Commemoration of an Afro-Cuban Marxist

By Dmitri Prieto 

Walterio Carbonell

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 26 – Last week the Cuban Anthropology Institute held a public ceremony in honor of Walterio Carbonell (1920-2008), a controversial Afro-Cuban Marxist thinker.  September 20th marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his most outstanding work titled Critica: Como Surgio la Cultura Nacional (How the National Culture Developed, a Critique).

Contextually, the study was released the same year as the official recognition of the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs victory and the implementation of the mass literacy campaign on the island.

The book challenges the master narrative of the history of Cuba, which persists in assigning the leading role in the formation of the Cuban nationality to a cultured white creole aristocracy of Spanish origin, one that also supposedly generated the ideology of independence and catalyzed the beginning of the anti-colonial wars against Spain (1868).  That explanation — slightly amended — continues to be the prevalent one in today’s Cuba.

Carbonell argues that the supposed white “fathers of the nationality” (except for the priest Felix Varela and the poet Jose Maria Heredia, both exiles) did not want Cuban independence or the abolition of slavery, with this latter element representing their racist thinking.

According to the book Critica: Como Surgio la Cultura Nacional, the key role in liberation struggles and in the creation of Cuban culture was played by the Afro-Cuban majority who — despite being exploited and excluded in colonial society — marked the family structure, language and music of the Cuban people.

The original edition (probably about 200 copies of 131 pages in length) was published, financed and privately printed by the author.

Currently Carbonell’s book is a mandatory reference for those who study the issue of race in Cuba (it is available in Spanish on the web).

Nevertheless, Carbonell and his work are practically unknown to most Cubans.  Moreover few authors refer to his original writings and — surprisingly — there still doesn’t exist an entry on him even in Wikipedia.

Carbonell was from a fairly well-to-do black family from eastern Cuban and he later became a member of the pro-Soviet Popular Socialist Party (PSP).

During the 1950s he resided in Paris, where with he and other black intellectuals led the Negritude movement.  He ended up being expelled from the party for sending a telegram to Fidel Castro when he found out that Fidel was still alive after the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 (when this took place, the PSP was opposed to armed struggle).  Later he participated in the hoisting of the July 26 Movement flag from the Eiffel Tower.

After the revolutionary victory in 1959, he returned to Cuba where he took controversial stands within the new cultural institutions.  He was made a diplomat but later excluded from public life, though he eventually obtained a position at the National Library.

In the recent commemoration, Carbonell’s Marxist position was discussed in addition to his relationship with the work of Leon Trotsky, Aime Cesaire and others.  His aims as an advocate of African cultures were pointed out, especially since these were not promoted by official institutions in the 1970s.

Carbonell dreamt of holding a world congress of black intellectuals in Cuba as part of an existing international movement of that time.

As part of the forum, anecdotes were shared concerning Carbonell, his personal features, his political commitment, his relations with the Cuban government and his work at the National Library – where he acted as a sort of godfather to youths interested in seldom-discussed issues in Cuba.

This recalling the life and work of Walterio Carbonell is part of the celebration in Cuba of the International Year of Peoples of African Descent.

The Cuban Anthropology Institute is one of the scientific institutions that investigate issues of race and Africa’s legacy in Cuba.