Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"War on the Negro": Race and the Revolution of 1933

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"War on the Negro": Race and the Revolution of 1933

Article excerpt

On the night of January 7, 1934, racial tensions erupted in the small town of Trinidad, located on the southern coast of central Cuba. A young mulatto named Bienvenido Jiménez and his female companion, Herminia González, violated the town's custom of racial segregation by walking into the "white" section of the Parque Céspedes - the town's central park. Throughout the republican period, many plazas in the island's interior, like the Parque Céspedes, had been racially segregated, even though Cuban law did not sanction such practices. Jiménez was attacked by a group of men for violating the town's racial etiquette. The incident led to a rampage of violence against Cubans of African descent. Several of the town's prominent Afro-Cuban figures were arrested, and others saw white vigilantes destroy their businesses and homes. During the melee, a white youth named Rafael Soler was accidentally killed by police gunfire. A few hours later, Félix Justo Proveyer, a member of one of the town's most prominent mulatto families, was murdered. The Trinidad incident capped off a series of instances of racialized violence that occurred in Cuba after the collapse of the presidency of Gerardo Machado, a period that is known in Cuban historiography as the Revolution of 1933.'

This article explores the Revolution of 1933 along the color line. It shows how the Revolution exacerbated racial tensions that had been building during the late machadato. The chaos generated by the Revolution set in motion the racialization of Cuban politics in the immediate aftermath of Machado's overthrow. In the desperate scramble for control of the state, segments of the antiMachado forces targeted Afro-Cubans who had real or imagined links to the machadista government. After the establishment of the provisional government of Ramón Grau San Martín in September 1933, segments of the antiMachado opposition and other groups modeled on U.S. white supremacist organizations spread rumors of black conspiracies throughout the island. These groups, such as the ABC Revolutionary Society and the Ku Klux Klan Kubano, used the language of racial fear to eliminate potential competitors for increasingly sought-after state jobs. This antiblack mobilization emerged in many guises but most frequently in a clandestine, "silent" fashion, often through the circulation of rumors of mobilized blacks who were supposedly ready to take over the island politically while also demanding access to that sanctified space in white supremacist imaginations: white women.2 This campaign became more systematic and more aggressive, accelerating into a range of violent attacks against Afro-Cubans in different parts of the island and eventually culminating in the racial violence in Trinidad.

A local-level analysis of racial politics in the immediate post-Machado period allows us to see how race became an important factor in the revolutionary upheavals of the period. After analyzing the emergence of an islandwide antiblack campaign, I focus on the racial dimensions of the revolutionary upheavals in Trinidad, a town where the competition for control of the postMachado state was particularly intense because of the significant presence of the town's Afro-Cuban elite in local politics and society. Indeed, Trinidad's uniqueness was partially due to the fact that it was one of the few municipalities on the island and the only town in the province of Las Villas, where Cubans of African descent comprised a numerical majority, according to the census data. The Trinidad episode forced the question of racial discrimination to be posed once again, thereby exposing various aspects of racial politics that the contest for state power among national political contestants in Havana had obscured. It also forced many Cubans to reexamine the stated national claim of racial equality. In the aftermath of 1933, many concluded that legal equality was not enough and that more activist measures were needed to achieve José Martí's vision of Cuba con todos y para todos. …

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