Racism in Cuba & the Black Fellowship

Por Lucía Lopez Coll

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 2 (IPS) – It was only a year ago that a modest monument was placed on 63 Amargura Street in Old Havana to commemorate Evaristo Estenoz, the founder of the Partido de los Independientes de Color (Independent Black Party) in 1908, and one of the leaders of the 1912 uprising that ended in bloodshed.

Although specialists do not agree on the exact number of casualties, it has been estimated that there could have been as much as 3,000 victims of the repression unleashed by then president, Jose Miguel Gomez.  Among the victims were several members of the Independent Black Party and blacks and people of mixed color that had nothing to do with the conflict.

The Independent Black Party was founded here on August 7, 1908.  Photo: Caridad
The Independent Black Party was founded here on August 7, 1908. Photo: Caridad

Journalist and writer Tato Quiñones, a scholar on Afro-Cuban religion and culture, believes that recalling those events that are just now beginning to be valued by Cuban historiography is an act of justice and of historic recognition.

“For the first time this year a group of people met at 63 Amargura to recall the murder of Estenoz, on June 27, 1912,” said Quiñones.

“Some of those present are part of the Haydee Santamaría Professorship, formed by a very diverse group that includes anthropologists, sociologists, university professors, historians and people related to the world of culture.  We have come together with the goal of socializing our knowledge, encouraging the exchange of ideas and working to recover our historic memory.

“To meet these objectives, we have set out several actions aimed at rescuing certain events that have been confined to oblivion and that are not part of the official history.  We even hope to turn these actions into traditions because establishing new traditions can be easier than trying to revive others that are already dead.

“Ours is not a formal project, but one that is aimed at dusting off those niches of history related to the struggle of black people that still lie in the darkness.

“Estenoz is a very little-known figure in Cuba, as is the Independent Black Party and the uprising of 1912, which even today can be polemic if it is not placed in its proper context. People need to understand that many of those black people and people of mixed races, who fought in the wars against the Spanish colonial government, were consigned to oblivion at the end of the war and their aspirations of joining society, as equal citizens, never came to be.

“To me, the most eloquent example of what happened to those men is the case of General Quintín Banderas, who did not even receive a retired officer’s pension from the Liberating Army. When the war was over, the best work offers he received were as a mail carrier and a school custodian.  When he brought the matter to the attention of President Tomas Estrada Palma, he simply offered him a measly five pesos.

“Later, when Quintín took part in the ‘little war’ of 1906 he was captured and Estrada Palma himself ordered him killed.  This man, who had earned the rank of general fighting for Cuba, was murdered with a machete, as any runaway slave.

“The Independent Black Party aimed to establish the legal rights for black people that they were not able to obtain before or after independence from Spain.  However, with the passing of the infamous Morua Amendment, the party was declared illegal and the uprising took place.

“Some specialists state that the uprising was a strategy to press the government to re-legalize the party.  But, the events got out of control, spiraling beyond what was originally planned.  It has even been said that there was a pact with Jose Miguel Gomez that Gomez betrayed.  Or that it was Gomez himself who felt betrayed when in the eastern region of the country the rebels took the town of La Maya.  What remains fact is that there was a slaughter, and the ‘danger’ of black people was averted once again.  From this point of view, nothing was won with the uprising and black people did not gain the recognition they had hoped for.

“In this same endeavor to rescue history, we have also taken into account the events that took place on November 27, 1871. On that day, in addition to the execution of the eight medical students, there was the murder of five black Abakuas who tried to prevent that injustice.  It was an almost suicidal act, resulting in their murder.

“But history has sidestepped these events and when people march nowadays to the monument dedicated to the eight students, not once has the heroism of those Abakuas been mentioned, except for in a speech delivered by Commander Ernesto Che Guevara, on November 27, 1961, during the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the martyrs.  So, we decided to organize our own tribute parallel to the traditional one organized by the Federation of University Students (FEU).

“Neither has history recorded the uprising of Lukumi slaves who worked in the construction of the Aldama Palace and which was very unique because those men did not have any other weapon other than their own work tools.  Foremen and managers were unable to stop the rebellion and finally a well-armed force was sent in, annihilating them all because no one surrendered.  This event was not even recorded in the history of the Aldama Palace published by the Havana Historian’s Office; although I do not believe it was a deliberate omission. Probably the author did not have any knowledge of these events because to some degree we continue repeating the Eurocentric patriotic canon.  So, we also decided to commemorate those events that took place on August 9, 1841.

“Therefore, this small act carried out on June 27 is not an isolated action, but part of a series of conscious initiatives destined to revitalize the history of the will of Cuban black people in fighting for their rights.”

From the Independent Black Party to the Black Fellowship

For writer Tato Quiñones, the resurgence of racism and racial discrimination is a consequence of everything that happened in Cuba over the last 20 years:

“An awful time for Cuban society because many of the negative tendencies that we had been trying to eliminate since the revolution [1959] began to take root again,” says Quiñones.

To clean away the persistent scab of colonialism. Photo: Caridad

“Up until that moment, many thought that we were wining the battle.  We now we realize that some of the viruses have stayed amongst us in a dormant state, and when our immunologic system was weakened with the collapse of the socialist camp and the consequential economic crisis, all these parasitic diseases began to sprout up again.

“The racism that exists among us is an embarrassing one, that is to say, it is generally not confessed in public, but racial discrimination practiced through exclusion and segregation is increasingly evident.

“Faced with this phenomenon, it is impossible to stand by and do nothing.  And the alarm is starting to be raised.  The topic was tackled at the recent UNEAC Congress and it has begun to be analyzed by the media.  Some actions, albeit very isolated, are being carried out, but may contribute to raising awareness of the problem.  Although ‘the problem of black people,’ as it has been wisely called, is in fact a problem of white people.

“How appropriate is the existence of an organization aimed at dealing with the black question appropriate in Cuba?  The truth is that in the country, we do not have many spaces to deal with this subject.  When I heard that efforts were being made to create an organization with this objective in mind, I thought that it was worth supporting.  Historian Tomas Fernandez did the same; and therefore, the two of us are part of the Black Fellowship, although I confess that I am not completely satisfied by the name chosen by its founder, engineer Norberto Mesa.”

Building awareness in society

The main goals of the Fellowship are “to foster awareness in the Cuban State and civil society of the deterioration of racial inequality which is taking place in our country, to bring about the timely and effective attention that this situation requires.”

The Presentation Letter circulated by email by the Fellowship is also aimed at “promoting the initiative and effort of black people to foster real and sustained advances in all fields.”

The letter also recognizes “everything the Cuban Revolution has done to eliminate racial inequality in our country,” but that the “road ahead is still very long because the fundamentals of the problem have not essentially changed.”

The Fellowship looks to other organizations created by social groups facing discrimination -such as the women’s movement- who knew how to take advantage of the new opportunities and the support of the State to consolidate advances in the elimination of inequalities.

The project is focused on promoting a national awareness on the existing racial inequality in society and implementing actions against racial prejudices; and the implementation of “a social policy that takes into account the historic disadvantage accumulated by black people and responds with concrete actions.”

“I believe that this is a serious and necessary proposal,” said Quiñones, referring to the Fellowship.  “I may have some differing opinions about some aspects, but essentially I think that it is very worthy of consideration in all its premises.

“The Black Fellowship is not a direct descendant of the Independent Black Party or from the ‘Color Societies’ that existed before 1959.  These societies help bring about progress but they also reproduced discriminatory patterns because they were organized according to the miscegenation degree or incomes of their members.  In this sense, these societies contributed to the ‘people of color’ keeping themselves where they were supposed to be, without trying to transgress certain limits.

“I would say that the Fellowship is more the heir of the words spoken by Fidel Castro during a speech in 1960 about the situation of the blacks because before that nobody had ever referred to the need to fully integrate them into society and get rid of segregation.  And while the situation was never as savage as the United States, it was pretty bad because blacks had a certain assigned place in society from which it was very hard to go beyond.

“I don’t know if it makes much sense in repeating here that currently the majority of the Cuba prison population is black, which should come as no surprise since the same patterns of poverty and marginality continue to be followed.  Nevertheless, it should be recognized that marginality is a phenomenon that has extended throughout society.

“In Havana there are also ‘bad’ neighborhoods were police cars drive by a group of people on the corner without asking for ID or doing anything at all.  While in other areas, because of tourism or other reasons, it is much more common for the police to ask for identification from a black man without any particular reason.  It as if they told this man that ‘As long as you stay in your neighborhood there’s no problem.’  Let me be clear, these police are not necessarily white, because this is a behavior based on a way of thought that is deeply rooted in our society.

“Another problem is with the incorporation of black workers into the tourism sector.  Blacks form a minority of this sector and there have been cases where black people have not been given the job because they are told that their look is not right for the job.

“Nevertheless, there is still not an authority where one can go to file a complaint if they feel they have been the victim of racial discrimination.  Discrimination in our environment is very subtle and difficult to prove because of subjectivity.  Maybe in the future we will find a solution to deal with these problems, something that the Fellowship could play a significant part in.

“In reality, the Black Fellowship is in a stage of development.  There is a proposal circulating, by Norberto Mesa, supported by Robaina and I, and others.  Everything still lies ahead; we still don’t know how to put our objectives into practice.  We have received lots of positive feedback to the project and we hope to be able to meet soon.

“For the time being, it is an alternative proposal that we are confident we can move forward, because it is impossible to advance in the development of the society as a whole without solving the so-called black problem,” concludes Tato Quiñones.

Havana Times translation of the IPS original in Spanish.

2 thoughts on “Racism in Cuba & the Black Fellowship

  • Although everything visible & invisible in Cuba, bears the sweat, tears, blood and lives of millions of afrocubans, we have waited for over 500 years for a grateful nation to recognize our contributions to its existence, without which, the Spanish Captain General would still be occupying a colonial building in historic Havana. Promises of a nation of equality died with Jose Marti in Dos Rios. Vicious segregation, racism following the US intervention in 1898, puppet governments and the re-empowerment of those who were defeated on the battle field, led to the horrendous massacre in Oriente, then in shame, rather than confront this un-erasable stigma in our history, every successive government up to today, have pretended it never existed, by honoring with a majestic monument on G and 27 St in the Vedado the murderers, but not taking the time to erect a single cross for the victims in la Maya. We must cleanse our minds and history if Cuba to survive and live in dignity.

  • The Independent Black Party aimed to establish the legal rights for black people that they were not able to obtain before or after independence from Spain. However, with the passing of the infamous Morua Amendment, the party was declared illegal and the uprising took place.
    i have a diary given to me by my father which details the story of the independistas of which 3 were my family members. This diary is over 200 yrs old and like Tato Quinones depicts the struggle of our people from our beginnings in Cuba and elsewhere. it has been discovered that we have vfamily members who were taken to Puerto Rico, New Orleans etc..i am impressed with this info and will contact him shortly if possible

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