The Black Revolt in Cuba of 1912 – Lessons from History
Blacks in Cuba had a complex situation going into the revolts of 1912. In the 19th century, the two main black leaders in Cuba were the writer and martyr of the revolution, Jose Martí, and arguably the greatest general to ever grace the revolutionary fronts, Antonio Maceo (because of his stature and renown war tactics, he was called “The Bronce Tytan”). After these icons of the revolution passed away, the blacks of Cuba felt ignored, sidelined, and forgotten.
Hugh Thomas, the famous historian of many Spanish Civil War books, lays it all out — or at least he tries — in his three-volume books, Cuba: The Fight for Liberty. In them, Thomas argues and reports that blacks had lost almost half of their population between 1887–1899. Many of them participated in the war, especially in Oriente (east of Cuba), where there was a huge population of blacks. Their religious practices, especially African traditions, were banned and only got to practice some portion of them if they could argue that the Catholic church approved them. The massive migration of Spaniards to the island (in 1908 almost 200,000 Spaniards had immigrated to Cuba) also brought the prejudice and the hardline racism that many blacks weren’t accustomed to with their fellow Cubans. In education, over half of the black population was illiterate, while 26% of Cuban whites were. Finally, and this would standout after 1912, black participation in politics was dim and almost non-existent.
This line of thought was the motor that made Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonett found in 1907 the Independent Party of Color. For some time, these black activists raised the racial questions that affected their community on the island — some writers of the era and in the present argue that this was because of the opportunism of the founders. General Gomez would play off these comments and would over-promise in his 1908 campaign. But as his liberal populism showed, he didn’t deliver and preferred to help the people of Santa Clara and his close friends. Estenoz and Ivonett continued their agitations and as Charles E. Chapman in his 1926 book, The History of the Cuban Republic showed, Gomez went ahead and imprisoned both leaders of the party of color.
To add more salt to the injury and proving lightly why Gomez was sometimes called the “Tyrant”, the president passed a law that prohibited the organization of political parties on the island based on race. The biggest spin of this part of the story is that the senator that passed the law, Morúa Delgado, was one of the few black politicians in the senate. In fact, Morúa knew how racism manifested itself, even in the highest positions of Cuban politics, when former president Estrada Palma refused to receive and have dinner with his wife.
With the insurgence leaders in prison, it would have seemed that the dangers of another revolution in Cuba were under control. But as the title of this essay suggests, that line of thinking came crashing down. Out of nowhere, Ivonett and Estenoz were released from jail. This was followed by several meetings with the president himself. As Chapman assets in his book, many writers of the time thought that Gomez was letting the party of color reorganized itself to agitate a revolt that he could control and later run for a second term behind such achievement.