Reference Entry

Cuba

Pedro Pérez-Sarduy and Jean Stubbs

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Cuba

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Many people associate Cuba with the resorts and casinos that made it a favorite stopping place for American tourists in the 1940s and 1950s, and with the singular figure of Fidel Castro, who led the country's Marxist revolution in 1959 and contributed to Cold War tensions with the United States in the 1960s. Less is known about Afro-Cuban participation and leadership in the struggle for independence from Spain in the nineteenth century or Afro-Cuban activism in the twentieth century.Spanish Colony: 1492–1898Relatively little is documented about the region known as “the Caribbean” before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Contemporary chronicles and more recent archaeological and anthropological accounts have contributed to our knowledge of indigenous peoples of the region. Columbus reached Cuba on his first voyage without realizing it was an island, and discovered Ciboney, Guanahuatabey, and Taíno Arawak Indians. On other islands he found the Carib Indians, from whom the region takes its name.In 1508 Sebastián de Ocampo became the first European to sail around the coast of Cuba, but it was Diego Velázquez who first disembarked with 300 men in 1511, to conquer the island for Spain. Velázquez founded several towns, called villas, from the eastern Baracoa to the western San Cristobal de La Habana, which later became the capital.Though the Indian population was ill equipped to match the economic and military strength of the former, the Spaniards encountered strong resistance from the Taínos of eastern Cuba, led by an Indian chief who had been driven from the neighboring island of Hispaniola (comprising present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and who was killed at the stake in 1512. More resistance was encountered in the 1522–1533 rebellion led by Cacique Guama, of Baracoa. Settlements called palenques sheltered Indians fleeing the conquering Spaniards and later runaway slaves. The indigenous population was soon decimated. In 1526 the first shipment of African slaves was brought to Cuba, to labor primarily on sugar and coffee plantations. The first slave uprising took place just four years later, and in 1533 there was a slave strike in the mines.The early presence of blacks is mentioned in the first major literary work in seventeenth-century Cuba, the poem The Mirror of Patience (El espejo de paciencia) by Silvestre de Balboa de Troya y Quesada. It describes the kidnapping of Bishop Fray Juan de las Cabezas Altamirano by the French pirate Gilberto Girón. A bold and brave black man, Salvador Galomón, kills the kidnapper and saves the eastern town of Holguín from danger. This early literary representation juxtaposes the injustice of enslavement with the heroism of the black protagonist.These two themes have been repeated through Cuban history. The Indian and slave rebellions of the early colonization period can be seen as precursors to later rebellions by blacks during the height of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. These rebellions also shared parallels with the abolitionist and independence movements of the late nineteenth century.Cuba's slave trade, which had increased during the 1762–1763 British occupation of Havana, grew dramatically after the decline of sugar production in Saint-Domingue following the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In 1818 Spain permitted Cuba to participate in international trade, and over the next half century the slave trade grew rapidly, with an estimated one million African slaves in Cuba by the early 1800s. Around 86 percent of these slaves were imported after 1790, and more than 70 percent after 1817, the year Spain signed a treaty with Great Britain to end the slave trade, which it later ignored. By the late nineteenth century, more than half the population in Cuba was of African origin or descent. With the decimation of the Indian population through war, disease, and displacement, the Hispanic and the African formed the two major roots of the nascent Cuban nation.Their relations, however, were turbulent. In 1812 a conspiracy planned by José Antonio Aponte, a free black carpenter in Havana who allowed whites to participate in the rebellion, sought to overthrow slavery and colonial rule. In 1826 the first armed uprising for independence took place in Puerto Príncipe (Camagüey Province), led by Francisco de Agüero and Andrés Manuel Sánchez. Agüero (white) and Sánchez (mulato, of mixed African and European ancestry) were executed, becoming the first martyrs of Cuban independence.Throughout the nineteenth century, Africans in Cuba were allowed to form their own cabildos (councils), initially based on a specific grouping or “nation” of Africa, but later on Pan-African and African-Creole identities. By the turn of the century, these organizations evolved into the cultural, political, and mutual aid societies and clubs that would characterize twentieth-century black organizations.From the time of its consolidation as a federal republic, the United States had coveted Cuba. Before the American Civil War, desires to annex the island as a slave state were expressed by antiabolitionists in the United States. In 1852 President Franklin Pierce, concerned that rapid Africanization in Cuba could lead to an uprising like that in Saint-Domingue, offered to buy the island. His successor, President James Buchanan, also tried to interest Congress in this plan but Congress was divided over the issue of slavery. This expansionist ambition was mirrored on the island. Cuban slaveholders saw the possibility of annexation as protection for their economic interests. Other Cubans simply admired the modern nation to the north. These annexationist currents tempered the more revolutionary aspirations of some in the independence struggle who sought full independence as well as abolition. In 1851, however, at the height of annexationist sentiments in the country, Joaquín de Agüero led an uprising against Spain and issued the first formal declaration of independence by men at arms against the Spanish colonial government.A major stumbling block to the independence movement and the economic and social mobility of Afro-Cubans, however, was racial distrust, known popularly as miedo al negro (“fear of the black”). The phobia can be traced to the Haitian Revolution in the late eighteenth century. Before this time, when whites outnumbered blacks, Cuban fear of black violence had been minimal. But after 1791 the “black fear” would grow with each new shipload of African slaves. While wars of independence erupted throughout South American in 1808, Cuba did not follow suit, remaining Spain's “ever faithful Isle.” The main reason for this political immobility by a class that had shouldered years of accumulated grievances against colonial rule was its fear of a black uprising. This explains its phobia over the 1844 Conspiración de la Escalera (Ladder Conspiracy), which was savagely repressed by the Spanish colonial authorities, supported by the planter class, in which thousands of blacks and mulattoes were massacred, including the poet Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, known as Plácido. (Throughout the nineteenth century, literature played a significant role in exposing the horrors of slavery abroad, in the works of Plácido, those of the slave poet Juan Franciso Manzano, and in Cirilo Villaverde's classic novel Cecilia Valdés.)Cuba's first wars of independence, the Ten Years' War, broke out on October 10, 1868, when the planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves at La Demajagua sugar mill and called for an end to Spanish rule. The rebels' 1869 Constitution of Guáimaro proclaimed that “all inhabitants of the Republic at Arms are completely free,” and their Central Assembly of Representatives, meeting in Camagüey, proclaimed the abolition of slavery.Fear of blacks, however, played a central role in the war. Spain used it to sow doubt among conservative factions of the revolutionary forces as to the intentions of black officers who rose in the ranks, especially Generals José and Antonio Maceo y Grajales. These tactics built on already existing divisions among the forces, comprising erstwhile slaveholders and slaves, the former in officer capacity and often ambivalent over the issue of abolition, and many of the latter in more subordinate, if not menial, roles. These divisions would prove the downfall of the Mambí (Liberation) Army in the first war. The motto of the elite was “Cuba, better Spanish than African.”The Treaty of Zanjón ended the Ten Years' War in 1878, but it recognized the freedom only of those slaves who had fought in the revolutionary ranks. It was opposed by the Maceos, among other black generals, for attaining neither independence nor abolition. When these veterans tried to resuscitate the independence movement in the so-called Little War of 1879–1880, the colonial press conducted a virulent campaign portraying it as a race uprising. Playing on the fact that the pillars of revolution in Oriente Province—Antonio and José Maceo, Quintín Banderas, Guillermón Moncada, and Mariano Torres—were black, the Spanish press spread rumors of a black republic in the making. General Antonio Maceo was seen as the black caudillo from the east and was accused of having designs on the presidency.Though the slave trade to Cuba was officially outlawed in 1865, both slavery and the trade continued; the last slave ship landed on the island in 1873. (In addition to African slaves, an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 Chinese contract laborers were taken to Cuba between 1847 and 1887, when Spain and China signed a treaty that ended the flow.) In 1880 (the year sugar production topped 700,000 tons, almost 600,000 of which was exported to the U.S.), the colonial authorities decreed the abolition of slavery but introduced a system akin to apprenticeship, known as patronato, whereby former masters would remain owners over an eight-year period. The patronato was rendered inoperative and ended earlier than originally planned, in 1886. Slavery was finally abolished in 1886.A worker rolls a cigar by hand in Havana. The country's tobacco products are prized throughout the world. Hughes/HutchinsonNeither the Ten Years' War nor the Little War had coalesced in a popular uprising, but the masses did unite in the second war of independence from 1895 to 1898. Blacks—who served as both common soldiers and officers—joined forces with white Cubans under the progressive call to forge what Cuban poet and activist Joseé Marti called a republic “with all and for the good of all.” Founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Martí had a genius for mobilizing men and women across classes and races with a vision of social justice in an independent Cuba. After returning to the island from exile in the United States to fight for its independence, Martí died in battle in 1895.Martí outlived by only two years a woman he much admired, Mariana Grajales Coello, mother of the Maceos and a tireless fighter in her own right, who reflected the active presence of women in the struggle against slavery and for national liberation. She also demonstrated the transnational links that existed at the time: she was born into the free mulatto class in Santiago de Cuba in 1808, of parents from Santo Domingo. She married Venezuelan-born Marcos Maceo and died in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1893. She lost her husband and nine of her thirteen children to the struggle, including the most famous of all, General Antonio Maceo, who died in battle in 1896.Republic: 1902–1959In 1898, with the Spaniards close to defeat, the United States, in collusion with Martí's U.S.-based successor in the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Tomás Estrada Palma, entered what became known as the Spanish-American War. That year the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor, killing 260 officers and crew. As a result, President William McKinley asked the U.S. Congress for the authority to intervene militarily against Spain. Santiago de Cuba capitulated to Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in 1898. The U.S. militarily occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902 and again from 1906 to 1908, paving the way for a lasting U.S. presence and huge U.S. investments. Perhaps most frustrating of all to those who fought for independence was the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution of 1901. The amendment was passed only after prolonged debate and as a precondition for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. It gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba militarily should circumstances be deemed to warrant such action. The Cuban government, moreover, was proscribed from entering into agreements with other countries without the consent of Washington. Military Governor Leonard Wood supervised what the U.S. termed democratic elections, but the franchise excluded women, illiterates, and those with less than $250, effectively excluding most Afro-Cuban males as well. Estrada Palma was elected president. In 1903 the U.S. signed the Reciprocal Trade Treaty (which benefited the U.S. much more than it did Cuba) and built the Guantánamo Naval Base, which remains to this day. Between 1904 and 1905 President Roosevelt formulated a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: since the United States did not allow European nations to intervene in Latin America, it was responsible for preserving order and protecting life and property in those countries.The U.S. presence bolstered conservative sectors of Cuban society. These elites attempted to “whiten” the nation (blanqueamiento) by attracting Spanish immigrants. More than 780,000 Spaniards are estimated to have entered the island between 1902 and 1931, though permanent settlers probably numbered no more than 250,000. By the 1920s whitening had failed. Nonetheless, in the early twentieth century Cuba was one of the more Spanish of the Latin American republics, and whitening policies contributed to further economic and social marginalization of blacks and mulattoes.Diverse currents of thought developed regarding the “black problem.” Juan Gualberto Gómez, who had represented Martí's Cuban Revolutionary Party on the island while the latter was in exile, argued that equality between black and white could be realized when Afro-Cubans achieved educational levels on a par with those of the white population. For this reason he encouraged the establishment of black educational, recreational, and mutual aid societies and brotherhoods at the turn of the century under the rubric of the Central Directorate of the Colored Race. The directorate's central aims were to foment a “fraternal spirit,” establish a “community of interests,” avoid “collisions and antagonisms,” and proceed in “cordial reciprocity” as a patriotic grouping integral to the new nation. To that end he worked tirelessly throughout the island. His dictum was “Educate yourselves so that nobody can throw in your face that you come from a ‘savage’ people.” Gómez's thinking drew support from a broad range of Cubans.Martín Morúa Delgado, who had been pro-autonomy until 1896, but thereafter supported full independence, believed that racially exclusive groupings—even when they were founded for cultural and social betterment or mutual aid—harmed rather than benefited the sector they sought to help. Like Gómez, however, he believed that black people should be directly involved in working for their own betterment. In general, Delgado appealed to more elite sectors of Cuban society.Those unable to find a voice in the mainstream political parties, however, were drawn to the ideals of Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet, who believed in unity but saw the myth of racial democracy as working in favor of whites by silencing and deracializing Cubans. They formed the Committee of Veterans of Color in the early years of the republic and broke with the Liberal Party to found the Independent Party of Color in 1908. The party was outlawed in 1910 in an amendment authored by Martín Moròa, then a senator. A protest against this proscription in 1912 was harshly repressed by government forces. The leaders of this movement, together with other veterans of the War of Independence, were killed in what became known as the Race War of 1912; during this episode, more than 3,000 blacks and mulattoes were killed, and black people were terrorized throughout the island. Estenoz and Ivonet drew support from a popular base.The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 significantly influenced developments in Cuba, especially after an economic crisis in the 1920s derailed an earlier economic boom. Two key founders of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1925 were Julio Antonio Mella (mulatto) and Rubén Martinez Villena (white). The party gained significant support from the working class, estimated to be some 80 percent black and mulatto and including black immigrant workers from other Caribbean islands. Early communists proposed a “black belt” in Oriente Province (as had U.S. communists in the American South). Black leader León Álvarez attempted such a policy with the creation of soviets, worker- and peasant-led communities styled on those of the Russian Revolution. Such soviets were set up in many Cuban sugar mills in the 1934 revolution but were short-lived, owing to repression in the aftermath of the revolution. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, headed by Marcus Moziah Garvey, had a following among West Indian sugar workers in Camagüey and Oriente provinces.The period 1912–1940 also witnessed the emergence of an Afro-Cuban middle class which criticized Cuban racism, emphasized self-improvement in the black community and the importance of personal example, promoted African diasporic links, and called for political and cultural space. Gustavo Urrutia expressed this perspective in his column “A Race's Ideals” (Ideales de una raza) in the conservative newspaper Diario de la Marina. The ideals of Afrocubanismo or negrismo affirmed Cuba's African roots and celebrated the island's mestizo (mixed) heritage while seeking to redefine a national identity. This movement gave rise to the magical realism of Alejo Carpentier and the radical Afrocentric poetry of Nicolás Guillén.Since 1909, when José Miguel Gómez assumed the presidency, government in Cuba was increasingly distinguished by its corruption, incompetence, and social abuse, particularly toward blacks. In 1933, with U.S. support, SergeantFulgencio Batista overthrew President Gerardo Machado, who had taken office in 1925 and whose regime was associated with military terror tactics. Ramón Grau San Martín then assumed power in a transitional government; among his first acts was abrogation of the 1903 trade treaty with the U.S. and the Platt Amendment. But Batista, increasingly autocratic, ruled from behind the scenes until 1939. He was elected president in 1940. During this period, a solidly cross-racial labor movement gained strength, led by Jesús Menéndez among the sugar workers, Aracelio Iglesias among dock workers, and Lázaro Peña among tobacco workers. In 1938 the Communist Party was legalized, and its name was soon changed to the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). Under the “united front” of World War II, when Communist parties worldwide adopted a conciliatory approach to ruling bourgeois regimes, Cuba's constituent assembly, which had a number of PSP members, promulgated one of the most progressive constitutions in Latin America in 1940. From 1944 to 1952 the Auténtico (Authentic) Party was in power, led by Presidents Ramón Grau San Martín (1944–1948) and Carlos Prío Socarrás (1948–1952). The intensification of the Cold War, however, set the stage for the assassinations of Jesús Menéndez and Aracelio Iglesias. Lázaro Peña, then head of the General Confederation of Labor, survived, but his leadership was challenged and the confederation split. The rupture persisted after Batista's next military coup in 1952, which led to his reinstatement as president.Racial discrimination was disallowed under the 1940 Constitution, and racial segregation did not officially exist. Yet in the 1940s and 1950s people of color worked almost exclusively in the public and service sectors. Major U.S.-owned companies—including utilities, the chain store Woolworth (known as Tencen), supermarkets, upper- and middle-market stores, hotels, and the service sector in general—employed no blacks. People of color were overwhelmingly manual workers in the industrial manufacturing sector. Private schools, religious and lay, accepted very few blacks. Entire neighborhoods in cities and towns throughout the island, as well as entertainment and recreation facilities, were segregated. President Batista himself, a mulatto, was not admitted into certain elite social venues.Of the many groups opposing Batista in the 1950s, the PSP was explicitly committed to ending racial discrimination, while other multiclass and multiracial movements focused on more general demands for social justice. Societies of color proliferated in the first half of the century, following the ideal promulgated by Juan Gualberto Gómez that black Cubans should have their own organizations. These societies did not, however, transcend class barriers. Blacks in the professions and the world of art and culture, for example, had the Club Atenas (Athens Club), which opened its doors in 1917 in Havana. Santa Clara, notorious for its visible segregationism, had El Gran Maceo (The Great Maceo) for mulattoes and certain well-placed blacks, and the Sociedad Bella Unión (Fine Union Society) for men and women of the black working class. This pattern was repeated throughout the island. A minority black middle-class voice, best personified by René Betancourt, continued to articulate a more conservative race-based African nationalist position. In his two books Doctrina negra (Black Doctrine, 1950) and El negro, ciudadano del futuro (The Negro, Citizen of the Future, 1959), Betancourt argued for economic liberation of blacks through a form of black capitalism, by creating black industrial and trade cooperatives. He distinguished between the social and the national, the latter encompassing all Cubans, black and non-black. For him, only Aponte and Estenoz could be considered “black leaders” in Cuba's history as they were principally interested in the plight of Afro-Cubans.Revolutionary CubaIn 1952 a young lawyer of Spanish descent, Fidel Castro, ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as an Ortodoxo Party (a progressive reformist party) candidate. But Batista's military coup that year disrupted the election. A year later, hoping to spark an uprising, Castro led an attack on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba, in which many of the attackers lost their lives or were jailed. Castro was jailed but was granted an amnesty and in 1955 was deported to Mexico. He led a return expedition to Cuba in 1956 to form the Rebel Army in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains. The armed struggle had its civilian counterpart in the 26th of July Movement and, combined with the activities of other civilian groups, developed into a popular struggle for social justice that triumphed on January 1, 1959, when Castro's 800 guerilla fighters defeated Cuba's 30,000-man trained army. Batista fled the country.With overwhelming mass support, the revolutionary government curtailed class privilege on a platform of agrarian reform and nationalization of industry coupled with extensive education and health programs. While some white elites fled to the United States, particularly Miami, black Cubans regained dignity as the bases for institutionalized racism were dismantled. Propelled in no small measure by the hostile response of the U.S. government, ranging from an embargo on trade to counterespionage, the Cuban government developed strong ties with the Soviet bloc. In 1961, after the failed invasion of U.S.-supported Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, Castro declared the socialist nature of the revolution. In 1962 Cuba was catapulted to the center of world attention when it became known that the Soviet Union had secretly placed ballistic missiles on the island that could hit American targets. Potential nuclear war was averted when the USSR agreed to withdraw its missiles in return, among other things, for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba. In 1965 the revolutionary forces were regrouped under the new Communist Party of Cuba (Partido Comunista de Cuba, PCC).The Cuban government sought to establish a socialist, state-run economy and society based on Marxist ideology about class. Reformers believed that correcting class injustices would inevitably correct racial injustice. This belief was shaken, however, by the 1980 exodus of 125,000 Cubans through the port of Mariel. Unlike previous migrations, this one included poorer classes and about 25,000 Afro-Cubans. Although he had made declarations on race when he assumed the presidency, it was not until the 1986 PCC Congress—which marked the centennial of abolition of slavery in Cuba—that Castro raised the issue again. In a speech that was televised live but never published, Castro criticized the persistence of racial stereotypes and prejudice in Cuban society, lambasting political organizations for the under-representation of blacks, women, and youth in leadership positions. He spoke of continuing forms of discrimination and called for an affirmative action program, starting with the Communist Party itself. The leadership of the PCC, however, continued to be predominantly white. The Fifth Party Congress in 1997 doubled the number of blacks in the Politburo to six of the twenty-four members: Juan Carlos Robinson Agramonte, Misael Enamorado Dager, Pedro Sáez Montejo, Juan Almeida Bosque, Esteban Lazo Hernández, and Pedro Ross Leal.Cuba's foreign policy focused on Third World liberation and decolonization. Many black Cubans were proud of Cuba's involvement in Africa in the early 1960s (Republic of the Congo) and in the mid-1970s, when President Castro sent troops to support Angola, newly independent from Portugal, against invading forces from South Africa. Castro defined Cubans as not only a Latin American people but also a Latin African people. “The blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” he declared, a sentiment strengthened when Cuba became chair of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations and developed its own bilateral programs with African countries.An elderly couple sits in front of a picture of Fidel Castro, the country's leader since the revolution in 1959. Jeannette Ortiz-OsorioCuba's growing contact with and knowledge of Africa was mirrored closer to home through links with radical black movements in the United States and in the Caribbean. Cuba established diplomatic relations with Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, and Jamaica in 1972. Castro was in Jamaica in October 1977 at the invitation of then president Michael Manley; twenty years later he attended Manley's funeral there; and in May 1998, Jamaican prime minister Percival Patterson was in Cuba to sign a joint investment agreement. In Grenada, Cuban construction workers helping to build an international airport faced the U.S. invasion forces in November 1983, which ended the socialist Grenadian Revolution of 1979–1983. Fifteen years later Grenadian prime minister Keith Mitchell thanked the Cuban people and their leader for what they had done for Grenada. In the 1990s Caribbean nations forcefully condemned the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. In 1997 the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM), for instance, condemned an attempt by the U.S. Congress to sanction CARICOM for establishing closer trade relations with the island. It also recognized Cuba as a Caribbean nation eligible for consideration if it applied for membership.Castro maintained close contacts with African American political activists as well. The Cuban Revolution coincided with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. In 1960 Castro was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. When he was made less than welcome at the midtown Shelbourne Hotel, he moved his delegation to the more modest Hotel Theresa, in the heart of Harlem. Received there by cheering crowds, he met, among others, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (who, at the United Nations, had condemned U.S. intervention in the Republic of the Congo). Soon afterward, between 1961 and 1969, Robert Franklin Williams—the former NAACP activist from Monroe, North Carolina, who was expelled for his militancy—lived in exile in Cuba, where he directed Radio Free Dixie. The station broadcast on a frequency that extended to U.S. southern states, mixing jazz, blues, and gospel with news and commentary that attacked racism and supported civil rights. Williams espoused a Maoist political philosophy, however, and when his views conflicted with Cuba's rapprochement with the Soviet camp, he left Cuba for China and from there returned to the United States. In 1996 President Castro returned to the United Nations. He was rebuffed by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Among the many invitations Castro received was one to meet with African American religious leaders at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he spoke to a crowd of 1,500 people about Cuba and its role in Angola and the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. In his introduction to Castro's speech, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III said: “People ask me, ‘Why are you inviting Castro to your church?’ and I say to them, ‘Because it is in our tradition to invite visionaries who fight for the freedom of all peoples.’”In the 1990s the political and racial divide between Cubans on the island (mainly black and mulatto) and Cubans in Miami (overwhelmingly white) was apparent in the receptions they gave South Africa's Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who had expressed appreciation for Cuba's solidarity in ending apartheid: in Cuba he was welcomed as a hero, while for many Miami Cubans he was most unwelcome. In June 1990, four Cuban American mayors of the cities in Miami area signed a letter declaring Nelson Mandela persona non grata, shortly before a planned visit to Florida as part of his U.S. tour.Contemporary IssuesIn the 1990s Cuba experienced a broad range of political and economic changes. The 1989 collapse of Soviet-bloc socialism and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, in the form of the 1992 Torricelli-Graham Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, precipitated an economic collapse that disproportionately affected the black population. By 1993, the low point of the crisis, the economy had plummeted by about 50 percent. In the summer of 1994 riots broke out in Havana, the first demonstration of its kind since the 1959 revolution, and some 30,000 Cubans—many from poor and black sectors of society—attempted to flee the island on rafts. Strategies of joint state and international venture capital created an export and tourist industry, dollarized economic enclaves in which blacks played a lesser and more menial role. In addition, fewer blacks had family abroad to send dollar remittances in an economy increasingly based on this currency. Consequently, more blacks were driven by necessity into the underground economy.The Castro regime also faced allegations of human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Cuba silences political dissent through a policy of arbitrary arrests and harsh prison sentences, and maintains inhumane conditions—including torture—in its prisons. Writers and homosexuals are among those imprisoned for crimes against the state.One of the most marked changes of the 1990s concerned religion, which the early revolutionary state—officially atheist—had banned. The change was particularly notable regarding Afro-Cuban religions. Cuba was visited by two African leaders: in 1987, by the Asantahene of Ghana, traditional king of the Ashanti people, and, in 1991, by the Ooni of Ife, the sacred capital of the Yoruba. At its Fourth Congress in 1991, the PCC declared itself a lay party open to believers of all religions, paving the way for the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II. This opening to religion, and especially those of African origin, however, was not without problems. An excessive commercialization and vulgarization of Afro-Cuban folklore accompanied the growth of tourism, for example, occasioning criticism of what some describe as Ocha- or Orisha-Tour—referring to packaged visits related to the Afro-Cuban religions Palo Monte and Santería.“Cuba is a Baraguá,” Castro declared in 1990, referring to the small eastern town of Baraguá where Maceo refused to sign the peace treaty with Spain in 1878. Reference to Baraguá is double-edged. The 1868–1878 war was lost, the independence forces weakened and divided. Cuba, however, would never be the same. Blacks, mulattoes, and whites had fought the war together, albeit on unequal terms. Black Cubans liken Cuba today to a modern-day palenque. White Cubans talk about the Haitianization of Cuba. In the early nineteenth century, reprisals were taken by European colonial powers against the newly declared, independent black state of Haiti, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. The country turned in on itself, was ground down, and is today among the poorest in the region. Fears are that 200 years later, Cuba could travel a similar road.See also Civil War, American; Maroonage in the Americas; Négritude; Role of Slaves in Abolition in Latin America and the Caribbean; Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean; Spanish-American War, African Americans in the.

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Subjects: History

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