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Our Rightful Share
The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality 1886-1912

by Daniel Krook • April 1998, HIST 379 • Trinity College

This paper is a response to questions posed in a Cuban history class regarding Aline Helg's book Our Rightful Share. I wrote this paper almost four years ago, and no longer have the sheet with the assignment description, but by looking at the context I remember that Part One explains the racial composition of turn of the century Cuba, Part Two compares and contrasts the experience of blacks in Cuba with those in North America and elsewhere in Latin America, and the Conclusion is a response to whether I agreed with Ms. Helg's conclusions.


Part One
Broadly, the racial groups in Cuba during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were divided into two camps: los blancos and los negros. Specifically, there was more to it than these simple bi-polar delineations, however. The black group was composed of both blacks of direct African descent and/or those having prominent African features, the morenos, and mulattoes, or less visibly African people, called pardos. These two groups of Afro-Cubans were classified together in a group called the raza de color, the race of color. 1 Among whites too, there existed subtle hierarchies. There was the ever present conflict between criollos and peninsulares, although Helg does not cover this division in great detail, and there was the greater intra-European hierarchy of "whiteness." Indeed, Helg places a possible cause for the Euro-Cuban population's inferiority complex and subsequent racist actions towards blacks in the fact that, "white Cubans ended up being trapped between U.S. imperialists and Spanish immigrants from above and restless Afro-Cubans from below." 2

Since Cuba's population was demographically different from many areas in North and South America, its population that was approximately one-third black and essentially two-thirds white with differences in gender proportions led to common intermarriage or simple interracial procreation despite societal pressure against it. 3 Thus, the larger population of interracial children and the virtual absence of indigenous blood caused racial classification in Cuba to tend to be split between the multiplicity of racial categories found in South America and the two-tier system of the United States. However, the repeated blending of white and black required Cubans to reject the "one-drop" rule of racial definition as found in North America and instead favored a categorization based on visual appearance. 4 The fact that in Cuba race relations were nestled somewhere in between these two systems did not suggest that they suffered just the mild versions of both, but instead that they had to face both forms of racism at the same time. 5 Despite some cloudiness in regards to racial identity, one thing in Cuban society concerning race relations remained certain however, "...the superiority of persons of full European descent over those with partial or full African descent." 6 All Afro-Cubans, therefore shared equally the subjugation under the dominant white rule.

What separates racism in Cuba from that of the United States is both the larger African percentage of the population and the officially propagated "myth of equality." This myth of equality, the belief that all Cubans, regardless of race, are indeed already recognized as equals, would turn out to be the ultimate foil to any attempts by Cubans to organize for their collective interests. First, it served as justification of the status quo. If the blacks are already deemed equal, the ideology goes, they have no need to organize or ask for progressive political concessions. Second, it allowed whites, particularly former slave owners, to skirt responsibility for the socio-economic problems of the former slave population and avoid paying restitution to them. Third, it served to allow the white population to label any separate political organization of blacks as racist. 7 This policy was based in the de jure guarantees of the Cuban Constitution, but was not, as quite astutely noticed by the Afro-Cuban population, de facto.

The collective frustration with the Cuban government caused the Afro-Cuban population, pardo and moreno, to put aside class and race subtleties and unite in a common cause. This cause was to be the universal effort towards the realization of José Marti's social ideals and other, mostly economic, expectations as raised after the War of Liberation. As a result of the shared experience of being treated alike as inferior citizens and wishing to actively reform Cuban society, "...race helped to blur class, gender, cultural, and color differences among Afro-Cubans and occasionally permitted the mobilization of large numbers of them across the island." 8

Part Two
Six characteristics of Afro-Cubans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries separate the blacks of Cuba from blacks in either North or South America. Aline Helg outlines these unique situations and backgrounds in the introduction: First, as already noted, the racial construct was a compromise between the North and South American models. Second, there was a high participation rate of blacks in Cuba's nationalist wars. Third, Afro-Cubans had a better system of organization and mobilization as compared to those of blacks in other Latin American countries. Fourth, the organization of the first black political party reflected a solid Afro-Cuban infrastructure. Fifth, Cuba's policies of official antiblack violence were unique in the hemisphere. And finally, Euro-Cubans balanced the contradictions of liberal democracy with the popular sentiment of racism in their own way, i.e. the myth of equality. 9

These peculiarities, in addition to three very powerful forces used by the Euro-Cuban nation-state in particular but fostered by the white population of the Western hemisphere in general, provided both moments of unprecedented empowerment but also most disastrous oppression for the Afro-Cuban population. Three swift currents tore apart any widespread attempt by blacks to attain their expectations in post Liberation Cuba. One was the "three icons of fear," essentially white racist propaganda and harmful generalizations of Afro-Cubans. Another was the inferiority complex of the Iberian-European living in Cuba concerning Anglo-Saxon Europeans and "whiter" Latin immigrants. The last, precipitated from the two other issues above, was the use of detention and violence by the government, illegally, to disband any Afro-Cuban organization, strike fear into those who wished to do the same in the future, and to cause rifts in Afro-Cuban unity.

Helg reiterates constantly throughout the book the effect of "three icons of fear" that whites used to justify their alienation and persecution of the black population. These symbols had been a hindrance to racial equality during slavery, during the US intervention, and have persisted into the twentieth century. The first fear was the recurrence of another Haitian revolution, which apparently was the attempt to impose a black, violently racist and retributionary dictatorship on that island. Although the aims of the Partido Independiente de Color were not the same as those of the Haitian organized black uprising, the precedent fed and "justified" white fears of collective action by blacks in Cuba. A second fear was that of African religion, in particular the reported cannibalistic and pedophilic ritual activities of the brujo, or warlock. The occasional disappearance of a white child combined with unfounded rumors that were spread of its subsequent mutilation and the discovery of its allegedly cannibalized body sparked witch hunts that sought revenge on anyone unfortunate enough to be both black and in the general vicinity. 10 The last of the primary antiblack rumors was that of the reputed animalistic sexuality of the African race, specifically, the fear that black men would rape white women if left unchecked. The Iberian culture in regards to the importance of virginity, female sexual honor, and pureza de sangre combined with the fact that there were less white women on the island than white men caused this fear to strike every white male on the island right where it hurt most. 11 These fears caused the Euro-Cuban nation to take "defensive measures" to prevent the above fears from becoming reality and significantly, made the indifferent white man all that much more suspicious of his black neighbor.

Aline Helg speculates that since the black population of Cuba hovered near one third of the total, it was not a trivial minority, butof a with the potential to cause substantial disturbance upon the status quo dominated by whites, who in turn used any method available to keep the blacks "in their place." 12 This constant threat of revolt required that the Euro-Cuban population apply what they deemed as "self-defense" maneuvers in order to protect their "civilization against the barbarous Africans." These tactics included army enlargement, the dismissal of black member of the rural guard and security forces, and most notably, the Morua amendment, which prohibited, "...political parties or independent political groups 'exclusively made up of individuals of one race or color.'" 13 The law, despite glaring hypocrisy, in effect outlawed the Partido Independiente de Color. Another reason for the white population's relentless persecution of blacks might have had to do with their perceived inferiority in the eyes of the Northern Americans. Indeed, it is possible that:

"This situation created an unbearable sense of insecurity for the Cuban elite, who chose to direct their resentment and frustration against the racial minority as a means of recovering self-confidence in their own superiority." 14

Both the feelings of inferiority and superiority may help to explain the actions of the white population towards Afro-Cubans but by no means do they excuse them.

Morua's amendment was the first step towards the annihilation of an independent black political consciousness. The second was the mass arrest and detention of those suspected of carrying on the agenda of the Partido Independiente de Color. In late spring of 1910, hundreds of alleged members of the party were rounded up and charged with 'illicit association and conspiracy to start a revolution.' 15 After many months of detention, it was concluded that no wrong doing was committed and all charges were unsubstantiated. This did not change public or government opinion however, and indeed it was a brilliant strategic maneuver, the current government attained at least 5 goals essential to maintaining their power and popularity for upcoming elections in 1912. One, Morua's amendment now became a law in light of the "threat" posed by massive black organization. Two, the government weakened the PIC's morale by degrading detention and the loss of livelihood incumbent on their long absence. Three, President Jose Miguel Gomez's quest to seek out insurgents solidified the armed forces under his rule. Four, by identifying the PIC as a racially motivated group he garnered the support of both the Liberals and Conservatives towards eliminating its "anti-white threat." Last and most resonating, the repression of black organizational freedom served to remind the Afro-Cubans of the limit of Euro-Cuban tolerance. 16 As if the symbolic beat down of the Afro-Cuban movement were not enough to warn the "rebels," or more likely, to satiate the wishes of the Euro-Cuban majority, in late spring of 1912, the government of Cuba formally restricted Constitutional guarantees on the east side of the island in order to legalize the rout of "racist rebels."

The massacre of 1912, resulting in the slaughter of between 2000 and 5000 black men, women, and children was also the demise of widespread black political organization in the state of Cuba continuing up to this day. 17 As Helg so concisely states it:

"This massacre achieved what Morua's amendment and the trial against the party in 1910 had been unable to do: it put a definitive end to the Partido Independiente de Color and made it clear to all Afro-Cubans that any further attempt to challenge the social order would be crushed with bloodshed." 18

Conclusion
I am convinced that many factors led to the failure of Afro-Cuban's quest for equality. Aline Helg points out many of them, which I consider valuable, but for the most part, I believe the strongest resistance to liberal democracy came mainly from the Euro-Cuban population. I would be convinced that the reasons outlined by myself would be enough to destroy a movement for a progressive society, therefore she goes much farther and drives the point home when she considers the role of black nationalism and their willingness to put aside racial issues for the good of Cuba or the racist attitudes of US interventionists who did not perceive accurately the contributions that Afro-Cubans made to independence.

I am convinced beyond a doubt that the myth of equality, the icons of fear, the hypocrisy of the government, the role of Cuban nationalism, and the imperialism of the US all caused the majority of the destruction of the Afro-Cuban quest for equality; therefore I am convinced of Aline Helg's argument.


Endnotes

1. Helg, page 3.
2. Helg, page 238.
3. Helg, page 27.
4. Helg, page 3.
5. Helg, page 7.
6. Helg, page 13.
7. Helg, page 106.
8. Helg, page 14.
9. Helg, page 3-6.
10. Helg, page 107-116.
11. Helg, page 18 and 197.
12. Helg, page 234-235.
13. Helg, page 165.
14. Helg, page 238.
15. Helg, page 172-173.
16. Helg, page 179-185.
17. Helg, page 225.
18. Helg, page 194.


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