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Cuba and the Struggle for Black Liberation

Fidel Castro and Maurice Bishop in Cuba

Black people have had a long, brutal, and disgusting history in the US & Cuba because of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which is connected to colonialism that then became imperialism in the 20th century. The Spanish were the ones to first establish a population of enslaved Africans to begin working on  exports that would be used to enrich the colonizers in the 16th century. The genesis of enslaved Africans first coming  into Cuba could be traced to 1511 when Diego Velasquez conquered the island of Cuba in 1511-12. One  cannot talk about slavery in Cuba without mentioning the Spanish and its connection to the Atlantic slave  trade that would exploit the sugarcane trade. Although the Black population would be the predominant race in Cuba, it came at the cost of the near extermination of the Indigenous people that populated the island before it was colonized. The Taino and Guanahatabey people were the indigenous inhabitants of the  Caribbean and Cuba but after the genocide where the Spanish perpetuated through lethal forced labor,  they were nearly wiped out on the island. This would prompt the Spanish to turn to the Atlantic slave trade to  begin exporting Africans to Cuba. 

Cuba has had a long history concerning the lives of Black people, in fact, since the 16th century the Black population has outnumbered non-Blacks in the country for over 400  years. Along with mentioning the role of the Spanish when it comes to slavery, it is important to note the  US’s long history in Cuba. Some may think that the US has only been involved with Cuba since the  1960s after the Cuban revolution, but its involvement dates back to the 1800s. In talking about the US,  one can begin to connect the dots and show the trans-nationalism that involves both Cuba and the United  States in terms of Black history. My goal is to show different forms of resistance from the Cuban  revolution from 1868-1898, the Cuban revolution of 1959, and its fight for liberation for all Black people  in Africa and the US. Exploring aspects of subjugation leading to resistance in a trans-national way will  show how conditions for revolution and a desire for liberation transcends continents, borders, and  cultures.  

Black Resistance  

Although this paper is mainly focused on Cuba and the US, one cannot talk about Black  resistance without including Haiti in this conversation. After hundreds of years, enslaved Africans had reached a climax point of constantly bearing oppression. In Haiti, between 1791 and 1804, enslaved African armies managed  to defeat the French, Spanish, and English militaries. 1791 was the year that enslaved Africans finally decided to  organize with CLR James noting that the Africans worked on the land, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, and they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. San Domingo could be seen as the place that started the uprising of enslaved Africans seeking their liberation: “Something to note is the destruction of property was  a common strategy in the Haitian revolution and in Cuba when Black slaves fought for liberation. The  slaves destroyed tirelessly, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of  what they knew was the cause of their sufferings, and if they destroyed much it was because they had  suffered much.” 

Eventually, with the leadership of names such as Toussiant, Dessalines, Henri  Christophe, Haiti would be lead a successful revolution, one that many enslaved Black people would look  towards as inspiration. Robinson exalts the Haitian revolution by stating that the revolution in Saint Domingue propelled a revolution in Black consciousness throughout the New World. 

The Haitian Revolution usually takes center stage when it comes to Black resistance but the West  African warfare in Cuba isn’t that much talked about. On June 15, 1825, close to 200 hundred slaves from  the coffee plantation region in southeast Cuba gathered together and proceeded to attack a number of rural  estates. Despite their ultimate failure during this short-lived uprising, slave owners began to fear of  another Haiti to be emerging. The transfer of West African practices and ethics associated with warfare made it across the Atlantic to the slave societies that flourished in the early nineteenth century in Bahia  and Cuba. Something that aided future successful uprisings was when slaves were able to escape and joined palenques that were villages and small towns of escaped slaves. The attacks that the West Africans  placed on the slave owners were on a small scale. For example, West Africans usually managed to repel  local militia for some time by hiding within coffee bushes, from where they defended themselves  throwing rocks at the militia men forcing them to eventually retreat. Because their attacks were on a  small scale, they weren’t able to organize the masses for a true uprising. Despite their failure in achieving  liberation, conditions were set for larger uprisings in Cuba that would prove to be successful.  

Some scholars may mention the Cuban revolution of 1959 being the first uprising of Cubans, but  one cannot get to that success without the first Cuban revolution from 1868-1898. The first call for an  uprising came on October 10, 1868 by Carlos Manuel Cespedes that led to thousands of enslaved Africans joining in the  struggle for Cuban independence. Something to note is that it was the enslaved Africans who were the ones  pushing for a rebellion with much of the uprisings beginning in Eastern Cuba where most of the  plantations were. According to Ferrer, modest promises of eventual freedom drew an ever-increasing  number of slaves to the insurrection. Despite needing the support of enslaved Africans, white insurgents  would still consider them not yet trained for freedom. The treatment of Black Cubans as a type of second  citizens would forever haunt Cuba leading to the Cuban revolution of 1959. Eventually at the end of  1869, Cubans were yet to find independence, but enslaved Africans were able to use the process of insurgency to  claim their freedom from slavery. By 1870, an increasing number of insurgents began deserting the fight  for Cuban independence that showed that another failure was on the brink of happening. Despite that failure becoming a reality, a leadership led by most Black and mulatto officers was to be the most prominent in a  new nationalist insurrection a year later in 1880.

Although failure was becoming  more apparent in the fight for the freedom of the Spanish in  Cuba, Black leaders were the ones who continued the fight. For example, other than Maceo, lesser-known Black leaders like Rafael Fromet and Galindo refused to lay down their arms and surrender. When the  first wave for independence failed, Spain offered the slave insurgents their freedom, so while the enslaved Africans who took up arms gained their freedom, Africans who had remained loyal to their masters didn’t benefit at  all. Eventually as the disarray of war spread and the likelihood of full emancipation increased, enslaved Africans were  encouraged to mount greater challenges against the slave system. The increasing number of enslaved Africans  joining the uprising resulted in the white elite withdrawing its support that further shows that although  they were fighting for independence, white people couldn’t look past the aspect of race. This new  rebellion was blacker than the first one: many white Liberal veterans of the first war rejected it; enslaved Africans and formerly enslaved Africans embraced it; and Black and mulatto officers gradually assumed its more prominent military  positions. As time went one, it became clear that if Cuba was to become independent, it was going to be  because of the resistance of the enslaved Africans.

One of the aspects of colonialism that was very much intact during the slave insurgency led by  Black officers was the color of one’s skin. Spain in a desperate attempt to cause friction from within the  insurgency consistently represented the rebels as black savages, as wild animals who went barefoot and  naked or almost naked. Spain’s tactic would work with white officers not wanting to be part of the  revolution, but black insurgents also refused to recognize the leadership of white Garcia. Over time, the  tactics that Spain imposed on the movement failed but there were some bright spots – one being the abolition of slavery.

By 1887, no Cuban worker was legally enslaved, and a smaller fraction of workers were black men and women. Despite gaining freedom, both former slaves and free men weren’t satisfied as they were still  bound to the Spanish Crown, so by 1895, a new insurgency orchestrated by Marti’s Cuban Revolutionary Party began. Marti’s idea of racelessness led to Black and white insurgents to put national pride in front  of race that led to Spain not being able to utilize similar tactics that led to the downfall of the previous  insurgency. There were fractions within the movement that still held similar sentiments on black soldiers  being savages and murderous. Despite this, Black soldiers who joined the army challenged those  privileges, using power and sanction of nationalist language to voice their attack. Without the Black  leadership of people like Maceo, Batrell, Serra, and countless more, the first Cuban revolution might not  have succeeded. Eventually, by 1898, it had seemed that the Cubans had won their independence, but they  were mistaken with a new enemy in the horizon with the name of the United States.  

The Cuban Revolution 

After  colonialism was defeated and Cuba gained its independence from Spain, a new  power in the form of the United States and imperialism led to the ever-subjugated people of Cuba to  continually be controlled. With the US proclaiming the Platt Amendment in 1904, Americans appointed  people in power who would be puppets to US imperialism which further allowed control in Cuba. In 1933  that US puppet, Fulgecio Batista would lead a military coup and within five days of the transfer, the United States would recognize it as a legit government. Despite being elected president in 1944, Batista  would lose his power from 1944-1948 with Ramon Grau being president from 1948-1952 until Carlo  Prio took over the government. Eventually, Batisa regained his power by becoming president through a  military coup and the United States again recognized his government. However, ultimately the US set the  conditions for the Cuban Revolution to occur. Had the first Cuban Revolution from 1868-1898 not been  successful, then the one led by Fidel Castro might not have succeeded. The reason for the successfulness  of the second Cuban revolution was because of the fighting spirit that had been embedded within the Cubans that eventually lead them to pronounce “Patria O Muerte.” With Batista’s coup and American  imperialism, conditions were set for an armed uprising to take hold of the country for a second time in its  history. 

Although Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevarra are given most of the credit, the success of the  Cuban revolution has to be attributed to all the working pieces collaborating that made it a successful  movement. Frank País first met Castro in August 1956 while Castro was in Mexico and his involvement  in the Havana-based 26th July Movement’s plans was absolutely vital. On November 30, 1956, the first chess piece  moved with Fidel and handful of survivors making it safely to the Sierra Maestra mountains, this was the  birth of the Cuban revolution. Sweig mentioned, “País and the entire National Directorate had committed  to providing for the sierra’s with new guerrilla fronts, and recruiting, training, and arming members for a  nationwide militia cell structure.” With País’s help, Fidel Castro was able to meet with several other  leaders in Cuba to draft the Sierra Manifesto. According to Sweig, the Sierra Manifesto was crucial  because the timing, symbolism, and substance of the document jump started the opposition not in Havana  or Mexico, but in Miami, where the Auténticos, Ortodoxos, Civic Institutions, and revolutionary groups  would soon unite against the dictator. From that moment onward, the Cuban revolution would begin  taking victory after victory against Batista with only total liberation in mind.  

Finally, towards the end of 1957 going into 1958, Fidel Castro declared total war and began the  armed uprising to overthrow US backed dictator Batista. After the failure of the nationwide strike called  the 26th July Movement, Fidel had to quickly move to not let this failure ripple throughout the insurgency  because it could have caused people to abandon the movement. The failure of the strike led to Fidel coming out as the clear leader of the revolution; therefore, allowing him to mobilize his troops. Sweig states that Castro’s rebel army expelled the remnants of Batista’s forcers from the Sierra Maestra in the first half of  

August 1958. Towards the end of November, Fidel Castro’s forces had basically left Batista without an  army as more people were killed or deserted the military. With no choice but to accept defeat, Batista fled Cuba and by January of 1959 the M267 had finally acquired the political strength to control Cuba and  solely select the first revolutionary cabinet. Despite their triumph, like the first Cuban revolution from  1868-1898, the second modern Cuban revolution had to worry about their boogie man, the United States.  

American Imperialism Abroad 

The never-ending threat of the US was a direct concern to Cuba but would boil over into the  continent of Africa. The first embargo was enacted in March 1960 with the US limiting trade of sugar,  oil, and guns. Apparently, this partial embargo wasn’t enough because in April 1961, the Bay of Pigs  invasion was an attempt of the US to overthrow Fidel Castro. 1,300 CIA trained insurgents stormed a  Cuban beach at the Bay of Pigs, only to surrender en masse three days later and this failure further  cemented Castro as a hero that couldn’t be touched by anyone. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs  invasion, in February 1962, the US placed a trade embargo against Cuba, prohibiting all trade and travel.  Despite these sanctions, Cuba knew what it had to do once the Cold War began to intensify, especially in  Africa. Fidel’s quote that stated, “We are Latin-African people, enemies of colonialism, racism, and  apartheid, which US imperialism aids and protects” shows how deep his commitment in Africa would  be. After much conflict in Angola with FNLA and UNITA fighting, the US’s goal was to crush the  MPLA that had risen to power and on October 14, 1975, South African troops invaded Angola. This  action prompted Castro to deploy troops to Angola; thus, without Castro’s response South Africa would  have seized the capital. According to Gleijeses, one of the main reasons Castro sent troops to Angola was because of his commitment to what he has called the most beautiful cause, the struggle against apartheid which was yet another form of colonialism that had survived into the 20th century. By early April, there  were around 36,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola, but soldiers weren’t the only things that Castro had sent.  Angola’s healthcare system had constantly been in tatters but “by the end of 1976, more than 1,000  Cuban aid workers were in Angola and more were arriving.” Along with aid workers, Cuba had  established an island of youth that would be a school for students to be politically educated but also not  lose touch with their native land. Despite having only two out of the four schools full that Cuba offered,  Castro’s legacy in Angola was more than just an armed legacy but one that would help Angolans in all  aspects of their society.  

American imperialism had reached all facets of Africa and although Cuba was going through an  economic crisis in the 1980s, it didn’t stop them from changing policy. Cuba only had the facilities to  help other African countries with “Cuba’s only significant military presence other than Angola being in  Ethopia where 12,000 Cubans had helped defeat the Somali invasion in early 1978. The struggle of  apartheid in South Africa was seen to be coming to an end with massive waves of demonstrations, strikes,  and boycotts of schools and white-owned stores spread through the country. The new wave of uprisings in  South Africa prompted Castro to help with the presence of 40,000 soldiers ready to fight to liberate the  country of apartheid. Glejieses also shows the magnitude of Cuba’s help with a Cuban aide’s statement  that read, “over the last twelve months we have trained 250 cadres in various aspects of guerrilla warfare.  By the end of 1988 we will have prepared more than 600 guerrillas.” Although never taking full arms in  South Africa, the country was able to defeat apartheid. In March 1990, apartheid had reached its end with  Frederick de Klerk legalizing the ANC and the South African Communist Party, and he freed Nelson Mandela. Castro’s fight wasn’t only against US imperialism but as Gleijeses puts it, “it was a war  against despair and oppression in the Third World.” 

Cuba and the US Connection 

Not only was Cuba fighting US imperialism in Africa, but it was also aiding revolutionaries in the  United States. Latner describes the relationship between the US and Cuba by stating that by positioning  the US Black freedom movement within the larger hemispheric forces in opposition to US influence in  Latin America, Carmichael’s speech evinced the global gaze of a growing number of Black radical  activists. Carmichael’s speech was given in 1967 but Brock mentions that long before 1959 Cubans and  African Americans had forged working relationships: abolitionists jointly formed organizations and leftists and trade unionists exchanged strategies. One of the aspects of society that did connect Cuba and  African Americans was race and Cuba’s claim that racism had been eradicated was a claim that Castro  mentioned frequently to galvanize support for his cause by Black Americans. For example, Brock states  that, “Cuba had introduced policies that improved the life chances of Black Cubans, they also appreciated  their African culture, and third, they supported African liberation movements but by also educating over  80,000 medical, engineering, and secondary school students from all over Africa. In contrary to Castro’s  claims that racism had been eradicated in Cuba, Benson mentions how Black leaders never achieved  complementary laws that would’ve enacted sanctions against racial discrimination. Jose Marti’s  racelessness ideology was forever embedded in Cuba’s society with some people in the country claiming  that addressing race was counterrevolutionary. In a country where revolution was lived every day, being  seen as counterrevolutionary was something people avoided and according to Benson, Black Cubans  adopted a nationalistic approach to their country instead. Marit’s ideology would forever haunt Cuba,  nonetheless, Cuba provided support for black consciousness among Black radicals in the US.  

Through the 1960s through the 70s, Fidel Castro and Cuba had created relationships with several  revolutionaries such as Malcom X, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur. Fidel Castro and Malcom X met  only once in 1960 during Castro’s trip to Harlem. Although they only met once, they discussed, “the  national liberation struggle taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the base support for the  Cuban revolution by Black Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Panamanians who lived in Harlem.” Cuba’s  main goal was to continue influence Black Americans towards the path to socialism through a revolution.  This was evident when Castro stated, “we have always been in solidarity with the struggle of Black  people, of minorities, and of the poor in the United States.” This solidarity was evident when Angela  Davis was imprisoned through the constant support for her freedom. Angela Davis was an anti imperialist, antiracist, Marxist and that’s what further strengthened relationships with Cuba. Upon Davis’s  first trip to Cuba, she wrote that she was immensely impressed by Cuba’s efforts to eradicate racism and  convinced that only under socialism could this fight against racism have been successfully executed. Cuba was able to begin showing solidarity with Angela Davis when in 1970 she was arrested and  imprisoned on charges of conspiracy of murder and three capital felonies. Seidman shows Cuba’s role in  solidarity with Davis by writing that the Cuban state apparatus mobilized various sectors around her  liberation to jumpstart a global campaign to free her. The Cuban press provided extensive, continuous  coverage, often with visual elements, composition of songs, and a petition was started by Cuban women  at a March 8, 1971 International Women’s Day Conference in Havana proclaiming Davis innocent and demanding she be be freed from prison. Eventually Angela Davis was freed in 1972, but another revolutionary wouldn’t be  so lucky with Assata Shakur fleeing  to Cuba for safety. On November 3, 1979, Assata Shakur escaped  prison and was granted formal political asylum by the government of Fidel Castro. Latner writes, “for the  Cuban state, the provision of asylum for Shakur allowed it to extend concrete support to the remnants of  the Black Panthers, the US Black freedom organizations with which Cuba had forged its strongest ties  historically.” Through actively working with Black leaders along with supporting their liberation and by  providing asylum to them, one could see Cuba’s strong relationship with Black Americans in the US.  

Moreover, one cannot go about history without mentioning the connection between Cuba and the  Black Panther’s because of similar struggles against capitalism and imperialism. George Murray, the  Black Panther minister of education traveled to Cuba in 1968 to promote the “Free Huey Campaign”  where he would give a speech that showed the connections between the Black Panthers and Cuba. Murray  would affirm the necessity of a global revolution against imperialism and the Black Panther Party’s  commitment to solidarity with revolutionary struggles throughout the Third World. The continual push  against US imperialism would show how intertwined Black people were to Black Cubans because they  themselves were fighting US imperialism in Africa. While Cuba was actively fighting against US  imperialism in Angola, the Black Panthers were working towards opposing the Vietnam War. The  solidarity between both fronts in Cuba and the US to fight against imperialism would continue uniting them for the liberation of the Third World. 

Like with Fidel, the Black Panther Party’s anti-imperialist  politics were deeply influenced with Marxist thought. Bloom wrote that evolving Marxist thinking  underwrote the Panther’s class politics and helped them articulate alliances with a broad range of  international as well as domestic actors. Marxist thought could also been seen with socialist Cuba  through the implementation of an agrarian reform, expropriating foreign oil companies along with seizing  all foreign owned property in Cuba, and the active fight against imperialism. The Black Panther Party was  also inspired by the revolutionary success of Cuba and with the tactics of Che Guevarra  who used foquismo as a successful way to approach guerrilla warfare. Huey Newton even went so far as to say, “For Castro guerrilla warfare was a good form of propaganda. Walking armed through  Richmond was our propaganda.” Although the Black Panther Party’s entire structure wasn’t based off of  Cuba, one could see how the BPP’s active fight against imperialism, liberation for Black people, and  through Marxist thought all were intertwined within Cuba itself holding similar beliefs.

Conclusion 

Throughout history Black people have been subjugated by colonialism and imperialism. From being colonized in Africa resulting in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to their labor being exploited for the gain of capital, to US imperialism trying to control every facet of society in their lives, Black people have suffered greatly. Despite being subjugated for hundreds of years, they never lost hope and one could see that with the forms of resistance that began propping up in the Americas. Haiti was a beacon of hope for enslaved Africans in the Americas and the success of Haiti prompted colonial rulers to do whatever it took to prevent another Haiti. As one now knows, those preventive actions were a failure with the Cubans gaining their independence from Spain. Then the United States took over control of Cuba but even that didn’t last too long. The Cuban revolution of 1959 brought a never-ending battle of socialism pitted against capitalism to center stage and the US was determined to succeed. Their strict sanctions did little from stopping Fidel Castro to send thousands of troops to fight in Angola and other countries in Africa eventually bringing apartheid to an end in South Africa. The success of the Cuban revolution inspired Black radicals in the US and Cuba’s connection to it’s Black heritage further strengthened their bond in fighting the same enemy—US imperialism. Ultimately, struggle is always going to exist, especially against this capitalist imperial power that is the US, but one will never stop fighting until the liberation of all subjugated people in the world is achieved.  

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