Heresies of the footnote (A tribute to Manuel Moreno Fraginals)

In Manuel Moreno Fraginals’s academic transcript, preserved at El Colegio de Mexico, there is record that when he started his Master’s Degree in History in 1945 he had not finished his law degree at the University of Havana. From the words that Mexican historian Andrés Lira wrote upon his passing in Miami in 2001, we know that Moreno Fraginals did not complete all the courses of his master’s degree either. According to Lira, the transcript shows several “claims” for “missing Latin classes and not submitting papers on Paleography.” So, Lira concludes: “we venture that, academically speaking, Manuel Moreno Fraginals chose to prove his mettle as a historian by producing quality works”. Ultimately, the Cuban received his doctorate in Social Sciences from the University of Havana in 1951.

The news about Moreno’s checkered college education is enough to question the correlation between academic performance and intellectual quality, but also to hint at his tense relationship with academia. From a very young age Moreno was a professional historian, but for much of his life he was not an academic. In the 1950s and 1960s, when he was most involved in his great research on the 18th and 19th centuries’ slave-owning sugar plantation economy, he did not hold a permanent position in any university, apart from a brief stay at the Universidad de Oriente [Santiago de Cuba]. He did work, however, in the Caracas Brewery in Venezuela, in Radio Junin, in the advertising company Los Molinos [The Mills] and in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade.

In the 1970s, when the definitive edition of El Ingenio [The Sugarmill] came out, resulting in a growing international academic recognition, the hostility from a good part of the official guild of Cuban historians and ideologists pushed him to take refuge in the Cuban Culture department at the University of Arts [Instituto Superior de Arte, ISA]. This marginal position within Havana’s scholarly life during the Cold War is reflected in some oddities or peculiarities of Moreno as a historian, which today we interpret as gestures of resistance to a closed intellectual field.

Certain marks in the textual composition of The Sugarmill can be read as testimonies of that resistance. Especially, the footnotes and bibliographic comments. Both the language, which in the body of the text was very far from Leninist Marxism and revolutionary nationalism, the two ideological orthodoxies that alternated in Cuba, and the contents of the footnotes refer us to other essays and even other possible books within The Sugarmill.

I quote from Editorial Critica’s 2001 edition, prefaced by Josep Fontana, but I know that the notes I am about to bring up also appear in the definitive Cuban edition, in three volumes, by Ciencias Sociales [Social Sciences p. house] in 1978. The reader is surprised to find, from the third note of the initial chapter, that Moreno not only quotes economic theorists or sugar historians, but also tries to sketch their life stories and assess them in a few lines. Thus, he draws from Marxist Pierre Vilar to declare that the History of Economic Analysis (1954) by the Austrian Joseph A. Schumpeter “should be a bedside book for all historians”.

Soon, Moreno surprises the reader again in that first chapter when, as cool as you please, he quotes Hugh Thomas three times in a row. It is true that he does so after quoting Karl Marx and Eric Williams, but it is hard to miss that in 1978 Havana, crediting Hugh Thomas as a bibliographic source was tantamount to fraternizing with the enemy. While he indulged himself in quoting Irene Wright, Moreno was also generous with his contemporaries, such as Julio Le Riverend, with whom he had more than one run-in. Moreno found an excellent rebuttal of the pseudo-materialist approach to Cuban agrarian feudalism in the essay La Habana. Biografía de una Provincia [Havana. A Biography of a Province] (1960) by Le Riverend.

In addition to heterodoxy, footnotes offered essayist Moreno the chance to loosen up his prose. Take the memorable footnote 12 on Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe in which he argues that in popular versions for children and young people of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, the former’s criticism of English capitalism and the latter’s praise of West Indian colonial and slave system disappear. Insightfully, Moreno comments that this distortion of both British writers’ biographies prospers especially in the Third World, where, following counterculture psychoanalyst Norman O. Brown, Moreno observes an infantilization of critical European texts that reaffirm colonialism in other ways. Best known are the notes in which he used anonymous poems printed in the Papel Periódico [The Havana Gazette] and the Criticon de La Habana [The Havana Critic] to describe the whitening processes occurring in the social chronicle or the encroachment of industrial capitalism’s technical language among Creole sacarocracy [sugar barons or sugar aristocracy]. The chapters that Moreno devoted in the “Work and Society” section to sex and production, to funche [boiled cornmeal], the esquifaciones [slaves’ allotted change of clothes] and the barracón [slave huts], to the Hippocrates negreros [slave traders] and to the speech of slaves and maroons continue to dazzle for their literary quality to this day.

Footnotes and ending bibliographical comments are also the textual space in which Moreno practiced his own dialectic of tradition. The book was dedicated to Raúl Cepero Bonilla, “absent yet present”; regardless, Moreno did not cease to subtly criticize other Cuban historians and thinkers whom he also admired, such as Francisco de Arango y Parreño, José Antonio Saco, Ramiro Guerra or Fernando Ortiz. Of Arango, Moreno wrote that he had raised “with incredible foresight the fundamental problems of underdevelopment, colonial dependence and unequal exchange,” but also that his writings “were sometimes of a limitless cynicism.”

He treated Saco in a less kindly way, as he sided with Ramón de la Sagra in the famous controversy with José Antonio Saco, and supported the accusation that the latter had altered documents and statistics on the slave trade and slave plantation system in Cuba. Moreno questioned Guerra, whom he had praised in a prologue to the 1970 Ciencias Sociales edition of Azúcar y población en las Antillas [Sugar and Society in the Caribbean], stating that “ideologically he rescued the positive values of the former Cuban sacarocracy, of which he was their last spokesman”. Finally, he said about Ortiz: “many of his assertions are very brilliant and suggestive; many others do not resist the slightest critical analysis.” In the Crítica edition, this phrase is altered due to a typo or to humor: “do not resist the slightest Celtic analysis.”

With those heresies inserted in his footnotes, Manuel Moreno Fraginals offered a way to deal with a national intellectual tradition in the Caribbean from the perspective of critical Marxism. In Cepero Bonilla, he admired his “break with the interpretations of traditional history,” but at the same time, he didn’t agree with those who wished to throw off an intellectual legacy that had shaped Cuban modernity. “Modernity”, by the way, is a concept that runs through The Sugarmill, with all the ambivalences and tensions that come with it within the best Latin American Marxist thought.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


  1. Fascinating! Moreno was always a “free electron”, clashing very often with the academic establishment in Cuba. He professed, as you say, a critical Marxism, open to dialogue with other currents of western thought, and incompatible with the dogmatic, Soviet-style Marxism that colonized the historiographical thought in Cuba in the 1970s, especially at the “Escuela de Historia” at the University of Havana.
    I found a 1977 interview online:
    Moreno Fraginals was interviewed by Georgette M. Dorn, who was for many years the Chief of the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress. You can hear him talking about his career, how El Ingenio was born, his engagements with the New Economic History and the Cliometrics school in the US, and other US colleagues as the anthropologist Sidney Mintz and the historian Franklin Knight. Moreno also talks about the photographic memory of Esteban Montejo, and the writing of the “Biografia de un cimarron.” Very interesting!
    Marial Iglesias

  2. Thank you very much, Marial. It’s very impressive to hear the voice of that great marxist cuban historian. He was always a heterodox, for example when he talks about the “spiritual goods” under the socialism and, at the same time, about the need for the quantitative data. You can hear how he got excited when he spoke about the El Colegio de México, Manuel Azaña and his great friend, the Venezuelan historian Germán Carrera Damas.


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