The nation and its imaginaries: 150 years later

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What is nation and which are the problems that historians, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens have to represent it, in these times of discussion about the kind of country and nation that ought to be manifested in the new Constitution?

A reflection on these essential issues on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of [the independence war of] 1868 was the object of TEMAS Journal’s Último Jueves panel, made up of Cuban History Institute vice president Yoel Cordoví; Emilio Cueto, a researcher on Cuba’s image abroad; TV journalist Karen Brito; and graphic designer Raúl Valdés (Raupa), with Rafael Hernández as moderator.

Regarding its main historical antecedents since the 19th century, Yoel Cordoví detailed the origin of the concept [of “nation”] in the modern age, developed by thinkers such as French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan. This has been a matter of great concern and a highly topical issue as a result of events such as globalization and the definition of a global identity, marked by nationalistic trends that are just as likely to fade as to grow with the demise of many Eastern European nations and the boom of studies on this topic.

According to the historian, there are two major approaches to the definition of nation: an objectivist one, whose paradigm was provided by Stalin in “Marxism and the national question” (1912), distinguished by the preexistence of a stable time-evolving community with its own identifying elements, i.e. language, national culture, and territory; and a second one, explained in Ernest Gellner’s works, which considers it as both an objective construction and an expression of the will to put it into practice, represented by a State, on behalf of a group of people in a given territory.

A third view would be that of the British Eric Hobsbawm, who speaks of a fusion of the first two. If we want to fully understand the importance of a project constructed top-down, we need to realize how the discourses produced and reproduced at the bottom embrace conceptions that flow down from above full of symbolism, but whose symbols are also created and recreated from the bottom up, to become part of the national character.

He stressed the case of Latin America as a clear reflection of this. Indeed, one of the main points of the constitutional debates held in many nations of the continent after they gained independence —and for a long time after— was the creation of a national being, as in the case of Mexico in the decades following the Revolution of 1910.

Cuba, in turn, has gradually forged a sense of Homeland and patriotic feelings since colonial times, so by the time the 1868 war broke out the country had already made progress with the construction of a national being.

Emilio Cueto, a scholar of Cuban culture’s historic ramifications beyond our borders, defined nation as a human group having common links such as to make its members different from others. And of course, among those links are language, religion, and a single past. Not only do we come from the same trunk, we also want to remain attached to the same tree and stay together, he underscored.

For its part, the nation-State includes territory as a prime element. This is an essential topic that gives rise to many conflicts. As evidenced by Cuban history itself and figures like Varela, Saco or Martí, the nation can exist without being always settled in a territory, he said, for the national feeling is not contingent upon its presence in a geographical location.

He noted that, while all countries bear a nationalist ideology, they have very different degrees of self-consciousness. In this connection, he held that we Cubans harbor very strong nationalist feelings, more so than other peoples.

Journalist Karen Brito started by saying that the concept of nation is not conclusive, but rather under permanent construction, and people’s wisdom and time will decide its final content. It has political, legal and cultural dimensions, manifesting itself even in people’s feelings: “Nation could be said to be a feeling, too.”

She recalled Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz’s description of a Cuban individual as a blend of Spanish, African and a variety of other ingredients, adding that other elements have molded the national soul with a sort of abandonment associated with its insularity —like Virgilio Piñera used to say, that “damned circumstance of water all around”— that contributes a very special relationship with all things foreign, even one of fear, because a country with scant resources depends largely on what comes from outside.

Our relationship with the United States has been another determining factor because of its role in national history, where we find plenty of explanations to understand the nation that we are, since lessons learned such as the importance of unity have also left their stamp on the shaping of that concept.

Likewise, Brito emphasized the fact that there is also a nation of émigrés where the Cuban condition is experienced and defended beyond our borders.

“The closer a Cuban is to an overwhelming influence, the stronger their refusal to be led away by it,” she said, quoting Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera. “There is the weightlessness and volubility of a country ruled by the breezes, by the waves of the sea that ebbs and flows and is always capable of escaping all intent to transform it because of its unassailable soul, that it hardly knows full well”.

To designer and professor Raúl Valdés (Raupa), when we talk about idiosyncrasy and cubanía (Cuban-ness) we must get off the beaten track and our usually stereotyped image. “In my work,” he pointed out, “I try to delve into that fabric of emotions and imaginaries to find different paths and symbols in which we can also feel Cuba’s heartbeat”.

However, that graphic representation of nationality is best grasped by those who arrive from abroad since, in his experience, those who live here often overlook certain features that typify the Cubans.

An interesting moment took place when Rafael Hernández invited reflection on the role of some attributes turned stereotypes of cubanía, such as the palm tree or the American car. Raupa replied that, cliché as they may be, those images are part of our reality; they are out there every day, and that makes them ours, albeit they are certainly overused.

Karen Brito shared with the audience some excerpts from an interview that she held with a professor during Barack Obama’s visit to the Island about the cultural impact of the new relations. He told her that, for years, Cuba had managed to take from the U.S. culture without getting lost in it —witness baseball, jazz and the cars themselves— and then gave it back to the world converted into something as Cuban as OUR baseball, Latin jazz and the “almendrones”.[1]

Both the stereotyping and the progress of that cultural industry are real, the journalist remarked, but our resistance to them has saved us and should continue saving us.

Thus the way was cleared to discuss issues related to the representation of the nation and national symbols in today’s Cuba. Emilio Cueto underlined the great transnational nature of the nation’s symbols: our anthem drew inspiration from the Marseillaise; our flag was designed by a Venezuelan and flown for the first time in the United States, not in Cuba; the geographical design of our coat of arms includes fragments of other territories; and our national flower is native to Asia.

He also said that putting the concept of Revolution on par with homeland or nation was a significant change in the representation of the nation. This is noticeable in Fidel’s well-known “Words to the intellectuals”, when he pointed out, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. Nothing against the Revolution, because the Revolution has its rights also, and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist, and no one can stand against the right of the Revolution to be and to exist; no one can rightfully claim a right against the Revolution since it takes on the interests of the people and signifies the interests of the entire nation”.

This is why, for instance, Cuban philately mixes the Island’s iconography with that of the Revolution.

In Cueto’s view, another major aspect is the presence of an Afro-descendant culture in that symbolism, a rare occurrence before 1959. Although Cuba is not a white nation, that other side had never been as much a part of its image as it has been under the Revolution, he stressed. Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is also part of those representations that transcend their religious dimension and establish themselves as a cultural element.

Yoel Cordoví, in turn, insisted that instead of speaking of one representation of the nation we must speak of representations, because these are different along the Island depending on the region.

Running through our national history, he highlighted landmark moments, such as the controversy between José Antonio Saco and Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, a.k.a. El Lugareño, when they said that the happiness of the people is not based on a language, but on tangible benefits and facts.

From the nineteenth-century autonomists to Jorge Mañach and other thinkers, the approaches to this topic must be linked to each era, the historian remarked. Referring to icons like the “almendrones” or Elpidio Valdés[2], he said symbolism is not always sought for the objects themselves, but as a benchmark of the historical period when they came into being. The context of their appearance and the times to which they refer are essential, more so than the object in question, because that’s what takes us back to the idea of nation at a given time in history.

Nation to the audience

A survey conducted among the panel attendees revealed that the majority associated the concept of nation with “nation-State”, followed by those who understand it as being on a level with “people” and then a group of respondents to whom it means “people that recognize themselves as belonging in an ethnic group or culture”.

When asked about the problems or misinterpretations caused by the image of nation and what is national in Cuba, the audience’s favorite was, “identifying nation with a certain ideology”. Next in order was “confusing national identity and the symbols of the nation”, and next came “the attribution of top value to nationalism” and the belief that “a small nation’s culture can be absorbed by that of ‘a bigger one’.”

Additional input from the audience enriched the debate, e.g. the importance of the ethical-religious component as a hallmark of nation in Cuba, although not in the same way as in other Latin American countries. The merger of Hispanic, African or even Asian elements has provided Cuba with a religiousness of its own that cannot be disregarded in discussions about these issues.

Likewise, insularity was hailed as a significant factor because of its impact on politics, economy, history, and to a greater extent, culture.

Another researcher made a comment on the need to take action to make better known the Afro-Cubans’ contribution to history and to all aspects related to the conformation of the nation, and on the fact that nation is a construction of the power structure, which in the case of Cuba has been closely linked to the configuration of a white nation’s imaginary.

One professor was of the opinion that we must look at this concept from a socio-historical perspective and as a process in motion, with some moments of continuity and others of disruption, in order to reach a consensus on identity. She attached great importance to the knowledge about other people’s national imaginary, taking into account that the nation builds on domestic diversity, but also on the impact of the external.

The referendum on the draft Magna Carta, she maintained, has been quite useful to learn about people’s imaginary, the nation that we want, and how we envision its future, which is why we should publish the results beyond the figures and specific changes to the text.

Other comments revolved around the need to design an inclusive nation where people of various beliefs come together with a common purpose, and unity as the essential principle.

Concerning symbolic representations, a professor of the University of Medical Sciences called attention to the fact that, while the iconography of many countries is focused on objects and buildings, Cuban symbolism is centered on the human being. She illustrated her point with the examples of the Eiffel Tower in France, the Statue of Liberty in the United States, and Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado in Brazil. “But to represent Cuba we resort to people’s faces, to the Cubans themselves, in whose midst the images of Martí, Che and Fidel are the most frequent reproductions.

Globalization and nation

There were two topics addressed in several comments. First, the relationship between nation and emigration, given that, according to some participants, everyone carries with them, wherever they go, the national feeling and the qualities that distinguish them as a people.

Cubanía cannot be equated with Revolution, said someone in the audience. That vision has been a regular feature of the concept and a cause for estrangement and division among those who decide to leave the Island for different reasons and those who stay here. There are various views about it, some in concert and others at variance. In the words of Emilio Cueto, “all those visions complement each other, as long as the construction of the nation is not assumed to exclude other positions”.

In Cuba, the relation between nation and politics is complicated, but not negligible, another attendee pointed out. Similarly, the relation between nation and Revolution predates 1959, as we learned from our history lessons that we became Cubans when we had an anthem and a flag and came out to fight for our independence.

Every period made a contribution to this process, which has not been homogeneous and, according to a member of the audience, “is marked by a very complex history of domestic inequality, exclusion, empty spots and minimization. But even if sometimes we fail to overcome them democratically, there they stand, as pockets of resistance within that nation, but still Cuban”.

The second recurring topic was the impact of globalization on the concept of nation. One popular education teacher recalled that by the time of the U.S. intervention right after the end of the War of 1895, most of those that defined themselves as Cubans had been exterminated, be it by genocide, disease or the armed conflict itself. Nevertheless, neither that intervention, nor the cultural avalanche that poured in from the United States, nor the culture imported by immigrants, were able to abolish the feelings and characteristics that defined the natives of this land. “There’s both a sort of centripetal force,” he explained, “which gathers and processes everything that comes from abroad, and a centrifugal one that sends it back outside, transformed as ours, as Cuban.”

Still, the cultural situation has changed dramatically, he said worriedly, and wondered whether in light of the current state of affairs, branded by globalization, technology and colonialism, we will be able to save ourselves the same way we did in 1899.

What a Puerto Rican participant told the audience could be the key to success. He defined nation as a particular form of diversity. Puerto Rico does not exist as a nation-State, half its population lives abroad, and language is not even the mark of identity that it used to be. So how can it survive, he wondered. “The nation is embodied in flesh-and-blood people, and that’s what we call the Puerto Rican way”.

In journalist Karen Brito’s opinion, the uneasiness bred by harmful foreign influences is a shared anguish. To cope with it, however, she prefers to join hands with the optimists and with those who believe that the national soul can survive the crises and that we can do something to help.

Emilio Cueto added that Cuba has always been one of the most globalized nations of the continent. Since colonial times many ships came into our ports on their way to or from Spain, bringing with them cultural elements from all over the world. It’s true that this is much more intense nowadays, but we must pay more attention to the way many people lose touch with their reality rather than to the arrival in Cuba of foreign influences.

A symbol comes into being in a given context and, as such, revolutions are always fertile ground for the creation of symbols, researcher Yoel Cordoví underscored. A nationwide poll held in 1914 in public and private schools asked students who they wished to be like and why. The outcome, he said, was very enlightening: the first name was José Martí, followed by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, José de la Luz y Caballero and Antonio Maceo. It was a long list of names, with even the Lieutenant General[3]’s name ranking high among them, at a time when there was a great deal of discrimination and the uprising of the Independent Party of Color ended in a bloodbath. These facts are revealing of the nationalist consciousness forged in our struggles and to which education has also made a significant contribution.


[1] Cuban slang for the old American cars (T.N.)

[2] A popular Cuban cartoon character.

[3] Antonio Maceo, who was Black.