The First Haitian Migrants and the Unevenness of Empire

Matthew Casey, Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); 313 pages, ISBN 978-1107127692 (hardback)

• October 2019

Over the twentieth century, Haitian migrants routinely found themselves navigating the emergent tendencies of US empire. Most recently, it was the US apparatus of interdiction and immigration detention, a now pervasive system that, according to a number of newly published works, initially arose to exclude Haitian migrants and refugees from the United States.1 The encounter began, however, during the first decades of the century when thousands of migrants ventured to Cuba to labor on US sugar plantations. At a moment when both Haiti and Cuba shared a common position within the fold of US empire, some two hundred thousand of them circled between the two countries as guestworkers, fulfilling the labor needs of US capital. Their experiences—their movements, work, politics, communities, and lives—are the focus of Matthew Casey’s Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation.

In following those who journeyed across the Windward Passage between 1910 and 1940, Casey uncovers the stories of “a significant but understudied group of Caribbean migrants” and details their role in forging the political, economic, and social dynamics of the region. More specifically, Casey writes, the migrants’ experience reveals “the way that the consolidation of centralized states, national identities, and export economies were shaped transnationally and from below” (3). It is a stark contrast to the common narrative about Haitian migration to Cuba, which generally considers those sojourners to be without real agency and which tends to invest state and corporate institutions with far more power and control than they ever had. It also opens up new perspectives on the political economies of both Haiti and Cuba and the history of capitalism in the region. Empire’s Guestworkers thus reconsiders and reframes various aspects of Haitian and Cuban history, while similarly expounding on the nature of US empire in the Caribbean.

For the most part, Haitian migration to Cuba took place in the context of military occupation. Haiti, after all, was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934. Accordingly, the seasonal flow of laborers has always been understood as related to the condition of occupation. Critics—and later, historians—regularly charged that Haitian peasants were driven to leave their country because of the social dislocations of foreign rule, suggesting, for instance, that US policies of enclosure and dispossession pushed rural Haitians off their land and toward labor recruiters. To make sense of the migrants’ experience, then, Casey appropriately opens with an inquiry into rural life during the occupation, making a significant contribution to the historiography of the period in the process. As he discovers, however, the regions of Haiti that sent the most migrants to Cuba were not actually the areas most impacted by the worst abuses, land grabs, repression, and the like. Rather, they were places where “more subtle forms of rural disruption” prevailed (63). Along with broadening the ways the violence of the occupation might be understood, Casey thus confirms that many of the Haitians who ventured to Cuba did indeed do so because of dispossession and their experience under occupation. Migration, he concludes, was one means of maintaining “autonomy and survival” (102).

At the same time, Casey is careful not to present emigration as being purely responsive to the US presence. He insists that Haitian travel to Cuba during the occupation years be viewed as part of a longstanding flow of people between the two islands and, in turn, a part of what Lara Putnam terms the “circum-Caribbean migratory sphere.”2 Rural Haitians, Casey reveals, ventured to Cuban shores well before the United States invaded Haiti and long before the sugar companies officially started recruiting Haitian laborers in 1913. The guestworkers were accordingly not just dispossessed peasants forced abroad, nor were they simply responding to a demand for labor when the opportunity arose. They were traveling on a circuit they themselves had forged. The sugar companies and forces of empire were not the drivers of migration; they “expanded and helped institutionalize an ongoing movement of people” (34).

If these companies took advantage of longstanding patterns of migration and of the US presence in Haiti, it was never on the terms they or the state desired. As Casey details, the Cuban state struggled to make visible and regulate migration to the island, and neither it nor the sugar companies were ever able to exert as much control over the Haitian laborers as they would have liked. Migrants flowed into the country whether or not the state officially permitted their presence, and once on the island the workers refused to submit to the order and discipline demanded. They organized themselves politically, interacted and built solidarity with Cuban and Jamaican workers, moved around the island, and continued to engage in their religious and cultural practices. In sketching this out, Casey cuts into many of the longstanding and often racialized tropes about the Haitian presence in Cuba and reframes or destabilizes a number of common narratives regarding labor organizing, brujería and Vodou, subaltern intellectual activity, race making, and other such matters. More than anything, Casey shows how often state and corporate power broke down as migrants made the most of their lives and took part in the social, political, and cultural world of their host country.

Of course, this is not to say that sugar companies did not profit immensely from Haitian labor. Though there was much debate in Cuba over Haitian immigration, Empire’s Guestworkers leaves no doubt that the migrants produced much wealth for the corporations that employed them. Even without really looking into exactly how much the companies made from their imported labor—something that would have strengthened the book—Casey shows just how important the seasonal workforce was. Essentially extending Rebecca Scott’s classic work on the transition to free labor in Cuba, Casey suggests that Haitian guestworkers were employed so as to solve Cuba’s postemancipation labor problem (what Thomas Holt elsewhere calls “the problem of freedom”).3 Just as the Cuban sugar industry took off as a result of the Haitian Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, Haiti is shown to have again been integral to the expansion of Cuban sugar production during the early twentieth century. And so, while Empire’s Guestworkers is primarily concerned with the lives of Haitian migrants, their agency, and their role in shaping various developments in both Haiti and Cuba, it is also fundamentally a work about the history of capitalism in the region. (Casey’s detailing of the interplay between race and capitalism in both countries, a contribution to the conversation about racial capitalism in the Caribbean and elsewhere, is another notable aspect of this.)

To get at all this, Casey’s research needed to be as transnational as his subject. He accordingly conducted extensive archival research in Cuba, the United States, and—significantly—Haiti (all too often, Haitian archives have been ignored by US-based scholars). Migrants, however, “left very few letters, memoirs, or other written records of the sort that normally form the basis of migration histories,” meaning that Casey also needed to find ways to uncover their voices and experiences. It was thus from close readings of “judicial records, censuses, newspapers, company and consular correspondence, military intelligence, travel literature, and novels” that Casey reconstructed the migrants’ world (3). The care with which he does so is apparent right from the opening pages of the book, where one migrant, Aurelio Castillo, is thoughtfully profiled. Similar profiles and engaging stories appear throughout the remainder of the text, woven together by formidable analysis. Casey’s work makes the migrants visible in a way the sources’ authors never really intended. Empire’s Guestworkers is an impressive piece of scholarship, both analytically and methodologically. Indeed, it is a model for understanding “how migrants experienced the unevenness of empire” (30).


Matthew Davidson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami. His work focuses on US empire and public health in the Caribbean during the early twentieth century.

1. See Carl Lindskoog, Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2018); and Jeffrey S. Kahn, Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019).

2. Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 3.

3. See Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).


Related Articles