Cuban Historians Discuss Bicentenary of Anti-Slavery Conspiracy (II)

Dmitri Prieto

HAVANA TIMES, March 6 — As was mentioned in Part I, Cuban historians gathered at the ALBA Cultural House to present a couple of books and to talk about slave resistance, historical racism and the Aponte conspiracy on its bicentennial.

Fernando Martinez Heredia (the historian, social scientist and champion of Cuban historical versions of the new left), complained — only half-seriously — about how he was imposed on by the organizers of the meeting with a double task: making a presentation and giving two book introductions.

These books are translations of works by US authors (one of them is also Cuban) who addressed significant controversies concerning our history. These constitute true and amicable contributions to thought in a country where it’s still taboo in certain places to talk about racial identity, inequality or question some intellectuals and leaders of the past and present.

Fernando proceeded critically, claiming Aponte to have been a leader of “poor people’s politics” and the predecessor of a “popular nationalism” that included Marti and his libertarian, popular and disciplined conspiracy, and whose instrument was the Cuban Revolutionary Party (1892-1898).

The invasion began in the east (where “palenque” communities of escaped slaves were integrated for the first time into the “Republic in Arms”) and that moved toward the West, in the middle of the war of 1895, is for him “the highest point of the class struggle.”

As Fernando pointed out, the anti-colonial Liberation Army was the first multiracial army of the Americas at the level of command. The “Republic of Cuba in Arms” fighters rallied 50,000 soldiers and 250,000 active supporters, of whom 60 percent were “colored.”

It was a better ideal of coexistence than that provided by colonialism and scientific racism (so in vogue at the time), affirms Martinez Heredia, for whom democracy was a triumph of the Cuban revolutionary war.

Two valuable works

The two books, presented by Fernando, are both questions still posed to traditional historiography.

The first book, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation and Revolution, 1868-1898, by Ada Ferrer (New York University), from its first chapter (“A Revolution the World Forgot: the Cuban Anti-colonial Rebellions from 1868-1898”) celebrates the beginning of a revolution that the world forgot.

For Dr. Ferrer, those struggles aspired to nothing less than to realize the goal of the world’s first raceless nation. Its upcoming publication in Cuba by Ciences Sociales publishing house will be a contribution to historiography “from below,” according to the panelists.

The other book, from Santiago de Cuba’s Editorial Oriente publishers, is La rebelion de Aponte de 1812 en Cuba y la lucha contra la esclavitud atlantica (The Aponte Rebellion of 1812 in Cuba and the Struggle Against Atlantic Slavery) by Matt D. Childs (Florida State University).

When looking at the book, what struck me most was that it has a reconstructed picture on the cover of Aponte’s face. The edition is sponsored by ALBA, in its bicentennial program.

Waiting for Aponte’s return

We hope that both titles provide sufficient certainties as to stir the consciousness of Cubans in a time of change and uncertainty, and we must acknowledge the help of our North American friends in the difficult job of de-formalizing certain topics.

In the midst of World War II, when the fate of all of humanity was at risk of the appropriation of increasingly large portions of Europe and Asia by genocidal, exclusionary and racist regimes, some leftists here on this Caribbean island were able to honor someone still little known by history.

While still today — 50 years after the triumph of insurrection — Havana’s old palaces bear the proud names of their very rich and very white owners, one street in Old Havana holds the name of a craftsman, worker and black conspirator: Aponte.

The monument that official commission promised to erect in 2012 has yet to be seen. It is supposed to be situated at the point where Reina Street turns into Carlos III (forgive me! – Simon Bolivar and Salvador Allende streets): the statue of the victorious Aponte, recognized in the Yoruba tradition as Oboni-Oni-Chango, will be trampling the cage in which his head was condemned to rot.

From an adjacent wall, a face of Karl Marx in relief seems to look at the site, while continuing to lead his lonely fight against the obscurity of rust and neglect.

If we want to continue to believe in freedom, equality and fraternity, we need to continue drawing from the darkness of that oblivion that fragments the precious pieces of historical memory: surnames and nicknames of the most humble. Because, according to Walter Benjamin, “Thanks only to the desperate will we be granted hope.”