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Vol. 78/No. 40      November 10, 2014

Film tells story of Haitian
workers in Cuba in 1930s
Fails to put that history in political context
(In Review)
Reembarque (Return Shipment) by Cuban documentary filmmaker Gloria Rolando tells the story of Haitian workers who emigrated to eastern Cuba during the sugar boom in the 1920s and ’30s. According to the film, some 700,000 Haitians were drawn to work in the huge sugar cane plantations, as well as sugar mills and coffee plantations, of Cuba’s Oriente province.

During a time when Haiti was under U.S. military occupation, labor contractors were there recruiting workers to meet the growing demand for Cuban sugar, what the film describes as the “gold of that time.” Once in Cuba, Haitian workers lived in plantation communities called bateyes, under deplorable living conditions.

Then in 1937, with the onset of a deep economic slump, thousands of Haitian immigrants were deported back to their home country. The film shows how they were rounded up by the hated Rural Guard — which functioned as a private police force for the sugar barons — onto large ships crammed shoulder to shoulder.

Reembarque premiered Oct. 11 at the Minneapolis Art Institute, sponsored by Obsidian Arts, the Minnesota International Center and the Minnesota Cuba Committee. About 100 people turned out for the showing, which kicked off a U.S. tour for film and director. It was presented in cooperation with the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).

The documentary is well done and features interviews with several older Haitians who lived through the period, as well as contributions by Cuban researchers and government officials. It also includes interesting footage showing the rich Haitian cultural heritage that remains strong in Cuba — music, dance, food, Voodoo. But the 58-minute film, unfortunately, passes up the opportunity to place the experiences of the Haitian laborers in the broader context of what was happening in Cuba and the world in the 1930s and explain the impact it had on those who would become leaders of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

In one scene, for example, Jorge Risquet, a leader of the PSP youth in 1959 (Popular Socialist Party was the name adopted by the Communist Party in Cuba in 1944), says that he had been unaware of what the Haitian workers faced in Cuba and first learned about them from Raúl Castro. Risquet says Castro was very familiar with the conditions of Haitian laborers and spoke of them with high regard. But nothing further on this is explained.

One piece stuck in my craw. Rolando interviews a Haitian worker who describes how Castro’s father employed many Haitian workers — one worker called it a “little Haiti.” The young Fidel would often play baseball with the workers and provide mitts, bats, etc. Fidel played first base and everyone was “very happy,” he said. But when Fidel wasn’t around they couldn’t play because he had all the equipment and the Haitians were too poor to provide even a bat.

Going deeper, the documentary could have tapped into what Castro has written and said about this period. It would have made the film more understandable and interesting.

In the autobiographical interview My Life, an exchange takes place between co-author Ignacio Ramonet and Fidel about Haitian workers during this period. “During the years of the sugar boom they’d come by the tens of thousands to help with the planting, cultivating and harvesting of the sugar cane,” Castro says. “They worked in the cane fields as practically slaves, with great sacrifice, very low wages.”

“I think — in fact, I’m absolutely sure — that 19th century slaves had a higher standard of living and better care than those Haitians,” Castro says in an interview with Frei Betto, published in Fidel and Religion. “Slaves were treated like animals, but they were given food and taken care of so they’d live and produce. They were preserved as part of the plantation’s capital. But those tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants could eat only when they worked, and nobody cared whether they lived or died of starvation.”

Castro’s godfather was the Haitian consul in Santiago de Cuba, “a wealthy — very wealthy — man,” Castro says in My Life. One day the consul took Castro to see one of the ships that was full of Haitians, “like sardines in a tin, who’d been expelled from the country. … [I saw] Haitians from the thatch houses where I ate roasted corn on the cob sent to that luxury liner on which they were expelled from Cuba, to face who knows what terrible hardships in their own country — which was and is even poorer than Cuba. They were sent from one terrible life of misery and poverty to another even worse one.”

“When the so-called Revolution of 1933 came along, it gave in to the so-called nationalization of labor and the demand that preference in hiring be given to Cubans, and that led to this event I was telling you about,” explains Castro. That law “was mainly used to throw out thousands and thousands of Haitians who’d come to Cuba and lived on the island for over 20 years. … So they shipped them off to Haiti in that cruel, merciless way, in that boat full of deportees. Truly inhuman.”

This “inhuman” experience had a deep impact on the young Fidel and Raúl. “I had no idea, of course” says Fidel, “how valuable that experience would be to me later, how much it would help me understand the world.”  
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