Anarchism and the Long Red Scare in the Caribbean, 1897—1925

October 4, 2018
In this black and white newspaper clipping, a strong working man puts Uncle Sam, who has a bag of money in his pocket, in a headlock.

This political cartoon appeared on the front page of the anarchist-led Panama City newspaper El Obrero on October 22, 1921. In English, the caption reads “With a formidable momentum, the whole world is witnessing the advance and unquestionable progress of the worker. In the North, where the worker is beginning to test his power, he has quickly put Uncle Sam in a headlock. And in this social struggle they will be victorious—they have to be. The worker over the owner, labor over capital.” Translation and photograph courtesy of Kirwin Shaffer. Original courtesy of the National Library of Panama in Panama City.

As workers in Cuba rioted, the government called out the military to suppress them. But when commanders ordered troops to attack and end the strike, one soldier going by the name of Rafael refused. He turned to his fellow soldiers and reminded them that they and their families came from the same poor backgrounds as the working-class protesters. Revolutionary consciousness rose that day. Soldiers refused their leaders and joined the strikers. This was anarcho-Bolshevism 101, the revolutionary merging of workers and soldiers against the capitalist state.

This was also fiction. It was the central plot in the 1919 Cuban novel El soldado Rafael, written by the Havana-based anarchist author and labor leader Antonio Penichet. But if the story was fiction, the ramifications were real. The book’s publication came on the heels of the growing activity of the Industrial Workers of the World in Cuba, especially against the U.S. agribusiness complex. Cuban secret police found copies of the novel on soldiers and workers throughout Cuba. Then, they wired intelligence officials in the United States and urged them to be careful. They suspected that anarchists had shipped the novel to the United States. American authorities feared a flood of Spanish-language anarchist, pro-Bolshevik propaganda into U.S. Latin communities like Tampa.

Transnational intelligence sharing is one example of a broader expansion of the Red Scare outside the geopolitical boundaries of the United States. After 1898, U.S. political, economic, and military expansion throughout the Caribbean Basin turned the region into the cornerstone of a growing American empire. Puerto Rico and Cuba anchored this empire in the east, and Panama, a new country that upon its founding in 1903 sold a ten-mile swath of land to Washington to build a canal, anchored it in the west. As the United States expanded into the Caribbean, it encountered anarchists who led anti-statist socialist campaigns against capitalists, nationalists, and imperialists. These campaigns began with the Cuban War for Independence in the 1890s and persisted for some 30 to 40 years before the creation of Communist parties in the region. U.S. officials worked with their agents in Tampa and Puerto Rico as well as their counterparts in Cuba and Panama to surveil and suppress anarchist activity from the 1890s to the 1920s. Thus, the two year period that we traditionally associate with the Red Scare in the United States, 1919 to 1920, was but a chronological blip—albeit a pretty important blip—in a three-decade, anti-anarchist, multi-state offensive.

What concerned U.S. officials the most was not just that anarchists disrupted agribusiness in Cuba and Puerto Rico, threatened commerce in South Florida, and posed challenges to U.S. and bourgeois control of the Panamanian isthmus, but rather the fact that anarchists were coordinating a transnational network. Centered in Havana but radiating to anarchist nodes in Tampa, Puerto Rico, and Panama, even stretching to New York City, this network enabled anarchists to migrate throughout the Caribbean and north along the Atlantic seaboard. They sent money across the network to support families of detainees and deportees, fund radical newspapers that attacked American imperialism, and finance efforts to support strikes.

In 1897, U.S. authorities closed the Tampa newspaper El Esclavo after it celebrated the assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo who was suppressing the anarchist-supported rebellion in Cuba and executing anarchists in Spain. In 1913, the United States—working with Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish intelligence officials—arrested and deported anarchists for their supposed roles in an international assassination plot targeting Mexican president Madero. In the early 1910s, Puerto Rican and U.S. authorities cooperated to suppress anarchist-led labor and radical education initiatives. In 1916, U.S. and Panamanian officials coordinated efforts to destroy a general strike against the canal led by anarchists from Spain and Latin America.

As turmoil from the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution spread throughout the “American Mediterranean,” anarchists in Tampa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico helped young men avoid the draft. They also launched union efforts, newspapers, and campaigns that often sympathized with the Bolsheviks. The United States intensified its anti-Red activities in the Caribbean. The fear about Penichet’s novel in Cuba coincided with growing transnational surveillance. A wave of strikes in Cuba in 1917 prompted the United States to place some 3,000 troops on the island through the following year. Reports between Havana and Washington concluded that the strikes and subsequent actions in 1918 resulted from increased Wobbly activity spreading out of Florida and New York and into Cuba. In February 1919, the Department of Justice and the Secret Service claimed to have disrupted an assassination attempt against President Wilson, arresting anarchists from Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in New York and Philadelphia. The supposed plotters were linked to a New York anarchist newspaper, El Corsario, that circulated among Latin workers in Tampa, causing federal, state, and local officials there no small amount of trepidation. Meanwhile, anarchists in Puerto Rico increasingly radicalized. Inspired by the Bolsheviks, they began publishing the newspaper El Comunista in May 1920, linked themselves to the Third International, called for Puerto Rican workers to rise up in revolutionary struggle as in Russia, and proclaimed that real independence for the island could come only after workers had overthrown the capitalist state. In Panama, anarchists and Marxists formed the Grupo Comunista, dominating that country’s first nationwide union, which was comprised equally of both Panamanian and international workers. Meanwhile, anarchists and Marxists in Cuba cooperated to found new labor organizations and schools across the island.

U.S. authorities increased surveillance of the Tampa and Puerto Rican anarchists at the same time, just as they increased coordination with Cuban and Panamanian officials. All concluded that anarchists were indeed a transnational threat to the general welfare of the United States and its allied possessions in the Caribbean. They declared that anarchist newspapers like El Comunista and Panama’s El Obrero violated postal regulations and thus banned them from the U.S. mail. Anarchists were arrested and intimidated. Cuban officials increasingly jailed anarchists of Cuban birth and deported hundreds of mostly Spanish- born anarchists as “pernicious foreigners.” The result was that the anarchist movement in Florida and Puerto Rico was largely destroyed by mid-1921. Some Puerto Ricans, though, migrated to New York where they worked alongside other Reds. In the 1920s, U.S. officials worked with Cuban authorities to destroy radical organizing throughout the island. In 1925, the U.S. military swarmed into Panama City to repress a leftist rent strike timed to coincide with a hemispheric anarchist congress set for Panama City that November.

We can better understand the actions and fears surrounding the Red Scare of 1919-1920 if we expand our perspective in both space and time. U.S. and allied anti-anarchist actions reached beyond the geopolitical confines of the United States to the Caribbean where anarchism included a strong anti-U.S. agenda. Anarchists faced American colonialism and neocolonialism everywhere they went: the Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Floridian cigar industries; the sugar plantations of Cuba; the streets of Havana and Panama City; the Panama Canal Zone; and elsewhere. Thus, anarchists generated a transnational network to raise consciousness and attack Washington and its economic allies. The post-Bolshevik Red Scare led to increased transnational policing to suppress this network. But this was nothing new. The United States had been fighting Caribbean Reds—like Rafael the soldier—since 1897.

Kirwin Shaffer is Professor of Latin American Studies at The Pennsylvania State University – Berks College. He is author of Black Flag Boricuas: Anarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico, 1897-1921 (Illinois 2013) and the forthcoming re-published Anarchist Cuba: Countercultural Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba (Florida/PM Press 2005/2019), as well as editor with Geoffroy de Laforcade of In Defiance of Boundaries: Anarchism in Latin American History (Florida 2015/2017). His current project is a transnational history titled Anarchists of the Caribbean: Countercultural Politics and Transnational Networks in the Age of US Expansion, 1890s-1930s.

For another work of Caribbean history, check out this piece about maps and colonization.