Provocation or Vandalism?

Dmitri Prieto

A recently placed plaque to the memory of the black martyrs.

Not long ago someone pulled down art works off the wall that mark the spot in Havana where one of the black martyrs of November 27, 1871 was murdered.  On that historic day at least five black members of the Abakua order staged an armed protest in an attempt to prevent the firing-squad execution of eight white Cuban medical students by Spanish troops.

The murdered victim along the wall was a boy “around 14,” according to the colonial police authorities of the time, making him probably the youngest killed on that fateful day.  Contrary to the university students, the names of the blacks are unknown.

The pieces of artwork were not stolen but thrown on the ground at the foot of the wall.  I found this out thanks to the security personnel at one of the nearby hotels.  During the almost five years since activities began in commemoration of the historic uprising that occurred at that site, hotel workers and neighborhood residents have always supported these homages by lending their valuable assistance to the organizers.

The historical research that identified the site was the work of writer and documentary maker Tato Quiñones, while the homages carried out there every year are independently organized [without government or Communist Party involvement] by the Haydee Santamaria Collective and the Cofradia de la Negritud (the Negritude Brotherhood).  The concept of a memorial emerged autonomously, and the art work representing graphic “signatures” of Abakua societies was the work of artist Wilay Mendez.  Several publications already exist on these efforts and studies.

Obviously we don’t know who was or were responsible for venting their rage on the two metal works that constituted the sole existing monuments to the black martyrs of November 27.

The spontaneous nature of the commemorations drape a veil of judicial defenseless over the memorial itself since the site does not enjoy the official status of “Historical Patrimony”; however, it is already viewed in this light by critical activists and by the Afro-Cuban and Abakua communities.

Though the memorial was not destroyed completely this time, what was damaged was not only the labor of so many people to revive the memory of the dead, but also the public’s enthusiasm in the felt need to recall that memory.

I am not saying that they destroyed the dignity of our dead, because they are certainly safe from any attempt by vandals or provocateurs to eliminate their memory.

The site of the recollection ceremony is a few meters from the Granma memorial, where the eternal flame burns for those Cubans who died in the struggle for our dignity.  There are always armed soldiers standing guard in the place and there are monitoring cameras.

Nevertheless, we found out about this attack thanks to a completely spontaneous initiative, one as spontaneous as our past commemorations of the black heroes.

It is indispensable that the officials in charge of the Historical Patrimony of the city make the decision to recognize this corner as such, where the anonymity of a few decent people doesn’t prevent their action from continuing to contribute to efforts to decolonize our minds.

But independently of the bureaucracy, we will take charge of reconstructing the site and guard it against any provocation.  The vandals will be unable to prevail against the revolutionary commitment of the humble people of Cuba.

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Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov has 254 posts and counting. See all posts by Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

2 thoughts on “Provocation or Vandalism?

  • Cimarron, I totally agree with you. But I think we do have serious Afro- “historiadores”, as you call them. Tato Quiñones and Mario Castillo are two of them. They have published their researches. Tato has sent his findings to everywhere.

  • The story of the Abakua matyrs is very well a historical metaphor for the unity of the Cuban peoples in struggle for a just cause. It is recurrent in the story of the “grito de yara”, in the formation of the “mambises” and the wars of independence, in the revolutionary war led by Fidel and gloriously so in Cuba’s internationalist participation in the African liberation struggle. Cuba can always be proud of the unity of its peoples in all its vibrant racial diversity and its primarily Afro-Latin character. In essence Cuba’s multiracial demographics is it’s first patrimony.

    What has not been recurrent in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution is a reflection of this patrimony in government and the management of institutions. In a conversation with a well-traveled African-American friend some years ago before I visited Cuba myself, I was effusive in my praise of Cuba’s internationalist assistance to Africa. The friend countered with the simplistic but true analogy that the national government of Cuba was almost white while the national basketball team was almost black. I offered the rebuttal – which friends who had been in Cuba had unanimously offered in explanation of this oddity: that at the grassroots level were many blacks in Cuba’s party and government institutions. The unspoken implication was that these cadres were in development to advance to leadership positions soon. Today we still do not see much evidence of this movement that should have occurred 50 years after the revolution. The succession headed by Raul is very much a geriatric selection of more of the same white hegemony. True, to its credit, Cuba has trained thousands of professionals in crucial areas like medicine and engineering from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin-America and Asia. But the same revolution that has trained so many doctors for Haiti, does not appear either to have trained much of its own black population for leadership positions or is unwilling to put them in elevated positions in Cuban society. I disappointedly tend to believe the second part of this argument.

    In Cuban media one sees very few black presenters of programs. On popular programs like Mesa Redonda, one watches week after week and sees largely a panel of white Cuban “experts” in this or that. And not only should the staff represent a demographic balance – surely the same Cuba that can train so many foreign professionals can also train and employ black Cuban journalists, black meteorologists, black Cuban historians, black foreign ministers, black ministers of economy and trade investment, ministers of defense etc even an Afro-Cuban president!!!

    It should not be viewed as heresy or anti-revolutionary to mention these sad contradictions. In the progressive populist revolutions taking place in Latin America, the issue of a multiracial or plurinational society is on the forefront – and change is taking place in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela . Not just in the passage of laws but in a critical restructuring of the state and its institutions to reflect and redress injustice and imbalance. One only has to watch Telesur and compare the experience to that of Cubavision to see the stark difference! I have actually watched in disbelief a program on Cubavision that featured 3 white academic researchers from the University of Santa Clara discuss Congo drums in Cuba without the participation of a single black Cuban academic expert!

    There is no question that Eusebio Leal has done good work in Havana which I saw personally during my visit to Havana even then in 1996. But perhaps in the important and expensive work of preserving Havana’s historical patrimony there would be conscious state involvement and initiative regarding Afro-Cuban historical sites, if there were some Afro- “historiadores” in prominent positions – a black Leal working with the white Leal or an advisory board that oversees the work of the office of the “historiador” that has all cultural and historical groups well-represented on it. And if the authorities need any help with diversity and multiculturalism in management, they need look no further than Cuba’s many famous musical groups. How about asking “El Negro” Formell or David Calzado for advice, huh?

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