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Eugene Godfried

Contacting the author

En español: Cuba en una perspectiva caribeña

Cuba In A Caribbean Perspective:
A critical historical review of the position and role of
Cubans of African descent in the process of social change
By Eugene Godfried, June, 2000

Cuban social and ethnic composition is the result of colonial and capitalist social economic formation of the plantation economy. As Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba in 1492, he met the first inhabitants of the island, the Tainos. After creating the first village under Spanish domination on the far eastern point of Baracoa, the Spanish rulers started the process of enslaving the native Tainos which led to the so called "encomienda" system formally regulating the trade and possession of natives working in the mines and plantations appropriated by the Spanish settlers.

The Spaniards decided to import African labor as slaves to replace the native Taino labor force whose numbers had dropped significantly in the contest against the Spanish colonizers. The Tainos had paid with their life and blood while resisting Spanish intrusion on their lands. The first group of Subsaharan Africans were brought into Cuba in the 16th century from Sevilla, Spain. Thereafter a huge slave - trade was set up by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French, deporting Africans from their homelands in Africa in order to bring them to the Caribbean and the New Continent as an enslaved labor force.

This new immigration policy forged by the Spanish settlers on the land of the Tainos --Cuba -- opened the way for a new type of interaction between those who came in from the various regions of Spain, such as Catalunia and Galicia, and the Africans, whose numbers were significantly increased in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. In an economic sense, these major ethnic groups related themselves to the means of production during the plantation economy system as plantation owner and slave owner of Spanish descent, owning the means of productions, and as the enslaved labor force brought in from Africa. It is noteworthy that before the Spanish colonial rule decided to import enslaved labor from Africa, the Spanish settlers subjected the native Taino population to forced labor through the "encomienda' system that officially distributed and assigned the native peoples to colonial settlers. The "encomienda" system therefore was another system of enslavement introduced in the 16th century by Spain in the Caribbean. The encomienda system failed as a consequence of a variety of reasons, including:

1. diseases introduced by the Europeans against which the indigenous were not resistant,

2. overexploitation, according to the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, and before him Montesinos in La Espanola.

3. the militant resistance by indigenous peoples whereby many lives were lost.

As a result of this failure, it became imperative for the exploiters of land and people to replace this workforce by another. Growing capitalist interests in Europe could not stand any setback in the continuity of a production process which guaranteed huge profits for the Europeans, whether this was achieved through the buying and selling of Tainos, Mayas, or chattel from Africa. Profits made by exploitation of gold, sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo was far more important than the methods used to reach these goals both on the European continent and in the colonies. So this new situation created a playground for new production relations which went along with a strong color division between the two major nationalities, the European (white) and the African (black). The immediate question is how has this process of interaction and communication between these two social categories manifested itself from the 17th to the 20th century in Cuba.

In this essay we will divide these four centuries into two major epochs, one from the 17th to the 19th century characterizing the slave era up until 1886, and then another starting from 1898 when Cuba became independent through the period after 1959, the revolutionary period.

The system of enslavement of Africans in Cuba became more significant after the triumph of the Haitian Revolution. The Caribbean shook the slave traders' world of Europe and its dependencies on the New Continent when in 1791 a revolutionary process led by enslaved Africans was simultaneously unleashed on two Caribbean islands: Haiti and Guadeloupe. Both processes pushed the French Revolutionary Government into abolishing slavery in 1792 in the French territories. Nonetheless ten years later in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a very large naval and military force under the leadership of Leclerc to Haiti and under Richepance to Guadeloupe with the objective of crushing the revolution and re-establishing slavery in both countries. They captured Toussaint L'Ouverture and brought him to France where he died the following year in the dungeons of Fort La Joux in the Jura under Napoleon's treacherous command. In Guadeloupe, after fierce and dramatic battles, of the two Guadeloupean leaders, Joseph Ignace (1) was killed in battle by French forces near Pointe a Pitre, and Louis Delgres (2) preferred to remain together with 300 rebel soldiers and face the consequences without surrendering to the heavily equipped French forces. He and all of his colleagues were destroyed by a bomb blast in a fortress located in the Matouba mountain range on the island of Basseterre.

A group of deported Guadeloupean Africans succeeded in sailing to Haiti in order to look for protection, and they immediately informed the Haitian revolutionaries of the occurrences in Guadeloupe and of the loss of the brave Louis Delgres. Moreover, they relayed the stunning information that Richepance, on behalf of Napoleon Bonaparte, had re-established slavery in Guadeloupe and French Guyana. Martinique was then under British rule. Upon hearing these stories, Dessalines and others decided that it was time

to call for the independence of Haiti since there was no other possibility for dialogue with the undemocratic French rulers under Napoleon Bonaparte. This important step by the Haitian Revolution to declare independence led to their becoming the first independent nation of formerly enslaved Africans which had successfully conducted a genuine popular democratic revolution in the new continent. This revolution was a thorn in the eye of all slave societies in the Caribbean as well as of Europe itself. For Cuba this meant the opening of a new era. First of all, international capital decided that since the Haitian Revolution took place and put an end to slave labor, production on the sugar and coffee plantations should be stepped up in other countries where the enslavement of African labor was still official. In this sense a shift was made from Haiti to Cuba. Not only was the immigration of former Haitian French plantation owners with some of their workforce to Cuba promoted, but also more Africans were kidnapped from the continent of Africa. At the same time the exploitation of the labor of these workers reached extreme proportions. This provoked several uprisings like the uprising of Aponte in 1812 and the most significant broad slave uprising that took place from 1868 to 1878 and became known as the Ten Year War, in which Antonio Maceo played an important role.

Antonio Maceo, who had always been conscious of his African descent, insisted he wanted to see Cuba become independent but only under the condition that the enslavement of Africans be abolished. In 1878, Antonio Maceo forced the representative of the colonial Spanish government, General Arsenio Martinez Campos, to meet with him at Baragua in the eastern part of Cuba. Martinez Campos had expected the encounter would be an easy win for the Spanish forces and that Maceo would be persuaded to accept the agreements reached with the reformist elements inside the Liberation Army. These agreement had been codified in the Zanjon and called for an end to the liberation war with promises of superficial reforms and a gradual and partial abolition of slavery.

General Antonio Maceo in clear and diplomatic terms made the Spanish representative understand that his position was principled and unyielding: no independence without the full and immediate abolition of the system of enslavement of Africans in Cuba. Arsenio Martinez Campos and his Spanish occupation forces were to consider this encounter as an official protest expressed at Baragua and were told that the struggle for full liberation of the entire Cuban people would continue (3).

Antonio Maceo, with this courageous stand taken in the Protest of Baragua, guided by his clear vision on the indisputable freedom of enslaved Africans in Cuba, proved to be the precursor to the abolition of slavery in Cuba. After the success of the Haitian Revolution, the imperialist forces made a shift in their operations of fields of cane sugar and coffee productions from Haiti to Cuba in order to continue producing with superprofits. Spain collaborated with the French rulers of neighboring Haiti in welcoming the French colonial planters with their enslaved African laborers to come and settle down on Cuban soil.

A similar process took place in Trinidad and Tobago in the southeastern Caribbean, which was then under Spanish rule. Spain invited French Creole planters from Guadeloupe to come and establish themselves there. At that time the royalist French Creole settlers of Guadeloupe refused to accept the decision taken in February 1703 by the French Revolution to recognize the abolition of slavery in Guadeloupe and Haiti. Victor Hugues was sent to the island with his ambulatory guillotine to behead all opponents among the royalists who acted against the law of abolition.

In the mid 19th century Cuba of Antonio Maceo, the struggle for independence from Spain gained important momentum. The Mambi Liberation Army was comprised of an overwhelming presence of Cubans of African descent: freedman, enslaved man, and marroons or outlyers. By the estimates of modern Cuban historians they comprised from 80% to as much as 92% of the army. The term Mambi itself is a Congolese word meaning "the wretched." The Mambi Army waged courageous battles on horseback, armed with machetes.

The level of social and economic exploitation had increased to atrocious levels where slaves had to work 20 hours a day during the harvest and many died. Fearing the appearance of another Haiti or Guadeloupe, the colonial system became more ruthless towards the exploited masses. The dominant elite was prepared to pay whatever price necessary in order to ensure the continuity of enslaved African labor in Cuba. On the other hand, this explosive situation inevitably provoked an increase in the level of consciousness of people of African descent. Those masses saw their adherence to the independence movement as being irrevocably tied to their demand for the abolition of slavery.

This position was well understood and expressed by Antonio Maceo (4, 5), the son of a veteran Venezuelan freedom fighter, who had absorbed all the ideals of independence and abolition of slavery promulgated by the Liberator Simon Bolivar. Bolivar committed himself to the cause of the abolition of slavery in the lands to be freed from Venezuela to Peru and Ecuador. This was a promise he had made to Alexandre Petion of Haiti when he went to seek international solidarity and support from the Haitian revolutionaries for the liberation of South America from Spanish colonialism.

Maceo's mother Mariana Grajales was born and raised in the Dominican Republic that was so much affected by events on that island directly influenced by the Haitian Revolution. Antonio Maceo and his brothers were brought up in a revolutionary and conscious family. The Maceo family was persuaded that the cause of liberation was intrinsically linked with the principle of abolition of slavery, and was prepared to give the life of all family members for that cause as the only way towards peace, equality, and justice for all. Antonio Maceo's awareness with regards to international and regional Caribbean solidarity was broad, since as he was forced to go into exile after 1878, his first stop was Jamaica, where he lived with his family and mother Mariana Grajales for some time. From that era we know that he had a son with the Jamaican Mrs, Maryatt, whom he named Tonio.

After Jamaica, Maceo was also welcomed by Florvil Hippolite, in Haiti and subsequently he lived in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Panama. He was inspired by the wealth of experience of these peoples' struggle for independence and for the abolition of the system of enslavement of Africans by European settlers in the Caribbean Basin. Antonio Maceo's insistence on combining the struggle for independence simultaneously with the abolition of slavery had both positive and negative repercussions inside the Liberation Movement. This position was well understood and positively accepted by Maximo Gomez and Jose Marti. Maximo Gomez was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and Jose Marti was quite active in the exile communities in the United States during and after the Ten Year War (1868 to 1878). One of Marti's principal supporters in Tampa, Florida, among the cigar workers, was the Pedroso family, itself of African descent. Marti was responsible for the foundation of the Revolutionary Party in exile and joined the struggle on Cuban soil together with Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez in 1895.

As could be expected, there were also elements upholding retrogade ideas and positions in the Liberation Movement, like Calixto Garcia, a prominent general of the Cuban Liberation Army who was of European descent. On several occasions during the Ten Year War, Garcia had questioned the leadership of Antonio Maceo in the eastern provinces. The basis of his criticism was that Maceo wanted to promote a "second Haitian Revolution" or a race war in Cuba, since he was insisting upon an immediate abolition of slavery.

This persistent criticism of Antonio Maceo expressed by Calixto Garcia and a few others who surrounded him reflected the more reformist tendencies within the independence movement, which stopped short any of more radical changes such as the immediate abolition of the system of enslavement of Africans in Cuba. They accused Maceo of racism, claiming that he intended to repeat the Haitian Revolution in Cuba. Such charges were later leveled against others who struggled on behalf of Cubans of African descent, such as the Independents of Color.

This defamatory stand taken during the Ten Year War by representatives of the ruling elite as well as by certain elements within the Liberation Movement upholding petty bourgeois aspirations should not be a surprise to anyone. The same attitude was also adopted in other countries of the Caribbean who had known the plantation economy based on the enslavement of African labor force. All of those ruling circles feared the possibility of an accelerated collapse of that inhumane system through the revolt of the oppressed African masses. Moreover, whoever among our Caribbean leaders who had taken the success and principles of the Haitian Revolution as a model and guideline for their struggle for national liberation, like Antonio Maceo, would never have been appreciated by the racist dominant élites.

This controversy contributed to the fact that in Cuba the system of enslavement of Africans and the clandestine trade of African human beings was finally completely abolished in the year 1886. This occurred fifty years after abolition in the British occupied territories (1838) and forty years (1848) after the French abolished slavery definitively in their occupied territories. It was twenty three years after the Dutch (1863) and twenty one years after the United States had officially terminated this system on their soil (1865).

Cuba became independent in 1898. Forces inside the Liberation Army invited U.S. naval forces to participate in the struggle to oust the Spaniards from Cuban territory. A very contradictory move, since those circles were aware of the segregationist nature of the United States society. The United States forces found the necessary political pretext and decided to actively participate in the war against Spain after the US fleet was attacked in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba in 1898. This war became known as the Spanish American War in the official American discourse, but should be renamed the Cuban - American - Spanish War, for Cuban forces were the ones doing the fighting.

United States officials had expressed their concern on several occasions on the high level presence of "darkies" in the independence movement of Cuba. So, it could be argued that an intervention in the liberation process was necessary to prevent any take over or dominant position of those "darkies" in an independent Cuba.

In this context it is important to refer to the statement made earlier on by US General Samuel Young, who said: "they (Cubans) were not any more capable of self-government than the savages of Africa". Looking closely at this system it reveals an attitude of Anglo-Saxon supremacy over the Iberian Spanish component of the Cuban society, much influenced by eight centuries of Moorish, therefore African domination over the Iberian peninsula. According to US dominant elitist and racist thought of "one drop rule", 'white' Cubans then are not 'white', but 'black' or close to black. Indeed the very mixture in Cuban society of African, Hispanic, and to a lesser extent Asian and indigenous elements which are the strength of Cuban national identity were abhorrent to the segregationist, Anglo - Saxon supremacist world view that dominated the US ruling elite at that time.

On the other hand this statement implies an automatic rejection and disqualification of the presence and potential of the sub-Saharan African (black) component of the Cuban society, which is represented today by at least 70% of Cubans on the island.

Similar indications to those made by General Samuel Young could be distilled from words expressed by his contemporary Major Brodie: "The Cubans are utterly irresponsible, partly savage, and have no idea of what good government means."

Is this because Cubans are to a large extent of African descent? This question ought to be asked when statements like these are being made by representatives of a segregationist, racist government against which the civil rights movement, under the leadership of Martin Luther King and others such as Malcolm X, had to mobilize the masses.

Once the Spanish were defeated, one could have expected a natural handover of political power to the Cuban independence fighters, but what became evident was that a new era of neo-colonial relations between Cuba and the United States was inaugurated which were sealed in 1903 with the Platt amendment. Politically this newly independent Caribbean nation became subject to policies dictated by ruling political centers in Washington.

Economically, the strategic production sectors such as agriculture were taken over by the United Fruit Company and the Cuban American Sugar Company as well as other U.S. companies. Communications and trade were subjected to and controlled by the metropolis. Now that the Spanish colonial rule was over, it became easier to maneuver freely with no obstacles. In social and cultural fields, a new elite of Spanish descent was created that functioned as "whites" dominating and exploiting the masses of African descent: "blacks" and "mulattoes". In this system of inequalities one should also include as exploited masses the peoples of Asian descent -- Chinese, Koreans and Japanese who were brought in towards the end of slavery and after the its abolition to replace enslaved African labor in Cuba. It is necessary to mention that the level of exploitation and racial discrimination applied by the Spanish European elite on these masses was so severe that it is known that many Chinese immigrants joined the Liberation Army in fighting the racist Spanish colonial rule. These militant and brave men and women became known as "Chinos Mambisas". Another social category that comprise the Cuban society are the descendents of the first inhabitants in Cuba the Tainos. Although their numbers are not so high it is still noteworthy mentioning this category even though they are fused with Europeans and Africans. Their traces are still visible and in the inherited colonial and racist ideologies as they too have traditionally been deprived and despised by the ruling elite.

The American neocolonial era in Cuba introduced and strengthened segregation in Cuban public life. Work conditions for the African segment of the Cuban society, especially in the sugar cane estates, were infra-human. In the urban areas, labor rights were denied. The masses were convinced that this is not what Antonio Maceo had stood for. Independence and abolition of slavery could not have meant that the people of African descent would enter another stage of neglect and denial of basic human living conditions and rights. The Mambisas Liberation Army had fought for equal rights. Hence that is the sole way of understanding Jose Marti's posture on race relations when he stated "more than whites and more than blacks, we are Cubans". This concern of Marti was well understood by the generations of Cubans of African descent who had fought in the ranks of the Liberation Movement. These same masses now in the post-independence era saw that the segregationist system separated whites and people of color in parks, social clubs, housing facilities, among others, and segregation became the order of the day. Furthermore, the educational system would not incorporate people of color, since they had no financial possibilities or were simply rejected because of the color of their skin.

Cultural life was the property of the Euro-Spanish white descendants and was exploited to their benefits. Political life and participation were reserved to the elite within the Euro-Spanish segment that formed the new upcoming national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the exploited masses, those of African descent in particular, were restricted to manifesting their political desires and expressions only through the newly created political parties, namely the Liberal and Conservative parties. These were in essence the mouthpieces of the ruling bourgeois elite which was a servant to international American capital.

Against this background of deepening social contradictions and a growing class consciousness of the exploited masses, demands for social change were being stepped up by the masses of African descent who felt themselves left out and lagging behind in the new process after independence. Cuban society was segregated and officially knew and recognized the existence of "sociedades de blancos" (associations of whites) and "sociedades de negros" (black associations), reflecting the social divisions in categories such as white and black. It was quite evident that the category of exploited black masses, who already had their social and cultural organizations, would organize themselves from within the framework of these organizations in order to present their demands for social change to the dominant political system of the time. If the doors and windows to democracy would still remain closed and therefore heavier political actions needed to be taken, then it would be quite logical that a deprived social category would be searching for solutions for ever growing irreversible conflicts by basing themselves within its own segment or category. That was the only space of operation and social organization which was left to their social category.

Trade Unions and especially a working class party based on marxist leninist principles was first formed in 1925 by Julio Antonio Mella. No other affiliation on a broad class basis was objectively possible earlier at the beginning of the century leading to the 1912 outburst. The system itself had reached a point of irreversible conflicts.

It is not surprising that even Church institutions could not play the role of intermediaries, since they had historically never acted as the mouthpiece of the poor and the oppressed in Cuba. This happened for example in Curacao, where the Roman Catholic Church was the main representative of the oppressed and exploited masses of African descent. On the contrary in Cuba, the Roman Catholic church was the official Church of the bourgeoisie and the plantocracy.

From the ‘sociedades de gente de color’ (people of color), an urgent transformation into the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC) was made independently from the existing bourgeois parties in order to strive for the social, cultural and economic improvement of the black masses. This expresses a total rupture of confidence among broad sectors of these masses towards the ruling elite and its institutions. Obviously this action was a response to and an open accusation of the racist tendencies and manifestations of the ruling neocolonial elite.

The ruling elites in 1912 resorted to goading and provoking the discontented masses of African descent into undertaking violent actions. They then responded by justifying the use of heavy military force, and massacred over 6,000 members of the PIC, their leadership, as well as many other Cubans of African descent. Indications are there that US forces also participated in assisting the Cuban puppet army in exterminating the militant protesters (6). Prior to the massacre, the elites set up a wide propaganda machinery, using especially the Havana press, and engaged in hysterical suppressive actions whose themes continued those enunciated earlier during the Ten Year’s War such as the accusation of creating another Haiti (7, 8). It becomes understandable to us that this struggle and uprising of mainly Cubans of African descent was a significant prelude to future revolutionary class struggles still to be waged in Cuba. Hence any struggle for liberation of the working people would have necessarily to take into account the needs and demands of the people of African descent for its success.

Following this uprising, in 1915 the Cuban presidents Menocal and Zayas, subsequently came to agreements with the sugar monarchs and their US advisers to further deny demands for higher wages and improvement in living conditions as expressed by the Cubans of African descent who had just revolted three years before and seen their political party Partido Independiente de Color brutally destroyed and outlawed by the political system. This agreement entailed the Cuban government authorizing the sugar monopolies to import "braceros antillanos negros" (black Caribbean handlaborers) to come and live and work on the sugar estates in Cuba. The objective was to undercut the wage demands of the native African Cubans and the entire existing working class in Cuba, in order to maximize profits. Sailing ships were reactivated to recruit Caribbean workers from Jamaica, Haiti, the entire anglophone Caribbean from Saint Kitts` Nevis, Saint Martin, Saba, Saint Eustatius, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad, etc. From the Dutch occupied territories Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire, it is known that between 1915 and 1948 almost 50 % of the male work force was transferred to Cuba. These masses of Caribbean workers were loaded on sailboats just as in earlier years of trade, enslaved Africans were transshipped through the Caribbean waters. They were sold through intermediate agents like Yuchi Prince in the case of Curacao, who according to folksongs describing this new sale of human beings made one dollar per head – this was sung in the Papiamento language of Curazao (dollar pa kabes), seemingly an interesting profit for the agent. Other sources reveal that the agents in many cases participated in the profits of the sugar company itself. The recruits who were sold to the sugar companies in Cuba were off-loaded in several ports like Manati and Puerto Padre in Las Tunas Province, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo, and Cienfuegos among others. They were then distributed over the several estates to go and live in barracoons with no social and labor rights whatsoever. Wages were granted only when harvesting was completed. These workers were compelled in many cases to live on the estates and to buy their food, clothes, etc on credit at the estate-store. This debt would later be deducted from their wages at harvest time. A lot of these workers remained without one penny after deduction of the months of debts they had accumulated and owed to the store owner. In conclusion we can state that this era in the 20th century post independence and neocolonial Cuba meant a revival of slavery for the Caribbean immigrants.

No wonder that Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s (9) organization had such a big response in Cuba. Outside the United States, The United Negro Improvement Association was the largest in the Caribbean nation of Cuba. It was especially active and strong in areas like Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. Marcus Garvey visited Cuba in 1921, where he met with supporters of his ideas and movement. A significant number of his supporters were immigrants from the Caribbean who were struggling for the betterment of living and work conditions in Cuba.

The first and second decade of the twentieth century were characterized by active popular actions. That was the time that the workers of Cuba started to organize themselves in workers’ organizations and trade unions on a broad base. The purpose of the trade union movement was to recruit their members from all social and racial backgrounds. As we have indicated earlier, Julio Antonio Mella founded in 1925 the first Communist Party of Cuba. This party underwent several stages of its development and became known until the beginning of the revolution in 1959 as the Partido Socialista Popular de Cuba, the Popular Socialist Party of Cuba.

The trade unions were the most important movement that incorporated Cubans of African descent and struggled for the improvement of their social well-being. Many representatives of this social category occupied leading positions. In the political arena, many among the masses of African descent saw an alternative in the Partido Socialista Popular de Cuba as an opponent to the necolonial and bourgeois parties, the Partido Liberal and the Partido Conservador. The Partido Socialista de Cuba was closely related to the labor movement and had a focus in its political program in favor of the masses of African descent. The Partido Socialista de Cuba, a forerunner of the present day Communist Party of Cuba, was their platform for expression and action against the discriminating institutions and called for a profound change of the neocolonial, racist pre-revolutionary Cuban society. As that political party owned a radio station called "Mil Diez" (1010), opportunities were offered to Cubans of African descent to express themselves in socio-political and cultural programs. In the field of popular dance music, important musicians of the fifties, like Celia Cruz, Sonora Matancera, and others, made their initial appearances on the airwaves of that radio station. This occurred in a period when other commercial radio stations excluded the participation of Cubans of African descent from their programs.

As we have seen that from a social and political standpoint the trade unions and the political party, Partido Socialista Popular, became of significant importance for the social organization of Cubans of African descent. From a socio-cultural point of view ‘sociedades de negros’, ‘societies of black’, which continue to exist until after the beginning of the socialist epoch , resolved mutual help, adult and youth education, and the recreational needs of their members. Outstanding examples of these "sociedades de negros" are "La Union Fraternal," located at Calle Revillagigedo, in La Habana, "El Club Social de Buenavista," "La Tropical," and "Los Amalianos" both also in La Habana. In Oriente, we have "Athenas" in Santiago de Cuba, "Moncada" and "La Nueva Era" in Guantanamo. Since 1989 both of the latter were transformed into "La Asociacion Amigos del Son Luis Martinez Griñan."

On the other hand, concerning Cubans of European descent, "sociedades de gallegos, andaluces, y canarios," which were popularly manifested and regarded as "sociedades de blancos", ‘societies of whites’, served the socio-cultural interests of those social categories.

The Chinese component of Cuban society when not considered to be "blacks" or "whites" by the then existing political system, had their own associations in the capital city of Havana, in Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and other important cities.

In post independence Cuba, the Jewish communiy has had their community organizations and synagogue in Havana, and the Arab portion of the Cuban society also created their mutual help organizations.

The revolutionary process which started in 1953 and succeeded on January 1st of 1959 meant an immediate halt to the exploitation of workers and peasants and in particular of the suffering of the black masses. It also marked the initiation of a process of change to the inhumane situations which were affecting the entire working people of Cuba. Alliances among different sectors of the poor and exploited farmers, workers, intellectuals and businessmen were formed with the objective of deposing the ruling elite and their segregationist racist system.

Again it was the eastern part of Cuba, the land of Antonio Maceo and Mariana Grajales, that Fidel Castro had chosen in 1953 to lead his men and start the engine of the new and definitive revolutionary process. Exactly in the same area like La Maya and Guantanamo, where the last big uprising of 1912 took place. Precisely in this same area where less than a century before the independence struggle from Spain was started and where heroic pages were written in the history of Cuban liberation struggles. Fidel Castro knew of the importance of this area, which was so familiar to him since he was brought up in Oriente, eastern Cuba. As a youngster growing up he had seen the suffering masses mainly of African descent who belonged to the poorest of the poor. He had witnessed the denial of rights to the majority of the wider Oriente population, who are mainly of African descent. He had seen how the immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica and elsewhere from the Caribbean were discriminated against and humiliated by the transnationals and also by the local elite of European descent. And he had chosen their side in the battle for liberation.

The triumphant popular democratic revolution had on its agenda, just like the successful Haitian revolution and Guadeloupean Revolution one century before, the elimination of racism and the liberation of the people of African descent and all people from domination and exploitation.

As a result of working class battles for improvement in a revolutionary society whose socialist character was declared in 1962, Cubans of African descent have made remarkable improvement in the social, cultural, economic spheres of life in Cuba. Many more equal opportunities have been granted to all segments of the Cuban society with regards to education, housing, health, culture, sports, jobs etc.

Racial discrimination was banned institutionally, but racial prejudice and racist attitudes in the minds of each and every individual were not eradicated altogether. This is to be expected especially in a country where slavery was abolished so late, almost towards the turn of the century, 1886. The effects and influences of the phenomenon "Black Power Movement" of the 60’s as it was lived and felt in the United States and the Caribbean did not have its impact on Cuban society and other hispanophone countries in the Caribbean Basin. The Black Power Movement was of significant influence in promoting debates and awareness – building among the masses on the entire American continent and beyond. The Black Power Movement as well as the overall civil rights movement in the United States contributed in shaping attitude of the masses the world over, especially in our Caribbean area. A dramatic consequence of the absence of Black Power and Black Awareness in Cuba is the fact that one will be astonished to hear certain expressions being employed by both by whites and blacks. One can hear expressions which will be immediately considered as racist by anybody coming from the Caribbean, USA and Europe. We will illustrate this through some examples:

"negro feo" - ugly black

"feo" - ugly (black) man

"la fea" - the ugly (black) girl

"pelo malo" - bad hair

"pelo bueno" - good hair

"para salir la blanca, – to go out with, the white woman, to go to bed with, para la cama la negra" the black woman.

"la monada se solt?” - the bunch of monkeys broke loose and went wild – used to indicate a group of black people having fun and making noise.

"actuar como blanco" - to behave well (as a white person)

"actuar como negro" - to misbehave (as a black person)

"negro de mierda" - shit Negro

"negro culto" - educated well-bred black person with European traditions

"negro inculto" - ill-mannered black person

"cosa de negro" - black ways (always in negative sense)

We can continue to illustrate more of these examples. But the interesting fact of this phenomenon is that when one confronts individuals who make use of these type of expressions, often their response will be the following. "Esto no es nada, esto es una cosa entre cubanos, pues racismo no es", meaning, ‘that is nothing, that is something among us Cubans, so that is no racism’. These expressions are commonly used by individuals of European descent but it is of no surprise that similar manifestations are exposed by persons of African descent whose minds are also conditioned by these thoughts about the people of African descent.

The official Cuban position with regards to the socialist construction of Cuban society departs from a class analysis of the society and emphasizes that it will not want to create a society based on race, therefore avoiding postures based on a race analysis. This marxist - leninist principle is in essence impeccable and could always be applied for tactical reasons of organization in the liberation struggle. But Lenin also taught us that in the socialist stage of development of the society one must take into account that within the same system certain tendencies could develop and apply antitheses to the intentions of the revolutionary socialist programs. In practice this means that while applauding the existing structures and institutions and the unified organizational forms based on united class interests, certain exponents of retrograde ideas could use the same institutions to suppress and impede the interests of certain social categories like the people of African descent. So we have to be vigilant against the application of tactics and prevent such tactics being transformed into racist strategies.

It is clear that strictly applying class analysis could be convenient and could easily help to circumvent the debate on remaining racial questions of inequalities and priviliges, favoritism, nepotism and eurocentrism. Narrow class analysis can only lead to a narrow economic focus and will at any rate not be sufficient to erradicate retrogade ideas, beliefs, and attitudes still persisting in some members of present day Cuban society.

Socialism is a transition period from capitalism to communism, the ideal society exempted from the existence of all classes and social contradictions. Socialism in the Caribbean context as in Cuba has to deal with all types of legacies as racism and racial questions are one of the major illnesses inherited from the deposed capitalist society.

In this regard we must refer to President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania who in 1973 during an interview with the Dutch press in Holland, said, when asked about race problems in the world, that of all the countries that he knew, he could say that in Cuba he had seen that most progress made by a government in solving problems of racism…

When looking at historical processes that have been taking place in the cultural infrastructure of Cuban societies in the various epochs of the capitalist mode of production and in the revolutionary socialist mode of production we can state the following.

The masses have known how to endure and face all those centuries of harsh exploitation as described above before and after independence by creating and developing their own ways and forms of resistance. Through cultural manifestations, the masses have shown a willingness to solve existing contradictions with the elite that continuously impose their European values and norms on the masses of African descent.

In response to the attitude of cultural domination of the European elite, the oppressed and dominated masses of African descent resolved to combine their inherited African values and norms with the European manifestations in the fields of music, language, religion, culinary arts, and so on. This was an act of not wanting to give up and lose their own cultural experiences and heritage which they brought with them from Africa. At the same time they were trying not to solve the sharp contradictions in a violent form. This was another method of waging marroonage resistance, opting for pacific means of gaining their liberation.

While saying yes yes yes to the oppressor’s impositions, the oppressed masses in turn continued to express themselves within their group according to their African cultural legacies. They were always seeking to eternalize their customs and traditions which have their roots in continental Africa from where they were captured, imprisoned, deported and again imprisoned in the Cuban estates. The Africans in Cuba refused to accept that they were non-persons as declared by the European masters.

The shining example is how the Yoruba and Bantu traditions in religion and language have been able to survive despite severe persecutions by the dominant elite and their repressive institutions. Still when necessary, Cubans of African descent succeeded in fusing Yoruba religious beliefs with the official Roman Catholic Christian manifestations. This is how we know the cultural manifestation called Santeria. This is a historical process whereby the people of African descent in Cuba reasoned that there was no need to fight for religious supremacy as was being imposed by the European elite. The Cubans of African descent thought it better to look for similarities and coincidence in values and norms within the two religious manifestations and allowing them to coexist harmoniously as one.

In the African Cuban religious manifestations, the language of the African component of the Cuban society was rescued, namely the Congolese Bantu languages, the Abakua language originating from the Calabar area in Nigeria, and the Yoruba language, known as Lukumi in Cuba. Lukum? originates from the western part of the Yoruba nation in Africa, where it is currently expressed as Oluikumi, meaning "my friend who can tap me on the butt" (10).

Brilliant examples abound of the process of peaceful resistance and liberation by Cubans of African descent, especially in the field of popular music. This process is simultaneously known in the entire Caribbean and among other countries which have known the plantation economy based on the enslavement of African labor. European melodic styles were fused with inherited African rhythms in order to create new musical genres and rhythms. Outstanding representations of these rhythms in the Caribbean cultural identity are the Calypso and Soca in Trinidad and Tobago, the Zouk in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the Cadance in Dominica, the Compas Direct in Haiti, the Tumba in Curacao, the Merengue in the Dominican Republic, and the Rock Steady, Ska and the Reggae in Jamaica.

In Cuba, a new musical complex was created starting in the 16th century and became known as "SON CUBANO", ‘CUBAN SON’. This complex entails a broad variety of rhythms which started out as the changui, nengon and guiriba in its early expressions born in the mountains of Guantanamo in eastern Cuba. Later on these developed into the guajira, guaracha, danzon, danzonette, charranga, mambo, and the rumba complex which was subdivided into columbia, yambu and the guaguanco. Further on we had genres like son montuno and the cha cha cha, the last genre to be created in Cuba and one that has been widely propagated the world over.

Revolutionary programs with regards to culture originally intended to promote the creation of new genres and rhythms, among them is the manifestation of the "Nueva Trova", which contains deep meaningful lyrics. When analyzing this style of expressing music and song one can denote an emphasis on European melodic styles which are very close to the Iberian genre called "cancion", while the rhythmic structures remain basically derived from the African traditions of the SON complex. The Nueva Trova has been successful among intellectual masses especially of European descent in Argentina and Chile, but not in the Caribbean where strong and harmonious African based rhythms such as the Calypso, Merengue, Compas Direct, Tumba, Zouk and Reggae are dominating the music and art scene. On the other hand in the orbit of popular dance music one of the most outstanding African based creations that has not penetrated convincingly beyond Cuban borders is the "songo".

The SON has a clearcut African sonority and timbre as expressed by giants like Miguel Matamorros, Nico Saquito, Compay Segundo, Ignacio Pineiro, Abelardo Barroso and Oraquesta Sensacion, Orquesta Aragon, Arcano y sus Maravillas, Arsenio Rodriguez and Conjunto Chappottin. The Son remains invincible both inside and outside of Cuba as the highest expression of the cultural identity of the Caribbean nation of Cuba.

Cuban people will continue to be firm with the SON for its lyrics have always reflect social themes such as love, nature, critics and politics and have served to mobilize the masses in times of struggle and peace. Arsenio Rodriguez expressed in the fifties the need for considering the importance of the heroes of the War of Independence -- Bermudez, Agramonte, and Antonio Maceo, all of African descent -- as the equals of Jose Marti, in the song "ADORENLA COMO MARTI". In the same vein Conjunto Chappottin y sus Estrellas pay eternal glory and homage to the illustrious abolitionist and independence fighter, Antonio Maceo, in the immortal and truthful song entitled ‘PROTESTA DE BARAGUA’.

In conclusion we can state that the revolutionary process has introduced a new path for social progress for the working people in general and in particular for people of African descent. Undoubtedly this social category has made headway in almost all fields of life in Cuba and has been brought out of extreme poverty and neglect. In addition we have to state that the current situation of the US economic blockade and the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc of Europe, to which Cuba’s economy was so much attached, have created situations of deep economic crisis and social maladjustments.

We cite especially the need for implementing decree law 50 which opened up the economy to foreign investments. On the one hand, the foreign enterprises contributed to bring money into the state treasury, but, on the other hand, many gains of the revolution have been also been affected, especially from a moral and cultural point of view. In this regard, the assembly of the UNEAC, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, held in November 1998, expressed a number of criticisms. The assembly of Cuban cultural workers called the attention of the leader of the revolution, Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, to existing racist tendencies in certain services provided by joint ventures corporations operating in Cuba, as one of many examples. The President of the revolution promised to install a committee to look further into the matter in order to resolve it.

In early 2000, General Raul Castro, the 2nd secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. declared that any enterprise, be it foreign or national, found guilty of racist practices would be shut down immediately.

During the third congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, celebrated in 1985, I had the privilege of physically witnessing criticism delivered by the Caribbean delegation invited to this major event of Cuban communists. Our longtime friend Tim Hector, leader of the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement, expressed the most persistent and outspoken worries in this regard. The Caribbean delegation was not pleased with the low numbers of affiliations as well as the insignificant presence of Cubans of African descent in the various party organs especially in leading party and state organs.

In his final address, the first secretary of the communist party of Cuba, Dr. Fidel Castro, admitted that racism had not been eradicated in Cuba, and that the discrimination of women still existed. Consequently he decided that the numbers of blacks and women should be increased in the Central Committee and the Polit Buro. Upon this decision Esteban Lazo, a Cuban of African descent originating from Matanzas, was elevated to the Central Committee and I had the honor and pleasure of congratulating him on behalf of the entire Caribbean delegation, simply because I could speak the Spanish language.

Looking back at all these bold and courageous decisions taken both by the first and second secretary of the communist party of Cuba, still I have to state that the total eradication of racism and racist practices cannot be achieved by the implementation of decrees. We need to take into account that at the beginning of the revolution, the African masses as compared to the European masses did not have the same starting point. From a cultural perspective we can say that there were more elements in play, caused by the previous capitalist system with its inequalities in social possibilities such as education. The education in itself was eurocentric, thus exclusivist in nature towards the people of African descent.

There is a need for more consistent dialog and ideological work on this question carried out by all the leading bodies of the Cuban society as a priority. This is a continuous process, while the revolution has the immense task of dealing with the effects of the US blockade on the quality of life of the entire people. Furthermore the revolution is obliged to solve daily economic bread and butter problems for the masses.

Last but not least, African peoples both at home on the continent of Africa and abroad in the Diaspora are ever grateful for revolutionary Cuba’s principled position and active participation in the liberation struggles against colonialism, racism, and apartheid in Africa, which in great measure has contributed to the freedom of brother Nelson Mandela, leader of the South African people.

The peoples of the world have to insist that no neo-bourgeois class will ever take over the destiny of the Caribbean nation of Cuba. Regional bodies like Caricom, and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) are persuaded of the fact that Cuba is a Caribbean nation. During Dr. Fidel Castro’s visit to Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada in 1997, which coincided with emancipation day celebrations in the former British occupied territories, prominent sectors in those countries expressed the need for the creation of a PanAfrican Movement including Cuba.

That call for international solidarity is important for it is clear that the Cubans of African descent who were so active in struggling for independence and for the revolution in Cuba are determined not to allow any tendency which would want to re-establish an enslavement of the masses to ever gain ground again either in Cuba or elsewhere..

The dialogue and struggle continues.
Peace, equality and cooperation…

Eugene Godfried
Caribbean specialist/journalist for Cuban radios


  1. "Joseph Ignace le premier rebelle 1802: La révolution anti-esclavagiste guadeloupéenne," Roland Anduse, Editions Jasor 1989
  2. "L’Epopée Delgres," La Guadeloupe sous la Revolution Francaise (1789 – 1802), Germain St. Ruf, 2e édition, Librairie – Editions l’Harmatlan, 18 Rue des Quatres Vents, 750006, Paris
  3. "Protesta de Baragua", José Luciano Franco, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, 1978.
  4. "Hombradía de Antonio Maceo," Raúl Aparicio, Ediciones UNEAC, La Habana,1996
  5. "Papeles de Maceo", Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, 1988 Tomo I y Tomo II
  6. "Guerra de Razas (Negros contra blancos en Cuba)," Rafael Conte, José M. Capmany, Imp. Militar de Antonio Perez, Muralla 40, Havana, 1912
  7. Our Rightful Share : The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912, University of North Carolina Press, 1995. A Spanish translation is available as of June 2000 at the Casa de Altos Estudios Fernando Ortiz in Havana.
  8. "Le Soulevement Armé des Independants de Couleurs a Cuba en 1912," p.37, Alain Yacou, dans Histoire I, Assimilation – Socialisme, La fin du 19e siecle Antillais, Imprimerie Guadeloupéene des Editions Sociales, Fevrier, 1981
  9. "Garveyism in Cuba 1920 - 1940," Department of History, University of Texas, Austin
  10. Personal communication, Wande Abimbola, past chancellor of the University of Ife, past President of the Nigerian Senate, and currently Spokesperson for Ifa in the World as well as one of the 16 Babalawos of Ife.


Contacting the author:


French Antilles

Abolition de l'esclavage au XVII eme et XIX eme siecle en Guadeloupe

Association pour la Connaissance l'Etude et la Mémoire de l'Esclavage

The 1912 Massacre

The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality: a discussion of Aline Helg's Our Rightful Share

1912 Massacre on AfroCubaWeb

Roots of My Heart, Gloria Rolando

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey and the UNIA-ACL


Tomas Robaina

Rogelio Martinez Fure


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