in Cuban Society
September 16-17, 1999, the Center for International Policy, the Cuba
Exchange Program of the Johns Hopkins University and Havanas Fundacion
Fernando Ortiz jointly hosted a conference in Washington, D.C. entitled
"Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, Present and Future."
participants were in agreement on a number of points:
Afro-Cubans had made up the bulk of the Liberation Armys 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.
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 ways.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Martis 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 Maceos and
Martis 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.
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.
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 Cubas pride and glory. Music
fans all over the world can be happy that Afro-Cubans persevered!
Present: 1959 Until Today
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 Quiñones pointed out, official policy
was one thing, what happened was another. Some managers and officials
simply didnt agree that blacks should be treated equally and their
personal prejudices led them to give preference to whites.
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.
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
Rigoberto Lopez emphasized, Afro-Cubans always felt that the goals of
the revolution were their goals as well: equality and social justice
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, ones economic status
depends largely on access to dollars. In this and in many other ways,
blacks face new disadvantages.
as Ana Cairo pointed out, the problems of racism, discrimination and
racial inequalities were all inherited by the revolution. It didnt
invent them. The revolution hasnt 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 revolutions 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.
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 unacceptable.
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
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 officially condemned.
Role of 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.
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.
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 unifying force.
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
all panelists noted, that openness toward the practice of Santeria is
not evident in the Catholic Church. Santeros had looked forward
enthusiastically to the popes 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 some1,500 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 popes 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."
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 doesnt 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 wouldnt
be much church left.
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."
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.
concluded that the atmosphere now favors positive change and that Cubas
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
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.
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.
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 would create.
option was black-majority rule.
there was the possibility of condominial rule, i.e., of power shared
equally between blacks and whites.
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 dialogue begin.
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.
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.
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.
I look out over the sea of faces before me, I envision Atlantis, with
Cuba as its great altaran 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.
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 Lam.
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.
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."
in Cuban Society: Past, Present and Future
Center for International Policy,
Cuba Exchange Program of the Johns Hopkins University,
Latin American Studies Program of the Johns Hopkins
of Advanced International Studies and
Fundación Fernando Ortiz in Havana
the cooperation of
Forum and the participation of
of the Congressional Black Caucus
the Kenney Auditorium of the
of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Coffee and registration
Wayne S. Smith, Center for International Policy and Johns Hopkins
University, conference organizer
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
University of Texas, author of Our Rightful Share: The AfroCuban
Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912
Temple University, author of Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo
and Artistic Revolution in Cuba, 1920-1940
Rodriguez, Centro de Estudios Martianos, editor of Las Obras Completas
de José Martí
Session II- The Present: 1959 Until Today, on the Island
Moderator: Selena Mendy Singleton, TransAfrica Forum
University of Havana Rigoberto Lopez, filmmaker, ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute)
(Tato) Quiñones, 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
Jones, The Caribbean Childrens Fund, Palm Coast, FL
Sarduy, Marti-Maceo Cultural Society, London, author of Cumbite and
Session IV- The Importance of Santeria
Moderator: Serafin (Tato) Quiñones
Barnet, Fundación Fernando Ortiz, author of Akeke y la Jutia
Menendez, University of Havana, author of Estudios Afrocubanos
Bolivar Aróstegui, Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts, author of Los
Orishas en Cuba
Matibag, Iowa State University, author of Afro-Cuban Religious Experience:
Cultural Reflections in Narrative
Session V- The Future
Moderator: Enrique Sosa, University of Havana, author of Los Ñañigos
Chailloux, Casa de Altos Estudios Don Fernando Ortiz
Arandia, Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC)
Moore, University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, Trinidad, author
of Castro, the Blacks in Africa
Fernandez, Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), author of The
Belly of the Fish
A video of the conferences 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.
information contact: Anya Landau at 202-232-3317 or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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