Home > Dimas Castellanos > The Problems of Blacks, the Nation, the PIC and Morúa

The Problems of Blacks, the Nation, the PIC and Morúa

Dimas Castellanos

Introduction

In the early twentieth century a large group of black Cubans chose to abandon the violent methods employed in the struggle for equality and social justice, to found a political group, the Independent Party of Color (PIC). Four years later, the initiative culminated in the greatest crime committed in our troubled racial history. That event is directly related to the so-called black problem and the shaping of the nation and indirectly related to writer, journalist and politician, Martin Morua Delgado.

The problem of blacks, a problem of everyone

The causes that lead to the foundation of the PIC date to the previous century.  During that time, despite the prohibitions established by the Declaration of Vienna (1815), the London-Madrid Treaty (1835) and the Anglo-American Treaty (1862), the hellish commerce in black Africans to America continued.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of men and women arrived on our coasts, which an unknown number of then disappeared during the maritime crossing.  These blacks, taken by force, stripped of rights and freedoms, with radical differences with regards to education and ownership with respect to the whites who brought them, without a chance to return to their country of origin, were subjected to rustic labor, cruel physical abuse, and a process of deculturation that forced them to take foreign names, forget their language, their gods and their customs.  These dark-skinned men left with no other option, in order to survive, responded with violence, hate, vengeance, escape and rebellion, creating a heartbreaking and horrifying spiral of pain and death.

To illustrate this it is enough to recall that in 1533 the first black escaped slaves were butchered and their heads put on sticks as a warning; in 1731 the supply of slaves, acquired to work the copper mines near Santiago de Cuba, staged the first mass uprising to reclaim their freedom; that in the first half of the eighteenth century there were acts of rebellion in several mills in Havana, and in one of them, the San Hipolito, the black creole Miguel Barrera was condemned to death; that in 1795 Bayomo Nicolas Moreles was executed; that in 1812, the conspiracy led by Jose Antonio Aponte y Ulabarra, with the objective of taking Atares Castle and the Dragons Barracks to occupy Havana and decree the abolition of slavery, culminated with the declaration of the Captain General of the Island announcing that Aponte Lisundia, Chacon, and Barbie would be executed and their heads placed in the most convenient public places, as a warning to their fellows.

In the region of Matanzas, the increase in abuse led to a string of uprisings that extended from the mill La Conchita in 1839, to the Ladder Conspiracy in 1844.  As a result, 78 blacks and mulattos were sentenced to death, nearly 600 imprisoned, more than 400 deported and some 300 killed by physical mistreatment during the process.  Among the victims was Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido), whose guilt lay in his capacity as a free man, mulatto, with talent and liberal ideas.

These events, where blacks from Africa and their descendants have shed rivers of blood, happened before the white Creoles put the issue of independence on the agenda.  This explains why, at the beginning of the Great War in 1868, beyond just those slaves freed by their owners to be employed as soldiers, many blacks took the opportunity to joint he insurgency as soldiers.  That war ended, but the injustices and discrimination continued in force; this explains the decision of broad sectors of the black population to achieve their objectives through joining the mass army of the Liberator in 1895, encouraged by the leadership of Antonio Maceo and José Martí’s preaching about racial equality.

Thus, the claim by Manual Sanguily that the revolution was the exclusive work of whites and that blacks were brought to it, is inconsistent.  It does not take into account the abolitionist interests of blacks which preceded independence.  Nor that, thanks to their expertise and value in using the machete and the ability to live in the jungle during the 30 years the wars the wars of independence lasted, blacks and mulattoes made up a majority of combatants, occupying the highest military ranks and leadership roles and starting, from their self-won gains, to think of themselves as heroes.

In addition to their contribution in the military field, from agricultural production to the arts, blacks made important contributions to national development.  During the colonial periods they formed the base of production.  In crafts, learning, music, literatures, religious beliefs and dance, free blacks made enormous contributions.  Thus, for scholars such as Elías Entralgo and Fernando Ortiz, blacks were for Cuban history like sugar was the economy.

Difficult conditions accompanied the natives of Africa and their Creole Cuban descendants, from the lost of freedom on African soil to the emergence of the Republic, despite their contributions to the fight for independence, the economy and the culture.  Racial prejudice prevented the full incorporation of blacks, thus hindering the crystallization of the nation, in a country that throughout its history was and is impossible without blacks.  Don Fernandez Ortiz repeated this, saying that Cuba without blacks would not be Cuba.  however, once the wars ended, the desired equality among all Cubans, formally enshrined in the 1901 Constitution, suffered from the measures for its practical implementation.  In the end, blacks came to the Republic being what they had been before, simply blacks.

The nation

The independence struggle of 1895 culminated with the emergence of the Republic of Cuba, not as designed by José Martí, but rather as that which was possible under conditions of foreign occupation; meanwhile the nation had not yet solidified.  Nations that arise from the fusion of the major social factors that comprise a country, in a long process of rapprochement and social, cultural and economic integration that leads to a bringing together the differences, an a moment in history and in a particular territory  In Cuba, this process started, once the majority of the aboriginal communities were extinguished, essentially between Africans and Europeans, converted first into Creoles and then into Cubans, until the emergence of a new nationality from which began the building of a the structure of a nation that was neither European nor African.

Blacks were brought to Cuba neither as owners nor as their own persons.  The 30 years of war accelerated the awareness of national identity through two parallel processes.  One, between the different sectors of blacks, resulted in what Ramiro Guerra called, “the double longing for civil liberty and social equality on the part of the slave and the free black person.”  And another, which was established in close relation to the solidarity and culture identity between blacks and whites.  “As with this civil liberty,” said Pittaluga, “there was also an irresistible aspiration of white Creoles,” to create a community partial to ideals that was transformed into a universal community of black and white Cubans; the germ of an unfinished process of of Cubanization and a common destiny.  This, wars made them aware of their possibilities for equality of opportunity.  From a negative conception marked by suffering, inferiority and cultural dispossession, they evolved to see themselves as equals.

Once the Republic arrived, blacks began to insert themselves into the labor market and slowly to acquire properties.  However, the culture of violence and racial discrimination, still continued to be present in the Republican scenario, where the warrior’s craft and the skills demonstrated in the jungle were useless.  Consequently, despite the Anglo ascendancy of the wars of independence, the existence and persistence of enormous economic and cultural differences among blacks and whites, prevented the achievement of a sufficient national identity.

The ownership of property and the acacquisition of instruction, depended at that time on a project aimed at the gradual reduction of the economic and cultural gap; a project conspicuous by its absence.  So, nearly all of the black officials and socials became unemployed heroes, as happened with the General of the three wars, Quintín Banderas Betancourt, who, once he saw every raod closed to him, joined the so called “August Skirmish” against the reelection of Don Tomás Estrada Palma, in which he was arrested and killed.

According to the 1907 census, in 1899 only 14.3% of the soldiers and policemen were black, in a country where they had been 60% of the Liberation Army.  Jobs in retail establishments, and American companies (telegraph, telephone, electricity and sugar mills) and in national government offices, were reserved for whites, while blacks were offered harder work in construction, agriculture and trades that had been their preserve since colonial times.  Of 1,240 surgeons, only 9 were black or mulatto, and of 1,347 attorneys, 4 were black or mulatto.  Only a tiny proportion of blacks were architects, draftsmen, dentists, veterinarians, journalists, printers, lithographers, artists and photographers.  Only in music did they constitute half.  It should also be borne in mind that the majority of these men had lost their small farms and many of them even their families.

Along with economic differences there were cultural ones.  Although public education was official multi-racial, some white teachers excluded black children from their classes, while private schools rarely accepted dark skin children, thereby limiting their access to the university.  According to the 1899 census, only 24% of blacks and mulattos over 10 years of age could read and write, compared to 44% of white Cubans.  ONly 198 blacks over age 21 had higher education; an insignificant number compared to the 8,629 white Cubans.  However. the educational situation of blacks was due not only to lack of interest, but also to social and economic barriers.

While the colonial government had promulgated laws that allowed free access to secondary and university education, Article 11 of the 1901 Republican Constitution read, “All Cuban are equal before the Law.  The Republic does not recognize exemptions nor personal privileges.”  In 1905 the efforts to create a centralized primary and secondary education system for young blacks who lacked financial resources to receive an education, continued.

To this must be added that from 1901, thanks to the efforts of the intellectual elite, discrimination and racial prejudice acquired the status of a theory, reinforced by the idea of the supposed inferiority of blacks and limited their social, economic and political participation.  In spite of some advances in organizing and achieving the rights of association, public education, and access to public places, the agenda of equality and social justice for which they fought was not realized.

The disagreement with the results of the Peace of Zanjon (1878), the abolition of slavery (1888), War of 1895 to 1898 and the new Republic (1902), coupled with the absence of any real assistance on the part existing political parties, led black Cubans to continue their fight for new measures. Blacks, unable to read and write, without property, with little education and victims of racial prejudice, said the American researcher Aline Helg, continued being what he was, “a black.” In this scenario subsequent events gestated. 

Enrique José Varona considered the abolition of slavery as a great and radical social change in his speech of the Fraternity, July 19, 1888, but it stemmed from the need to prepare former slaves for life in society and reiterated that the way to incorporate into society those who had recently ceased to be slaves was education, and what should matter to everyone equally, therefore, “a people cannot suffer in part, except that they all suffer.”

The Colored Independent Party

In the new Republic blacks were seen as Cuban by foreigners, and as blacks by white Cubans.  Because of this, at that time one cannot speak of the nation without giving it a surname.  It was a fledgling nation, that left outstanding the issue of equality of opportunity between blacks and whites.

Miguel Sanguily, who is considered to have solve the black problem, once wrote, “…In contrast the blacks, just the other day slaves or disenfranchises, have reached the goal of their aspirations…”  An affirmation that shows the erroneous and prejudiced vision of the elite whites with respect to the rights and aspirations of blacks, and betrays a sense of nationhood that does not include those “of color.”  For his part, Evaristo Estenoz, in a letter published in La Republica Cubana on July 30, 1902, said, “…all the offices are in the same state, those of color are asked to work as porters, drivers, or in paltry jobs, the same in the post office as in customs.  The prisons are divided into blacks and whites, the Artillery Corps is also divided.”

It was precisely this state of neglect that led to the idea of fighting the evil through the organization of black Cubans.  The black independence movements had their earliest antecedents in associations like the National Councils during colonial times, and more recently in the Central Board of the Colored Race of 1885, and in the Committee of Veterans and the Societies of the Colored Race in 1902.  From the Pact of the Zanjón, taking advantage of the allowed spaces, they began to act independently in defense of their rights.  The result, in the years 1882-1883, was that they were allowed to access public parks and pathways, and between 1885 and 1887 they were able to mingle with whites in restaurants and trains.  With that experience, and making use of the rights recognized in the 1901 Constitution, they proceeded to create the first black political party in Cuba and in the hemisphere.

Evaristo Estonoz once said, “In a word, I do not want to belong to anything in which the colored race has duties only, and shall rectify this conduct when one takes into account that we serve, with full awareness of our worth and we can do much…”  Finally, on August 7, 1908, he founded the Independent Association of Color, at No. 63 Amargura Street, in Havana, and then the Independent Party of Color, integrated with blacks and mulattoes under the direction of Evaristo Estenoz in order to participate in the November elections of that same year, with the objective of obtaining adequate representation in the government of the Republic.  In anticipation, the official organ of the PIC said, “The Cuban colored race can expect nothing in the procedures used up until now by the political parties, because they have done nothing that could be significant for us… We are going to demonstrate that putting forward a candidacy in which everyone is of color, outside of the political parties, no one can deny that however little it may be the minority who give the result will always be greater than that achieved to date by the groups in the different parties.

Thus, the PIC was established, as stated in its program, to maintain a balance in the national territory of the interests of all Cubas, to seek employment opportunities in proportion to their presence in the population and to end racial discrimination. Regardless of some expressions and the excesses of its leaders, but as rightly expressed by Alejandro de la Fuente, “What was politically wise, however, was ideologically unacceptable. The nationalist ideology of racial fraternity hampered the exclusion of Afro-Cubans from politics, but also condemned any attempt at racially defined political mobilization,” therefore it could be interpreted as an act of racism and so against the ideals of the Marti nation. That is, the Anglo ascendancy that occurred during the wars of independence allowed only one way out: justice on the basis of integration. 

The truth is that they did not advocate the domination of one racial group over another or the creation of a black nation. The accusation of racism, on the part of its its detractors, had as objectives to recall the events in Haiti in a minimize the strength of the movement. In the November 1908 elections, in which they participated independently, they could only submit lists of candidates in Havana and Santa Clara. In the capital, Agapito Rodríguez, the candidate with most votes received by the PIC, managed only 116; when the Liberal candidates exceeded the tens of thousands of votes, while Estenoz, its principal leader, managed just 95 votes. 

These results had much to do with the fact that for most blacks and mulattos from the East, what was crucial was not having an independent party but surviving the difficult material conditions in which they lived, and in this situation the demands of the PIC had less immediacy. A reality that Louis Perez summarized thus, “African politicians demanded a place in the republic and mobility. African farmers demanded a place on earth and the right to stay. ”

In February 1910 the national press organ Prevention, published, “The Independent Party of Color has about 60 thousand members, including 15 thousand soldiers of the War of Independence, 12 generals, 30 colonels and hundreds of officers of lower ranks.” These data, which were intended to demonstrate the strength of the party, had an opposite effect. The prejudices, the accusations of racism, and fear that these statements generated explain in part the opposition they faced, and the adoption of the constitutional amendment that was introduced in 1910 by Senator Martin Morúa Delgado, to prohibit the existence of groups of one race.

The PIC was banned the same year, 1910, and once outside the law, focused its fight to repeal the Morúa Amendment and defend the Party and its press organ. Since that time the stage was set for a revolt in which were mixed two interrelated facts: firstly the protest of the Negro, which was the spark, on secondly, the economic despair of the black farmers in the east that was the fuel of the social fire.

Outlawing the PIC, along with other factors determined the outcome. The recent attempts at a solution proposed by the President of the Republic—namely the commitment to repeal Act Morúa Act if the term “color” was removed from the name of the party, and the efforts of Salvador Cisneros Betancourt to prevent the violence violent—were rejected, in accordance with our uncompromising culture machete as a paradigm of procedure. Added to this was untimely speech of PIC leaders threatening violence with racial overtones, which was exploited by the press to feed the fear of blacks. For example, Previsión, on November 10, 1909 reported, “Every man of color who does not instantly kill the cowardly assailant is unworthy to be a miserable man and dishonors his country and his race.” In this context, in May of 1912, the PIC launched the cry, Down With The Morúa Law Or War, thinking again that the Act would be repealed in the war. 

The conservative press of the time helped to arouse racial prejudice against the rebels. El Día, for example, wrote, “It is a racist uprising, an uprising of blacks, that is a huge danger and a common danger (…) These movements incite racial hatred and their outcomes are negative, sinister, they are inspired by something as black as hate. They do not try to win but to do harm, to overthrow, to do evil, they have no purpose … is engaged in theft, looting, murder and rape … ” 

Evidence that the real aim of the protest was not war, is that, while at the same time the peasants were committing acts of looting, arson and occupations of property in the East, the Independents of Color, the “rebels,” shunned combat with the Army, despite the fact that it was brown-skinned men in previous wars who were used to fighting at a disadvantage.

The aim of the uprising was the repeal of the Morúa law.  For this they devised the armed protest, which was only a drill.  The response was indiscriminate repression that spanned the entire nation.  Thousands of whites formed local self-defense militia and volunteered to fight in the East.  The government of the United States send marines to protect the lives of Americans and American property, and constitutional guarantees were suspended for 45 days.  The country was declared to be in a state of war.

On May 31, General Carlos Mendieta, invited journalists to witness the effectiveness of new machine guns against a suspected rebel camp in Hatillo. As a result 150 black and mulatto peasants were killed, including women and children. In retaliation, on June 1 independents took over the town of La Maya and burned some houses and buildings, a fact which was overstated in the discussion on June 3, which said that the Maya had been completely destroyed. From this event came the popular song “Alto Songo is burning La Maya.” On June 27 Evaristo Estenoz was shot at close range with 50 other men near Alto Songo. The final blow was the death of Peter Yvonnet on July 18. Nine days later Monteagudo, together with the officers and soldiers involved, were given a banquet in honor in Havana for the excellent work accomplished. 

Members of the PIC, as well as those who were not, were massacred in the name of “nation” against on “inferior race.” The end result was, according to official figures, firstly, two thousand people dead; other authors reported between three and six thousand, and William Lara, an independent who stood by Evaristo Estenoz spoke of five thousand. On the other side, 12 people died and 31 guards and volunteers were wounded, while the weapons seized from the rebels were fewer than 100 guns, tens of machetes, shotguns and rifles, as most of them were unarmed. Thus ended this attempt at the realization and participation of the Independent Party of Color, trying to make what was proclaimed in the Manifesto of Montecristi “equal to all the fatherland and for the good of all,” a reality.

The massacre was the cruelest manifestation of violence in our history to put the black man in his “place.” The horrible event not only slowed the process of national creation, but drove it back to colonial times.

“If we were to now define in a single word the ideal of today,” said Jorge Mañach from the University of Aire, “I would say it consists in making Cuba a transcendental historical entity.  The word is not enough: any country can be a fatherland.  The Republic is not enough: the republic is nothing more than a form.  When a form is filled with spiritual and social sustenance, when it has integrated and fully come together in a way that that leaves no gaps nor tensions, when one feels on lives not only in one’s memories but also in one’s will to create the future, that historical entity has the dignity of a nation.”

Martín Morúa Delgado

The social, economic and cultural life of blacks in Cuba in the late nineteenth century, coupled with political and legal order they faced, was a major obstacle to integration with whites on equal terms. Convinced of the potential for blacks to participate in society, from his start in politics in the second half of the nineteenth century, the lawyer Martin Delgado Morúa called for the overcoming cultural barriers as a premise for the fight for the necessary equality of opportunities.

In the capital’s newspaper, Ciudadano (Citizen), of which he was the editor, in September 1878 he published, “Freedom is the foundation and progress of the people. It means nothing to assert the freedom of the body if the enslaved spirit is dominated by ignorance.  It means nothing to have the word, if we don’t know how to speak of anything but depravity and vice; it means nothing to have printing, if we don’t respect the press.  What is the freedom of those nations whose citizens are determined to remain slaves?”

The obsession with overcoming cultural barriers was the first motivation for founding his own newspaper in 1879, El Pueblo, which he described as the “Official Organ of the Colored Race.”  In one of his articles, titles, “Instruction is not Manna” he said, “We have come to the stage of the press with the aim of contributing to the union and moral and intellectual perfection of the colored race.”

From that moment his attention was focused on blacks overcoming barriers, as shown in the following quotes:

“When the African has had space, his bring has been enlarged and has yielded the fruit yielded by other intelligences, whose field and opportunities has proportioned to them the condition of ‘privileged geniuses’.”

And once he’d gotten out from under the weight of the chains on his intellect of his, how would he produce this race?  He had appeared in the arts and in literature; he had participated, though in modest proportions, in industry and commerce; he had contributed gloriously in the exaltation of the national and anti-national weapons, and had given notable proof of no lack of aptitudes for the exercise of political and financial administration.

Equality is not given, it is acquired through honesty and education.

Adopting a serious plan, scientific, and on a solid foundation to launch a system in which there was no one pulling the strings from behind the scenes, nor kings with gold crowns made of cardboard, nor dictators without practical purpose, and without having a general benefit.  On this foundation they have constructed the granite-like mortar that the will provide for the adoption of a divided procedure of union, of narrow-minded confusion, of inextricable entanglement of all the classes of the society, corresponding to the most dispossessed the greatest sum of my own power… I sincerely and firmly believe that grouping everything individual in Cuba into any class in order to improve its condition constitutes a partiality that has been highly injurious to the country in general; because to group it by fractions would be nothing more than accentuating the dividing barrier that degrades everyone and perpetuates the line of reasoning that kills the progress of Cuban society.

No, no; the black race, the class of color, he said, must on no account set itself apart from the white race and so create a secessional state for life… Work? Yes, we work in good time, we work a great deal, but everyone united.  As ir were, as it could be, first a few, then some, then many, later, in the end, everyone, but always united.

Convinced of these ideas, from 1879 Morúa insisted over and over on overcoming the barriers that faced blacks.  Without freedom, he said, there is no life, but without enlightenment there is no freedom.  Thus instruction, enlightenment, education, culture were, for him, mediating links for participation in conditions of equality and true freedom.  From this date, as a consequence of his ideas, Morúa came to oppose the creation of racial associations, considering them harmful for achieving fraternity between blacks and whites.  It was because of the same thought that had made Juan Gualberto Gómez, that other great man, feel conflicted about the organization of the Director of Societies of Color in 1892.

True, the emergence of the PIC was a threat to the traditional parties of the time, especially for the Liberal Party, then in power. It is in this context that Martin Morúa, President of the Senate for that political organization, filed the Amendment which outlawed the new party, supported precisely on the ideal of integration. While it was in the interest of the Liberal Party to outlaw the Independents of Color, the truth is that Morúa, long before, had spoken out against the organization of racial associations, that he now considered harmful to achieving brotherhood between blacks and whites. 

The claim that there were black legislators afraid of losing their political base, who pressed for the banning of the PIC is unfounded.  Martín Morúa Delgado, Antonio González Pérez and Tomás Recio presented before the Senate on February 11,1910, an additional amendment to Article 17 pf the Electoral Law, which considered  the existence of groups or political parties exclusive to race contrary to the Constitution and the practice of the republican rgime

Morúa considered the existence of exclusive groups or political parties contrary to the constitution and the practice of the republican regime.  From that vision he proposed a constitutional amendment, which read, “An political party or independent group formed exclusively by individuals of one race or color, or by individuals of one class by reason of birth, wealth or professional degree, shall not be considered legitimate.”

In defense of his motion Morúa said, “I have been careful to save the indisputable right of Cubans to organize a labor party. It is not a question of the working class among which one finds men of both races and the purpose pursed is truly democratic and moralizing…”

Also in the debates he predicted that: a political organization composed of blacks would automatically generate its opposite, an organization composed solely of whites, and this was precisely the “conflict” that the law project intended to prevent.  He also said that: if they didn’t encounter obstacles, these trends could end up, “Drowning us all.”

For this reason we cannot attribute the submission and approval of the Morúa amendment solely to the interests of the Liberal Party.  Moreover, once approved, first as an Amendment and later as part of the Electoral Reform Law, the black members of Congress opposed its repeal.  Juan Gualberto Gómez himself, who defended the black association, together with the rest of the negro congressmen, opposed the creation of a party based solely on race and as a consequence on June 1, 1912, signed a declaration of support for the government.  Therefore if this has been Morúa’s permanent position regarding the existence of an organization of just one race, it is unfair and impossible to attribute the same conduct to his fear of losing his political base.

In short, the fate of the PIC prevented, once again, paraphrasing Jorge Mañach, the sharing of a common purpose beyond the differentiating elements in order to participate as subjects in shaping the nation.

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