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Our Rightful Share - Review

The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality 1886 - 1912

By Kristine
July 10, 2006

Our Rightful Share by Aline Helg
Our Rightful Share by Aline Helg

Slavery was introduced into Cuba by the Spanish at the beginning of the 16th century and had fully transformed into a plantation society as sugar cultivation intensified at the turn of the 19th century. The slave trade with the West Africa coast exploded and it is estimated 400,000 Africans were brought to Cuba during the years 1835 - 1864. In 1841, Africans made up over 40 percent of the total Cuban population.

"Our Rightful Share", among other historic events, examines the history of the Afro-Cuban rebellions, "The Ten Years' War" (1868 — 1878), along with the "War for Independence" (1895 — 1898). This book carefully looks at the many ways in which Afro-Cubans struggled to be recognized as equal to whites in theory, in politics and in real life.

As the events of the rebellion unfold, race dominated the political and socio-economic relationships in Cuba resulting in Afro-Cubans' marginalization. The author demonstrates how foreign powers and white Cubans used racism and the myth of racial equality to suppress Afro-Cubans.

Emancipation for Africans enslaved in Cuba was a complex process that had begun on a grand scale with the launching of "The Ten Years' War" against its colonizer, Spain, in 1868. Oriente, Cuba, was the heart and soul of the Independence movement.

The Ten Years' War began in October, 1868. The simplified, popular take on this event goes: a white landowner and slave owner, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes gave a speech known as the 'Grito de Yara', freed his slaves and incorporated them into his disorganized military force as he declared war on the Spanish Crown. This is a deception that seems to be an attempt to paint Céspedes as a benevolent white that took action as the result of recognizing his inherent racism and having a change of heart toward slavery.

The book examines his actions in a more honest light. Céspedes was born into a prominent plantation family that had been granted their estate in 1517. While Carlos Manuel de Céspedes is noted as a protagonist of the Ten Years' War, his involvement was only after eastern Cuba's economic survival was in jeopardy. In addition to his famous speech he immediately declared anyone inducing slaves to rebel would be sentenced to death.

In Cuba, as is several Latin American countries, White elites' deception was based on falsely maintaining the myth of racial equality in the nation to hold onto and justify the current social structure of white supremacy.

While the planters' interest in the insurrection against Spain was economic and driven by self-interest and greed, Afro-Cubans were increasingly involved in a serious effort toward freedom and self-determination.

The white planters involved in the insurrection procrastinated until the April of 1869 before they proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the insurgent area. These same elites were reluctant to include former slave and free Afro-Cubans into the rebellion. There was opposition from western and central Cuban planters to abolition, confining the insurrection to eastern Cuba.

*Abolition of Slavery in Cuba

In 1880, four years after the whimpering end of "The Ten Year War", the Spanish Cortes approved the abolition law, which provided for an eight-year period of patronato (tutelage) for all slaves liberated according to the law. This only amounted to indentured servitude as slaves were required to spend those eight years working for their masters at no charge. On October 7, 1886, slavery was finally abolished in Cuba by a royal decree that also made the patronato illegal.

The Ten Years' War ended with the signing of the Pact of Zanjón in February, 1878 although many of the Afro-Cuban revolutionaries rejected the pact on the grounds it did not fulfill the goals of the revolution: ending slavery and achieving independence from Spain. Part of the failure for the rebellion was due to lack of successful organization, but it should be mentioned that U.S. willingness to sell the latest weapons to Spain but not to the Cuban rebels did have an impact. Another reason some of the rebels who rejected the pact, did so on the premise that it was a false promise that would not be kept, and time did prove this assessment to be true.

Although only briefly mentioned by the author, the "Guerra Chiquita" or Little War (1879 - 1880) was in part a reaction to the Pact of Zanjón. The "Guerra Chiquita" was organized in New York by a group of veterans of the "Ten Years' War". After a few victories the war ended in a rebel defeat as the revolutionaries were not prepared for the strong resistance to their goals.

By 1880 the U.S. government was building up its Navy in preparation for overseas expansion and U.S. investment in Cuba increased rapidly. While 6 percent of Cuban exports went to Spain, 86 percent went to the U.S.

The social structure of white superiority and Black inferiority changed little as the result of these rebellions. Latin American Governments enacted policies to negatively impact the Afro-Cuban population, such as subsidizing European immigration aimed at gradually "whitening" their countries' population which was supposed to eliminate Blacks in the long term - policies promoting white superiority through elimination (a form of sustained racial genocide). Also, official ideology defined "equality based on merits" which had ignored the fact that all individuals did not originate from equal conditions with social conditions according to race dictating at which point one started from. White superiority was the measuring stick to evaluate so called "merit based" accomplishments.

Participation in the war boosted Afro-Cuban determination, but also fed into whites' fear of Blacks. Cuban separatists used threats of another Haitian Revolution to minimize the effectiveness of Afro-Cuban leaders and suppress the evolving Black voice of Cuba. Armed Afro-Cubans fighting for freedom was disturbing to many whites, resulting in whites resorting to the familiar tactic of labeling Afro-Cuban successes toward independence and self-determination as racist. These deep-rooted fears backed by discriminatory repression were exploited by white elites and the Spanish authorities in attempt to force Afro-Cubans to take a more conciliatory attitude toward Spain. Up until this time Afro-Cubans carried the weight of the struggle which benefited all Cubans, while already the seeds of racial prejudice were being sewn to eliminate Black participation in the leadership of an independent Cuba.

In the 1890's there were 500,000 African-Cubans living in Cuba. Approximately 13,000 were African born who, along with rural workers were deeply attached to African cultures that older men and women, who often came from Africa and spoke little Spanish, transmitted orally. Former Lucumí and Congo slaves had a decisive influence on folk medicine, religion and 'brujería', as well as oral literature, music, dance, play, and cooking. It was noted that the African born were the ones who taught culture in the rural or town settings. "In fact, some rural African-Cuban communities unfrequented by local priests and other disseminators of Catholicism and Spanish culture, the influence of the African-born was little challenged."

The backdrop that played a part in the marginalization of African influence in Cuba was the sensationalism and demonization of 'brujería' defined as the complex use of plants and animals, incantations, and/or the exercise of supernatural powers to heal, protect, or harm people.

A fearful representation of 'brujería' was caricatured by the White controlled media, and transformed exceptional cases into the general rule. Not only did they propagate the negative stereotyped images of Africans, which included the negative imagery of African sorcery, cannibalism and racist determinism; they also magnified the fears of society by spreading false rumors about alleged African conspiracies.

The ultimate function of the Latin American myth of racial equality was to place blame entirely on Afro-Cubans themselves for their continuation of lower social positions; the idea being with all these "safeguards" in place, if Afro-Cubans were still marginalized it was due to "racial inferiority".

After planning by surviving veterans of the "Ten Years' War", Cuba's second war of independence began in 1895. Oriente was the only enclave fully successful. This was the result of Oriente having a significant African population and a tradition of struggle against Spain. Afro-Cubans joined the struggle en masse. Prominent white separatists displayed racism, without hesitation jeopardizing the most decisive battle against Spain in order to limit the powers of Black leaders from Oriente.

The reaction of Spain to this new insurgence was to play on long-standing white fears of a Black takeover to label the War of Independence as racist. Repressive policies targeted groups in which Afro-Cubans prevailed. The speculation that Cuba could become another Haiti was held not just by Spanish residents and white Cubans both on island and in exile, but also became the U.S. government's position as well.

Spain granted self-government and universal male suffrage to Cuba in January, 1898. An all-white Cuban cabinet was formed composed primarily of Autonomist leaders. The Autonomist party represented Cuban born white elite planters, as well as a few conservative veterans of the "Ten Years' War". While taking pride in having supported abolition, they had no clear concepts on what "status" to confer on Afro-Cubans. The one thing they did agree on was that Afro-Cubans were a "problem" that complicated the achievement of Cuba's (white) autonomy. Most Cubans longed for peace, but peace without Spain. Autonomy was not widely supported in Cuba. The U.S. recognized the opportunity in these events and used it to get their foot in the door for dubious purposes of expanding U.S. interests.

"The U.S. consul general in Havana exaggerated the disorder produced by anti-Autonomist feelings. As a result, McKinley sent the battleship Maine to Cuba to protect North Americans. When the Maine exploded in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898, U.S. intervention in the war was sealed, although there was no evidence to indicate Spanish involvement in the explosion. Favored by the key importance the future of Cuba had gained in national politics, the McKinley administration's champions of U.S. expansion in the hemisphere had found the opportunity to carry out their program."

Few Afro-Cubans in the 'maigua' understood the full impact of the event. They had spent the last years fighting and struggling to survive and to make their dreams come true. Only when the first U.S. troops landed on Cuban soil, did some realize that the revolution was over. A new struggle ahead: the fight for equal rights and opportunities for Blacks in an independent Cuba.

In 1908 Afro-Cubans organized a Black party, the first in the hemisphere: the 'Partido Independiente de Color'.

"The Afro-Cuban party rapidly achieved nationwide membership, linking the countryside to the cities; it brought the day laborers, peasant workers, artisans, and a few middle-class individuals together in a program focusing on racial equality and working-class demands. In contrast, in most of the hemisphere to the mid-twentieth century, enfranchised blacks generally conformed to white dominated multiparty systems and trusted their representation to the less elitist parties."

The unique success that singled out the Cuban Partido Independiente de Color was the closeness in class between its leaders and the rank and file. This allowed the leaders to make demands that were in line with the demands of the followers.

In 1912, as a reaction of the popularity and participation in the Partido Independiente de Color, armed protests were transformed into false rumors of an impending race war. White fear and false rumors of Black rebellions spread throughout the provinces. Local rumors were propagated at the national level by mainstream newspapers. This premeditated, fear inducing propaganda led to "The Racist Massacre of 1912". The white-controlled Cuban Government responded with the massacre of Afro-Cuban leaders and supporters, along with uninvolved Black citizens, by the Cuban Army.

Massacre as a government means of eliminating social protest, was recurrent historically in the Americas, although after slavery ended massacres were seldom specifically targeted at Black people as mass demonstrations to demand their rights were the exception and not the general rule as a means of protest.

The author states:

"The 'race war' of 1912 was, in reality, an outburst of white racism against Afro-Cubans."

The contradiction between white violence and democratic legislation makes apparent conceptualized contradictions within post-slavery societies: societies that are structured on racism/white supremacy, enacting violence as a means of oppression and liberal democratic principles claiming the equality of all individuals. This contradiction is a necessary ingredient for white societies to uphold the status quo of white supremacy. The ability to uphold this contradiction can only be done through deception.

Repressions rapidly escalated. Blacks were randomly detained on trumped up charges, and mercilessly slaughtered throughout the landscape of Cuba. Oppressive laws were enacted to perpetuate the hostile atmosphere.

"In sum, although no armed protest ever occurred outside of Oriente, the whole island was overcome with fear of a black takeover." [President] "Gómez's government needed white support to launch a full-scale and indiscriminate repression in Oriente, therefore it insured that in all provinces the same alarm, the same sense of indignation about Afro-Cubans, and the same urge to mobilize for the preservation of "white civilization" prevailed."

The 'race war' revealed the reality of the myth of racial equality in Cuba. White veterans of the previous rebellions led the massacres of 1912 against their fellow Black veterans of the Liberation Army. Fearing Black empowerment, whites welcomed U.S. intervention. Cubans had been subjected to years of U.S. military rule and U.S. economic penetration was visible in all sectors. In 1912 when the U.S. Marines arrived to protect U.S. interests, the Cuban political elite sent troops to fight a fictional 'race war' against Afro-Cubans. As a result, the white elite won a battle in the name of white supremacy, but at a time when the U.S. intervention was using the same theory of racial superiority to dominate Cubans in general.

The price paid by the Cuban elite was high for their bloody victory over the Independientes. In 1912 they showed their dependence on the United States as well as their failure to unite all Cubans. These shortcomings ultimately reflected in Cuban politics and institutions. The Cuban elite emerged from the 'race war' weaker and with little credibility which added to their moral bankruptcy.

Narrow cultural recognition was not the "rightful share" the 'Independientes' hoped to gain after abolition and Independence. "Blatant white supremacist ideology slowly disappeared, but racist stereotyping still continued. The myth of Cuban racial equality has proved enduring, even since the revolution of 1959".

The Afro-Cuban struggle has been relegated, as similar reactions to white supremacy also have to an obscure place in history, except of course to the victims. Afro-Cuban history, along with all other examples of resistance to white supremacy should be brought to the forefront of education for all to learn from.

Aline Helg presents a well-researched, distinct account of the events in the Afro-Cuban's struggle for true racial equality. The author does stress though that equality has remained elusive. Afro-Cubans today remain underrepresented in the upper spheres of power and overrepresented in the lower strata of society, indicating that their struggle has yet to be won.

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Our Rightful Share by Aline Helg

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