The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 30      August 22, 2011

The unique history of Chinese
in Cuba: from independence wars
to socialist revolution
Presentation at Guangzhou, China, conference on
150-year continuity of struggle underlying Cuba’s
proletarian revolution and its worldwide example
(feature article)

The following talk was presented by Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press, to a June 27, 2011, conference in Guangzhou, China, on the history of Chinese in Cuba.

Some 50 people attended the event, hosted by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong province and the Cuban consulate in Guangzhou, the city historically known as Canton outside China. The meeting was held at the Overseas Chinese Museum of Guangdong, which documents worldwide migration of Chinese from that province.

The other speakers were Raúl Rojas, the Cuban consul in Guangzhou, and Lin Lin, deputy director of the provincial Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. Minghui Wang, director of the Overseas Chinese Museum, welcomed participants. An article on the meeting appeared in the July 25 issue of the Militant, along with the remarks by Rojas.

Waters is the editor of Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution. The book is published in Spanish and English by Pathfinder Press and in Chinese by the Intellectual Property Publishing House in Beijing. Waters’s remarks are copyright © 2011 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

Thank you all for the opportunity to be here today. It is a pleasure and an honor.

I especially want to thank Deputy Director Lin Lin of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong province, Director Minghui Wang of the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum, and Cuban Consul Raúl Rojas, who have made this meeting possible.

It is an opportunity not only to exchange views, but for us to learn from you about another facet of the history of the 200,000 Chinese—all but a handful men—who came to Cuba between 1847, when the first shipload of indentured workers arrived, and the early 1950s. Our discussion will help all of us better understand what is unique and noteworthy about that history.  
Havana’s Chinatown transformed
Today one thing above all distinguishes Chinese in Cuba from Chinese who settled elsewhere in the world: that is the near-total absence of discrimination, or even prejudice, against Cubans of Chinese descent.

Interest in the culture and arts Chinese immigrants brought with them to Cuba, and pride in this rich history, are increasing across the island. At the same time, Havana’s Barrio Chino—its world-famous Chinatown, once the largest in Latin America—bears little resemblance to its former self. Outside Cuba it is not unusual to hear people lament this as a “great loss.” But these changes are rooted in the progress of Cuban working people over the last half century made possible by the socialist revolution that tens of thousands of Cubans have given their lives for.

If Havana’s Chinatown has been transformed, it is because there is no longer any pressure for Chinese Cubans to live crowded into a restricted district. There is no need for the safety of concentrated numbers in face of repeated acts of violence, discrimination, and racism. There are no longer occupations that are typically “Chinese,” whether as shopkeepers and peddlers or working in laundries and restaurants. Cubans of Chinese descent are found throughout Cuban society today, in all occupations, and at all levels of responsibility. These include the Central Committee and Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party, the highest ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the leadership of the mass organizations of farmers, workers, women, artists, students, and beyond.

These are conquests to celebrate, not mourn, as the unique history and proud mestizo culture of the Cuban nationality continue to be enriched. On the streets of Cuba it is not unusual to be told that the nation itself was forged in battle from three intertwined roots—one African, one Chinese, one European. The Chinese heritage can be seen everywhere, in faces of every hue.

General Moisés Sío Wong, until his recent death the president of the Cuba-China Friendship Association, was the Cuban-born son of parents who came from Zengcheng—then a small village—a few miles from where we are sitting today. He often joked that if he were a T-shirt, the label on his neck would say, “Made of Chinese raw material, manufactured in Cuba.”  
Cuba’s revolutionary continuity
The unique experience and trajectory of Chinese in Cuba is born of the 150-year continuity of revolutionary struggles in which Chinese Cubans shouldered weighty responsibilities from the start—interlinked struggles for independence, sovereignty, human dignity, the abolition of slavery and indentured labor of every form, and an end to all social relations built on the exploitation of one human being by another.

As most of you are aware, the largest single wave of Chinese migration to Cuba took place during the quarter century between 1847 and 1874. It became notorious the world over as the “coolie trade.” Shipping records here in China indicate that more than 140,000 Chinese set sail for Cuba during those years, the large majority from Guangdong province, with a much smaller number from Fujian. They belonged to the first of the great waves of global labor migration that have marked the entire capitalist era.

Cuba was then the world’s largest sugar producer. The decision by landowners and the Spanish colonial regime to bring tens of thousands of Chinese indentured laborers to the island was driven by three factors.

1) The eagerness of the landlords and mill owners to mechanize the refining process and expand production to take advantage of the growing consumption of sugar in Europe and America. Between 1850 and 1868, Cuban sugar production tripled.

2) Fear of what property owners saw as a dangerously large number and concentration of African slaves on sugar plantations across the island. The specter of “another Haiti” haunted them.

3) The opportunity to drive down labor costs.

Between 1830 and 1855 the price of an adult male slave in Cuba roughly tripled, from 300-400 pesos to 1,000 or more. This was largely due to the increasing costs—from payoffs to faster sailing ships—of circumventing international treaties banning the slave trade.

The contract for an indentured worker from China, on the other hand, cost the owner less than 400 pesos on average, with another 384 pesos in wages spread out over eight years.

Cuban historian Juan Pérez de la Riva estimates that after 1865, as much as 75 percent of the annual labor shortage in the sugarcane fields was covered by Chinese indentured workers. The toll in human lives was enormous. During the quarter century of the coolie trade, some 16,000 died before even reaching the shores of Cuba. The best estimates indicate that between 50 and 55 percent of the Chinese laborers who landed did not live to complete the eight years of their “contract.”

The infamous conditions of servitude they faced are well documented, including by the 1874 commission sent by the Chinese imperial government to record the testimony of the Chinese laborers themselves.

What I want to emphasize here, however, is not the horrors of the coolie trade. Others have done that justice. The important history lies in what is usually ignored: the proud record of struggle and resistance to exploitation by the Chinese in Cuba, the actions through which they asserted their human dignity and worth.  
Wars of independence
Two decades after the first shiploads arrived, Chinese plantation workers massively joined in the first war of independence against Spain. In 1868 Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, revered as the father of the Cuban nation, freed his slaves and welcomed them into the ranks of the newly formed liberation army. From that moment, the struggle to throw off colonial domination was inextricably intertwined with the battle to abolish not only slavery but all forms of indentured servitude.

A registry of the Chinese population made by the Spanish colonial regime in 1872, four years after the war began, showed that some 20 percent of Chinese indentured laborers had fled the plantations to which they were bound. Thousands of these “fugitives” joined the mambises, as the combatants of the liberation army were called. Accounts of numerous battles cite the participation of hundreds of Chinese combatants. By 1874, it is estimated that some 2,000 of the 7,000 regular forces of the liberation army were Chinese, with a similar number in the rear.

Organized in their own units of the revolutionary army, they were among the fiercest and most courageous of the fighters—and the best spies behind enemy lines.

One famous battle in the first independence war has gone down in history as “the Chinese attack.” In 1873, under the command of Antonio Maceo, a carefully selected unit that included many Chinese infiltrated the city of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba, with orders to attack the Spanish garrison. Not only did the Chinese mambises fight with exemplary courage and tenacity. They were the ones who led the infiltration of the city, breaching the defense lines the Chinese themselves had been forced by the Spanish colonial regime to build. No map was needed. They knew those fortifications like the back of their hand.

The famous words of independence leader General Gonzalo de Quesada are carved on the monument erected in 1946 that stands in the center of Havana today honoring these Chinese mambí forces: “There was not one Chinese-Cuban traitor, there was not one Chinese-Cuban deserter.” This was referred to earlier today by our host, Deputy Director Lin Lin, who noted it is part of the proud history of Guangdong province.  
Slavery, bonded labor abolished
In 1871 the Spanish government suspended further introduction of Chinese contract labor into Cuba. The reason was not humanitarian concern over the virtual enslavement the Chinese faced. The Spanish crown was seeking to stanch the flow of reinforcements to the liberation army. The revolutionary struggle of these toilers themselves decided their future.

When Cuba’s first war of independence ended without victory in 1878, one concession wrung from the colonial power was written into the infamous Zanjón Pact: a provision granting “freedom for slaves and Asian contract laborers today in the ranks of the insurrectional forces.”

It was a recognition of reality. These men and women had conquered their freedom. They would never go back.

The two Chinese Cubans best known for their outstanding record in the independence struggle were Lieutenant Colonel José Bu Tack and Captain José Tolón (Lai Wa). Fighting in all three liberation wars, both bore Cuban arms for more than ten years, thus earning the right, inscribed in the constitution of 1901, to be eligible to serve as president of the newly independent country. That honor was granted to only two other combatants born outside Cuba, Generals Máximo Gómez, a Dominican by birth, and Carlos Roloff, born in Poland.  
Gold Rush and railroads
The second major wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba came by way of the United States.

In the quarter century between 1848 and 1873, the number of Chinese who immigrated to the United States was roughly equivalent to those who set out for Cuba. They were first drawn by the 1848 discovery of gold in the mountains on the Pacific coast of the North American continent. Their numbers were then augmented by contract laborers brought to build the most difficult sections of the new transcontinental railroad through the high mountain reaches.

By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the illusion that the Gold Rush would bring instant wealth to many was largely exhausted. The epic feat of railroad building that foreshadowed the rise of the United States as a Pacific power was completed in 1869. With the financial crisis of 1873, anti-Chinese discrimination and violence accelerated and anti-Asian exclusion laws were being put forward in more states. Increasingly virulent racism, directed against Blacks above all, was inseparable from the ongoing bloody post-Civil War counterrevolution against Radical Reconstruction. This racism was a foundation of rising finance capital, as U.S. imperialism emerged on a world scale.  
Class differentiation
In response to these changing economic and social conditions, between 1865 and 1875 some 5,000 Chinese left the United States for Cuba, most of them traveling through Mexico or departing from the port of New Orleans. The californianos, as they were known in Cuba, were mostly from a different class than the peasants, rural laborers, and urban workers who made up the vast majority of the indentured workforce in the cane fields. These “Californians” originated primarily from Guangdong province also, but they were largely traders and merchants, some with access to substantial capital in China, Hong Kong, and the United States. With their arrival, Havana’s Barrio Chino began to be transformed into a center of trade, commerce, and banking that rapidly became second in the Americas only to San Francisco’s Chinatown. The first Chinese association in Cuba, the Kit Yi Tong, was founded in 1867.

Class differentiation among Chinese in Cuba accelerated rapidly. The californianos organized former indentured compatriots into work gangs, called cuadrillas, which they contracted out as agricultural laborers, stevedores, construction workers, or whatever was demanded. By the end of the 1880s, wealthy Chinese were investing capital in sugar. Two mills in Las Villas, one in Sagua la Grande and another in Santo Domingo, were soon Chinese-owned. The 1899 census records forty-two Chinese plantation owners.

According to official figures, the Chinese population in Cuba peaked in 1869 at just under 60,000. With the 1871 cutoff of new contract labor, and the deadly toll taken by war, famine, disease, and Spanish repression during Cuba’s thirty-year independence struggle, that number had fallen to 15,000 by the end of the century.  
U.S. imperial dominance in Cuba
The third substantial wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba came with the U.S. government’s entry into World War I and Washington’s war-driven need to expand sugar production.

When Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1898, the fruits of that victory were snatched by the rising imperialist colossus to the north. Washington’s military occupation of the island, and the establishment of a protectorate in all but name, accompanied the voracious acquisition of virtually all capital assets in Cuba by America’s Sixty Families.

With this U.S. domination came stepped-up anti-Chinese discrimination as well.

One of the decrees of the U.S. military forces during their first occupation of Cuba was Order No. 155, issued May 15, 1902. Modeled on Washington’s 1882 exclusion act that applied to the entire United States, it banned all Chinese immigration to Cuba. As in the United States, the ban remained in effect until World War II, when a change was dictated by the diplomatic needs of the allied imperialist powers to seal an anti-Japanese accord with the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

In Cuba, however, the ban was set aside for five years in 1917, when Washington entered the interimperialist war among the European powers, joining the alliance against Germany. An expanded labor force to increase wartime sugar production came first, and that’s what the U.S. rulers organized.

By 1931 the Chinese population of Cuba had once again grown substantially, reaching nearly 25,000. The greatest flowering of Chinese arts and culture occurred during these interwar years. Music, theater, Cantonese opera, martial arts, Chinese-language newspapers—and the lion dance—all were part of life in Havana and across the island.  
Fighting Machado dictatorship
These were also the years of world capitalism’s greatest economic crisis in the twentieth century, marked in Cuba by the second great wave of revolutionary struggle and the fall in 1933 of the dictatorship of General Gerardo Machado. The revolutionary upsurge in Cuba was not an isolated phenomenon. Among tumultuous struggles by working people elsewhere around the world, it coincided with the deepening revolutionary movement here in China against Japanese imperialism’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria, as well as sharpening class battles between workers and peasants and the bourgeois dictatorship of the Chiang Kai-shek-led Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. Revolutionary-minded Chinese in Cuba saw all these as part of the same worldwide struggle.

The outstanding Chinese-Cuban leader of the popular revolutionary struggles against the Machado dictatorship was José Wong (Huang Taobai). Born in Guangzhou in 1898, he arrived in Cuba in the early 1920s, already a product of the revolutionary democratic struggles that in 1911 put an end to millennia of imperial rule in China. Together with Julio Antonio Mella, José Wong founded the Cuban Anti-Imperialist League in 1925, and soon joined the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba. In 1927 he helped establish the Revolutionary Alliance for the Protection of Chinese Workers and Peasants in Cuba, founded on a platform of opposition to the dictatorships of both Machado and Chiang Kai-shek, and became the first editor of its paper, the Gunnun Hushen [Workers and Peasants Voice].

Arrested in 1930 by the dictatorship, Wong was assassinated on Machado’s orders, strangled to death in a cell at Havana’s infamous Castillo del Príncipe prison.

The 1930s also registered the high point of the Barrio Chino as a center of commerce and capitalist organization. A 1932 study carried out by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce recorded nearly 4,000 Chinese-owned businesses in Cuba, from laundries to groceries, bakeries, restaurants, hotels, fruit stands, and vegetable gardens, just to mention the most numerous.  
Three Chinese-Cuban generals
The 1952 military coup of Fulgencio Batista was followed quickly by the opening of the third great wave of revolutionary struggle in Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro. By then the class divide among Chinese Cubans was greater than ever.

These class divisions were demonstratively expressed in March 1957 when many prominent Chinese businessmen in Havana personally went to the presidential palace to cravenly express to Batista their relief that he had survived an assassination attempt organized by José Antonio Echeverría and other revolutionary-minded students, most of whom were killed during the attack or hunted down and murdered in the following days.

Meanwhile, young Chinese-Cuban combatants exemplified by Moisés Sío Wong, Armando Choy, and Gustavo Chui—whose stories are told in the interviews published as Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution—were already deeply involved in the mass popular struggle that less than two years later brought down the U.S.-backed tyranny and opened the road to proletarian revolution in the Americas.

Theirs is the story of three very different individuals—three different personalities, with different family backgrounds, from three different regions of Cuba. Each of them belongs to the generation of Cubans who simply refused to submit to the indignities and brutalities of the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. As other roads of struggle were closed to them, they took up arms to put an end to that dictatorship. As teenagers, each joined the clandestine July 26 Movement in the cities and then the Rebel Army units fighting in eastern and central Cuba.

More than 20,000 Cubans gave their lives in that struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, and thousands more have done so in the battles of the last fifty years to defend Cuba’s independence and sovereignty and extend the hand of proletarian solidarity to anti-imperialist forces around the world.

The three Chinese Cubans whose story is told in Our History Is Still Being Written all rose to be leaders of that revolutionary struggle and generals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. Each has a long history of responsibilities shouldered, nationally and internationally, at the highest levels of the Cuban government.  
Uncompromising popular measures
Like many others of their generation, they didn’t set out to make a socialist revolution. With Batista out of the way, they took the steps necessary to meet the immediate needs of the toiling millions of Cuba, and followed that course without wavering.

Working people and their new revolutionary government carried out a land reform. They organized a hundred thousand young people in a drive that in one year wiped out illiteracy. They made discrimination against Cubans who were black or Chinese illegal—in employment, education, and all public activities—and enforced it. They opened the door to women’s participation in society. They made access to education and health care a right, available to all. When factory owners attempted sabotage, they kept production going and took control over the organization of work. By their deeds, they made clear their readiness to fight alongside others confronting imperialist domination and dictatorial regimes throughout Latin America and elsewhere around the world.

It was these uncompromising, popular steps that precipitated a head-on confrontation, not only with Cuba’s small capitalist class, but above all with the U.S. imperialist ruling-class families who owned or controlled the overwhelming majority of productive property in Cuba in the 1950s. Ninety percent of the cultivated land, 90 percent of the mineral wealth, 80 percent of the utilities, two-thirds of the oil production and refineries, and more than 40 percent of the sugar production.

As the U.S. property owners’ determination to overturn the new government intensified, the Cuban people refused to back down from this revolutionary course. They held their ground, despite sabotage, invasion, assassination attempts, embargo, and blockade. Each step by imperialism and their Cuban allies was not only rebuffed, but met with a counterstep by the Cuban people. That is the origin of Washington’s implacable hostility to the toilers of Cuba and their government. That remains the reason for it to this day. Nothing will satisfy the U.S. rulers short of crushing Cuba’s example—for the people of Latin America especially, but for others throughout the world as well.

This is why five Cuban revolutionaries are now behind bars in the United States, having spent nearly thirteen years in U.S. federal prisons. They are being held hostage—to punish the Cuban people for refusing to abandon their popular proletarian course, for refusing to adopt whatever “democratic changes” the U.S. rulers demand.

The class struggle within the Chinese community of Cuba was no different from the struggle that unfolded among the rest of the Cuban population. With the victory of the Cuban Revolution, domination of the Chinese associations and organizations by the wealthiest capitalist families was broken. Their ties with organized crime syndicates, gambling, drugs, and prostitution rings were shattered. The Kuomintang political machine was unseated. For the first time, the flag of the People’s Republic of China flew alongside the flag of Cuba in the streets of Havana. In September 1960, Cuba became the first country in Latin America to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

None of this came from outside the Chinese community. It came from within, from the Chinese-Cuban workers, farmers, and students who organized themselves as the José Wong Brigade of the National Revolutionary Militia, from men and women like Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong. It was Chinese Cubans who fought and won the great majority of their numbers to support Cuba’s revolutionary course and leadership.  
‘Difference is socialist revolution’
If the story of the Chinese in Cuba is still being written, one thing has been settled by the last half century of struggle. This truth has been eloquently told by General Moisés Sío Wong.

More than a decade ago, during a Havana conference focused on the history of overseas Chinese communities in Latin America, Sío Wong was asked, “How is it possible that you, a descendant of Chinese, occupy a high government post, are a deputy in the National Assembly, and a general of the Revolutionary Armed Forces?” That experience is not matched by the descendants of Chinese immigrants elsewhere around the world.

Sío Wong responded, “The answer doesn’t lie in the degree of Chinese participation in the war of independence. That is worth studying, since nothing similar happened in any other country where Chinese indentured workers were taken. But here too, before the triumph of the revolution, we Chinese were discriminated against… .

“The difference is that here a socialist revolution took place. The revolution eliminated discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin. Above all, it eliminated the property relations that create not only economic but also social inequality between rich and poor.”

And Sío Wong concluded, “To historians and others who want to study the question, I say you have to understand that the Chinese community here in Cuba is different from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, or Canada. And that difference is the triumph of a socialist revolution.”

That record of struggle, told in Our History Is Still Being Written, has been met with a deep sense of pride by Chinese youth in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world who find themselves confronting their own battles against racist discrimination in immigration, employment, and education. As each generation fights to defend its rights, they draw strength from knowledge of the battles fought by those who went before them.

The exchange we are having here today will deepen our understanding of the place of the Cuban Revolution in the proud history of the people of Guangdong. It will broaden our horizons. We thank you for that opportunity.  
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