A Cuban lynching during 1912 when a period of reaction sought to reverse the social gains made during the war of independence and the end of slavery., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
May 24, 2012
Cuba in 1912: Armed uprising and racist massacres
Fernando Martínez Herera
ONE century after the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Cuban republic. The date of May 20, 1912 reflects the supreme aspirations of the community gradually created in Cuba and the epic of armed struggles and uncountable sacrifices which created the Cuban nation, culminating in the mass insurrection of 1895-1898, barely 15 years earlier. The Liberation Army defeated the colonial army, in spite of the huge Spanish military effort and the genocide which decimated the population. The Revolution established the Republic in Arms, trained hundreds of thousands of citizens, converted into Cubans all the sons and daughters of the land and made inevitable the establishment of a republican state.
For the Cuban people, May 20th was a symbol of their triumph, but at the same time it represented a profound frustration which postponed the major task of national liberation. The United States had militarily occupied Cuba, forcing the suspension of the Revolution’s institutions and reducing their achievements, and only left after establishing ties which converted the country into a neocolony subject to yankee arbitration with an economic system of liberal capitalist exploitation and a political system within which the accomplices of imperialism and the Cuban bourgeoisie predominated.
In 1909, General José Miró Argenter, chief of staff of Major General Antonio Maceo, leader of the Liberation Army, dedicated a chapter of his narration of Maceo’s campaigns to his brother, General José Maceo. Its end paints a horrific picture of the evil which ensued and the abandonment of the ideals of the Revolution. The last sentence is the cry of pain of one of the radical revolutionaries of 1895, "There are no more troops to acclaim the leaders, nor leaders to hoist the flag of the Revolution!"
The history of an era always contains more than one history. Taking into account the diverse composition of the Cuban population, the history of the social construction of races, and racism immediately arises. The new economic formation introduced at the end of the 18th century utilized more than one million African slaves or their descendants as a workforce in a little less than a century. The colossal sugar exporting business made Cuba one of the richest colonies in the world and brought with it revolutions in technology and the organization of labor, efficient business owners, modern forms of urban life and a sophisticated, Western and capitalist elite culture. But, simultaneously, it mercilessly exploited labor, destroyed lives and spurned the culture of a large part of the Cuban population, created an ironclad caste system and increased racism against the African-Cuban population, which developed into one of the traits within the national culture that was being formed.
It was not until 1886 that slavery was finally abolished. This was demanded by the development of a fully capitalist state and the advance of the country’s subordinated integration into a world system beginning its imperialist phase. But for the nascent Cuban nation abolition was, above all, the daughter of a political event: the pro-independence and abolitionist Revolution of 1868-1878. This has enormous historic importance, because colonialism and racism needed their victims to perceive themselves as inferior human beings and thus not aspire to achievements or creativity on their own part. But now, Cuban representation was closely linked to insurrectional patriotism, to winning independence and abolition.
In addition to the end of slavery, the 1880-1895 period saw processes and events of significance in relation to issues of race and racism. I will simply note that the majority of Black and mixed-race Cubans had to attempt to move from the bottom of society which was their place, through work, their own advancement and that of their children; also renouncing their own cultural practices considered barbaric – or backward – and the assumption of conduct and ends subjected to "white" cannons. Given the enormous economic, social and cultural disadvantages of the starting point, this was impossible or extremely difficult, but formally, at least, was a possibility open to all individuals. A certain number of Blacks and mixed race persons formed associations, identified themselves as such and tried to win individual or collective improvements. Faced with that, racism turned to "science" and Cuban academics debated whether Africans were inferior beings biologically or for social reasons.
But José Martí’s politics and ideas propitiated a different path and history. The new revolution had an incomparably greater reach and some extremely ambitious proposals. Many Blacks and mixed race Cubans participated in the organization of the revolution with Cuba’s national hero and his white colleagues, and they launched together the war, which soon became a huge popular wave which extended all over the country. In this battle, Cuba’s Blacks became Cubans who were also African. Their participation was massive and their conduct an example of sacrifice, heroism and discipline. The Mambí army was the first genuinely plurinational one in the Americas, in both its commands and troops. Those who had not been included among Cubans by the dominant 19th century thinking, those who were born and lived with the stigma of being permanent children, the possessors of dubious morals and traits of inferiority and dangerousness, won a new reason for pride: as protagonists in the glorious events of the creation of an independent homeland and the new republic.
The neocolonial bourgeois republic also failed to fulfill the revolutionary commitment in relation to the majority of African Cubans, and to end racism. Their material situation was almost the same as that of 1894, but the changes had been very profound. From 1899, demands for equal rights and opportunities were strong and expressed. The founding of the Independent Group of Color in Havana, on August 7, 1908, which shortly afterward became a political party, seemed to be another action of this kind. But that turned out to be the first act in a bloody drama.
The Independent Party of Color (PIC) was another result of the Revolution of 1895, which had dramatically increased political actors, transformed the content of politics and universalized the country’s citizens. But racism, deeply ruptured by the revolution, had regained ground within the framework of a social conservatism which completed the system of domination. Neither integrationist legality nor political demagogy changed that reality in essence. However, the PIC proposed to organize the struggle for effective equality and specific rights, utilizing the legal routes of the political system and freedom of expression. Its principal leaders were the veteran Evaristo Estenoz, Colonel Pedro Ivonnet —a Mambí hero of the invasion from the east of the island and the Pinar del Río campaign—Gregorio Surín and Eugenio Lacoste. The PIC had followers of a few thousand throughout the country, drew up social demands to benefit the entire poor and working population and maintained a patriotic and nationalist position.
The members of the PIC were acting under the new conditions of post-revolutionary retrogression, but many of them were as veteran as the presidents of the republic. It is important to note how sure of their legitimacy these fighters felt; it came naturally to them to promote confrontations, enter into negotiations, pressure, argue, organize; in other words, to act in social movements and politics. But the nationalist patriotism they shared was turned against them, manipulated by those very people who subjugated themselves to imperialism. For the people of all races, national identity came first and was decisive above any other; the issue of identity tended to be blind to racial and labor issues, and these issues were rejected when they appeared to weaken national unity. The PIC did not enjoy the support of the majority of Black and mixed race Cubans.
The bourgeois power attacked them relentlessly, because they threatened it on the terrain of its two-party, liberal-conservative hegemony by utilizing the rules of the system. Cynically accused of being racist, in 1910 the PIC was declared illegal through the Moruá Amendment to the Electoral Law, and leaders and activists were imprisoned for six months. Harassed and prevented from using the electoral route, they finally opted for an armed uprising on the symbolic date of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the republic, in search of winning the Party’s re-legalization. This means of pressure was not unusual in the political ambit of the period, and was utilized by many politicians during the first 30 years of the republic.
But the José Miguel Gómez government mobilized thousands of soldiers and paramilitaries against them, while a fierce press campaign demonized them. The massacre took place during the months of June and July: more than 3,000 defenseless non-whites were murdered, the majority in Oriente province, the principal theater of the uprising. There was no solidarity with them, they were abandoned in the fields of their homeland, victims of a terrible lesson which clearly fixed the limits that could not be passed by those from below in the Cuban republic. The official republic celebrated the great crime and immediately banished it to an oblivion, as did the majority of Cuban victims of discrimination and domination in that society, given the harsh reality of having to survive and aspire to some kind of social ascent.
To give a synthesis of the outcome of that horrific event. One, the massacre signed in blood the principle that the republic would not allow social diversity to be politically organized. The untouchable nature of the existing order was guaranteed in the name of national unity. Two, the armed uprising was an erroneous and disastrous PIC tactic, because it was unable to create the correlation of forces to oblige the government to negotiate, and thus remained at the mercy of its strategy. Three: the politicking of President Gómez and others, in an electoral year, was left aside, and the slogan, "The homeland is in danger," was used to justify the radical repression.
Four, the pressure of the United States and the reality of its impositions. Five, the PIC’s military organization was totally alien to that of the Liberation Army, although many commands and officers came from it. Six, it presented an opportunity for the comprehensive repression of a wide sector of campesinos in Oriente, in the face of the danger of their reaction to the plunder and impoverishment resulting from the capitalist expansion underway. Seven, the notable weight of racism in Cuban society during in that era facilitated the crime and its impunity.
The socialist Revolution of national liberation which triumphed in 1959 has achieved colossal advances in the lives of the Cuban people, their social relations, social organization, sentiments and political consciousness. The process has allowed us to discover the immense wealth which lies in our diversity and also how much remains to be done in order to advance on a number of terrains. One of these is the persistence of racism in our country, and the fact that many disadvantages confronted by groups of men and women are more marked in the case of African and mixed race Cubans. Thus, in addition to it constituting a restoration of the memory of our Cuban struggles, the commemoration of the Independents of Color movement and the massacre of 1912 is an incentive to struggle to win justice in the fullest of contexts.
Racism can only be defeated if it is fought as part of struggles that move beyond and are more ambitious than anti-racism. Socialist struggles in Cuba are obliged to be anti-racist. But at the same time it is essential to rigorously and effectively denounce and condemn racism and not to make concessions to it in the name of a belief that certain general changes will automatically lead to its bankruptcy and end. We must not be weak in the face of racism – and thus to a certain extent, accomplices – in the name of sectorial strategies or prejudices, in the perverse concealment of ills in the alleged defense of our society, or fall in line with accepting that the existing culture is the one and only possible.
And here, anti-racism and socialism come together again, because socialism is, above all, an unending succession of cultural changes, in the contexts of human betterment and transformations in social organization, which constantly secure more social justice, well-being for all, more effective, autonomous national sovereignty and people’s power.