The Most Tragic Date on the Cuban Calendar

May 21, 2012 | Print Print |

By Alberto N. Jones

HAVANA TIMES — In 1902, the United States government turned over a crippled and severely war-torn nation to a group of privileged upper class opportunists. They dismantled the Army of Independence and replaced it with a corrupt Rural Guard where blacks could not rise above the rank of lieutenant and a police force that excluded blacks altogether.

The government was formed by a cadre of preselected lackey politicians who, through an electoral farce in which illiterates, women and those owning less than $500.00 in a war ravished nation, were precluded to vote.

Black Cubans were marginalized to the worst neighborhoods. Education was segregated and privatized. Government jobs were prioritized for those of Spanish ancestry. Private companies excluded blacks and mulattos from large enterprises, banks, utilities, transportation, commerce etc.

In a carefully conceived plan, Teddy Roosevelt encouraged a selective migration of over 71,000 Spaniards from the Canary Islands, hoping to bleach the country, dilute the demographics and tip the voting balance.

Thousands of them received agricultural lands for the development of tobacco in western Cuba or at discount prices elsewhere. Blacks and mulattos received none.

Hoping to find a way to overcome this severe marginalization, segregation, and various inequalities that afflicted blacks and mulattos, former members of the Cuban Army of Independence, workers, intellectuals, housewives and some whites, came together in 1908 and founded the Independent Party of Color in Havana.

Rather than welcoming this socio-political development, the dominant class and the media unleashed a barrage of accusations against them accusing them of being sectarian, allied with the United States embassy, and attempting to create a black republic like Haiti, being violence-prone, rapists and believers of voodoo.

Although even by today’s standards, the Independent Party of Color programmatic platform was the most advanced at the time, it was withheld from the public and routinely distorted. Following were some of its most outstanding objectives:

  1. Repatriation with government funds, of every Cuban wishing to return to their country of origin, if they could not afford it on their own.
  2.  Universal, obligatory and free education through university for all.
  3.  Opposition to the death penalty, penal reform and trade education for inmates prior to their re-integration into society.
  4.  Distribution of government land to landless citizens and review of those acquired during the military intervention.
  5.  Eight hour work shift and the creation of a labor mediation tribunal.  Regulation of child labor.
  6.  Hiring of blacks and mix race by the Cuban government for foreign service.

The Independent Party of Color was subjected to constant police harassment, incarceration of its leaders, regular suspensions and finally, with the help of an unprincipled, sell-out black congressman, an amendment was passed forbidding the formation of political parties based upon racial affiliation.

Left with no other option, 10 years to the day of the infamous proclamation of the 1902 pseudo-republic, hundreds of poorly armed or unarmed members of the party, rose up against the government to express their displeasure with the prevailing environment primarily in the provinces of Oriente and Las Villas.

The government of President Jose Miguel Gomez assembled the largest military strike force to date under the command General Monteagudo, head of the Cuban army, which entered Yateras, Guantanamo, Songo-La Maya, Micara and Santiago de Cuba, slaughtering every black or mulatto who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The United States army participated indirectly by relieving many military posts in Oriente. In a report from General Monteagudo to President Jose Miguel Gomez he wrote that the massacre had become butchery in the woods in which it is impossible to determine the number of casualties. Unofficial reports put the toll at between 3000 and 6000 individuals.

In a clear attempt to teach a lesson and terrorize blacks and mulattos, enraged soldiers and urgently enlisted volunteers, paraded mutilated bodies on horseback through towns and villages, while carrying bags with ears, cut-off from their victims.

Adding insult to injury, a huge victory luncheon was hosted in Havana Central Park by President Jose Miguel Gomez, where the best and brightest of the Cuban society, including Ismaelillo, the son of Jose Marti, celebrated the country’s worst and most horrendous bloodbath, tarnishing its history for a lifetime.

Then on May 18, 1936, one of the most ornate, glamorous monuments in Cuba was dedicated to Jose Miguel Gomez, the mastermind and executioners of this crime, on President’s Avenue in Havana.

Inexplicably 100 years later, no political party, religious organization, humanitarian association, workers union or governments, have had the courage, decency or dignity to erect a wooden cross, plant a tree or light a candle in Songo-La Maya for the victims.

Following this brutal massacre, a huge official veil of complicit silence, wrapped and hid this repulsive chapter, expecting it to disappear as other oral history. Just two paragraphs, as an epitaph in our bourgeois history books, reflect on it.

Our nation has failed shamefully to educate our children, publish books, and produce films or TV programs about this barbaric behavior, which remains the only resource available to us to help us eradicate lingering prejudices and preconceptions in our society.

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the present government has nothing to do with this horrendous page of our tragic history. In numerous speeches, government leaders at the highest level have denounced this scourge in our society to no avail.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the development of tourism, joint-ventures and corporations in Cuba, racism re-emerged with a viciousness and virulence that has spread across the country like a wildfire, devouring much of the core values of our nation.

To assume, that such brutal and overt racism, segregation and marginalization of our society could have taken place without capturing the attention of our authorities, is implausible to say the least.

Blacks were not employed at front desk jobs, managerial positions or even as token leadership in the tourist industry.  Most were limited to be in the kitchen and gardens, clearly away from all access to hard currency.

Housekeeping in hotels and resort became off limits for black women. Miramar, Vedado, old Havana and even Vista Alegre in Santiago de Cuba business centers, looks more like Finland than Cuba.

A code word became popular among human resource employees for not hiring certain people, was not having “fine features”.  Police patrols on Obispo St. and other tourist area, became internationally renowned for their overt racial profiling.

The Cuban government did not introduce racism, segregation and marginalization to Cuba, but after 50 years in power, with every possible resource at its disposal and an effective information gathering capability, the government cannot abdicate or deny its full responsibility in the perpetuation and tolerance of this social aberration.

The past three years in Cuba have seen the first serious, profound, concerted attempt by the government to deal with this repulsive issue. Numerous seminars, conferences, and symposiums, are discussing this matter across the country.

A discrete attempt to reduce demeaning performance by blacks in TV programs and films, a mildly more balance composition of soap operas etc., seems to be responding to a generalize outcry of the population.

Every honest person, whatever their personal views maybe of the Cuban government, must commend and respect the courageous, unprecedented and firm corrective steps that president Raul Castro has implemented to deal with this thorny issue.

Unfortunately, the severity of the level of marginalization, segregation, poverty, desperation, tension and social instability that is breeding among this sector of society, cannot wait or do not understand most of the heated theoretical, intellectual discussions that are taking place everywhere.

For hundreds of thousands of blacks and mulattos, trapped by hunger, despair, living in infrahuman condition and unfulfilled hopes in slums across Cuba, this is not a matter of academic or philosophical analysis.  For them, immediate solution and a means of survival are the only game in town!

For these and other reasons, I have not been drawn into the understandable and bitter arguments of some, who believes the monument of Jose Miguel Gomez is a national affront and should therefore be removed.  Then what?

I prefer to believe, that the Cuban government must commit itself immediately to build a human development monument to the Cuban people, beginning with those in the Yateras-Guantanamo-Santiago de Cuba corridor, where thousands of members of the Party of Color, were slaughtered exactly 100 years ago. They died not for asking for anything for themselves, but for demanding justice, equality and fairness for all.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses

    Excellent article. As most Cuban emigrants are white or “mulatto claro”, the majority of the Cubans who receive remittances from abroad as family members of these emigres are also white and mulatto claro. Therefore, even as Raul has taken small (very small) steps to combat institutional racism in Cuba, the economic divide between those Cubans who receive hard currency from family outside of Cuba and those Cubans compelled to survive by their wits continues to largely fall along racial lines. As this divide widens, racial stereotypes persists. Cubans with “fine features” are able to enjoy the benefits that come with hard currency living while Black Cubans who are not athletes, artists or musicians struggle to to survive.

  • Michael N. Landis

    Although I was aware of the events of 1912, and of the racial policies which characterized various Cuban administrations during the period of the psuedo-Republic, your article reveals this sordid history to many who might have been unaware, and also underlines how the legacy of these events continued even after the Revolution. Thank you for your eloquent article.

  • http://www.GRDPublishing.com Grady Ross Daugherty

    Thank you so much, Alberto, for this eloquent but heartbreaking article. If you should start a fundraising campaign to build the monument you envision, please put me down for a small contribution.

  • Billy Bagtu

    The same thing Teddy Roosevelt did to us here in the Philippines at the turn of the century. American imperialism. Divide and conquer. Now karma is on our side. The U.S. suffers economically bec. of these past sins..

  • Anya Achtenberg

    Thank you for this.
    But what about Gloria Rolando’s excellent film 1912 – Voces Para un Silencio
    1912, Breaking the Silence — the first 2 chapters have been seen in various places, she has been interviewed on Mesa redonda, etc, and the 3rd and last chapter of the film is in the editing process – she deserves all respect and support, by the way, the founder of Imagenes del Caribe — for films which focus on Afrocuban issues and history?

    This article is excellent but not complete without mention of this groundbreaking work.

    Thank you!

  • PablitoCarajero

    Hello. Let me express my satisfaction with this article, because is extremely serious and full of information. I did not know nothing about this dark date in LatinAmerican history, and that is a fault by our governments. I was googling information about this date in the rest of the world, as today is the independence day in my country, Argentina, and thank God I found your story.
    Un gran abrazo latinoamericano para mis hermanos cubanos, y en especial a los sufridos afrodescendientes!

  • Freud

    Racism is not over in Cuba…… castro regime is a racist one……. most opponents to this regime are black people and they oppose this regime for same reasons black people opposed regimes from 1902 to 1959 just because racisms have not changed, just because Cuba’s rulers today are same bunch of racist bourgeois elite that ruled Cuba before 1959 ……. racism continuity in Cuba can be seen nowadays not only because regime’s elite is absolutely white but also because the sub elite mass is a white one too……….. you cannot find easily black people among regime’s officials……. we, black people that once belonged to regime’s repressive organs found it very hard to accept our superiors used to call and think about black Cubans as “The Enemy”….. it was a “joke” that castro brothers used to loudly out speak each time they have an opportunity …………. any moral or black MININT member or moral and black police high officer can back my statement.

  • Rogelio

    I was not aware of such horrible history of my beloved Cuba….it saddens me to know this…
    I do have to add that since my return visit to my homeland in 2001, i left in 1962, i did not see this racism that is spoken about in the later part of the article…I saw the opposite and made note how good it is people getting along no matter what color of skin.. I saw my cousins hugging and celebrating there history together….so from my naive point of view i disagree that racism still exist on such a high level.
    Maybe my family was different, yes i am white, my family is of spanish discent. When i was 2 years old my parents entrusted me to Planas, he was the main lifeguard at the beach we lived at. he took me to the ocean and taught me how to swim….Yes he was Black, but loved and respected by our familia…in more recent times, I have seen examples of this on my visits to Cuba….

  • Alberto N Jones

    I am shocked, overwhelmed and eternally grateful to the editor of Havana Times for publishing my thoughts, for our faithful readers extremely positive responses, for their willingness to share this matter with others and for so much undeserved, encouraging kind words for me. Thanks, Thanks very much to each of you.

    Nothing of this however, has anything to do with me, an untrained writer, trying to express my life concerns with my country, Cuba; this unique, different place on earth with a very distinct historical and cultural perspective.

    Therefore, Cuba ought to be different, distinct and become the beacon of race-relations, social equality, justice and solidarity, the world have not seen and demands.

    Some friends and critics have tried to paint me as ungrateful, betraying the Revolution for pointing a finger a shortcomings of our government. Real friends are those willing to alert of mistakes, failures or wrongs, not hide or varnish them!

    Without the Cuban Government, I would not have been able to write these notes. I would be doing some menial jobs somewhere for someone. Everything I am -good and bad-, everything I have achieved or failed to achieve in life, is indivisible and indissoluble tied to January 1, 1959

    I have said before, that blacks and mestizos in Cuba, have made more progress in the past 50 years than during the previous 450 years!

    But that’s not what is being measured here. I am referring to ALL that need and must be done to LEVEL the playing fields. Most thought that was done in 1959, when Fidel Castro first spoke about abolishing racism in Cuba. Great, we all cheered by opening all social, economical, political and educational systems to all. What it DID NOT take into account, was that in this race towards equality, justice, fairness, some players were miles ahead of others. That’s why today it is a rule of thumb, not an exception in every black family across Cuba to hear: I was the First to work in a Bank, to sit in a university classroom, to travel abroad and everything else.

    It is my hopes, this maybe a first step towards widening this critical debate for our country and its future. Cuba cannot and will not achieve the place it deserves in history, until it shed, once and for all this ugly baggage, that have weighted, tarnished and fossilized our future. The knowledge and expertise of all caring, concerned and progressive human being in this matter is needed, to help others focus like a laser on Cuba’s most complex, intractable and demeaning burden.

  • Freud

    I believe you owe nothing to castro regime….. it is any government duty to supply education, health care and welfare to its people……… much more owes castro regime to you and to the rest of the Cubans because paying salaries between $8 and $25 a month and making them pay same prices that Europeans pays for all needed good for daily survival means this regime keeps 80-90% of monthly salaries….. what is more than enough to give Cubans real high quality education, real high quality health care and real welfare not the miserable life Cubans have today…… specially black Cubans.

  • Cimarron

    I join the many readers before me in expressing deep gratitude and appreciation to Alberto for a great account of a very sad chapter in Cuban history, a very objective and honest analysis / critique, and his very passionate appeal / advocacy for urgently-needed change.

    Interestingly, I hadn’t been to the site in a while and discovered just tonight that Cuba had a new Vice President in February (http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=62493). But as usual, much as I remain a supporter of the Cuban revolution, I could not fail to note with much disappointment that the new VP was a white male, the preferred choice of the historic leadership in all appointments. Once again, I had to ask myself : by what extraordinary laws of mathematical probability is it that in the highly multiracial society that Cuba is, the appointment to all important cabinet positions almost always turn s out to favor only the non-colored sector of Cuban society? How can it be that after a half-century of revolution, Cuba has not educated any blacks and mixed blood citizens who are as qualified as any other citizen to ascend to such high positions? Is the historic leadership of the Cuban revolution “allergic” to Afro-Cubans while on the hand it warmly embraces Continental Africans with all kinds of assistance and generosity?

    Afro-Cubans deserve equal participation and representation in all areas of national life in Cuba especially the political. They do not need patronage. They need equal access. Only then can the lingering problems of color discrimination be eliminated. The cabinet of Cuba should look like the people of Cuba – a little bit of every color and mix. Cubans of color should abundantly be seen in government appointments. I put it to the historic leadership that there are qualified and dedicated Cubans of color who can be President, Vice President, Foreign Minister, etc. The shameful and unnatural practice of having a predominantly white leadership structure with one decorative, token black appointee should stop immediately.

    Racism and reaction are closely tied. Let the recent history of capitalist restoration and virulent racism and neo-fascistic ultra-nationalism in Eastern Europe enlighten the Cuban leadership and all Cubans committed to the revolution. Who would have thought that the leader of the Communist Youth League in East Germany would become the leader of the Neo-Nazi Youth movement in unified Germany? How can it be explained that the former German Democratic Republic is the most racist part of today’s united Germany, with racist attacks against people of color a rampant phenomenon? So much so that in 2008 before the World Cup (Soccer) finals in Germany, the federal government issued an advisory warning people of color not to go to the Eastern part of Germany? And what about St Petersburg in the new Russian Federation as a bastion of Neo-Nazi youth and deadly racist attacks? Who can say that a restored-capitalist Cuba will not follow suit? Who can say that the seeds are not already planted in the soil?