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Reviews of Frontiers, Plantations & Walled Cities: Essays on Society, Culture & Politics in the Hispanic Caribbean, 1800–1945

“This collection of ‘revised and updated’ (p. xi) essays provides a useful overview of the dynamic interplay of local and international influences on Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, mainly from the mid-nineteenth century to 1945. Some will be familiar to readers in their original form or in their appearances in other works by the author, but brought together from different and not always easily-accessible publications, they constitute a useful addition to comparative studies of the Caribbean.

“The first chapter deals with the competing frontier and plantation explanations of Hispanic Caribbean history. Martínez-Fernández judiciously explains why they are not, for the Hispanic Caribbean, opposites. Unlike the rest of the Caribbean, these territories were never totally dominated by sugar plantations, and the era of dominance came later. Thus, non-plantation values and attitudes survived longer and continued to influence behavior long after plantations became the chief economic organization.

“The second chapter examines the different responses to the mid-nineteenth-century sugar crisis exhibited by Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cuban sugar continued to expand, entrenching its importance, while Puerto Rican sugar failed the challenge and the economy diversified.

“The third and fourth chapters are the most purely socio-cultural. ‘Life in a Male City’ is a fascinating analysis of the fate of elite white women in Havana: secluded and only allowed out either in church or [in] the specially-invented Cuban carriage, the volanta, which kept them high above the street and some distance from the coachman. White female foreigners found themselves the objects of unwanted attention in Havana; the confluence of patriarchal and racist attitudes in producing this situation is well treated by Martínez-Fernández. The next chapter, on the fate of Protestants in Cuba and Puerto Rico before religious toleration in 1869, finely captures the human capacity for change and dissimulation even when their most sacred beliefs are concerned; however, it was not only ‘Protestantism [that] was not indigenous to Cuba and Puerto Rico’ (p. 58). The next two chapters deal with the complex interests and influences that led to the contest between nationalists and annexationist political stances in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico: individuals switched between camps, and their reasons were not always self-interest. The last and longest chapter sets this conflict in the context of growing US hegemony from 1868. It is an illuminating account of the evolution of political culture and the similarities and contrasts between these territories.

“As a collection, it has a certain chronological and thematic coherence. It is not always comparative: Havana, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico each have a chapter of their own. The author seems wary of comparisons with the rest of the Caribbean; the legacies of militarism in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as Cuba, might well have been illuminating. Rewriting might have been more thorough in places.

“The contrast in the first chapter between ‘plantation’ and ‘frontier’ explanations of [the] Caribbean should have been developed further: it is mainly about Cuba and Puerto Rico, yet the Dominican Republic was the place that most nearly fitted the description of a frontier society until late in the nineteenth century. That had considerable bearing on its political development, as the author himself explained more thoroughly in his previous book (Martínez-Fernández, 1994). It would also have deepened the discussion of regional differences … Even better might have been an expansion of that chapter into a discussion of historiography: in many essays the differing interpretations are set out and challenged by Martínez-Fernández. He efficiently dismantles romantic nationalist versions of Caribbean history, as well as those that simply blame foreigners. Perhaps more surprising for the author of that earlier book is the neglect of racism in analyzing the political cultures of the Hispanic Caribbean.

“There he had shown how important racist attitudes were in the Hispanic Caribbean: here, by contrast, this is brought out mainly in the chapter on women in Havana. The Race War (whether we agree with that name or not) of 1912 in Cuba and the massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic (in 1937, not 1938; p. 155) are swiftly passed over: they might at least have served to explicate the enduring legacies of racism in political life while serving to illustrate his point about the interplay between local and metropolitan, especially from the United States after 1870, shaping the political culture of the Hispanic Caribbean. These two caveats aside, this is a useful addition to comparative studies of the Caribbean and should provide food for thought for any student of the Caribbean.” — Peter D. Fraser, of London Metropolitan University, Bulletin of Latin American Research                

This book, written over the course of the author’s career, demonstrates the range of his interests in aspects of Hispanic Caribbean history and culture. The major themes of politics, gender, and religion form the backbone of the collection; the seven essays deal principally with the nineteenth-century history of the region. The first briefly examines Cuba’s social and ethnic composition in terms of its economy. Martínez-Fernández uses the opposing models of the frontier and the plantation as two contradictory settings that explain Cuban society and that have been historiographically employed since the late nineteenth century; one emphasizes freedom and democratic tendencies and the other is grounded in hierarchy and exploitation. A second essay compares the Cuban and Puerto Rican planter responses to the rise of beet sugar’s competition with the cane sugar industries on the islands in the nineteenth century. Cuba turned to mechanization, intensification of slavery, and concentration of production in an indigenous planter class. Puerto Rico reacted with a contraction of sugar and slavery and saw the rise of a rural population of subsistence farmers. These were variant responses based on local possibilities. Both of these essays draw on the existing historiography and mostly on published sources. More original are an essay on the life of women in Havana and another on Protestants in the nineteenth-century Hispanic Caribbean, a subject on which Martínez-Fernández has made an important contribution by examining the presence of large numbers of Protestants in Puerto Rico, and the techniques of pretense and dissimulation that allowed them to survive and sometimes flourish in an intolerant religious environment.

“The three final essays present overviews of politics in the shadow of the United States. One on annexationism and dictatorship in the Dominican Republic is a political narrative that does not look to underlying causes. Another, on Puerto Rican politics in 1898 and on the subsequent steps taken by the United States to establish its control, goes somewhat deeper and incorporates the work of recent scholars, which is beginning to suggest that the internal divisions of class and race on the island often had as much to do with the subsequent history of the island as did the actions of the U.S. government. The final essay presents an overview and comparison of political culture in the Hispanic Caribbean from 1868 to 1945 and its relation to the hegemony of the United States. This is a useful summary that emphasizes the differences between the basically-conservative autonomy of Puerto Rico under Spain, which continued on the island after 1898m and the traditions of violent resistance to Spain in Cuba, which continued in some ways into the twentieth century. Using the different economic conditions on the three Spanish-speaking islands as a background, Martínez-Fernández examines the contrastive trajectories of their political destinies. He traces the move from U.S. intervention to hegemony and the emergence of the caudillaje of Trujillo, Machado, and Bautista, as well as the reformism of Muñoz Marín, as basically related phenomena.

“Students will find this collection useful as an introduction to a number of themes because it provides integrated comparative political narratives.” — Stuart B. Schwartz, New West Indian Guide