Cuba and the Myth of the 'Race-Less' Nation (Part 1)

By Ray, Carina | New African, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Cuba and the Myth of the 'Race-Less' Nation (Part 1)


Ray, Carina, New African


While Cuba has made significant progress in dismantling the deeply rooted system of racial inequality that characterised its colonial and early post-independence history, it still has a long way to go before it can turn the myth of the "race-less nation" into a reality. In this two-part article, I will examine the roles of slavery, race, and class in Cuba's tripartite anti-colonial struggle (first installment) and document the significant contributions made by Afro-Cubans to the island's independence (second installment).

By the time the first phase of the Cuban war for independence began in 1868, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only two colonial Latin American possessions Spain retained control over. In the aftermath of losing its mainland empire in the early 19th century, Spain held a tight grip on both islands. The tenacity with which Cuba was guarded was not only a function of Spain's desire to lay claim to the last bit of its imperial prestige, it was also a direct result of the 19th century sugar boom that bolstered the island's economy in unprecedented ways and created a renewed sense of mutual dependency between metropolis and colony.

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The Cuban sugar boom, which began at the turn of the century, was prompted in large part by the vacuum in sugar production caused by the Haitian Revolution. The increased number of slaves imported into Cuba to facilitate sugar production, however, also created widespread fears about the possibility of Cuba turning into another Haiti. This in turn played a crucial role in the Creole (Spaniards born in the colonies) elite's decision not to opt for independence from Spain, even though the rest of Spanish America was doing so.

According to the historian, Ada Ferrer, by mid-century the population of slaves and freed people of colour comprised the majority, and the minority "white population, educated in the fear of black and slave rebellion, looked to Haiti and clung to Spain in fear." Yet, Spain's declining position in the international arena, which resulted in great part from the loss of revenue it had once received from its former mainland colonies, meant that the Cuban sugar-based economy was increasingly essential to the maintenance of the Spanish Crown.

Spain's growing inability and unwillingness to deliver on promised economic reforms to Creole planters had devastating economic effects for the eastern region of Cuba. While the Creole elite of the monoculture sugar-producing western region may have been disappointed with Spain's reform failures, their economic standing remained strong. Moreover, they depended on the protection they believed Spain offered them from their dense slave populations. Conversely, the eastern region was characterised by a multi-crop economy that depended far less on slave labour. As a result, the region's demographic make-up was for more racially balanced. The growing frustrations of the eastern region's Creole elite with their declining position vis-a-vis the sugar-rich western region spawned the first phase of the Cuban war for independence, called "The Ten Years' War".

It was evident to this group of Creoles that the only way they would be able to successfully launch a revolution was by enlisting the participation of the eastern region's free(d) and enslaved populations. As a result, they offered the latter manumission in exchange for their participation in the insurgency movement against Spanish colonial rule. This seemingly radical move on the part of the insurgent Creoles was, as the historian Rebecca Scott notes, symbolically important, but nonetheless "legally represented nothing more radical than the exercise of the right of a master to manumit his slaves". Moreover, their actions were tempered by over-riding concerns about alienating the region's more conservative planters by demanding immediate abolition. A compromise was reached in 1869 when the insurgency forces declared all inhabitants of their self-pronounced republic free, but enacted the Reglamento de Libertos, which established a tutelage system that allowed former slave owners to retain control over their former slaves. …

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