This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Caribbean is generally considered the islands and territories bounded on one or more shores by the Caribbean Sea, containing an archipelagic stretch of islands, from the Straits of Florida in the United States to the tip of the South American continent, and including the mainland territories of Belize, Suriname, and Guyana. A Caribbean palette incorporates a taste, a way of looking, a value system of what is considered beautiful, representative, or pleasing; an aesthetic sensibility, and feel, for these territories, not just the ways in which art and artistic representation lay down color and texture. It includes expectations that the viewer, whether internal or external to the region, has come to associate with Caribbean peoples. The term “visual palette” also refers to the range of colors and artistic expressions that are connected to the region as a result of its geography and climate, its tropical flora and fauna, the mixing of its ethnic and racial groups, and their religious practices. These elements have accumulated to a range of iconographic symbols derived from festivals, producing values, customs, and variations of shade, shape, and sound that, over time, have morphed into a Caribbean aesthetic, which, like all living cultures, continues to evolve each day.
The historical process by which culture has been created in this region—European colonial settlement of relatively unpopulated lands, displacing the indigenous groups from the 15th century onwards to the present—has affected the way in which the Caribbean has been represented over time. Post-colonial relations of dominance, among and between racialized groups in the different Caribbean territories, have signaled ideas that have demographic appeal. At the same time, there is no unified or shared acceptance of taste or formal values of what is fully representative of the Caribbean visual standpoint, either within societies or between and among them. In an area that contains Anglophone, Hispanophone, Francophone, and Dutch Antillean languages, as well as countless dialects, there are barriers to communication that make for inhibited fluidities or sharing. Nonetheless, due to commonalities of history and topography, there has evolved a uniqueness, perhaps, of color or subject matter that resonates with the Caribbean visual experience. This article examines some selected elements of the different aesthetics produced within this region and explores how these have emerged to create a sensibility that is understood loosely as Caribbean.
From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
Aaron Coy Moulton
Between 1944 and 1959, conflicts with anti-dictatorial exiles and democratic leaders against dictatorial regimes and dissident exiles shaped inter-American relations in the Caribbean Basin. At the end of World War II, anti-dictatorial exiles networked with students, laborers, journalists, and politicians in denouncing the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, and Honduras’s Tiburcio Carías. Opponents of and dissident exiles from the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution and Venezuela’s Trienio Adeco (Adeco Triennium) under Rómulo Betancourt likewise turned to dictatorial regimes for aid. By 1947, a loose coalition of anti-dictatorial exiles with the help of Cuba, Guatemala, and Venezuela’s democratic leaders formed what would become known as the Caribbean Legion and organized the abortive Cayo Confites expedition against Trujillo. Seeking regional stability, U.S. officials intervened against this expedition and Caribbean Basin dictators and dissident exiles’ attempts to air-bomb Guatemala City and Caracas.
Caribbean Basin leaders and exiles focused upon these inter-American conflicts, rather than the international Cold War. José Figueres’s rise to power in Costa Rica provided a pivotal ally to democratic leaders and anti-dictatorial exiles, and Caribbean Basin dictators began working with the Venezuelan military regime after the 1948 military coup. In 1949, Trujillo’s regime coordinated a counter-intelligence operation that destroyed the Caribbean Legion’s expedition at Luperón and brought greater attention to the region.
By the early 1950s, dictatorial regimes operated as a counter-revolutionary network sharing intelligence, aiding dissident exiles, supporting Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup in Cuba, and lobbying U.S. officials against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Figueres in Costa Rica. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) utilized these dictators and exiles during Operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954, but U.S. officials intervened when the counter-revolutionary network invaded Costa Rica in 1955.
From 1955 onward, anti-dictatorial exiles from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela continued organizing expeditions against Caribbean Basin dictatorships, and multiple groups conspired against Batista’s regime. Among Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro rose to prominence and received important resources and alliances through anti-dictatorial exiles. Dictators shared intelligence and gave aid to Batista, yet Caribbean Legion veterans, Cuban exiles, Betancourt, Figueres, and others helped Castro undermine Batista. In 1959, Castro supported anti-dictatorial expeditions, most notably those against Trujillo and Luis Somoza. However, Castro disagreed with many former exiles and Betancourt and Figueres’s policies, so the resulting tension separated Castro from democratic leaders and divided the region among dictatorial regimes, democratic governments, and Castro.
Anita Casavantes Bradford and Raúl Fernandez
The years between 1989 and 2005 were a period of exceptional musical productivity and creativity, a “second golden age” of Cuban popular music—the first golden age referring to the 1950s explosion of the mambo and the cha-cha-chá. During this more recent golden age multiple and diverse forms of musical expression gained traction, and island artists enjoyed a dramatic increase in international visibility. The exciting new sounds of timba and Latin jazz, the Buena Vista Social Club–styled reinvention of the son cubano, and the reemergence of música guajira during the 1990s all reflected the dynamic tensions between tradition and innovation, the local and global, and between an imaginary “authentic” and the much denigrated “commercial” that have long animated the island’s extraordinary musical culture. Despite the seeming newness and singularity of much of the music produced during this period, this second golden age was in fact characterized as much by cross-genre collaboration and continuities with earlier trends in Cuban music and musical culture as by the impact on musical production of unprecedented circumstances of economic deprivation of those years known as the Special Period. A closer look at this second golden age of popular music reveals a cosmopolitan Cuban musical landscape in which styles from different periods coexisted with ease and remained relevant, both as distinct sounds and in dialogue with one another, bringing together a dynamic community of musicians of all levels and styles, old and young, on and off the island. Dynamically poised between the forces of tradition and innovation, and beloved by both local and global audiences, the artists who rose to prominence or were rediscovered during these years each spoke, in their own unique ways, to the innovation, the cross genre collaborations, and above all to the profound historical continuities that have long animated the island’s extraordinary musical culture.
Record-setting Dominican attendance at the championship game of the 1969 Amateur Baseball World Series attested to the local and international stakes in the competition between the United States and Cuba. Both teams reached the final game of the round-robin tournament, having defeated all nine of the opposing teams representing nations and government systems as varied as Nicaragua’s rightest dictatorship, the Dutch Antilles’ constitutional commonwealth, and Venezuela’s guerrilla-threatened democracy. Dominican sportswriters described the game as a competition between two opposing government systems and two conflicting sporting systems: the decentralized, largely privatized U.S. system that used amateur ball as a stepping stone to professionalism and the Cuban system that developed state amateurs who educated themselves, worked, and played ball in the service of the nation. The meeting between the U.S. and Cuban teams in the Dominican Republic suggested that the systems might coexist at a time when the Dominican government headed by President Joaquín Balaguer began to experiment with new models for political and economic development. Balaguer used the domestic openness and conciliatory attitude toward Cuba to legitimate controversial economic policies and submerge political discontent through national projects around international events like the Amateur World Series in 1969 and the XII Central American and Caribbean Games in 1974. With the international stage provided by the sporting events, Balaguer offered his Third Way as a model for Latin America. This local pluralism, though brief and perhaps disingenuous, allowed Balaguer to project himself and the Dominican Republic as leaders in a movement for Latin America solidarity built on pluralism and respect for sovereignty.
The colmado, or the small village or street-corner store, is a Dominican institution. It is typically a general store for basic foodstuffs, cleaning products, toiletries, soft drinks, beer, and rum. When Dominicans from the early 1960s onward started migrating to New York City in large numbers, they took with them a version of the colmado. On the way, they altered the original colmado. The result became the “Dominican” bodega or corner grocer’s in New York City, a new type but nevertheless not so unlike the colmado on the island. This essay explores the making and remaking of Dominican colmados and bodegas. The goal is twofold: firstly, to provide some answers to the questions “How have these businesses been created and run?” and “What are their most important and most striking characteristics?” and, secondly, to demonstrate that the Dominican colmado can be good to think with—more specifically, the hope is to show that the problematic of “the Dominican colmado / the Dominican bodega” offers a window for tracing and understanding in which ways the Dominican social formation has changed since the mid-20th century, that is, since the last years of the Trujillo regime. The patterns of the colmados and bodegas have mirrored broader historical transformations. But these businesses have also helped give the latter processes their form. Businesses and social configurations have been two sides of the same historical process.
Pablo F. Gómez
In the early modern Spanish Caribbean, ritual practitioners of African descent were essential providers of health care for Caribbean people of all origins. Arriving from West and West Central Africa, Europe, and other Caribbean and New World locales, black healers were some of the most important shapers of practices related to the human body in the region. They openly performed bodily rituals of African, European, and Native American inspiration. Theirs is not a history uniquely defined by resistance or attempts at cultural survival, but rather by the creation of political and social capital through healing practices. Such a project was only possible through their exploration of and engagement with early modern Caribbean human and natural landscapes.
Reinaldo L. Román
Espiritismo refers to the practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead by means of especially disposed and trained persons known as mediums. Linked in origin to the Spiritualist movement that swept through the United States and Europe after 1848, espiritistas in Cuba drew primarily from French and Spanish sources, especially the writings of French systematizer Allan Kardec (1804–1869). Following Kardec, espiritistas asserted that spirits survived death, progressing over numerous incarnations until they attained perfect knowledge and morality. Kardec, who described his pursuits as an experimental science rather than as a faith, was less influential among Anglo-American spiritualists. Among other differences, spiritualists questioned Kardec’s notion of reincarnation, the key to what he called the “law of [spiritual] progress.”
In Cuba, a Spanish colony until 1898, espiritismo grew in popularity in the last third of the 19th century, a period of wrenching anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggles that led separatists to denounce the Catholic Church for its support of Spanish colonialism. Communications with spirits persuaded non-conformists, mostly literate town and city residents of the middling classes, that a new age of technological and moral progress was dawning. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Barcelona, and Madrid, espiritistas challenged the Church for its refusal to recognize evidence derived from spirit communications. Practitioners maintained that knowledge acquired from superior spirits could renew Christianity, heal the sick, and open up new vistas of the cosmos. Generally associated with liberalism, espiritistas contested the doctrinal authority of the Church and its public functions. Persuaded of the essential equality of all spirits, espiritistas advocated civil marriage, lay schools, hospitals, cemeteries, the end of capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and reforms favoring individual freedoms for men and women. Fearful that espiritismo could fuel anti-colonial dissent, Spanish officials in Cuba sought to limit the circulation of espiritista texts. Clerics condemned the practice in vehement terms.
The Ten Year’s War (1868–1878) marked a turning point in the development of espiritismo. Following the decade-long nationalist insurgency, espiritista groups multiplied. Espiritismo gained adherents among campesinos and people of color, including those in eastern Cuba, where the separatist movement had its most ardent supporters. Although espiritistas were not all revolutionaries, practitioners were well represented in the multi-racial army that waged the War of Independence (1895–1898) with the aim of establishing a sovereign and racially egalitarian republic. The 1890s and early 1900s also witnessed the rise of ritually and nominally distinct forms of espiritismo. In eastern Cuba, a communal healing practice known as espiritismo de cordón became popular. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, including Regla de Ocha (Santería) and Palo, incorporated espiritista practices of medium communication. Espiritismo cruzado, a practice inspired by African and espiritista sources, also gained adherents across the island.
In 1898, when the United States intervened in Cuba, bringing thirty years of recurrent warfare to an abrupt end, much of the island was in ruins. The Cuban insurgent army had destroyed plantations to deprive Spain of revenue. Spain, for its part, had pursued a policy of reconcentración (1896–1897). These were measures aimed at denying separatists the support of rural Cubans. Hundreds of thousands of campesinos were forced to relocate to garrisoned camps established in cities and towns under Spanish control. As Spanish officers had anticipated, reconcentrados and refugees overwhelmed the fragile urban infrastructure. The results were widespread hunger, epidemics, and the deaths of a 150,000 to 170,000 people, according to a recent estimate by historian Guadalupe García.
When the United States installed a military government in Cuba in 1898, the reconstruction of war-ravaged cities, restoration of agriculture, and resettlement of the displaced population were among its most pressing priorities. Havana’s urban periphery alone counted 242,055 indigent residents in 1899. Espiritistas responded to the neocolonial government’s urban planning with designs of their own. After witnessing the expansion of El Vedado, a Havana suburb lauded for embodying the virtues of the nascent order, an otherwise unknown espiritista named Antonio Ojeda y Cabral launched a quixotic campaign. In a free pamphlet, Ojeda proposed a blueprint for the construction of a new kind of city, one purpose-built to promote material and spiritual regeneration of society. Painstakingly articulated as the vision was, El que entienda, recoja: A que os libertéis vosotros sois llamados (1908) was remarkable for its silence on matters of race, a fault line that cut across politics and urban planning alike. Ojeda’s rhetoric aligned him with the predominant strain of Cuban nationalism. Advocates, including José Martí, defined Cubanness as transcending racial differences, but decried race-based mobilizations as threats to national unity and sovereignty.
In the eastern province of Oriente, espiritistas de cordón responded to neocolonial plans with the construction of healing compounds. These centros espirituales challenged the schemes for urban renewal and agro-industrial expansion that the government promoted in Santiago de Cuba’s suburb of Vista Alegre and in newly established sugar plantations. The centers afforded a small number of insurgent veterans access to housing and plots of land, and gave victims of the war a chance to build communities in line with their aspirations of eastern insurgents. Their regional understanding of national liberation called for racial equality without demanding silence. Despite such differences, early 20th-century espiritismo offered Cubans in Oriente and Havana futures beyond those that government officials and developers sought to build.
Matthew J. Smith
Of the many conditions pronounced that have been strongly featured in the Caribbean experience since the ending of slavery in the 19th century, exile ranks as one of the most profound. Its impact is far-reaching. The circumstances that encourage exile are well known and involve either a willful decision to leave one’s country as a result of political and economic distress or a forced departure sanctioned by the state in an effort to quash internal dissent. There is also the case of political exile of state leaders who fall from grace, a situation associated more with Haiti than with other countries in the Caribbean. Whatever the reasons, exiles and refugees—like other migrants from the Caribbean—brought the Caribbean experience to wider attention. People from the islands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea have since the first days of colonial rule made of that sea a highway for travel to other places, an escape and entry into the wider Atlantic.
The personal impact of exile is manifest in several domains, but most obviously in Caribbean culture. The Rastafari faith in Jamaica has as one of its fundamental beliefs that blacks in the Caribbean are in a state of displacement, taken by force to an oppressive Babylon. The Rastafari desire for repatriation to Africa as necessary to bring to an end centuries of exilic life in the Caribbean is not uncommon, nor is their spiritual and cultural preoccupation with exile. Caribbean writers have consistently written about exile and a yearning to return to an imagined home: Barbadian writer George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, Jamaican Thomas MacDermot’s poem “A Song for Exiles” (written under the name Tom Redcam), or Bob Marley’s Exodus document the exile experience from several perspectives. Common to all these examples is a melancholic sense of rootlessness and guilt that exile creates among those who have left. There is also a persistent theme of the Caribbean exile as wanderer, moving in and out of different locations across the Atlantic while searching for both a spiritual and physical home and a rationale for their condition. It is a perceived inability to settle completely in a foreign country that produces this guilt. Bob Marley captured this perfectly in “Running Away,” the most poignant of his songs recorded during his exile from Jamaica in 1977: “You must have done something wrong / Why you can’t find a place where you belong?” which is followed later by the rationalization of the decision to leave—“It is better to live on the house top than in a house full of confusion.”
The longing to return, whether to Africa, Europe, or Haiti, has been a constant theme in Haiti and the Caribbean, and it is linked to the long centuries of slavery. Metaphors of slavery and its associated sense of displacement are replete in the literature on exile not only in the 20th-century writings of Depestre, Dany Lafferière, Danticat, the art of Edouard Duval-Carrié, and the music of the Haitian diaspora, but also in references to the social conditions of the Caribbean’s populations during the period of slavery. If exile has been a persistent theme in Caribbean history, popping in and out of narratives of the nation at various points on a temporal map of the region, in Haiti it has been woven completely into the fabric of Haitian national history. Exile has always carried a powerful resonance in Haitian culture because it has been a pervasive aspect of Haitian political life. Twentieth-century cultural references to exile and displacement are numerous. In the decades since the coming to power of François Duvalier in 1957, which precipitated mass migration from the island, the theme of exile has been consistently and most powerfully articulated by Haitian writers and singers. From Réne Depestre’s famous poem “Exile,” in which he compared the country itself to a departure gate in an airport with people waiting to leave, to Edwidge Danticat’s novels, the theme is ever-present. Rodrigue Milien’s painful song of exile in the Duvalier years, “Nostalgie,” sung in both Creole and English, poignantly captured the loneliness of the Haitian exile: “When someone leaves his country far away and life is mistreating you and you want to kill yourself … take me back to Haiti, take me back to Haiti.”
This article considers the roots of exile in Haiti’s long 19th century, which Haitian scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has suggested began with independence in 1804 and ended with U.S. military occupation in 1915, through the personal experiences and writings of three prominent 19th-century exiles: Joseph Balthazar Inginac (Mémoires, 1843), Edmond Paul (Les causes de nos malheurs, 1882), and Anténor Firmin (Lettres de Saint-Thomas, 1910). None of these men were ever president of Haiti, but they all wielded political and intellectual influence. Common to all three was their forced departure from Haiti for political reasons. They each settled in locations across the Caribbean at different times. Notably, none of these writers settled in North America or Europe. From afar they wrote extensively on Haiti’s predicament and the impact of exile on Haiti and their personal lives. Through a reading of their experiences in exile it is possible to arrive at a fresh perspective of the place of exile in the unfolding of Haiti’s post-independence development.
On March 12, 1956, Basque National and Columbia University lecturer Jesús María de Galíndez Suarez disappeared from New York City never to be seen again. While no conclusive evidence was ever uncovered, it has been widely accepted that he was taken by functionaries of the regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, flown to the island, tortured, and killed. Galíndez, who had worked for the Trujillo regime after fleeing Spain in 1939 and subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1946, had just completed a dissertation on the Trujillato at Columbia. The regime did not look kindly on his chosen perspective and set in motion a plan to have him disappeared. Following his abduction, many U.S. solidarity activists joined forces with Dominican exile groups to push for greater attention to the atrocities of the Trujillo regime as well as for a closer investigation into Galíndez’s disappearance. While Trujillo had similarly disappeared a number of individuals in the United States and other Latin American countries, the Galíndez case is unique for several reasons. First, Galíndez’s life offers a prime example of a transnational identity, of someone who juggled multiple identities and causes, crossed physical and ideological borders, and operated daily with conflicting alliances and allegiances. Second, the murder of the Basque national mobilized a significant collective of solidarity activists in the United States, garnered considerable national press, and built a foundation for future activism. Moreover, as Galíndez had been working as a U.S. intelligence operative since before his arrival in the United States, his story complicates the traditional nexus of solidarity work. Finally, the case offers a unique window onto the geopolitics of the early Cold War (prior to the Cuban Revolution) and the intricacies of the second half of the Trujillo regime.