Abandoning the Color Line for the Revolutionary Line: the Antiracism of the Cuban Independence Movement

Daniel Quezada, Editor

When most Americans think of revolution in Cuba, their minds immediately go to the revolution of 1959, which ended with the establishment of the first socialist government in the Americas. The 1959 revolution, however, was hardly the first revolutionary moment to sweep the largest island in the Caribbean. For three decades from the 1860s to 1898, the island was consumed by uprisings against the ruling Spanish government. Although these revolutions were eventually truncated by the arrival of a new imperial power—the United States—they serve as excellent examples of a truly antiracist, anticolonial struggle. These revolutions also serve to broaden our conception of the 1959 revolution by placing its nationalist elements and historical grievances in the proper context of a protracted Cuban struggle for independence. 

Although the Cuban Revolution of 1959 is known mostly in the United States for yielding the first socialist state in the Western hemisphere—one that several presidential administrations would attempt to topple—it was not always directly socialist in its aims. In a four-hour speech that would come to define the Cuban Revolution’s early aspirations, Fidel Castro advocated for constitutional changes, land reform, and profit sharing within the massive sugar industry on the island. [1] These modest reforms were particularly aimed at redressing some of the primary grievances Cubans harbored, especially from its colonial past. 

For much of its history, Cuba was one of the largest destinations in the Western hemisphere for African slaves, rivalling Hispaniola and Brazil as the largest destination overall. The island was one of the last places in the hemisphere to outlaw slavery in 1886, and for most of its history had a population comprised mostly of those slaves. Under the colonial yoke of the Spanish Empire writers such as Jose Antonio Saco used this demographic as the principal argument against Cuba’s ability to self-govern under anything other than white supremacy, writing that “the only one [independent Cuba] that any sensible man would concern himself with was a nationality formed by the white race.” [2] This thinking was governed by the example from across the Windward Passage: Haiti. Since the victory of the Haitian revolution in the 1790s, the colonial powers of Europe and the United States worked in tandem to suppress and diplomatically isolate the island, and lived in fear of the same happening to their own colonies. The major powers of Europe would refuse to recognize Haiti until the 1830s—the United States would hold out until 1865—owing to its symbolism as a successful slave rebellion. [3]

Spain could not risk losing its most profitable colony—Cuba was the largest single source of sugar in the world—and the color line was a valuable asset to preserve that order. Even after slavery was abolished by law, Black Cubans were kept in subservient economic positions through apprenticeship requirements and other limitations that preserved old social-economic orders similar to measures in the post-Civil War United States. 

In this context, it comes as little surprise that Black and mixed-race Cubans (of which there are very many) were a strong base of support for nationalist and independence movements. Over the course of the three wars for Cuban independence, Black Cubans served in every level of the military command, in stark contrast to the United States, whose armed forces would remain rigidly segregated until after the Second World War. 

The inclusivity of the Cuban Independence movement towards its Black and mixed-race members was not simply strategic but ideological. One of the primary arguments put forward by the Spanish against Cuban independence is that such a racially diverse island could never “succeed” on its own as Spain or other western powers had. In response, Cuban nationalist thinkers presented their own conception of nationalism entirely independent of the color line imposed by the Spanish. The most prominent among these intellectuals, Jose Martí, boldly claimed that the entire concept of race as proposed by the Spanish was meaningless. [4] Instead, he posited, Cuban nationalism would be based on a sense of shared geography and common experience under the thumb of Spanish colonialism. 

The beliefs of Martí and other pro-independence thinkers soon permeated Cuban society. Their willingness to challenge the imperial notion of racial separatism and take concrete action to enforce their vision of equality within their own ranks entrenched support across a wide range of social classes and ethnicities. In 1898, thirty years of warfare and social base building neared conclusion as the island was in open rebellion against the Spanish crown. Unfortunately the final victory would never come. After a likely-accidental explosion on board the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor, the United States invaded Cuba as a part of their broader war against Spain. The United States’ victory against Spain was not a victory for Cuba. Instead of independence, it was incorporated into the United States’s own empire, made possible through Constitutional carve-outs in the insular cases, a series of Supreme Court rulings that allowed the United States to deny newly-minted colonial subjects constitutional rights on the basis of their perceived inability to self-govern, largely on the basis of race.

In many respects, the Cuban revolution of 1959 was a direct descendent of the blunting of Cuban independence at the turn of the century. After victory in 1898, Cuba entered a half-century on the American periphery, with its politics either directly or indirectly influenced by American-backed candidates and policies. By restricting Cuba’s agency as a state, propping up politicians and social orders that upheld stratifications similar to the Spanish colonial era, the United States tilled fertile ground for another revolution to claim the mantle of Martí. 

[1] Fidel Castro, “History will absolve me.” 16 October 1953. Abridged text at https://library.brown.edu/create/modernlatinamerica/chapters/chapter-4-cuba/primary-documents-w-accompanying-discussion-questions/document-no-10-history-will-absolve-me-by-fidel-castro-ruiz/.

[2] Jose Antonio Saco, quoted in Jorge Ibarra, Ideología mambisa (Habana: Instituto Cubano del Libro, 1967), 25.

[3] Stinchcombe, Arthur L. “Class Conflict and Diplomacy: Haitian Isolation in the 19th-Century World System.” Sociological Perspectives 37, no. 1 (1994): 1-23. Accessed April 21, 2021. doi:10.2307/1389407.

[4] Jose Martí, Our America (1891) published in The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics (2003) pg. 127.

Image: https://schoolhistory.co.uk/notes/cuban-revolution/