Nationalism and Civil Rights in Cuba: A Comparative Perspective, 1930-1960

Article excerpt

For most of the twentieth century U.S. history and Cuban history have been closely interconnected. African-Americans and Afro-Cubans in particular share common bonds of struggle for civil rights and equality in their respective countries. But individuals are products of their environments and African-Americans and Cubans shaped distinct civil rights platforms in accordance with their national, political and social institutions. African-Americans and Cubans learned to respond to their political systems through a series of historical experiences that reaped success or failure over time. Cuba's Hispanic colonial heritage that recognized miscegenation and mestizaje provided a different mode of action than African Americans who lived for most of their history under a segregated U.S. system.(1) This essay will examine the Cuban struggle for social, economic, political and cultural equality from 1930-1960, while comparing those events with the civil rights struggle in the United States during the same period.

Citizen's rights, to be sure, are uniquely national, if not constitutional constructions. According to Hegel, "right" in society is that which the law wills. Those rights, defined by the state, theoretically represent the collective views of the individuals who rule the nation.(2) Civil Rights which often refer to freedom from discrimination based on nationality, race, gender, religious liberty, as well as immunity from brutality must be scrutinized within a national framework. Members of particular nations define civil rights as the rights of citizens to pursue civil liberties within that nation. United States Civil Rights, for example, are based on a constitution dating back to 1789, and which continues to be redefined for inclusively. Part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movements was bent on redefining and reelaborating on issues that would include African-Americans in the citizen's phrase "We the people."(3)

Owing to the historically weak Constitution in Cuban history and its political and economic underdevelopment, what Cubans have come to expect as their rights as citizens have tended to take on a nationalist focus. Moreover, while nationalism in the African-American community often meant black nationalism and implied racial solidarity, self sufficiency, black capitalism, and often separatism, among Afro-Cubans, nationalism was a patriotic call to bring all Cubans of all races together in pursuit of sovereignty, often against foreign threats. To this end, Cubans passed several nationalist laws which would shape Afro-Cubans' civil rights drive. In 1910, the Cuban Senate passed the Morua Amendment to an Electoral Reform Law which prohibited the organization of political parties based on one race only. The subsequent race war that followed in 1912 was an aberration in post-abolition history.(4)

Cubans found a variety of non-political ways to pursue economic and social rights and to attain social mobility. In 1918, Jose Armando Pla explicated options available to Afro-Cubans. First, there was the individualist approach in which educated Afro-Cubans could attain high levels of achievement despite the obstacles of society; second, the collective approach called for Afro-Cubans to join together to affect the political process; third, politically influential men, such as Martin Moria Delgado argued that blacks should associate themselves with established political parties, promoting their interests within the party system.(5)

Two decades after the race wars and the passage of the Morua Law, the collective option was limited to cultural and non-political activities which would not challenge the state. Moreover these options must be understood in terms of the new generation of Afro-Cubans. The Cuban Republic had just come of age. Created in 1902, by the 1930's, a new generation born after independence became increasingly interested in national sovereignty and advancement. Patriotism and nationalism ignited the passions of Cubans of all backgrounds, motivating them to seek solutions to pressing problems. …