Organized by the Nicolás Guillén Foundation, the conference commemorated two important events in Cuban history: the 200th anniversary of the 1812 pro-independence and anti-slavery rebellion led by José Antonio Aponte, a free black; and the 100th anniversary of the 1912 armed protest by the Independent Party of Color (PIC), a political party founded in 1908 mostly by veterans of Cuba’s independence wars who were of African descent.
The activities also celebrated the 110th anniversary of the birth of Nicolás Guillén, known as Cuba’s national poet. The title of the event “I came in a slave ship,” was taken from one of Guillén’s best-known poems.
The conference and related events are part of the consistent effort led by UNEAC for more than a decade to raise consciousness about the legacy of slavery in Cuba and discrimination based on skin color. Making the true history of blacks in Cuba’s revolutionary struggles more widely known is an important part of this effort.
The Spanish colonial regime and the Cuban propertied classes that followed denounced both the rebellion by Aponte and the armed protest organized by the Independent Party of Color as racist conspiracies, said Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, a historian associated with the Nicolás Guillén Foundation, in his keynote presentation at the conference. For decades afterward “the national bourgeoisie made sure they were buried in oblivion,” he said. “We have not yet given them the recognition they deserve.”
The rebellion led by Aponte was the first attempt nationwide to unite blacks, both free and slave, and Cubans of Spanish and mixed descent in the struggle for independence and the abolition of slavery. Spanish authorities and their Cuban collaborators brutally suppressed the movement claiming that Aponte was organizing “a race war” as in Haiti, Rodríguez said. Similar charges were used against the revolutionaries who won Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, a result of a massive slave revolt. Aponte and several of his closest collaborators were hanged and their severed heads displayed in a cage at one of the principal entrances to Havana.
“The Haitian revolution did have an impact on Aponte,” said Rodríguez, as it did on other independence movements in the hemisphere.
“The strategy of the colonial government was to terrorize blacks—who were mostly slaves—and whites who joined or sympathized with this cause,” said Rodríguez.
Several participants in discussions pointed out how little about the Aponte rebellion is included in Cuba’s school textbooks, and even less about the Independent Party of Color.
One of the purposes of the conference was to contribute to changing this. Participants welcomed the announcement that at the initiative of the Communist Party of Cuba an official public event was to be organized on April 9 at the site where the remains of Aponte and other fighters were so gruesomely displayed after they were hanged. Schools throughout Cuba that day also began their morning activities with presentations about Aponte and the 1812 rebellion, as did thousands of tobacco workers in their workplaces in central Havana.
Heriberto Feraudy, head of UNEAC’s Aponte Commission Against Racial Discrimination, told conference participants that one of the things Cuban students would learn about was the origin of the popular Cuban expression “you are as bad as Aponte,” and why it should be erased from their vocabulary.
Independent Party of ColorThe final day of the conference was devoted to a panel of prominent Cuban historians and others on the conditions that led to the formation of the Independent Party of Color in 1908. “The situation was much more serious than simple discontent” among former slaves and other Cubans who were black, said María del Carmen Barcia, a well-respected Cuban historian. In addition to having to compete for jobs after slavery’s abolition, Cubans of African descent were being displaced by a massive increase in immigration from Spain, said Barcia. She and the other panelists noted the contradictions between the economic and social conditions facing blacks and those of mixed descent in post-slavery, U.S. imperialist-dominated Cuba and the aspirations of equality they had fought for in the wars of independence.
The party won thousands of members and supporters nationally. The program of the Independent Party of Color advocated an end to racial discrimination, land distribution, free and compulsory education, the right to a trial by a jury that included blacks, opposition to the death penalty, an eight-hour work day, and other social demands in the interests of working people irrespective of skin color.
The Liberal Party government of José Miguel Gómez, the second president of Cuba after formal independence was gained in 1902, banned the party and arrested leaders of the PIC in 1910. Unable to function as an open legal party, the PIC organized an armed protest in May 1912, which was brutally suppressed by thousands of well-armed soldiers and paramilitary groups resulting in the massacre of more than 3,000 supporters of the PIC, mostly in eastern Cuba, the party’s stronghold.
“We must rescue this history from oblivion,” said Fernando Martínez Heredia, a noted author and essayist. “In it is engraved the struggle against racism. We must take ownership of the history of the Cuban people and their immense struggle for justice past, present and the future.”
“It’s essential that this discussion not be limited to an enlightened elite,” Martínez added, referring to the challenge of taking this knowledge and discussion to broader layers of working people in Cuba. “Popular participation cannot be turned into just another phrase. We need to facilitate it and promote interest in broader sectors.”
As part of meeting this challenge the Communist Party of Cuba in 2007 established a commission to organize the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the PIC’s founding, and more recently UNEAC set up the Aponte Commission Against Racial Discrimination.
Publishing effortsSpeaking from the floor, Zuleica Romay, president of the Cuban Book Institute, reviewed the recent policy changes that have prioritized the publication of children’s books that include more characters who are black and indigenous. Romay noted the decision to dedicate the next International Havana Book Fair to Angola. “It is the first time it has ever been dedicated to an African country. This is not by chance,” she said. “Nothing is by chance.”
During the discussion the panel moderator, Graciela Chailloux, a well-known historian, who concentrates on the history of slavery and its aftermath in the Caribbean, pointed to the revolutionary changes that took place in the United States during 1867-77 Radical Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South, and the counterrevolution that defeated the Reconstruction governments. This history must be taken into consideration when studying what happened in Cuba, she said. “The politics of Cuba and the United States are interrelated,” she noted. ”What was happening to Blacks in the U.S. South cannot be disconnected.” She urged participants to read Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes to further their understanding of this connection.
King and MalcolmOne session of the conference was devoted to a panel entitled “Racism and Antiracism.” It included presentations on Martin Luther King Jr. by Raúl Suárez, director of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, and on Malcolm X by Omari Musa, representing Pathfinder Press, the main publisher of Malcolm’s speeches.
Speaking about Malcolm X’s relevance in today’s world, Musa described the economic crisis of the capitalist system worldwide and the devastating consequences of the rulers’ assault on working people’s living standards and constitutional rights. He pointed to the incarceration and criminalization of millions in the United States, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, as a necessary component of the ruling-class assault.
Musa’s presentation highlighted Malcolm X’s political understanding that the U.S. capitalist system cannot be reformed to bring about equality for African-Americans and that the system has to be overturned. “Malcolm’s stance on the need for political independence from both capitalist parties, Democrat and Republican, distinguished him from all other leaders of the struggle for Black rights,” said Musa. Quoting from Malcolm X’s speeches, he pointed to his uncompromising internationalism: “Malcolm saw the political course he was on as part of a worldwide revolution.”
He counterposed Malcolm’s course to King’s perspective of reforming the capitalist system and his support for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Suárez, whose presentation dealt primarily with King’s religious background, spoke about the studies done by King on the brutal methods used by the slave masters to train “an ideal slave,” and the role of the traditional Baptist church in the South in legitimizing segregation and racism. He noted that King had gone through a substantial political evolution in his final years, registered in his “more radical” criticism of the brutality of segregation and his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Many of the participants appreciated Musa’s explanation that the murder of Trayvon Martin was not a cop killing like so many others in the U.S., but the act of an armed vigilante, aided and abetted by the cops. “This is one more confirmation that for the descendants of African slaves in the United States, equal protection under the law remains to be won,” Musa noted.
On the last day of the conference, the more than 100 participants present approved a message of solidarity to Trayvon Martin’s family and supporters and demanded the arrest and prosecution of his killer. The message was read by Nicolás Hernández Guillén, president of the Nicolás Guillén Foundation (see message on page 6).
A table with a display of titles published by Pathfinder, among them the 10 books and pamphlets of speeches by Malcolm X, in English, Spanish, and French, as well as many titles on the class struggle in the United States, was a busy center of continuing discussions as participants purchased many books and pamphlets. The most sought-after title was Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, with 20 copies sold. A set of each of the Pathfinder books in English and Spanish with speeches and interviews by Malcolm X was donated to the UNEAC library.
Conference participants also had a chance to enjoy many hours of music and poetry. Highlights included an impromptu performance by famous rumba singer Pedro Fariñas and a reading by internationally known Cuban poet Nancy Morejón. Presentations on other topics ranged from African influences in Nicolás Guillén’s poetry to the contributions of Afro-Cuban women to music, the history of discrimination against Chinese in Cuba, and anti-Semitism in the country before and during the second world war.
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