From firstname.lastname@example.org Thu Mar 8 20:05:11 2001
From: Art McGee <email@example.com>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society
List-Description: Black Radical Congress - General News Articles/Reports
Date: Thu, 8 Mar 2001 19:31:16 -0500 (EST)
Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society
By Wayne S. Smith, Center for International Policy,
On September 16-17, 1999, the Center for International
Policy, the Cuba Exchange Program of the Johns Hopkins
University and Havana's Fundacion Fernando Ortiz jointly
hosted a conference in Washington, D.C. entitled
"Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, Present and Future."
Conference participants were in agreement on a number of
1.) Although Afro-Cubans had made up the bulk of the
Liberation Army's struggle for independence, the more
egalitarian society promised by Jose Marti was not realized.
Their efforts to participate fully in the political process
were cut short by the massacre of 1912.
2.) Although the Cuban Revolution had, after 1959, done much
to reduce racial discrimination and bring about a more just
society, as of 1999, much remains to be done. Indeed,
because of the present economic crisis, racism is on the
rise in Cuba and blacks are disadvantaged in a number of
3.) The Cuban government needs to do much more to address
the problem. Perhaps the best way to begin would be to
openly acknowledge its existence and initiate a national
dialogue as to how best to solve it.
4.) The Afro-Cuban majority would not accept the return of
the white economic elites to rule the country. That option
cannot even be on the table.
5.) Santeria has profound roots in the Afro-Cuban
experience. This merits respect and understanding not
rejection and isolation. Dialogue with the Catholic
hierarchy would be of great importance as most practitioners
of Santeria are baptized Catholics.
The Past: 1886-1959
Like their brothers and sisters in the United States, blacks
were brought to Cuba from Africa as slaves. For almost four
centuries, they struggled to survive, to be free and to hold
to their cultural and ethnical heritage. Santeria and other
African-derived religions were key forces. They enabled the
blacks to maintain a certain cultural and social cohesion
during the years of slavery despite the deliberate efforts
of the slaveowners to scatter families and ethinc groups and
to erase their ethnic traditions.
In his presentation, Pedro Pablo Rodriguez reminded the
audience that especially into the nineteenth century, not
all blacks were slaves. On the contrary, an increasing
number were freemen and they strove mightily to raise not
only their own station in life but also the possibilities
for their race. There were setbacks to be sure, most notably
the massacres of Aponte in 1812 and La Escalera in 1844.
Still, over the century, free blacks helped prepare the way.
Perhaps the most important was Antonio Maceo, who played a
fundamental role in mobilizing Afro-Cubans against slavery
and Spanish colonialism. Emancipation came in 1886 as an
outgrowth of the wars of independence. Jose Marti's call for
a society in which there would be no blacks or whites but
simply Cubans kindled hopes for a truly egalitarian society.
Blacks flocked to Maceo's and Marti's banners during the
last war of independence, 1895-98, and made up the bulk of
the Army of Liberation. After independence, in the 1900s,
many of them formed a Colored Independence Party (Partido
Independiente de Color) and took other steps to participate
in the political process as equals. But tragically, Marti
had been killed in the first battle of the war. And as Aline
Helg pointed out, his thesis that all were simply Cubans was
often used by white leaders who followed him to marginalize
the issue of race, or even to suggest that the problem did
not exist, and take no measures to address it.
Meanwhile, whites tended to see efforts by blacks to
participate in the political process as unwanted and
dangerous. There was ominous talk of a coming black
rebellion. This building white resentment and reaction led
to the massacre of 1912, when the Cuban army slaughtered
thousands of blacks, especially in Oriente province,
supposedly to put down a rebellion. It was a traumatic blow.
Although there were some advances in the years after 1912,
blacks remained second-class citizens until the triumph of
the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Robin Moore traced the evolution of Afro-Cuban music as a
reflection of the acceptance (or rejection) of Afro-Cubans
by the society around them. During most of the nineteenth
century and certainly in the centuries before, i.e., in the
heyday of slavery, Afro-Cuban music was virtually banned.
Carnivals were wholly segregated until emancipation and the
Afro-Cuban musical groups, the comparsas, were not allowed
to participate. With the participation of so many blacks in
the struggle for national independence, the turn of the
century saw some openings. Blacks were ostensibly accepted
as citizens, but at the same time there were calls for the
suppression of "atavistic art forms." Technically, comparsas
were not banned from the carnival celebrations, but more
often than not they were prevented, in one way or another,
from participating. Not until the 1940s did the barriers
begin truly to come down. From that point forward,
Afro-Cuban music in comparsas and general flourished. Given
its tremendous popularity today -- in Cuba and throughout
the world -- it is difficult to remember that it was once
banned in Cuba. What was once banned is now Cuba's pride and
glory. Music fans all over the world can be happy that
The Present: 1959 Until Today
The Cuban Revolution, which triumphed on January 1, 1959,
promised to end discrimination and provide equal
opportunities for blacks. Without question, tremendous
strides were made. Blacks were indeed given equal access to
education through the postgraduate level. Discrimination in
the workplace was greatly reduced. However, as Tato Qui ones
pointed out, official policy was one thing, what happened
was another. Some managers and officials simply didn't agree
that blacks should be treated equally and their personal
prejudices led them to give preference to whites.
Nor were blacks proportionately represented in the
government. They still are not. At first this could be
explained as a matter of cultural or educational lag. Forty
years after the triumph of the revolution, however, that
explanation has worn thin.
Still, by the end of the eighties blacks had made
significant gains. An increasing percentage had become
professionals, rising to the top in the military and winning
great prestige in sports, the arts, music, dance, the
cinema, and poetry. Santeria, while at first treated as a
folkloric expression by the Cuban government, had come to be
fully accepted as a religion. The way seemed open for new
gains in the years that were to follow. Though
underrepresented in the senior organs of the
party-state-government triad, blacks had grounds for
optimism that progress could be made there as well.
Certainly, Rigoberto Lopez emphasized, Afro-Cubans always
felt that the goals of the revolution were their goals as
well: equality and social justice for all.
But economic crises do not usually bring out the best in
people and the current Cuban crisis is no exception. The
resulting competition for jobs, dollars and status since
1991 has resulted in something of a resurgence of racism,
and led to increased disparities. For example, because they
benefited from the revolution, few blacks went into exile.
Yet, the largest source of hard currency is family
remittances from the exiles in the United States. As there
are few blacks among them, very little of that money comes
to Afro-Cubans on the island. And today, one's economic
status depends largely on access to dollars. In this and in
many other ways, blacks face new disadvantages.
Still, as Ana Cairo pointed out, the problems of racism,
discrimination and racial inequalities were all inherited by
the revolution. It didn't invent them. The revolution hasn't
been able to solve them, but it has made a creditable
effort. And she agreed with Rigoberto Lopez that Afro-Cubans
tend to see the revolution's goals as their own. The most
basic was to bring social justice to the poor and
downtrodden. Whether they were black or white did not
matter. She noted too that the U.S. had not played a helpful
role. Racist attitudes in Cuba had been given new strength
during the U.S. occupations -- 1898-1902 and 1906-08. The
forty-year-old U.S. embargo had also been harmful to blacks
perhaps more than whites -- since it did most harm to the
more vulnerable elements of Cuban society.
Rigoberto Lopez agreed and noted that one could not
understand anything about the past forty years in Cuba
without factoring in the all-pervasive U.S. embargo. It had
made progress difficult on many fronts. It still does.
Further, all agreed that the last thing Afro-Cubans wanted
to see was the return of the white elitist exiles thinking
they were going to turn the clock back and rule over the
island as they had before the revolution. That was totally
Interestingly, panelists representing Afro-Cubans living
abroad emphasized their continuing identification with the
community still on the island. They still feel themselves to
be a part of it and consider the goals and problems of
Afro-Cubans on the island to be theirs. They are dedicated
to the cause of racial as well as social justice -- in the
diaspora and back home.
In sum, all panelists were in agreement that while progress
has been made under the revolution, much more remains to be
done. Meanwhile, there are worrisome signs that racism and
discrimination may again be on the rise in Cuba, even though
The Role of Santeria
Santeria, as Lazara Menendez noted, is so deeply woven into
Cuban culture as to be a part of Cuban identity, i.e., what
it means to be Cuban. One can hardly imagine Cuban music,
literature, or even thought patterns without the influence
of Santeria. Further, it is the most numerous and most
powerful religion in Cuba and is growing rapidly. This is
not simply because there is an Afro-Cuban majority. On the
contrary, many whites as well practice Santeria.
Santeria is a syncretic religion. When the enslaved blacks
were first brought in from Africa, they were forbidden from
worshipping their traditional gods. Instead, they had to
adopt the Catholic faith. They did, but with an imaginative
wrinkle. They simply fused the one with the other. Thus,
Chango became Santa Barbara, Eleggua became St. Anthony, St.
Lazarus was Babalu Aye, etc. They saw no inherent
contradiction between the two belief systems and still do
not. Most santeros are baptized Catholics. Santeria simply
adds another but profoundly important dimension. As Miguel
Barnet pointed out, its importance as a means of
communication cannot be exaggerated. In many ways it
represents a sociological key to Cuban society.
This is in some ways surprising, given that, as Eugenio
Matibag noted, Santeria is not really an organized church;
rather, it represents a system of beliefs and of individual
worship within that system, guided perhaps by a local
babalao. But there is no hierarchy -- no system as in the
Catholic Church of bishops responsible to a cardinal and all
responsible to the pope as the head of the church. Despite
that, Santeria has, over the centuries, been a powerful
Natalia Bolivar pointed out that while initially shunned by
whites, Santeria had come to permeate the whole society.
Presidents Mario Menocal, Carlos Prio Socarras and Fulgencio
Batista, for example, had all been santeros and it had been
Batista, in the forties, who brought down most of the
remaining restrictions on the practice of Santeria and on
the participation of comparsas in carnival. And then came
the revolution. Given its ideological position with respect
to religions, the socialist government had at first been
somewhat restrictive toward Santeria. But that has now been
overcome. The spiritualism of the Cuban people endured and
the government now allows the practice of Santeria as well
as other faiths.
Unfortunately, all panelists noted, that openness toward the
practice of Santeria is not evident in the Catholic Church.
Santeros had looked forward enthusiastically to the pope's
visit in January, 1998. Most, after all, are baptized
Catholics. They had expected his visit to be an expression
of brotherhood and that it would mark the beginning of a new
spirit of cooperation among all religions. They had been
stunned when Cardinal Jaime Ortega, in his televised address
to the nation before the visit, had condemned syncretic
religions described by him as "simply folkloric rites."
There was no question as to whom he referred. And then,
although the pope had received representatives of all other
religions on the island, including Dr. Jose Miller, the
president of the small Jewish community (only some 1,500
strong), he had shunned any contact with representatives of
the Santeria faith. This had been deeply resented by
Afro-Cubans in general and most especially by santeros. It
had exacerbated a sense of exclusion and separation. Many
who had planned to attend the mass in Havana that was the
centerpiece of the pope's visit boycotted it instead. Nor
have the divisions and resentments been healed. On the
contrary, the cardinal continues to deny the importance and
authenticity of Santeria. As one panelist put it, "It is as
though he does not wish to share with us any of the greater
space for the practice of religion."
In the final analysis, panelists agreed, this growing
estrangement and resentment between the Catholic Church and
Santeria is likely to hurt the church more. What the
hierarchy of the church doesn't seem to realize, but the
parish priests do, is that 80 percent of the people in the
masses on Sunday are santeros. If they stopped going, there
wouldn't be much church left.
Panelists noted that relations with the Protestant churches
tend to be good. And they expressed hope for reconciliation
with the Catholic hierarchy -- once the latter had
"reflected further on the issue."
Gisela Arandia and Graciella Chailloux joined in
acknowledging the long way yet to go to attain racial
equality. There was no shame in acknowledging this. No other
country has succeeded in solving the problem either. Cuba
has made a better effort than most, and, both agreed, may
now be in position to undertake a more comprehensive
solution. The National Assembly, the universities, and other
institutions are even now considering new steps. One measure
being considered, for example, is the inclusion of
Afro-Cuban studies in the regular curriculum of Cuban
primary and secondary schools -- a step which would
emphasize the important role played by Afro-Cubans in Cuban
history and society.
Chailloux concluded that the atmosphere now favors positive
change and that Cuba's intellectuals are capable of moving
toward definitive solutions. A society without
discrimination and in which all can live together
harmoniously -- a society in which the cultural heritage of
all is respected -- is attainable. The most important thing
is that an honest dialogue begin.
Carlos Moore took strong exception to the optimistic views
of the previous two speakers. Cuba is not a multicultural
country, he maintained; rather there were two distinct
cultures in Cuba -- African and Spanish -- which have been
and still are in conflict with one another. Discrimination
and racism of course persist. He did not believe the
revolution had made a serious effort to get rid of them, and
Afro-Cubans clearly remain disadvantaged. Still, there is a
growing consciousness among Afro-Cubans of who they are,
despite forty years of having the whole issue of race
downplayed. They have held to their cultural and ethnic
roots. And they are now the majority. Justice must be done.
A new, more equitable socio-political model must be
developed. Moore believes there are five possible options.
The first was to maintain the current status quo, i.e. a
white-led communist state. But that would not be acceptable
to the majority and would not work for long anyway.
The second was a return to the status quo ante, i.e., a
white-led capitalist model. That, as earlier speakers had
made clear, was totally unacceptable.
There was also the possibility of partition, i.e. the island
divided between a white and black Cuba. That had been
suggested in the past and could not be discarded as a
possible option even now, despite all the difficulties it
The fourth option was black-majority rule.
And, finally, there was the possibility of condominial rule,
i.e., of power shared equally between blacks and whites.
Moore left it to the audience to consider which option might
be the most suitable. Despite his earlier criticisms of the
government for the way it has handled the racial issue,
Moore concluded by saying that he credited the revolution
with bringing about the conditions in which the issue can
now be discussed and, hopefully, solved. He agreed with
Chailloux and Arandia that the most important thing is that
the problem be openly acknowledged and that a national
Moore's remarks sparked a heated three-hour discussion that
made it clear that the overwhelming majority rejected
partition and most of the other options. By inference, the
only one that seemed feasible was condominial rule. They
also felt strongly that there were not two altogether
distinct, warring cultures that could never be joined;
rather, Cuba was developing a distinct identity which was a
blend of African, Spanish and various other cultures. It was
toward this vision that Cuba should be moving.
By Pablo Armando Fernandez
"At times, still, I ask myself: what is Cuba? What is it to
be Cuban? The answer, I believe, is that it is to have
participated in a history without parallel in our
hemisphere. A history that has forged us into what we are. A
history of continued struggle to make of Cuba a fully
independent, free and sovereign nation. It is a struggle
shared by the sons and daughters of the conquistadores and
the colonizers. I think of Flor Crombet and of Quintin
Banderas organizing the descendants of Galicians, Asturians,
Catalonians and Basques to wage war against the Spanish
crown that was to them the motherland.
"It is good that this dialogue among Cubans has begun. It is
especially moving that it takes place here, in the United
States, where the struggle for respect and justice waged by
the sons and daughters of the forced exodus from Africa has
been and is so intense.
"As I look out over the sea of faces before me, I envision
Atlantis, with Cuba as its great altar -- an altar, a garden
where all the imaginable colors make of the flowers an
unforgettable diadem, perennial in its light, in its
essence, in its fruits, its seed. Seeing it, my spirit opens
and I understand more deeply what it is to be Cuban.
"Spain gave us our language and helped shape our character;
Africa gave us her poetry, her magic, and myths in which
song and dance are a ritual of the soul. I attribute to the
African in all of us the tender familiarity and affection
among us. Color is simply an adornment, a garment like that
of the flower, nothing more, and as with the flower, the
essence is the memory -- a memory that commits us to the
clean, harmonious, and deep integration that is found in our
arts: music, dance, poetry, sculpting and painting. And here
our Asiatic component is strongly felt -- in the Chinese
trumpet that enlivens our feast days, and in the works of
one of our most illustrious elders: the painter Wilfredo
"And we should not forget the aborigines. They too were part
of the struggle. They rekindle the spirit of that which for
three centuries has been a memory dominating our landscape,
and which in certain regions of the country is scarcely
preserved in what was for Araucans our daily bread.
"...We are the flower, the garden; we recapture the spirit
of Atlantis. Seeing you all here, my spirit soars. We are
custodians of the great altar."
Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, Present and Future
September 16-17, 1999
Organized by the Center for International Policy,
the Cuba Exchange Program of the Johns Hopkins University,
the Latin American Studies Program of the Johns Hopkins
School of Advanced International Studies and
the Fundaci n Fernando Ortiz in Havana
With the cooperation of TransAfrica Forum and the participation of
members of the Congressional Black Caucus
In the Kenney Auditorium of the School of Advanced International Studies,
Johns Hopkins University
1740 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
September 16, 1999
Coffee and registration
Wayne S. Smith, Center for International Policy and Johns
Hopkins University, conference organizer
Congressman Charles B. Rangel (D-NY)
Session I - The Past: From the Ten Years' War to 1959
Moderator: Jean Stubbs, University of North London,
co-editor (with Pedro Perez Sarduy) of AfroCuba: An
Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics, and Culture
Aline Helg, University of Texas, author of Our Rightful
Share: The AfroCuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912
Robin Moore, Temple University, author of Nationalizing
Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Cuba,
Pedro Pablo Rodriguez, Centro de Estudios Martianos, editor
of Las Obras Completas de Jose Marti
11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Session II - The Present: 1959 Until Today, on the Island
Moderator: Selena Mendy Singleton, TransAfrica Forum
Ana Cairo, University of Havana Rigoberto Lopez, filmmaker,
ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute)
Serafin (Tato) Quinones, Union of Cuban Writers and Artists
(UNEAC), author of A Pie de Obra
Session III - The Present, in the Diaspora
Eduardo Barada, Habana Village, Washington, DC
Alberto Jones, The Caribbean Children's Fund, Palm Coast, FL
Perdo Perez Sarduy, Marti-Maceo Cultural Society, London,
author of Cumbite and Other Poems
September 17, 1999
Session IV - The Importance of Santeria
Moderator: Serafin (Tato) Quinones
Miguel Barnet, Fundaci n Fernando Ortiz, author of Akeke y
Lazara Menendez, University of Havana, author of Estudios
Natalia Bolivar Ar stegui, Cuban National Museum of Fine
Arts, author of Los Orishas en Cuba
Eugenio Matibag, Iowa State University, author of Afro-Cuban
Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative
10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Session V - The Future
Moderator: Enrique Sosa, University of Havana, author of Los
Graciela Chailloux, Casa de Altos Estudios Don Fernando Ortiz
Gisela Arandia, Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC)
Carlos Moore, University of the West Indies at St.
Augustine, Trinidad, author of Castro, the Blacks in Africa
Pablo Armando Fernandez, Union of Cuban Writers and Artists
(UNEAC), author of The Belly of the Fish
A video of the conference's final panel is available for
$45.00. Additionally, papers by Graciela Chailloux, Tato
Quinones, Natalia Bolivar and Gisela Arandia are available
for $4.00 apiece.
For more information contact: Kimberly Waldner at
202-232-3317 or write to:
1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C., 20036
Copyright (c) 1999-2001 Center for International Policy. All
Any material herein may be quoted without permission, with
credit to the Center for International Policy. The Center is
a nonprofit educational and research organization focusing
on U.S. policy toward the developing world and its impact on
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