On April 19, the Department of Ethnic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies held a Community Conversation with Professor Dr. Ernesto Sagás and Assistant Professor Dr. Nikoli Attai.

Dr. Sagás presented “Contemporary Politics in the Hispanic Caribbean: Dictatorship, Democracy, and National Sovereignty.” 

As the last remaining colonies of Spain in the New World, the fate of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico were closely intertwined. The Dominican Republic, the first of the three to gain its independence (from Haiti in 1844 and from Spain in 1865), played a key role in supporting pro-independence movements in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Their cultural commonalities and geographical proximity would even lead to calls by Puerto Rican revolutionary Ramón E. Betances for the three of them to join forces in an Antillean Confederation. But the irruption of the United States into Caribbean affairs in the late nineteenth century pushed these three nations in different directions: Cuba gained its independence in 1902, but as a U.S. protectorate, and ultimately broke off ties with the United States after the 1959 revolutionary triumph; the Dominican Republic descended into a bloody, protracted neosultanistic dictatorship, followed by a painful post-authoritarian transition, and eventually turned into an electoral democracy; and Puerto Rico became a colony of the United States, trapped to this day in a political zero-sum game between competing visions of autonomy, statehood, or independence. These drastic changes brought about by the U.S. presence and the three Antilles’ own internal affairs would lead us to believe that Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico have little in common nowadays. Yet, I argue that despite political differences, the three nations of the Hispanic Caribbean share major cultural commonalities, their countries have comparable socioeconomic characteristics and racial/ethnic makeups, and their peoples seek a future of democratic and sovereign rule. Moreover, the United States still plays a significant role in their daily affairs and future political options. The post-authoritarian transition to democracy in Cuba, the deepening of democracy in the Dominican Republic, and the potential establishment of Puerto Rico as an independent nation depend as much on the whims of U.S. foreign policy as on the domestic politics of the three Spanish-speaking Antilles.

This book manuscript examines contemporary politics in the Hispanic Caribbean by comparing and contrasting the political systems, historical trajectories, and socioeconomic characteristics of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. All three countries share a common colonial origin, similar constructions of race and gender, and in the twentieth century they struggled on the path towards forging more democratic societies that went hand-in-hand with equitable—yet viable—models of economic development. Moreover, the book analyzes the role played by the United States (the region’s hegemonic power) in facilitating, complicating, or outright hindering internal changes in these three nations for well over a century. Finally, this work will explore potential developments, political alternatives, and promising socioeconomic trends common to the three countries of the Hispanic Caribbean as they enter the twenty-first century in the midst of major regional changes and global challenges.

Dr. Nikoli Attai presented “Between the Walls: Ruination and New Sex Worlds in Barbados”

Neo-colonialism and global capitalism demarcate belonging through its control of economic opportunities in the Caribbean, and the tourist industry is in no way immune. Drawing on chapter three from my forthcoming book Defiant Bodies: Making Queer Community in the Anglophone Caribbean, I share my examination how abandoned hotel projects in Barbados are anachronistic artefacts, relics of a past story of territorial appropriation, and at once, are generative spaces where new meaning is given when it is co-opted by queer people, for secret sexual rendezvous. Half-finished hotels abandoned when its international funders ran out of money, lay wasting away in the tropical climate, only to become symbolic of queer absence and simultaneous queer presence. These ruins, silent, and abandoned during the day are haunted by traces of queer life, representing their marginality, while at the same time presenting opportunities for the actualization of queer desire. I reflect on how graffiti, some warding off the gays, promising them punishment, and others inviting them to fulfil their desires, and debris, like empty rum bottles and discarded condom boxes left in the wake of sexual encounters, tell the stories of what occurs there despite the absence of bodies, even while this absence in the space reflects the silence around non-hegemonic sexualities and genders in the region.

Defiant Bodies: Making Queer Community in the Anglophone Caribbean problematizes the neocolonial and homoimperial nature of queer human rights activism in in four Anglophone Caribbean nations — Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago — and thinks critically about the limits of human rights as a tool for seeking queer liberation. It also offers critical insight into the ways that queer people negotiate, resist, and disrupt homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination by mobilizing “on the ground” and creating transgressive communities within the region.