The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the island of Cuba was in the process of emerging from a Spanish colony to an independent nation. Freedom from Spain, however, was not the only struggle that Cuba was experiencing at this time. After having been oppressed by slavery for several centuries, Afro-Cubans, who had joined the fight for independence in large numbers, were demanding equality in Cuban society. Nevertheless, whites, especially in the elite, continued to initiate discriminatory practices against them. As a last resort, Afro-Cubans staged an armed protest in response to the outlawing of their political party in 1912. Although valiant, the attempt was nonetheless a failure because it did not succeed in establishing racial equality in Cuba. Rather, it tragically resulted in the massacre of thousands of Afro-Cuban protesters by Cuban whites.
As was the case throughout the Americas, white racism against blacks and mulattos was deeply rooted in Cuban society. Prejudice and discrimination against Afro-Cubans continued to increase after the abolition of slavery in 1886. Whites, particularly those in the upper classes, viewed blacks and mulattos as belonging to an inferior race that was unworthy of the same rights and privileges that they themselves enjoyed in society. Education, entertainment, and employment were some of the areas in which Afro-Cubans suffered significant discrimination. They were often denied acceptance into private schools, given separate accommodations in theaters and other entertainment establishments, refused service by many restaurants, and were usually unable to obtain employment in professional and skilled occupations (Helg 25-26). Prisons and hospitals even had separate sections for blacks and whites (Helg 25). All of these practices sought to keep Cuba’s African population at the lower levels of its society.
Despite these discriminatory practices, the white elite insisted that Cuban society was fair to all its members by hiding behind what Helg calls "the myth of racial equality". According to this myth, Cuba had attained racial equality because white masters had freed their slaves during the first war of attempted independence, blacks and whites had fought side by side in the war, and that if blacks were not successful, it was due to their own lack of merits (Helg 105-106). However, the myth failed to take into account that some masters had opposed the freeing of their slaves, that Afro-Cubans were over-represented in the independence army and in the lower ranks, and that slavery had deprived blacks of the opportunity to acquire the skills they needed to succeed in professional careers (105-106).
Many Afro-Cubans felt that if Cuba achieved independence from Spain, they would finally obtain equality in its society. It was for this reason that thousands of them joined the Liberation Army. Helg says that...