Magazine article New African

Cuba and the Myth of the 'Race-Less' Nation (Part 2): In the Second of Her Two-Part Series on Cuba, Carina Ray Documents the Significant Contributions Made by Afro-Cubans to the Island's Independence and Their Thwarted Struggle for Inclusion in the Early Cuban Nation

Magazine article New African

Cuba and the Myth of the 'Race-Less' Nation (Part 2): In the Second of Her Two-Part Series on Cuba, Carina Ray Documents the Significant Contributions Made by Afro-Cubans to the Island's Independence and Their Thwarted Struggle for Inclusion in the Early Cuban Nation

Article excerpt

In 1892, Jose Marti founded the multi-racial Cuban Revolutionary Party (CRP), which unified the various groups who favoured complete independence. Unlike earlier insurgents who had hoped to enlist the support of the US, Marti was alarmed by the increasingly imperialist tendencies of the US. His deep concern that a protracted war would not only lead to US intervention, but also to the destruction of the economy, propelled him to plan an island-wide mass rebellion in 1895 designed to ensure a quick victory. The war, however, lasted three years and witnessed the death of Marti and ended in US occupation of Cuba. Moreover, the way in which race played itself out during the final phase of the war foreshadowed the gap that would emerge between the revolution's anti-racist ideology and the reality of race-relations in the nation it produced. It is to this question that we turn in the second installment of this two-part series.

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In order to neutralise the potent rhetoric that had characterised Spain's earlier attempts at discrediting the Cuban independence movement as a race-war designed to institute a black republic, the island's intellectuals disassociated the issue of race from the revolution by constructing Cuba as a race-less nation. They argued that national unity would be forged through interracial cooperation, which in transcending race would transform blacks and whites into race-less Cubans.

Proponents of this nation-building myth pointed to the two most prominent leaders of the 1895 rebellion, Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo, who were white and mixed race respectively, as the embodiment of this principle. Yet, this cosy rhetoric ignored that the two men had serious ideological differences. In her pioneering study, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912, the historian Aline Helg points out that Maceo was conveniently "made ... the true incarnation of colour-blind revolutionary Cuba." Indeed, the myth latched on to "... the fact that he had managed to become the most famous general of Cuba Libre [Free Cuba, a.k.a. the anti-colonial forces] despite his partial African descent and limited formal education as proof that racism had disappeared".

Black and mixed race men attempted with some success to use this colour-blind ideology in pursuit of military, political and social advancement. The strides they made did not go unnoticed by the insurgency's white leaders, who were increasingly concerned about how alterations made to the racial hierarchy as a result of wartime exigencies were affecting the racial status quo. A wholesale retraction of the racial egalitarianism that underpinned the revolution was out of the question. Rather, white insurgency leaders continued to point to the few men of colour who were in leadership positions, while neglecting the fact that Afro-Cubans were over-represented in the rank and file and intentionally discriminated against.

Their marginalisation was even starker in the civil arm of the insurgency movement. According to Helg, "the civil branch of Cuba Libre continued to show its attachment to colonial hierarchies. The new assembly of representatives in 1897 had not a single Afro-Cuban member; instead it comprised men of refinement" while the "new provisional government was all white as well". The ability of Afro-Cubans to combat the increasing discrimination they faced was effectively curtailed when the US declared war on Spain in 1898.

US intervention rendered the nearly 30 years of struggle for Cuban independence a mere footnote to the Spanish-American War, in which Spain was defeated in a matter of three months. While many Cubans, devastated by the final phase of the war, which had done extensive damage to the entire island, not just its eastern region, welcomed the entry of the US into the war, they did so with the belief that the latter would ultimately respect Cuban sovereignty. General reaction to US intervention, however, broke down along racial and class lines. …

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