Indian, personified by el indio Hatuey, will become, within the pantheon of Afro-Cuban relations (Santería and palo) an important figure. El indio is now a figure of protection, guidance and power within Afro-Cuban religious practice. More than that—Hatuey becomes the template for the literary depiction of a Cuban Indianism from which a new form of indigenismo is developed, one grounded on the nation rather than on the Indian from which it arose. Thus the third irony.

But there is a greater irony still. For though the Spanish and thereafter the Cubans sought to claim Hatuey, this Taíno remains an important cultic figure for the descendants of the supposedly extinct Taíno of Cuba—in Cuba. And even that Taíno tradition has, in turn, been folded into the construction of a Cuban indigenous culture only within which the Indian survives. Thus, José Barreiro tells us that the Taíno of Cuba have incorporated the Hatuey story. “The story of Hatuey's execution is a persistent oral telling in Camaguey and Oriente provinces in Cuba. There is a tradition of pilgrimage to the site of the deed, a place called Yara, near the city of Bayamo. The tradition refers to the "light of Yara" that appears to visitors.” (Barreiro 1990) At the same time, Barreiro reminds us that this story has also leaked into the larger new indigenous culture of Cuba. “The power of physical vigor is associated with this belief. Indeed, a major Cuban rebellion against the Spanish, called the Cry of Yara, started in the same area near the City of Bayamo in 1868.” Id. It is this incorporation that serves as the next great literary chapter in the construction of the indigenous Cuban. To explore that chapter we turn to the great spiritual founder of Cuban independence, José Martí.


The life of Martí, in some respects, parallels that of Hatuey. Both men were outsiders of sorts. Martí was born in Havana, the son of a Spanish soldier garrisoned in Cuba, whoe thereafter retired to become a watchman. (Bio of Jose Martí 2007). Both served as a model of resistance to aggression from a superior force. Martí was arrested for anti Spanish activity at 16 and exiled to Spain a year later, where he spent many years, and thereafter wandered in Central America and eventually found a base in New York, coming back to Cuba three times before his last trip and his death in the War of Independence. Both died in the Eastern parts of Cuba fighting for the causes they defended. In their martyrdoms both acquired a certain legitimacy and authority that was used by their successors. And both derived this authority in art through their literary interventions.

Like many people of his time, José Martí, the father of the Cuban independence movement of the 19th century, was fond of using a form of the literary trope of the “noble savage” in the service of Cuban political independence from Spain and socio/cultural independence from the United States. The “noble savage” themes were both popularized and turned to use in political theory in the 18th century by Rousseau (1755) (”Savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature, and the friend of all his fellow-creatures. . . . . The case is quite different with man in the state of society, for whom first necessities have to be provided and then superfluities; delicacies follow next then immense wealth, then subjects, and then slaves.” Rousseau, id., Appendix). But the notion of the purity of the savage over the corruption of the civilized has a long history in the West, a culture always as fond of its sentimentalism as it has been of the civilization it enhances despite this nostalgic stance for an unencumbered past. (Ellingson 2001).

In “El Hombre Antiguo de América y Sus Artes Primitivas”, written for the periodical, La América, April 1884 (Martí 1884), Martí used the noble savage binary for a different political effect. (Backer 2007). Describing ancient humanity and primitive arts, Martí starts by suggesting that primitive art involved more than a love of beauty, it suggested the basic need of human communities to create and overcome (“la expresión del deseo humano de crear y de vencer” Martí 1884, at 261). In this form, like its European form, art represented a passion for truth (“La pasión por la verdad fue siempre ardiente en el hombre.” Id.)). That passion for truth in arte is capable simultaneously of multiple levels of expression within any civilization (“En el espíritu del hombre están, en el espíritu de cada hombre, todas las edades de la Naturaleza” Id., at 262).

For Indian nations in America, Martí suggests, that blend of naturalism and genius expressed itself in the choice of the places for the expression of their art, choosing those priestly places of Nature (“los lugares sacerdotales de la Naturaleza” id., at 263) without disturbing the natural order. And thus a window onto the soul of the native American character—noble and impatient, with a love of adornment—which express the nomadic character, political immaturity and literature of the countries of the Americas (“y por ella lucen, y por ella pecan, el carácter movible, la política prematura y la literatura hojosa de los países americanos” id., at 263) (“and for her they show off, and for her they sin, the changeable character, the pre-mature politics and the leafy literature of latin american states ”). What, Martí asks, is the nature of the intelligence of Americans if not something like a chalice open to the sun by the special privilege of Nature (“¿Qué es, sino cáliz abierto al sol por especial privilegio de la Naturaleza, la inteligencia de los americanos?” Id., at 263). Every nation (understood as ethnos rather than as demos as was common in the 19th century and increasingly common in the 21st century), Martí suggests has its own genius, but only the people of the Americas were able to clothe the natural with easy, brilliant and marvelous pomp (“sólo al hombre de América es dable en tanto grado vestir como de ropa natural la idea segura de fácil, brillate y maravillosa pompa” id).

And thus to the point: No más que pueblos en ciernes,--que ni todos los pueblos se cuajan de un mismo modo, ni bastan unos cuantos siglos para cuajar un pueblo,--no más que pueblos en bulbo eran aquéllos en que maña sutil de viejos vividores se entró el conquistador valiente, y descargó su ponderosa herrajería, lo cual fue una desdicha histórica y un crimen natural.” Id., at 264 (“Not more than nations in the making,--that neither all nations [understood here as ethnos] come into being in the same way, nor are a number of centuries enough for a people to come into being,--not more than nations still in their bulbs were those in which the valiant conquerors were brought in through by the subtle skill of ancient fortune hunters, carrying out their ponderous mechanics work, which amounted to a historical misfortune and a crime against nature.”). Thus the old European binaries—savage-civilized, advanced-barbarous, noble-savage, U.S.-Latin America—are inverted. The rape of nature and the destruction of indigenous culture are conflated. And that rape, that crime against the natural order is foundational—“los pueblos eran que no imaginaron como los hebreos a la mujer hecho de un hueso y al hombre hecho de lodo; sino a ambos nacidos a un tiempo de la semilla de la palma.” Id. at 264 (“these nations could not imagine, like the Hebrews that woman was made of a bone and that man was made out of clay, but that both were born together from the seed of a palm tree.”).

Crimes against the natural order, that is against the representation of the natural in the human order—the Indian—are cultural as well as political. They implicate the foundations of the autonomy and self construction of every ethnos. Those who would violate this natural order engage in foundational criminal activity—they rob the world of its richness and diversity (“¡Robaron los conquistadores una página al Universo! Id.”). The implications for Martí naturally follow—cultural and political liberation, requires an affirmation of the indigenous in Latin American culture, and a call for the development of that unique culture. But not a return. Rather, the natural (the “indian” within the reality of Latin America) must be united with its other elements, the destructive and passionate power of the immigrant and conquer. For what can be more natural, or necessary, than the union of the two distinct but related elements of “Latinity” in the Americas, for the production of offspring, children that look forward to a future of indigenous Latin America blended from out of its disparate parts.

And, thus, what appears at first blush to be the supreme irony of Martí’s discursive stance, serves as a literary metaphor for a great political and social project—the construction of a new indigeneity. Here is a man fully the creature of European culture and sensibilities, European educated and North American resident, producing a work of European disquietude with the emptiness of European transplantation to the Americas longing for the “naturalness” of the Indian. Yet that peculiarly European disquietude with the state of society and its aggressive advance on the premature and innocent Indian, produces, through the indulgence in a the forms of distinctly European literary/political trope, an inversion. The rape of the naturalness of the Americas, of the Indian, produces offspring that overcomes the crime of the initial union and embodies the union of opposing elements in the creation of a unique and independence people—the new aborigines of the Caribbean in general and Cuba specifically.

Martí elaborates the racial dimension of this politico-ethnographic reverie in an article entitled “Mi Raza,” written in 1893 for the magazine Patria in New York in 1893. (Martí 1883). And that dimension is assimilationist and race neutral, understood in the modern sense, but compounded by an underlying mestizaje and mulatería.

The white man, who by reason of his race, believes himself superior to the black man, admits the idea of race and authorizes and provokes the black racist. The black man who proclaims his own race, when in fact all he proclaims in this erroneous form is the spiritual identity of all races, authorizes and provokes the white racist. Peace seeks common natural rights, differential rights, contrary to nature, is the enemy of peace. The white man who isolates himself, isolates the black man. The black man who isolates himself provokes white separatism. (Martí 1883)

In the Spanish it reads:

El hombre blanco que, por razón de su raza, see cree superior al hombre negro, admite la idea de la raza y autoriza y provoca al racista negro. El hombre negro que proclama su raza, cuando lo que acaso proclama únicamente en esta forma errónea es la identidad espiritual de todas las razas, autoriza y provoca al racista blanco. La paz pide los derechos communes de la naturaleza; los derechos diferenciales, contraries a la naturaleza, son enemigos de la paz. El blanco que se aísla aísla al negro. El negro que se aísla, provoca a aislarse al blanco. (Id., 255)

In Cuba, by contrast, Martí tells the reader, “no hay temor de Guerra de razas.” (“there is no fear of race war”). (id.) Humanity has overcome race through a mutual sacrifice for the construction of a nation: “Hombre es más que blanco, más que mulatto, más que negro. En los campos de batalla nurieron por Cuba, han subido juntos por los aires, las almas de los blancos y de los negros.” (Id. 255)

Echoing the “passion” of Hatuey here, but without the Indian, Martí conflates blood and sacrifice in the construction of something different from and superior to its parts. This is a very religious exercise. In the Republic of Cuba there will be a coming together in which race will become a matter of indifference and the unity of humankind will forge a single people—culturally and racially indistinct—that is, culture or race will be subsumed within the greater cultural and racial tropes of the Cuban nation.

This is indeed a pretty picture, one in which the spirit of indigenismo lies heavy, but also one in which the body of the Indian is missing. An odd circumstance, when, indeed, it was well known that the Indians of Cuba continued to play a pivotal role in the fight for independence from 1871 through 1898. Barreiro 2004). José Barreiro describes the formation and important, and self consciously Taíno, role of an Indian regiment in the War of Independence. (Barreiro 2004, citing Guerra 1998). That the regiment was named the Hatuey Regiment should come as no surprise. The connection, though, likely raised distinct overtones for its Indian members and for the white and mestizo/mulatto elements of “indigenous” resistance to the Spanish. José Martí was well aware of the existence of the Indians of Eastern Cuba, the place where Hatuey was captured and burned to death, but also of their ferocity and power. (Barreiro 2004, citing Lubian y Arias 1982).

“Shortly before he is killed by Spanish bullets, José Martí spends a night in an Indian bohio. He writes in his campaign diary about his native host, Domitila, "Indian woman, ardent eyes, agile and good ... jumps to the forest and brings in a garden of tomatoes, coriander, oregano, herbs..." "Could it be true," he also writes, upon hearing of the ambush against the Maceos, "that Flor Crombet, Flor the gallant, is dead? ... that the Indians of Garrido caused the treason?"” (Barreiro 2004, quoting Argenter 1945).

Martí sought, and the Cuban nationalists were eventually successful in securing, an alliance with the Indians against the Spanish. But even the story of the alliance between Cuban nationalists and Indians is strongly evocative of hybridity and assimilation in the service of the new indigenism. Reconstructed from the correspondence of Cuban revolutionaries in New York (Primelles) (the love-hate relationship between North America and Cuba is deep and complex) the story reflects the contingency of Indian identity and its relationship to other contingent and fluid racial/ethnic identities during the time of the formation of a Cuban ethnos.

Cristina Perez, a midwife of Catalán ancestry but married into an Indian clan via her union to the minor cacique Ramon Ramirez Suarez, was a strong sympathizer with the Cuban cause. She was a collaborator against Spain via her close friendship to young Silverio Guerra Tellez, an Indian descendent from Yateras who would become a commander of the Liberation Army. Throughout late March and April of 1895, Cristina spoke with the major and minor caciques of the indo-Cuban population. . . . This was a dangerous period for Cristina, who anticipated attacks on her person by the Spanish volunteers, along with their many Indian allies. Only her circle of respect as an appreciated midwife of the mountain and her remarkable powers of ceremony, during which sessions she entered trances and spoke with the ancient cemis and long-gone caciques, protected her. (Barreiro 2004).
Like Fidel Castro, a generation later, the pivotal figure in this drama was a double outsider. As a Catalan, her forbearers were outsiders within the social and political hierarchy of the metropolis—Spain. As an immigrant to Cuba, she became part of a dominant colonial group but chose to join with a marginalized and virtylly forgotten element of nascent Cuban society, the Taínos. It was an Taíno that she played a crucial role in Cuban identity. At her insistence, she convinced several caciques to call a meeting of the Taíno for the purpose of allowing her to communicate with the Taíno ancients to declare their will. (Id.).

On the night of May 13, 1895, by the light of an open fire, the ceremony is conducted. An eyewitness, Dr. Luis Morlote, noted her words, which are cited by historian Sanchez Guerra: “Listen,” she said in her trance to the assembled chiefs. It was the voice of an ancient cacique speaking: “In the great timepiece of the universe, it is signaled that the hour of Cuban national independence is at hand. Only a few leagues from here one of the most famous generals of the liberation war is encamped, the great Antonio Maceo. I am with him, and since you are with me, I request that, fortified by the memory of the persecutions felt by our victimized race, instead of continuing to war against him, you join his forces, brave and decided, to struggle for the redemption of Cuba, your country, because the hour is near and it is necessary that Cuba be free.” (Id.)

Cristina is then said to retire, facing the possibility of death at the hands of the caciques. United with Spain. Instead, “The knock came at daybreak. The caciques were ready with an answer: their contingents lined up before Cristina, armed and ready to join the revolution.” (Id.).

Thus, while recent scholarship suggests that Martí was well aware of the continued presence of Indians in Eastern Cuba up to the moment of his own death in the War of Independence, Martí continued to treat the Indian as physically absent from Cuba. Martí’s beautiful elegy to Bartolomé de las Cases suggests an Indian nation necessarily slated for a successful program of genocide. (Martí 1889). “Fue a Cuba de cura con Diego Velásquez y volvió de puro horror porque antes que para hacer casas, derribaban los árboles para ponerlos de lena a las quemazones de los taínos. En una isla donde había quinientos mil “vio con sus ojos” los indios que quedaban: once.” (Id.). The Cuban Indian is extinct.

For Martí, the extermination was necessary as a truth even if not quite valid as fact. As late as the 1970s, “The Yateras Indian community has been documented by professor Manuel Rivero de la Calle (Havana) and others. There are other, less studied, enclaves of native population throughout eastern Cuba. In addition, the guajiro folk culture of Camagüey and Oriente regions is deeply steeped in Taíno traditions and culture.” (Barreiro 2004, citing Rivero de la Calle 1978). Jose Barreiros noted that “A very few Indian communities, deep in the highest mountain valleys, did manage to survive in isolation in cuba for nearly five hundred years. These are the communities of Caridad de los Indios and others in the Rio Toa region.” (Barreiro 1990).

Still, truth of the extermination, rather than the fact of the existence of the Indian in Cuba, was a necessary step for Martí in the project of reconstructing the meaning of the indigenous over the Indian, the immigrant and the former slave. Indeed, this is an indigenism, that expressly obliterates the Indian from its center. The new indigenous individual is not the Indian or even the Creole: the indigenous person is the individual who together with his brothers and sisters now forms the blended ethnic mix which is self consciously tied to the land and the political community to arise therefrom. The Cuban nation is indigenous to Cuba. Indigeneity is now consciously constructed and the Indian, as a living presence, is subordinated to its cause. They are to join the black and white races in the construction of a new race—the Cuban race.

Yet, as we have seen, the Indian is far from forgotten. El Indio Hatuey remains a central figure in Cuban culture and politics. But he remains a figure now transformed and outside. He and his culture are powerful precisely because they have been deemed to disappear. To think back on them, to draw form them, to admire them, is to do so from a distance. This is precisely the stance that key Cuban authors like Martí take. This is an Indianism made possible by the absence of Indians. Indigenismo as moved on ad been reconstructed from the remnant, now necessarily fused together to create a new people—the Cuban nation. The remaining Indians must make the ultimate sacrifice in imitation of el indio Hatuey—they must sacrifice their identity in the formation of the new indigenous population of Cubans inhabiting the Island.

Modern commentators have criticized this stance. One has sought to place it in the context of Martí’s position on the question of the future of North American Indians. (Camacho 2006). Analyzing an 1885 essay of José Martí on the North American “Indian Question,” Jorge Camacho (2006) draws out Martí’s sympathies for an assimilationist approach to justice for Indian peoples.

De los comentarios anteriores de Martí sobre los indígenas norteamericanos, el informe de Lamar y su traducción de Ramona se deduce que este, al igual que los reformadores, proponía la educación y el trabajo como formas de asimilar al indio a la cultura hegemónica occidental y norteamericana. Pedía incorporarlos con urgencia a la nación y sacarlos de las “cárceles” en que los tenían. Prefería verlos como un elemento “útil, original y pintoresco” dentro de ella a que fuesen tratados como prisioneros o fieras. (Id.).

Comacho views, with some distress, the nation building project of Mart’I, at least as applied to the issue of North American Indians and their relationships with the majority population. Martí’s Indianism—understanding Indian culture as natural, passive, immature, and incomplete, which can only be perfected in an assimilation through union with the other inhabitants of the land, strikes Comacho as a means to extinction. And so it is. For Martí, however, that extinction is a necessary predicate to the creation of a new nation, a new indigenous people, on the Island. It was the act that gave meaning to the sacrifice of el indio Hatuey. Yet it is also incomprehensible in the North American context from which Martí’s Indianism may have been influenced, one in which Martí enthusiastically embraced the assimilationist perspective of American turn of the century reformers in his own work. (Id.).

Moreover, Martí’s vision—spiritual, drawing on Christian archetypes, and fusing disparate elements into a whole requiring the assimilation of its parts—presents a very different picture from that painted in other parts of Latin America. The Argentines, at the very moment that Marti is recasting the meaning of the indigenous, are presenting quite another picture. For the Argentines, indigenismo is also the product of the connection between individuals and the land through which native institutions and connections are created to the point where the residents of the and acquire a connection to each other that is greater than any connection ot other groups. Once self consciousness of difference, tied to the land and the institutions that its conditions produce is attained, peoplehood arises—the demos of a state is its indigenous population—land, people, power. But, this is possible only among certain races—principally the white race. Blending produces weaknesses, the acquisition of the worst traits of al of the individual components—unless there is meant to be blended the various peoples of European stock. (Ingenieros 1913; Zuloaga 1943). For Mexican and Peruvian indigenistas, on the other hand, the notion of indigenismo was equally complicated but pointed in the other direction. For them, the focus was on the social and cultural roots of the pre Conquest Indians.


The tradition of indigenismo, especially filtered through the story of the Indio Hatuey, is especially powerful after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Fidel Castro powerfully deploys the imagery of the Indian Hatuey, but now for a very precise set of purposes in which the Indian makes an appearance as a ghost—a figure of foreshadowing and a symbol that can be lived now only through the nation. It is an easy step from the lyrical cultural naturalism of Martí’s eclogue to the nationalist postcolonial rhetoric of Fidel Castro.

The most interesting example, from which I draw is a 1985 speech commemorating the start of the Cuban Revolution. (Castro Ruz 1985) “July 26 marks the Día de la Rebeldía in Cuba, commemorating the failed attack on an outpost barracks by Fidel Castro and his band of rebels against soldiers of the Batista regime. That failed attack marks now the beginning of the Cuban Revolution whose victors continue to administer the Cuban state.” (Backer 2007a). That attack has significant geographic resonance to hundreds of years of Cuban history—a history that Castro chose to conflate in his reconstruction of the Cuban nation. The attack took place in eastern Cuba—mountainous, far from the Capital and the center of Cuban Creole civilization, and the usual killing ground for control of the island since the time of the first Spanish invasion in the 16th century.

The territory thus marks “sacred ground” for three germinal events in Cuban history—the conquest, the War of Independence and the 1959 Revolution. And it was those ties that Castro sought to bind together. Fidel first establishes a connection between land, struggle and the man, situating him both within and outside his Indian-ness.

In this region, our people began their struggle, in the first place, against the conquistadors. As I recently related at a Labor Conference, the most peaceful people on earth were those who inhabited this island at the time that the conquistadors arrived, the aborigines, totally unarmed, totally unwarlike, who notwithstanding were able to offer a certain resistance and a name that figures in our history as the first warrior for our country—that of el indio Hatuey. According to history, he came here from the island of Santo Domingo—I believe that was the name for the place then—where the conquistadores had first established themselves—and he became our first warrior, our first leader, and the first martyr of our fatherland. (Castro 1985)

In the original the passage reads:

En esta región, nuestro pueblo empezó a luchar, en primer lugar, contra los conquistadores. Como dije recientemente en la Conferencia Sindical, el más pacífico pueblo del mundo era el que habitaba en esta isla cuando llegaron los conquistadores; los aborígenes, totalmente desarmados, totalmente pacíficos, no obstante, ofrecieron cierta resistencia y un nombre figura en nuestra historia como el primer luchador por nuestro país, el del indio Hatuey. Según la historia, procedía de la isla de Santo Domingo —creo que así la llamaban entonces—, donde se habían asentado primero los conquistadores, y fue el primer luchador, el primer jefe y el primer mártir de nuestra patria. . . . (Castro 1985)
I use the word “homeland” for “patria.” I am not sure that there is a good word in English for the word “patria.” Either fatherland or homeland (less gendered but losing the gendered flavor of the original) comes closest.

The template described, a connection with Cuban nationality, a connection outside fo Indian-ness but within a new kind of indigenismo, is needed. That required a connection between the ghost of the Indian and the spirit fo the new state. Thus, Castro continues:

Much later, when there emerged what can be called Cuban nationality, the population of this region had an active role in the first war of independence from 1871 in which Cuban forces, lead by Maceo, Máximo Gómez and Moncada, penetrated this area, an area full of slaves and coffee planatations, and waged intense and successful battles against Spanish forces.

When that war, which had lasted ten years, was renewed in 1895, in this very eastern zone of the country served as the point at which the hero of our independence, José Martí, disembarked in the company of Máximo Gómez, one of the most renowned internationalist figure in the history of Latin America, in the same way that the indio Hatuey had been an internationalist in our conception, who coming from Santo Domingo, fought in our lands. These men planted the seeds of internationalism. (Castro 1985)
In the Spanish the passage reads as follows:

Más adelante, cuando ya surge lo que pudiéramos llamar la nacionalidad cubana, la población de esta región tiene una participación activa en la primera guerra de independencia, desde el año 1871 en que las fuerzas cubanas, dirigidas por Maceo, Máximo Gómez y Moncada, penetraron en este territorio, que estaba lleno de esclavos y cafetales, y libraron intensos y victoriosos combates contra las fuerzas españolas.

Cuando aquella guerra que había durado 10 años se reanuda, en 1895, por esta zona oriental del país se produce el desembarco de José Martí, héroe de nuestra independencia, en compañía de Máximo Gómez, una de las figuras internacionalistas más prestigiosa de la historia de América Latina, como había sido también internacionalista en nuestro concepto el indio Hatuey, que, procedente de Santo Domingo, luchó en nuestras tierras. Ellos sembraron simientes de internacionalismo.

The Indian has become the internationalist warrior. The ethnic warrior has become the expression of internationalist solidarity against subordination on the political plane. Hatuey, like Martí, become objects, bodies serving to contain the expressive elements of their actions, as perceived (“en nuestro concepto”) by the indigenous people of Cuba—the aggregation of people who no longer considered themselves Spaniards. Hatguey, reduced to spirit, serves a changing community, and is incarnated in different forms. His Indian-ness is lost within his internationalism and the mestisaje that together constitutes the Cuban nation (“cuando ya surge lo que pudiéramos llamar la nacionalidad cubana”).

Castro drives this last point home. Having articulated a position for strong national defense, he describes the size and strength of the Cuban armed forces. He then continues:

I believe that for our Latin American friends, this information that I provide, that is no great secret, is very important. But we have more arms and we will continue to arm the people, organizing and preparing them for battle. Everything is organized, and prepared for the defense of their fatherland are all of the people even though there are insufficient weapons to arm them all. These are no longer the times of el Indio Hatuey, nor are they the times when, at the end of our way of independence, there came others to stroll through here opportunistically; now we are a conscious people, organized, patriotic, combative, well prepared, who are afraid of nothing and no one. (Castro 1985)
In the Spanish the passage reads as follows:

Creo que para nuestros amigos y amigas latinoamericanos este dato que les doy, que no constituye ningún secreto, es muy importante. . . . . Pero tendremos más armas y seguiremos armando al pueblo, organizándolo y preparándolo para luchar. Organizado está todo, y preparados para defender su patria están todos aunque las armas sean todavía insuficientes. Ya no son los tiempos del indio Hatuey, ni son los tiempos aquellos en que vinieron a pasear aquí oportunistamente, al final de nuestra guerra de independencia; ahora hay un pueblo consciente, organizado, patriótico, combativo, bien preparado que no le tiene miedo a nada ni a nadie (APLAUSOS).

Thus we come full circle. The Americans have become the Spanish conquistadores. The Spanish have disappeared as progenitors, having spread their seed throughout the Americas. The Indians have become mother (consider the gender implications of the rle of Christina Pérez in the War of Independence) to the Cuban nation. Though the Indians have disappeared, their spirit suffuses the nation. And the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. And for the immaturity of the original natives, comes the experience of their national successors, the Cuban nation, of which their survivors form a part, and from whose experiences and sacrifices they will profit.


Hatuey has been transfigured. From a Taíno cacique from Hispaniola (Hayti) seeking to preserve the control of Indian peoples over their lands, he has become the first Cuban—foreign born, warrior, martyr, whose blood sacrifice ties him not to the Indians of Cuba but to Cuba iteself. In the hands of Castro as a link in a long Cuban literary tradition, Hatuey becomes an internationalist revolutionary. The savage made noble by his sacrifice has been transformed into the sum of the idea his life represented for those peoples tat came after his were substantially extinguished. The Indian is a foreigner come to fight for the defense of a nation with which he feels some solidarity (in his case ties of blood—broadly and anachronistically conceived). His greatest gift was his death. For only through his martyrdom was he able to provide his spirit to the cause of internationalism and the defense of territorial space for the people who occupy it consciously as a nation—not the Indians, but the Cubans, of which the Indians may constitute a part, or suffer the fate of the Spaniards.

Hatuey thus became bound up in the figure of Martí. But he is also bound to the spirit of the Catalan Indian woman Christina Pérez. All were foreigners of sorts. Hatuey came form the destruction of Santo Domingo to warn his fellow Taíno of the danger that was coming in the form of Spanish aggression. Pérez also came to Cuba from a land in which its people thought themselves subject to a foreign power, and absorbed the ways of the people among whom she settled. Martí, though born in Cuba, long lived in exile from the Island of his birth and came from the United States to fight against the Spanish and warn the Cubans of the danger lying just to the North. Each landed in Oriente province. Each died there within a short time of landing. Two died fighting and the last was prepared for that sacrifice. And that death lent authority to the meaning of the lives lived, to be tended by acolytes who would used those lives, and whatever writings were produced, to advance the ideas of or from each in a manner suitable to the times. Hatuey and Martí, stripped of flesh, and the inconveniences of their own contextual shortcomings—one an Indian seeking the expulsion of everything foreign, the other a failed man of action doomed to wander as a stranger in the lands of his enemies, enemies who provided for his support—become the building blocks for the construction of Cuban indigeneity.

And in our own time, Hatuey became bound up in the essence of Che. Che is the essentialized Hatuey of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. An Argentine with a refined sense of the dangers posed by the United States, and a keen sense of the value of servitude to a different ideological aster, he traveled to Cuba to defend it against its internal betrayers and external foes. And he died for his efforts, and died in grand style.

The “Indian” in these men, is thus extracted, abstracted, and deployed in the service of causes with respect to which any of them might have found themselves in opposition. Martí would have sought Hatuey’s assimilation into the Cuban Nation in a way that Hatuey would have found impossible to reconcile with his own Indianness. Che would have sought Martí’s assimilation into the socialist collective of ationalist workers and peasants in a way that Martí might have found impossible to reconcile with his own ethno nationalist constructions of demos.

Still, the template remains Indian. It continues to serve as the inspiration for Cuban self consciousness. Yet its strength is founded on a sanitizing process that bleaches the Indian out of the story. And turns the story into tat of Other. The parallels to another martyrdom, and the resulting transfiguration is one that cannot be dismissed. The cacique of the Indians has become the father of the Cuban nation.


It is with this long and complex history in mind, a history uncovered through a centuries old literary tradition that included hagiography of sorts, essays, poetry and related literary forms, journalistic essays and formal political discourse, that one can more readily understand the position of Cuba as it confronted the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), adopted by the Sixty First United Nations General Assembly Plenary at its 107th & 108th Meetings in September 2007. (United Nations 2007). Speaking after the passage of the Declaration, the remarks of the Cuban representative were summarized in a way that resonated within the peculiarities of Cuban ethnic traditions.

CLAUDIA PEREZ-ALVAREZ ( Cuba) noted that ending the isolation and discrimination suffered by the peoples for more than five centuries had been the driving motive of many stakeholders around the world. Noting important milestones in the process, she said the working group had been the first instance to address the question, opening the door for the ancestral claims of indigenous peoples. During the first decade, significant results had been made in the quest for solutions to the problems faced by indigenous communities, including the contributions from the special rapporteur on the situation of indigenous peoples and the establishment of the Permanent Forum on indigenous questions.

The Declaration and its future impact on the work of the United Nations would serve as a guide for future claims of the indigenous community. The Human Rights Council and its subordinate bodies should follow up for the full implementation of all indigenous people’s human rights. The acts of the United Nations in the second decade should not be limited to defining indigenous people’s rights. Cuba would continue to support the just claims of indigenous peoples. (Id.).

For Cuba, support of such a declaration is an easy affair—the Cuban nation constitutes its own indigenous people. The problem of the Indian or other native peoples are those of other states. There is an irony here. For it appears that only states unsuccessful in obliterating their native peoples—in fact or effectively—are to be subject to its strictures.

Even Mexico appeared to seek refuge within a more complex version of this stance. Thus, as summarized, the Mexican representative Mexico

“welcomed the adoption of the Declaration and reaffirmed her Government’s pride in its multiethnic population. With the anniversary of its independence, Mexico had enjoyed the recognition of its indigenous peoples, who supported the country’s national identity. She also welcomed the provisions of the Declaration in accordance with the provisions of Mexico’s Constitution. Article 2 of the Constitution recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, granting them autonomy to determine their internal form and system of norms for conflict resolution. She understood, however, that the rights of indigenous people to self-determination, autonomy and self-government shared be exercised in accordance with Mexico’s Constitution, so as to guarantee its national unity and territorial integrity.” (Id.).

And indeed, the view from the Taíno nation, still very much alive in the Caribbean, might be seen as slightly different from the official Cuban position. The United Confederation of the Taíno People (n.d.), encompassing the Taíno nation across the Caribbean, have understood the difficulty of maintaining Taíno distinctness in the face of Cuban indigeneity. Thus, for example, José Barreiro writes:

“In the middle of a housing shortage, current planning in Cuba discourages the building of bohios. They are considered symbols of the "past" and associated with "under-development." In Cuba, for many years, the bohio-dwelling Guajiro was isolated and subject to harsh and arbitrary mistreatment at the hands of the Rural Guard. Eastern Guajiros in Cuba today have more access to modern conveniences but complain about government regimentation over their agricultural practices and market. They still build many bohios, some quite comfortable, out of the Royal palm.” (Barreiro 1990)
It is hard to reconcile the Cuban position on the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, with it own actions, in the absence of an understanding of the construction of the indigenous within Cuba. Rom the Cuban perspective, its actions with respect to Taíno traditional practices do not implicate indigenous practices because the Taíno are not indigenous, as such, within Cuba, but are merely part of what in the aggregate constitutes indigenous Cuban culture—a culture centered on the Cuban nation.

As a consequence, these sorts of restrictions on the Taíno are merely economic, and not cultural. On that basis, the Cuban state has been happy enough to sponsor Taíno activities. For example, Cuba hosted a conference of Taíno in Baracoa, Cuba, in 1997, “to explore and celebrate the legacy of the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean.” (La voz del pueblo Taíno (The Voice of the Taíno People) 1998). The conference comported fully with the rhetorical understanding of Taíno involvement in Cuba expressed by Castro in 1985—the focus was historical and also internationalist. It sought to draw commonalities among the peoples of the Caribbean without intruding on the construction of Cuban indigenism. It also suggested at least a slight change in the consciousness of Cuban culture. Migeul Alfnso Martinez, then the Cuban delegate to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, opened the Baracoa conference. He was quoted as stating that “although for a long time Cuba has been involved with the cause of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it has never looked within to its own indigenous reality, this is something we are now working to change.” (Id., at 4). I have suggested that this change will be difficult at best and more difficult still to harmonize with more than a century’s efforts aimed at constructing an understanding of the indigenous Cuban as someone other than the “lost” Indian contributors to the indigenous stock of the Cuban nation. And ironically enough, it may well be North Americans who will be instrumental in exhuming and reanimating a different approach to indigenismo in Cuba. In 2002, the United States, through the Smithsonian Instituton, appeared to extend a formal recognition to the nation status of Cuban Taínos by returning Taíno remains to the Indian community in Caridad de los Indios, Cuba. But the ambivalence of Cuba was niceñly evidenced by the manner of the return—the remains were received on behalf of the Taíno community by the state Foundation for Nature and Humanity. (Id., at 2).


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