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Gisela Arandia Covarrubia

Contacting Gisela Arandia

The Concha Mocoyu project

A Panorama of Afrocuban Culture and History
One Way to Strengthen Nationality
by Gisela Arandia Covarrubia, 1999

Researcher at the Centro de Estudios de los Estados Unidos, Universidad de la Habana (CESEU)


The study of Blacks in Cuba, as is the case of other so-called "minorities," comes up against obstacles from the very beginning. It is well known that we have not reached the stage of development in the social sciences to deal with this subject adequately. In contrast to medicine and biotechnology, both of which have been developed dramatically, the social sciences in Cuba have been subject to prejudices brought from Eastern Europe and to the legendary indolence towards this important part of daily life, born with the Spanish colonization and compounded by the subordination to the United States until 1959. These last two tendencies were interested in maintaining the Afrocuban population as second class citizens.

Bourgeois historiography has continuously abstained from any reflection on the achievements of Blacks, except in those stereotypes that have become part of their entertainment. This contributed to the reaffirmation, in the minds of the Black population, of their supposed condition as inferior beings. It can be said that, with the exception of a few authors who will be mentioned later, that the subject of Blacks in Cuba was not even considered a topic to satisfy intellectual curiosity. This is the sad reality.


During a period lasting more than half a century very few serious works have been written about he life of the Black population. Of the few authors that have approached this subject. I will begin with Fernando Ortiz, considered the "father" of Cuban anthropology, having left an extensive series of works. In his first publications he covered the judicial themes, since he was a lawyer, and in those works he spoke about racial equality and pointed out the barbarity of slavery. Fernando Ortiz also covered diverse topics such as various aspects of the religious, economic, linguistic, and artistic life of Blacks in Cuba. Undoubtedly, if he had lived longer, with his intelligence and sensitivity, he would have left behind a more contemporary analysis of the role of Blacks in the history of Cuba..

Ranking among the main sources of information for this topic is professor Lidia Cabrera, who lived in the United States since 1961 and died recently in Miami. This author brought forth extraordinary stories dealing with the multiple aspects of Afrocuban religions. Her narratives are highly valuable, often in the form of direct testimonies of slaves or their descendants. These stories, often told in the first person, represent a formidable source of information for those interested in religious subjects. Her most famous book: El Monte (The Hill) was published a few years ago in Cuba. There are other authors such as Juan Gualberto Gomez, a famous Black "independentista," who was an assistant to Jose Marti, and whose works have not yet been studied thoroughly. There is the abundant work of Jos Luciano Franco, a researcher who tirelessly worked in the archives. His books reconstructs in minute detail the many events which took place during the wars of independence, from which he extracts a new and dignified vision of Blacks in the history of Cuba, particularly in the case of the personality of Antonio Maceo. His works, even though they have been published after 1959, are not widely known.

There is an even less known book, Los Independientes de Color, (The Independents of Color), written by Serafin Portuondo Linares, the son of a veteran of the war of independence. This is one of the most appealing works dealing with an important moment in the struggle of' Black people in Cuba. This book, which is quite controversial, has not been reedited, but can be found in some libraries.

A more contemporary writer on the history of Blacks in Cuba is Pedro Serviat, author of El Problema del negro en Cuba y su solucion definitiva (The Problem of Blacks in Cuba and its Final Solution). This author affirms that after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the racial problem found its solution. I must add that Serviat confessed to me in a private interview that he had wanted to write a second part to this work which would include a more critical and contemporary outlook on reality, but his ill health and advanced age impeded him from this plan. In spite of the fact that the book is incomplete, I must affirm that Serviat is an honest Black man that, like other old fighters, had he found a more favorable context for his subject he would have been capable of offering us a more in-depth vision of reality after 1959.

Pedro Duchamps Chapeaux, author of El negro en la economia habanera del siglo XIX (Blacks in the Economy of XIX Century Havana) gives us a view of the situation of free Afrocubans in the 1840’s. During this period predating the wars of independence there was an emerging group of professionals and artisans that. achieved a considerable economic status, even the point where they could become slaveowners.

In this brief survey there is the exceptional case of the historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals, a white intellectual, author of El ingenio (The Sugar Mill). This work analyzes, in a non-traditional and detailed manner, the Sugar plantation economy and the role of the slave in the accumulation of capital. This book is a true classic of Cuban history.

Finally there is the recent publication of the youngest of these writers, Tomas Fernandez Robaina, El negro en Cuba 1902-1958 (The Blacks in Cuba 1902-1958) This author analyzes the fascinating subject of the Independientes de Color (the Black Independents) with a balanced contemporary outlook.

Not to be discounted in this study are other authors such as Doctor Rafael Lopez Valdes, a serious scholar of religious subjects, nor those who have chosen the literary route, such as Nicolas Guillen, Nancy Morejon, Miguel Barnet or Rogelio Martinez Fure in poetry, novel, and essay. Neither should we ignore the playwrights Eugenio Hernandez, Gerardo Fulleda, Tomas Gonzalez, Abraham Rodriguez, and the filmmakers Sara Gomez, Sergio Giral, Rigoberto Lopez, and Gloria Rolando.

Even though there are other names and some of the works that I have mentioned are erudite, .I do not pretend to do a critical analysis at this point. I can say that with a few exceptions, these books "deal with the situation of Afrocubans before the triumph of the 1959 Revolution. Therefore, in the field of social sciences these works should serve as an incentive, or a bridge towards further studies. These should provoke in the Cuban intelligentsia a search for that gallery of heroes and unknown characters from the Black population, first-grade protagonists of Cuban history, who are still unknown, insufficiently studied and poorly disseminated


It is necessary to recall the historical situation of the island in order to understand the current racial problem. Bourgeois historiography, which includes the republican period, created and strengthened a systematic mechanism of "blanqueamiento" (whitening). In the Hispanic Caribbean, characterized by a permanent paternalism, although it was not habitual to lynch Blacks as in the United States, neither was there a recognition of their participation in the shaping and strengthening of nationality.

On the other hand, Doctor Esteban Morales affirms that:

La NACIONALIDAD debe verse Como un proceso en movimiento, que sigue fortaleciendose, consolidandose, y nunca debe verse como el resultado definitivo, como un fenomeno acabado. Este enfoque nos permitira de modo coherente reivindicar la participacion de la poblacion negra en la creacion y afianzamiento de la NACION CUBANA.

[Nationality should be seen as a process in movement, one which continues to strengthen and consolidate itself and should never be seen as a definitive result, as something finished. This point of view allows us to claim in a coherent way the participation of the Black population in the creation and: strengthening of the Cuban nation. ]

If we follow more deeply this historical line of reasoning, it will be understood that the typical Hispanic racism feared the presence of Blacks in the new Republic that was beginning to emerge .from the battlefields with the predominantly Black "Ejercito Mambi" (Mambi army) [see photos] at the front. To this was added a third negative aspect for the future of Blacks in Cuba: the presence of the U.S. military with its firs intervention in 1898. In other words, added to the racism derived from Spanish colonization and the establishment of slavery, there were the ideas of the South of the United States. From the racism of slavery we passed to the racism of the Republic, more finely designed, subtle but profound for a small nation so close to the United States. According to John Quincy Adams famous theory of the "Ripe Fruit," sooner or later Cuba would fall in the hands of the U.S. government, turning into an extension of Florida, only 90 miles away from that country.

To these two factors, and as a consequence of them, I would like to add the frustration of the veterans of the wars of 1868 and 1895 produced by their exclusion in the new government of 1902, headed by Tomas Estrada Palma, a Cuban who was educated in the United States, a man with clear anexionist tendencies, even though he was part of the independence movement.

According to the historian Eduardo Torres, the Independence Party had two well defined tendencies, the so-called Moderate Independentists, influenced in one way or another by anexionist thinking, and the Radical Independentists, who favored a nation free of dependencies, led by Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo.

Only four years after the creation of the new nation, .a considerable number of veterans, convinced that they would not be allowed to participate in the new government, created the "Revolucion del Seis" (the Revolution of the Sixth). Those who took part in this event, Blacks from the demobilized "Ejercito Mambi, planned a new uprising but were unable to bring it about. However, many of them, under the leadership of Evaristo Estenoz, decided to create the party of the "Independientes de Color" with the hope of. achieving in this manner their participation in government and obtain a decent retirement for their oldest veterans. With the argument of another Black man, Martin Morua Delgado, and under the chapter known as the Morua Amendment the existence of the Independentists of Color is rejected. This topic could be the subject of a long lecture. The errors and successes of the"Independentistas de Color" have scarcely been studied, and the subject of a party that is based solely on ethnicity is a valid debate for all of Latin America, not only for the problems of Blacks, but also for the indigenous world. Hector Diaz Polanco, a mexican-dominican professor, had the following to say about this subject:

La problematica etnico-nacional se presenta historicamente como una relacion conflictiva entre Estado y agrupaciones humanas que mantienen ciertas lealtades y cierta identidad, derivado de concepciones basadas en el proyecto ETNOCENTRICO... Cualquier solucion requiere considerar las raices historicas, pero ancladas en las necesidades actuales de los grupos etnico-nacionales...

En este analisis la cuestion nacional no se reduce a la desigualdad de clases sociales, sino que involucra - tambien a sectores de la poblacion que se han mantenido en jerarquias diferentes... Es evidente que estos problemas tan solo podran resolverse despues de haber conquistado el poder y que forman parte de la NUEVA NACION,

[The issue of ethnicity and nationality is presented historically as a conflictive relationship between the State and human groups that maintain certain loyalties and a certain identity derived from conceptions based upon the ETHNOCENTRIC project... Any solution requires the consideration of historical roots, but these must be tied into the current needs of the ethnic-national groups...

In this analysis the national question is not reduced to the inequality of classes but it also involves sectors that have maintained their place in different hierarchies... It is obvious that these problems can only be resolved after the taking of power, and that they are part of the NEW NATION, now and simultaneously.]

With this conceptualization of the ethno-nationality historical approach in mind, I would like to conclude my account of the trial of the "Independentistas de Color" and their leader, Evaristo Estenoz, who had agreed as a group to launch a new uprising as an only alternative. It was 1912, and the government of the U.S. warns the authorities of the island that if they do not stop the uprising, there would be a direct intervention by the U.S. This was in spite of the fact that the uprising was primarily symbolic in nature, since the group had no arms and its main aim was to awaken public opinion in favor of civil rights for the Black population. It is important to add that the area where this incident took place was significantly a region owned by U.S. sugar companies.

Therefore, under the threat of intervention, the army does not hesitate to kill Estenoz and his followers. This act culminates in a massacre that goes beyond the "Independentistas de Color," and numbers up to three thousand Afrocubans killed. [This is now the subject of a film by Gloria Rolando.]

This event had disastrous consequences for the Black movement in Cuba, and only after 1925, with the creation of the "Partido Socialista Popular" (Popular Socialist Party), the first communist party, does the Black population find an avenue for its struggle. From that moment on new and important Black leaders emerge. Among these were: Jesus Menendez, a leader of the sugar workers movement, and Aracelio Iglesias, a port union leader, both of whom were assassinated.

To summarize this period in Afrocuban history, it becomes evident since 1844 the movement of "Libertos" (Free Blacks) had reached considerable economic development, to the point of controlling certain professions and jobs that allowed them to have a certain amount of financial security, which can be confirmed in the records of the National Archive. Fearing the emergence of a powerful middle class, the Spanish government decrees laws and takes strong repressive measures against these groups. It is important to add that those who survived this movement of "Libertos" joined the slaves who. fought in the wars of independence. After the victory against the Spanish and the birth of the Republic, the social justice aspirations of Afrocubans are left unfulfilled. The stories of these protagonists are silenced and manipulated to the point where they become what we now call stereotypes of the strong Black Man.


The Republic designed by the thinking of the south of the United States, elaborated since the end of the XIX century with the support of Cuban anexionists, reaches its peak in the 50’s. The ever-increasing presence of American capital creates an economic atmosphere that sets the Black population in an even more remote position in society. The so-called "Black middle class," sees its space reduced by the racist currents that run throughout Latin America at the time. The only employment possibilities for the great majority of the Black population were in low-paying jobs, such as service jobs working for the colorless Cuban bourgeoisie of the 1950’s, which was lacking in nationalism. Except for a few rare cases, Blacks in Cuba were at the lowest economic scale. This decade begins a process of immigration to the United States, where the dreams of becoming a Black middle class are turned into the reality that they are no more than cheap labor, as has been the case of thousands of other Hispanics who go .in search of the "Promised Land."

It should be noted that in this migratory process, evidently a minority, there had been the influence of Black leaders such as Booker T.Washington, W.E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey, known only by a few Afrocuban intellectuals, but who nevertheless created a feeling of hope with their ideas and made many turn their eyes toward the United States.


In spite of all the vicissitudes derived from the colonial process, it is necessary to clarify that the triumph of "59, at the same time that it eliminated the legal mechanisms that upheld racial discrimination, simultaneously began a process of profound claims by all the social groups that had been denied their most elemental rights. The Black population, which immediately identifies the Revolution as a much more just process, is also included among these groups. The changes brought about in education, medicine, and culture are evident. Even the Cuban scholar Jorge Dominguez, in his prologue to Carlos Moore’s Castro, The Blacks and Africa, recognizes that Afrocubans have experienced a considerable improvement in their standard of. living.

Nevertheless would be wrong to think that the problems of Afrocubans have totally disappeared. Evidence of the persistence of his problem can be seen in the migratory process toward the United States, especially during the Mariel boat lift, when the number of Blacks that left was higher than that of whites for the first time in more than twenty years. I personally consider that this exile had a sociocultural rather than an economic character. It is interesting to briefly analyze the situation of Afrocubans that arrived in the United States after 59 as a group. Even though they may have solved some of their material problems, in the area of political aspirations they were frustrated once again. The white racists who left Cuba have had ample opportunity to develop their xenophobia, especially in Miami. At the same time, these Afrocubans were also rejected by the whites from the U.S and by a considerable number of Afroamericans who perceive them as something alien to their conceptions and somewhat servile. Regarding this point Carlos Moore states:

El negro cubano en Miami es invisible. Se hace invisible para no atraer la atencion. Aqui hay racismo por parte del cubano blanco, el mismo racismo que habia en Cuba. El afrocubano aqui vive una vida doble, porte teme que los blancos cubanos tomen represalias en contra de ellos. Los cubanos blancos se creen superiores a todos... ("El Nuevo Herald, 11 de noviembre 1990).

[The Black Cuban is invisible in Miami. He makes himself invisible in order not to attract attention. Here there is racism on the part of the white Cuban, the same racism that had existed in Cuba. The Afrocuban lives a double life here, because he is afraid that the white Cubans will retaliate against. him. The white Cubans think they are superior to everyone... ("El Nuevo Herald," November 11, 1990) ]


In spite of the admission by Cuban President Fidel Castro, as early as March 22, 1959, to the difficulty of resolving the racial problem in Cuba, the approach to the problem ran up against great obstacles. On the one hand, it was ingenuous to think that with the legal elimination of discrimination, this would automatically disappear. It was also erroneous to deny the existence of a problem that is currently universal and that, unfortunately, is threatening increase.

Obviously, the romantic atmosphere that involved all. of us, whites and Blacks, created the false view that with the will and good intentions the problem would be resolved. The majority of the Afrocuban population had supported the Revolution. Some ideologists thought, and still do, that the racial problem is directly proportional to the economic situation. Today it is quite clear that it is a mistake to consider the racial problem solely from the perspective of class struggle of dispossessed groups.

It happens that in praxis the behavior of the Black population can’t be the same, even though the same possibilities may exist, due to the fact that they did not start from the same point of origin. Also they belonged to groups that received less economic benefits, to add to the already heavy load of cultural problems. Therefore, the result could not be identical in the same period of time, given he fact that .they had different starting points. This fact is self evident, but there are others, perhaps less visible at first sight, but which may be even more harmful. Among these are the problems that stem from what I refer to as the "Inconsciente-Consciente" (Unconscious-Conscious). That is to say, All the mechanisms of racism, discrimination, and prejudices accumulated over a period of five centuries, and their tracks are difficult to erase over a short period of time, even if there are laws that protect the Black population. For those who did not accept Blacks before the Revolution, for historical reasons, and sometimes without much conscience of the problem, but did. accept the Revolution, racism installed itself in other parts of the brain, and in a nondeclared way there began to develop what professor Tomas Calvo Bueza calls the "Doble Moral Racial" (The Racial Double Standard):

El racista se hace, no nace... Estas actitudes se aprenden y muchas de ellas se transmiten de generacion en generacion como parte del contenido cultural, durante un largo periodo y constituye un codigo informativo-valorativo que se transmite a cada individuo en el proceso de socializacion...

[The racist is made, he is not born... These attitudes are learned and many of them are transmitted from generation to generation as during a long period, and constitutes an information-value code that is transmitted to each individual in the process of socialization...]

On the other hand, it is possible to analyze the problems of Blacks in Cuba solely from an ideological-political perspective. I point this out because in the last two years I have conducted dozens of taped interviews and many others "off-record" and have been able to conclude that there is a particular type of Cuban, especially among the. youth who have been educated during the revolutionary process, who have not rid themselves totally of these problems, but who are susceptible to an honest change. I have been able to prove that the majority of these people, white and Black, had not thought about these racial conflicts and had simply reproduced the cultural model imposed by the family and society. Now, as a problem of the thought process, and not of he skin, it is possible to achieve a change through special programs in education, theater, film, television, and of course, through government policies that are guided by these goals.

After the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, a system of quotas was established. Nevertheless, the method of numerical participation is not enough, and may even produce an adverse reaction. -This is due to the fact that if the person who makes this promotion is a racist, he or she will promote someone who is known to be incapable of exercising that power, therefore creating in society a negative attitude toward the incorporation of Afrocubans. This unfavorable reaction will reach both whites and Blacks. The latter will reaffirm their guilt complex, based on their supposed inferiority. On the other hand, we know that skin color is not enough to modify conduct, and like Frank Fanon said, there are Blacks with white souls. And in this case the system of quotas may be a device to strengthen racism, discrimination, and the prejudices against the Black population. An example of this lamentable reality can be observed in Africa, where many Black leaders hold opportunistic positions or are simply enemies of the Black vanguard. Such is the case of Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who is in a struggle with tribal positions, and at the same time was received with incredible rejection by the Afrocubans of Miami who had been manipulated by white propaganda.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that the biggest mistake concerning the treatment of Blacks in Cuba has been the denial of the existence of a problem that, after all, the Revolution did not create, but merely inherited from previous societies. Today we look disconcertingly at how in many of the problems of the old socialist countries the hidden ethnic problems were passed along and proclaimed to be only class conflicts. I believe that the problems of Blacks in Cuba can be resolved only within the space of their own nation, and not outside.

In the case of Cuba, a multiracial country where Blacks and whites joined together to gain independence, a racial party would mean the desintegration of "Lo cubano" (the Cuban essence). In this case "cubano" is to say "negri-blanco" (Black-white) or "blanqui-negro" (white-Black), which is the way that the poet Nicolas Guillen would define it.

The solution to the racial problem in Cuba cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas, but can be found within a group of historical, social, economic, and cultural aspects which allow the strengthening of nationality.

Contacting Gisela Arandia Covarrubia

San Lazaro #156, Apto 4 E/Aguila y Crespo La Habana, Cuba
Fax: 011 53 7 66.64.50      Label: "Para Gisela y Rafael"


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