It was evident to this group of Creoles that the only way they would be able to successfully launch a revolution was by enlisting the participation of the eastern region's free(d) and enslaved populations. As a result, they offered the latter manumission in exchange for their participation in the insurgency movement against Spanish colonial rule. This seemingly radical move on the part of the insurgent Creoles was, as the historian Rebecca Scott notes, symbolically important, but nonetheless "legally represented nothing more radical than the exercise of the right of a master to manumit his slaves". Moreover, their actions were tempered by over-riding concerns about alienating the region's more conservative planters by demanding immediate abolition. A compromise was reached in 1869 when the insurgency forces declared all inhabitants of their self-pronounced republic free, but enacted the Reglamento de Libertos, which established a tutelage system that allowed former slave owners to retain control over their former slaves.
This arrangement allowed the insurgency leadership to continue reaping the benefits of slave labour, but to do so outside the paradigm of slavery. It increased the manpower of the military, while provisioning the labour of former female slaves to attend to the domestic needs of the insurgency forces. Ferrer points out that this system was also designed to encourage the subservience, indebtedness and gratitude of former slaves to the rebel leaders. While it certainly had this effect, libertos also seized the revolutionary language of freedom, liberty, and justice to demand a more inclusive role in the anti-colonial struggle. As a result, former slaves and free blacks and mestizos rose in the ranks of the military and to a limited extent the latter were also placed into public office at the local level.
In 1892, José Martí founded the multi-racial Cuban Revolutionary Party (CRP), which unified the various groups who favoured complete independence. Unlike earlier insurgents who had hoped to enlist the support of the US, Martí was alarmed by the increasingly imperialist tendencies of the US. His deep concern that a protracted war would not only lead to US intervention, but also to the destruction of the economy, propelled him to plan an island-wide mass rebellion in 1895 designed to ensure a quick victory. The war, however, lasted three years and witnessed the death of Martí and ended in US occupation of Cuba. Moreover, the way in which race played itself out during the final phase of the war foreshadowed the gap that would emerge between the revolution's anti-racist ideology and the reality of race-relations in the nation it produced.
In order to neutralise the potent rhetoric that had characterised Spain's earlier attempts at discrediting the Cuban independence movement as a race-war designed to institute a black republic, the island's intellectuals disassociated the issue of race from the revolution by constructing Cuba as a race-less nation. They argued that national unity would be forged through interracial cooperation, which in transcending race would transform blacks and whites into race-less Cubans.
Proponents of this nation-building myth pointed to the two most prominent leaders of the 1895 rebellion, José Martí and Antonio Maceo, who were white and mixed race respectively, as the embodiment of this principle. Yet, this cosy rhetoric ignored that the two men had serious ideological differences. In her pioneering study, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912, the historian Aline Helg points out that Maceo was conveniently "made ... the true incarnation of colour-blind revolutionary Cuba." Indeed, the myth latched on to "...the fact that he had managed to become the most famous general of Cuba Libre [Free Cuba, a.k.a. the anti-colonial forces]despite his partial African descent and limited formal education as proof that racism had disappeared".
Their marginalisation was even starker in the civil arm of the insurgency movement. According to Helg, "the civil branch of Cuba Libre continued to show its attachment to colonial hierarchies. The new assembly of representatives in 1897 had not a single Afro-Cuban member; instead it comprised men of refinement" while the "new provisional government was all white as well". The ability of Afro-Cubans to combat the increasing discrimination they faced was effectively curtailed when the US declared war on Spain in 1898.
The fact that the few Afro-Cubans who had any power within the state were unwilling to risk the security of their positions to lobby for equal rights for the larger Afro-Cuban populace, made reform all the more difficult. In this environment, Afro-Cubans came under assault, as did their African-based cultural practices, like drumming and dancing. Nonetheless, Afro-Cubans continued to harness revolutionary ideologies in an attempt to carve out their place in the nation. Indeed, not surprisingly, the first collective Afro-Cuban organisations emerged among the war veterans.
It was not until 1908 that a national party representing wider Afro-Cuban interests emerged, when the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC) was formed. Yet, in the following year, the conservative Afro-Cuban leader, Martín Morúa Delgado, introduced the Morúa Law, banning the formation of political parties based on race or religion. Besides revealing the continued divide between the elite Afro-Cubans and the popular masses, the law exemplifies the way in which the myth of Cuba as a race-less nation continued to be employed to militate against the inclusion of Afro-Cubans in mainstream politics and society under the guise of racial egalitarianism.
The PIC, however, did not go away quietly. In 1912 when it launched an armed struggle in the eastern provinces, it was summarily denounced as a race war and immediately and violently repressed. Between three and four thousand Afro-Cubans were killed during the rebellion, including Evaristo Estenoz, the founder of the PIC. The events of 1912 effectively snuffed out Afro-Cuban activism. In 1918, the Afro-Cuban journalist, José Armando Pla, proposed the formation of another party to represent the interests of black Cubans, but his proposal fell on deaf ears. In short, 1912 marked a turning point for Afro-Cubans as they became painfully aware that the myth of Cuba as a race-less nation was just that - a myth.
Thus, when we assess the question of racial inequality today in Cuba, we must remember that Fidel Castro inherited an extraordinarily racially divided nation. While Castro has arguably done far more to address racial inequality than his counterparts in other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, Cuba still has a long way to go. The most revolutionary thing Castro could do is to ensure that Afro-Cubans, who make up the majority of the island's population, are proportionally represented in the island's social, economic, and political institutions.
Criticism of the persistence of racism and discrimination started being construed as part of the propaganda of the enemies of Cuba. It was argued that there were indeed some vestiges of subjective forms of racism that were survivals from the habits and attitudes of the past and that these would disappear in the course of time.
“By adopting this position, the Revolutionary government in fact endorsed the traditional dominant interpretation of the nationalist ideology that claimed that race was a divisive issue which endangered national unity.” (p. 32). Until 1959, the issue of racism had been kept alive by the Afro-Cuban activists and intellectuals with the support of the Communist Party. But under the difficult conditions that Cuba faced, silence once again became part of the official line.
The “silence” was ruptured in the 1990s as a result of the structural crisis that engulfed Cuba. Social programs experienced a dramatic decline while class polarization began to grow. Competition for jobs increased and characteristically people used whatever they could leverage to attain an edge in competition—this of course included race.
Social problems accompanying the crisis reappeared: prostitution and criminal activities. These problems affected particularly the Afro-Cubans as the historically most vulnerable on account of their structural location.
Official responses to mounting social problems compounded the problems as the police began profiling and targeting the Afro-Cuban prostitutes and criminals. That was not all. The disproportionate number of Afro-Cubans caught in the myriad of these social problems served to further reinforce and crystallize the racist attitudes and stereotypes directed at the Afro-Cubans.
There has been a disproportionate incarceration of Afro-Cubans that is end product of the complex web of social forces-some historical some contemporary. The faces of these Afro-Cubans was dramatically displayed in the Mariel fiasco of the 1980s.
The structural crisis of the 1990s brought into play other forces of racism and discrimination that have been quite evident in the tourism sector.
In the early 1980s blacks and mulattos were slightly over-represented in the service sector, when these jobs were poorlv remunerated and offered little social prestige. If anything, Afro-Cubans should have had a "structural advantage" to fully participate in the new, service-oriented tourist economy of the 1990s-they had both experience and seniority. Yet domestic and international observers agree that most tourist-related jobs are performed by individuals deemed to be white in Cuba. Particularly in those jobs that imply direct personal contact with the visitors-and in which the opportunities for complementary income via tips and gifts are greater-the proportion of blacks is abysmally low.
“Cubans explain blacks' low presence in tourist jobs using various arguments, all of which more or less openly imply that Afro-Cubans are unattractive, dirty, prone to criminal activities, inefficient or lack proper manners and education. The most frequent argument revolves around the concept of "pleasant aspect" (buena presencia), a racialized construct that claims that blacks cannot be hired for these jobs due to aesthetic considerations and to the alleged preferences of the tourists.”
In response, there has been a renewed interest in studying racism in Cuba by scholars within as well as outside Cuba. Artists, intellectuals as well as scholars have joined in this campaign. Images of blackness in visual arts have been criticized for their stereotypic portrayal of blackness. Cuban anthropologists have done important ethnographic studies of prostitution. There has also been the social activism of Afro-Cubans that served to shatter the official silence. Among the dramatic events are spontaneous outbursts in the working class neighborhoods in Havana which launched attacks of tourist stores-throwing stores and breaking windows etc.
The Cuban experience shows that one can indeed dismantle the structures that under gird racism. But that may not necessarily eliminate racism once and for all. In Cuba in particular, the subjective vestiges of racist modes of thought and ideologies can reconstitute racist practices, given new conditions. This was the case, given the structural crisis of the 1990s, in conditions in which racial attitudes and ideologies were still festering among white Cubans below the surface appearances and official denials of racism.
“By institutionalizing the silence on race, the Cuban government precluded a consistent confrontation of racial ideologies and attitudes. Material changes surely began to erode some of the ideological pillars of racism, but the pillars themselves were not directly attacked. Changes in power relations can gradually undermine the material and even cultural foundations of racism, but the process, as comparative historian George Fredrickson has noted, is unfortunately reversible.”
In review of The Resurgence of Racism in Cuba, by Alejandro de la Fuente
[Full article here]
ON RACISM, CUBA IS NO ISLAND
*[First posted 12/04/09]