Aline Helg's Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912

Aline Helg's Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912

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Aline Helg's Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912


Within Aline Helg’s book titled, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912, she includes many historical events that serve as a foundation for her arguments in order to emphasize the "black struggle for equality" starting in the late 19th century and according to her, still transpiring today. These events are, the formation of the first black independent political party called the, Partido Independiente de Color (146), the United States’ role during intervention and the black struggle to overcome the system of racial hierarchies that had developed in Cuba. Blacks had to fight for equality while simultaneously being, "…accused of racism and antinationalism". (145) According to Helg, this placed an undue burden on the black groups that were organizing to demand their "rightful share" because it made divided the goals of their plight into many different facets, thus yielding a lack of unity necessary for their success. During the United States’ intervention, Cuban nationalism as a whole was threatened which also served to downplay the importance of demands being made by the Partido’s leader, Estenoz. The United States displayed a greater concern on the affirmation of its power as an international police, rather than allying its resources to help the indignant and discriminated Afro-Cubans. All of these circumstances illustrate the extremities of the political and social institutions that the Afro-Cubans attempted to defeat but could not. They also exemplify the perpetuation of the black struggle, and how it affected and continues to affect the lives of Afro-Cubans in present-day Cuba.

Racial Hierarchies and Ideologies in Cuba

The entire struggle that Helg is alluding to in her book is founded within the racial hierarchies and racial ideologies that were formed early on in Cuba’s history. Several aspects of Cuban society (as discussed by Helg) served to foster the racism and the antagonistic attitudes that whites had towards the Afro-Cubans. An acute example of the inequality that the blacks were made to suffer was the denial of citizenship after 1886. According to Helg, Afro-Cubans were denied the titles of "Don" and "Doña" on their identity cards. This was a blatant form of discrimination against because it prevented blacks from being considered as first class citizens, "…despite the fact that they were full taxpayers". (25) What Helg means by this is that even though the Afro-Cubans were participating in the economic spectrum of Cuba, they were still denied access into the political and social arenas.

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This aided in the division of Cuban society along racial lines and continued through the denial of much secondary education for blacks, thus making it nearly impossible for blacks to enroll in any Universities.

Blacks also had to suffer much because they were not allowed any upward mobility in terms of employment and personal economic advancement. They were severely restricted within the rigid social hierarchy in terms of the amounts and types of jobs allowed for them to have. Out of many government jobs, the majority of only the lower ranks had some black representation, and they were completely excluded from the commerce sector of the economy. Helg states that the fact that many Spaniards neglected to return to Europe signified a detriment to black advancement because the Spanish monopolized the growing sectors of labor. (100) Due to these reasons, blacks were not able to build solid financial circumstances for themselves as an entire race. This only perpetuated the racist feelings towards them because whites could continue feeling superior, knowing that the economic advancement of blacks was being stifled by the ideologies compromising the economic backbone of Cuban industry and business.

Morua Amendment

A third societal detriment underlying the attitudes of whites was the "Morúa Amendment". Senator Morúa presented the Cuban Congress with the idea of an amendment that would ban the Partido Independiente de Color. He asserted that it only represented the views and wants of blacks and it actually discriminated against whites thus violating the "equality" secured in the Constitution. (165) This equality alludes to the "myth of equality" referred to by Helg several times. The whites in Cuba lived under the notion that the government did in fact protect the rights that blacks deserved and merely prevented them from taking over Cuba to make it into a black republic. This too preserve the whites’ fear that the blacks were trying to take over and thus justifies the horrific acts of violence against Afro-Cubans directly following these circumstances. (170) Helg states after discussing the massacre the occurred in response to several protests made by the Partido Independiente,

"That such an outburst of racism could occur under
the guidance of Liberation Army veterans, and in the
province that had been the birthplace of Cuban
Independence, damages forever the myth of Cuban
racial equality…it lays the groundwork for a concluding
reflection on the importance of race and culture in the
formation of Cuban nationalism." (226)

The passing of Morúa’s amendment, followed by the severity of the outcomes to follow between the Cuban government and the Partido Independiente display how these societal ideologies really did affect the everyday lives of every citizen (black or white) living in Cuba at that time.

Partido Independiente

It is important to understand how the Partido Independiente de Color was founded and exactly how its demands were manifestations of the bitter denial of rights Afro-Cubans were forced to endure. This party challenged the afore-mentioned social and ideological structures by demanding recognition from the Cuban national government. Even suffering under much scrutiny and repression, this group of individuals managed to make a mark in history by being singled out as the greatest threat to Cuban national security after the War for Independence. They merely wanted to claim their "rightful share" of "sociopolitical" recognition as well as public jobs that they had earned via their "massive participation" in the Independence War. (142) Helg gives the two main problems preventing the party from ever ultimately achieving these goals. The first being that the Partido Independiente lacked a prominent national leader to serve as a positive icon for what they stood for. (156) Someone like Maceo, who had lead the blacks during the struggle for independence, would have been helpful because he was a figure that could have unified all the facets of the Afro-Cuban struggle. A second, and very vital aspect of the declination of the party was that it lacked the economic facilities. That is, the blacks were struggling with such a multi-faceted battle that it was impossible to concentrate their efforts in any particular area. For example, not only were they battling the white notion that they fostered anti-white, racist views, but they could not seem to obtain the leverage necessary in order to capture the attention of national leaders such as Gómez. Because of this, they expounded upon the resources they did have such as the publication of the newspaper, Previsión. (146) With this, they were able to express their ideas and their campaigns for what levels of equality they ultimately wanted to achieve for blacks. Also, they attempted to destroy the stigmas associated with blacks by rationalizing against whites’ main fears. (149) They asserted that Cuba could not become another Haiti because the Afro-Cubans did not aim to establish their own republic, rather they wanted to live in conjunction with the "white" society. They were simply alleging that the discrimination was provoking blacks to fight for the right of political recognition. They also defended the African tradition of brujería and said that it was not a "murderous" practice like many whites claimed. (149) Even though they refuted these accusations, going against the entire "persona" created by whites to characterize Afro-Cubans as a separate, inferior race was difficult because whites had images of blacks as barbarian rapists who did not know how to comport themselves in a civilized manner. As said by Helg, "Newspapers continually propagated the three black icons of fear: the ñáñigo, the brujo and the rapist". (107)

During the Partido’s struggle, there existed an element of black nationalism and pride. Afro-Cubans actually began believing that the justification of their cause gave them the legitimacy to be proud of their heritage. An important illustration of this sentiment is expressed in a letter given to Previsión. The author says,

"one thing that is ours, ours, without mixing or blending
with foreign bodies. I am a black dot, one out of the anonymous
mass of my race, who longs for the claim of my people through
our own effort, through the compact union and solidarity of our
family…Whites’ god is made of marble. Why should our divinity
not be made of ebony or iron?…" (151)

This pride quickly dissipated with the failure of the party and the deaths of Estenoz and Ivonnet, two of the party’s figureheads. Afro-Cubans became disenchanted when they realized that their two most adamant leaders could not be the pillars of strength behind the party’s cause. The outbursts of severe racism in 1912 expressed the notion of silencing the black "voice" and further perpetuated the white social ideologies established in the past. (234) Rather than uniting the blacks, these sentiments further increases the disparity between the different groups and classes of Afro-Cubans. The white Cuban government was trying to enforce the notion that blacks finally, "…knew and accepted their true place in society". (237) As a result, many Afro-Cubans dissociated themselves from the lower classes of blacks in order not to be considered as part of the "mass of the raza de color". (244) Helg says that this attitude was in fact prevalent among the growing number of young, black intellectuals because they had not experienced the War for Independence alongside the older, lower-class Afro-Cubans. In order to stress what separated them from the other blacks, these men founded the "Club Atenas". (244) Rather than being proud of their heritage, these men wished to assimilate into the "mainstream white culture and society". (244) This too is a reflection of the societal ideologies because these men were hoping to arrange and distinguish themselves in terms of social class, and not as a race as a whole. In fact, they too succumbed to believing in the façade of the Cuban "myth of racial equality".

The Partido Independiente's Failure To Achieve Racial Equality
It is important to address the question of whether or not the Partido Independiente failed in their plight for racial equality. According to Helg, they failed because they never asserted the necessity for equality within all facets of Cuban society. They also however, failed in the respect that they did not comply with their peaceful promises for their struggle. Due to frustration and lack of improvement, their fight turned violent when Estenoz gave Gómez the ultimatum. In February of 1912, Estenoz warned Gómez and said that if the Morúa amendment was not repealed by April, blacks would "fight to save their honor". (190) He also published an article in Reivindicación that threatened the government and said if the demands were not met, there would be massive protests in Oriente. This sparked the combative reaction of the government to the Partido’s demands. Helg elaborates on the "mistakes" of the Partido in order to illustrate how they did not achieve success. The ultimate reminder of this failure was the racist massacre of 1912 and the suspension of blacks’ constitutional rights. (211) This was the government’s response to the desperate measures of the Partido in order to gain equality. Helg emphasizes the lack of support given to the Partido and all Afro-Cubans in general because there was almost no opposition to the suspension of constitutional rights. (211) Perhaps the greatest failure of the party was that it stripped many blacks of the hope of a better living. After the Partido ended however, there was one last attempt at organizing an organization of Afro-Cubans and this was the Partido de los Amigos del Pueblo founded by Lacoste and other surviving activist Independientes. This party asserted that blacks needed to "love" themselves and organize politically. (240-241) However this group too lacked support and ultimately failed as well. Helg gives an accurate account of the how the party’s failure culminated with the deaths of its leaders, thus allowing the perpetuation of the repression of blacks.

United States Involvement in Cuba's Racial Struggle

The United States’ involvement during this entire era of Cuban history did not aid the situation of the blacks. Rather, it was ultimately preoccupied with its own economic and political advancement. An example of this self-involvement was the Platt Amendment. This document secured right of the U.S. to, "…intervene in Cuba in order to defend life, property, and liberty…" (98) The U.S. wanted to ensure that it would be accepted as a legitimate power to the Cuban government. This was so it could periodically interfere within Cuban affairs to regulate them according to the manner in which the government of the U.S. saw fit. According to Helg, Estenoz depended on U.S. interference but was deeply disappointed with the response to his requests. Helg stresses this dependence by stating, "Continuing a strategy they had designed in 1910, the independiente leaders also counted on U.S. pressure on the Cuban government to expedite the repeal of Morúa’s amendment." (200) The leaders enforced their necessity to the U.S. government by sending letters and threatening foreign investments should they not comply with their needs. The U.S. however, was more preoccupied with other aspects of the Cuban political regime. Rather than supporting the Partido Independiente’s cause, they actually served to threaten Cuban nationalism as a whole by fostering some racist feelings towards this culture that, according to them, was not truly "white". Helg gives an accurate depiction of the U.S. attitude when she states, "U.S. citizens in Oriente generally expressed their satisfaction with the repression. One thought that the killing of Ivonnet was a ‘mighty good job’." (230) By examining the actions taken by the U.S., as well as the general negativity being expressed to all Cubans in general, that the U.S. was primarily concerned with securing its power in relation to this island-nation.


One can note how the aftermath of the Racist Massacre of 1912, still continues to reflect the racist and antagonistic attitudes of whites towards Afro-Cubans. This is because many of the same connotations were still being applied to blacks such as the idea of the black "brujo" and rapist. Helg refers to this continuation of the legacy of black racism in present-day Cuba and says,

"…the myth of Cuban racial equality continues to be used
to prevent Afro-Cubans from voicing discontent or organizing
autonomously…the fact that Afro-Cubans even today remain
largely underrepresented in the upper spheres of power and
overrepresented in the lower strata of society indicates that the
Afro-Cuban struggle for equality has yet to be fully won." (248)

This present-day struggle is quite different from the Afro-Cubans earlier struggle in the sense that it is "de jure" inequality. That is, the black overrepresentation in lower strata of the job force is a reflection of past "de facto" racism and laws that prevented blacks from achieving proper education and employment. Thus, the blacks in Cuba continue to struggle and prove themselves as being equal citizens, worthy of complete racial equality under the Cuban "myth" that it already exists.
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