Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Paperless Citizenship in Cuba, Premo with J. Ermer

The final of this month’s blog posts, which have focused on paperless law and extrajudicial legalities in Latin America, ventures out of the colonial and into the modern period. This is an unvarnished attempt to grab the attention of you avid LHB readers who might not relate immediately to the topics of verbal contacts among seventeenth-century religious brotherhoods and dowry conflicts. To hook you, I again enlist a co-blogger, this time Florida International University History PhD candidate John Ermer, who is writing a dissertation about the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora (mahjar) in twentieth-century Cuba.  I wanted to ask John some questions that connect paperless law to modern citizenship cultures. (cont'd)


JE: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I find paperless conceptions of citizenship to be an interesting and exciting new area for migration studies in particular as well as legal history.

BP: So, I know we are both admirers of the Cuban legal historian Julio César Guanche, who writes about the difference between republican and liberal citizenship. Can you explain what he means by this?

 JE: Guanche inserts himself into the debate over whether Latin America adopted liberal or republican conceptions of citizenship and comes down on the side of republicanism. According to Guanche, liberalism values what the historian of family law in Chile Nara Milanich might call “legible citizenship,” which allows for citizens’ passive enjoyment of rights. Instead, he sees republican citizenship as a fuller conception of identity that not only protects the enjoyment of rights but also promotes the creation of political identities through civic participation.[1] In other words, republican citizenship hinges on good “civic behavior” or evidence that one conforms to the citizen ethos. Active political practice and reputation are essential to this conception of citizenship. Critically, for Cuba and the whole region of Latin America, this conception more closely resembles Medieval Spanish understandings of vecindad than the legible citizenship espoused by turn-of-the-twentieth-century governments. The 1901 Cuban Constitution and the Citizenship Law of 1902 established a regime of legible, liberal citizenship by requiring inscription in the Civil Registry and presentation of valid documentary proof of birth with little mention of active citizenship cultures in the republican mold. Yet many of the documents I’ve found testify to immigrants’ continued ability into the twentieth century to achieve a customary citizenship status before or alongside official registry. 

BP: So, can we surmise that republican citizenship more likely to be paperless compared to liberal citizenship?

JE: Yes. Because republican citizenship accounts for more reputation-based and participatory understandings of citizenship, it can potentially fit a more paperless understanding of citizenship than could liberal citizenship, which requires documentary proof to obtain and enjoy the “negative” freedoms of citizenship. While republican citizenship promotes “positive rights” through interventions aimed at providing greater social equality, liberal citizenship protects the “negative” freedoms such as protection from arbitrary detention or deportation, as did articles 20 and 41 of Cuba’s 1901 Constitution. 

BP: In your dissertation, which I know you just concluded research on, you are working out the correspondence between a lot of variables: longstanding Spanish legal traditions in which community belonging was based on genealogy and reputation; US imperial policies that set up more liberal, state-centered citizenship laws in Cuba such as those that capped Asian immigration; and the particular experiences of the mahjar community, which encountered imperialism both in their countries of origin and in their new island home.  Do you think this led to a unique Cuban culture of participatory but paperless citizenship before the Revolution?

JE: In associational records and oral history interviews, I have seen evidence that immigrants to Cuba did produce a paperless, participatory citizenship culture. Lebanese and Syrian migrants to Cuba participated in civil associations, intermarried with native Cubans, and understood the importance of Spanish language acquisition to individual and community enjoyment of rights and protections of freedoms. Associational records show an emphasis on the use of castellano (Spanish) instruction for recently arrived Lebanese and Syrian migrants to aid in their cultivation of reputations for “good behavior” within Cuban civic life. Yet Arabic language instruction for some Cuban-born youths also distinguished the mahjari community within the broader Cuban nation. Boundaries like this were essential to maintaining a distinct community identity that, while not estranging them from their Cuban neighbors, allowed for identity formation within transnational and diasporic contexts. 

 BP: Certainly, we don’t want to overdraw the distinction between liberal and republican citizenship legal cultures, or between Latin America and the rest of the world. Still I think this might be a useful heuristic for thinking more expansively about region’s experience with citizenship, immigration and legal culture.  Reputation and community norms are never far from any discussion of citizenship laws, which might accrete within legal orders of the more liberal, legible type. New immigrants to a nation can kick up the dust of past practices, revealing the sediments of inconclusive debates or incomplete transitions in citizenship law. Thanks, John! 

And thanks to all of you for reading about paperless law and extrajudicial legalities in Latin America this month.

--Bianca Premo


[1] Julio César Guanche, Informe sobre la ciudadanía: Cuba, [Global Governance Programme], GLOBALCIT, Country Reports, 2017/15 

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