El Doce is the tragic story of the racist massacre that killed thousands of Black Cubans across the entire country of Cuba in late spring and early summer of 1912.
My initial attempt to play a part in bringing to light yet another example of vicious genocide was on meacfans.com in May 2000. Two years (and many Black History Month emails later), I was
fortunate enough to have The Miami Times agree to publish the story in a three part series that was very well-received by people in Miami eager to get another side of the Cuban story.
The overwhelming majority of the material I have referenced during my research comes from two very good books that I encourage readers to look into when some allows for some deep and
informative historical reading.
The first book is Our Rightful Share: the AfroCuban Struggle for Equality, 1886 - 1912 by Aline Helg who was a professor at the University of Texas and now resides in Switzerland. This
book was highly recommended to me and I can see why. It was not easy finding Our Rightful Share but, once I did locate it, it was well worth the efforts. This book is well-written and extremely illuminating.
The other book is El Negro en Cuba (or The Black Man in Cuba) by Tomás Fernández Robaina. Please note that the only copy of this book that I have been able to find is in Spanish.
I was also very blessed to have discovered during my research a wonderful website that I still refer to frequently: afrocubaweb.com. This extraordinary website has been invaluable as it has rare photographs related to El Doce - including most of the images contained on this page - as well as information about a film made by Cuban film maker Gloria Rolando about this massacre,Raices de Mi Corazon (Roots of My Heart).
I used a third book - a doctoral dissertation found in an obscure corner of the University of Miami's library but only sparingly.
Please note that what follows is not meant to be a formal academic discourse hence I beg the pardon of my friends in academia who may bristle at the lack of a formal methodology in this essay.
Many AfroCubans fought valiently for the cause of Cuban Independence from Spain. When I write that "many AfroCubans" rushed to join the ranks of the Cuban Liberation Army (in numbers that were - in many instances - much larger in proportion than white Cubans), I mean that women and children often fought too.
October, 1868 set into motion what became the definitive and defiant anomaly of the Victorian Age. While Europe and the United States were putting the macabre and sadistic tenets of social Darwinism (the "scientific paradigm" that was in vogue at that time among learned and civilized men of culture - read that to mean white men – which spoke so self-righteously of superior races and inferior races designed to justify modern colonialism) into brutal and avaricious practice in Africa and Asia andwestern North America, Cuban revolutionaries set out to drive Spain (the originator of the various modus operandi of modern colonialism) into the Caribbean Sea.
There were no more master and slave - only citizens. To be racist was to be unpatriotic - a traitor to the homeland. Black, white, Cantonese, and mixed-race Cubans rose in righteous rebellion against the Spanish crown and all of the oppressive and dysfunctional institutions it so callously imposed upon Cuba. As was said during the thirty-year struggle for independence, the blood of both white and black patriots spilled on the field of battle fighting for Cuba intermingled to fertilize the soil of freedom.
To have a revolutionary ideology (that at times manifested itself almost as a radical theology) which not only spoke and wrote of the brotherhood of all humans but also acted upon it (over 70% of the officer corps of the Army of Independence was "of color") was something that ran in the face of all that was reassuring to Euro-centric concentrations of political, economic, social, and military power. url link
The Republic of Cuba was "born" on 20 May, 1902 but only after Cuba's "leaders" agreed to make its sovereignty conditional to the impermanent approval of the United States government.
Almost from the outset, AfroCubans realized that many whites were intent on taking all of the spoils that so many Black Cubans had fought so valiantly for during the War of Independence.
Basically, three things kept AfroCubans - many of whom were veterans of the War of Independence) oppressed and frustrated:
- racist, Jim Crow policies advocated and encouraged by the United States while the U.S. was occupying Cuba
- racist and corrupt white Cubans that were in positions of power at virtually every level of government and business
- Spanish and other European immigrants that were encouraged to settle in Cuba as per attempts to "bleach" the island.
Suffrage for Black males was not a problem in Cuba then as it was in the United States at the same time however getting decent jobs and admittance into organized labor was. For example, Quintín Banderas, one of the most famous of Black generals for Cuban independence, could not even get a job as a janitor after the war.
With regards to the vote that Black men had in Cuba, it was not long before they realized what still so many African-Americans in the United States have yet to realize: the "big" political parties are not going to truly look out for the best interest of both Black and white party members.
Thus, on 7 August, 1908, Evaristo Estenoz and Gregorio Surín started El Partido Independiente de Color (P.I.C. or the Independent Party of Color). Remember that, at this time, the NAACP had not even been started in the United States.
The PIC was the first all-Black political party in this hemisphere.
The PIC's platform was simple and straightforward:
- allow for better job opportunities for Black Cubans
- end to the ban on Black immigrants
- serve as a unified voice for Black Cubans.
"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."
- a letter to Previsión, the main publication the PIC (from Our Rightful Share)
At the time, AfroCubans comprised about a third of the Cuban population at the time (this was due to disportionate casualty rates for Black during the War of Independence and the aggressive importation of white immigrants from Europe). However, if whites were split between the liberal and conservative parties modeled on the United States' two party system and Black Cubans, who were viewed as a wing vote to patronize during campaigns, were to vote as a bloc the political power of Blacks in Cuba would likely be a major force in elections and policy-making.
This basically, was the first time anything like this was seriousl proposed since Haiti. This is important to note because the "spectre" of Haiti loomed ominously over Spanish and Cuban whites for a century and most of their policies towards Cuba's Blacks were reflective of it.
The immediate reaction of whites was to denounce the PIC as being racist. Yet, they failed to realize (or acknowledge) that the PIC was borne not out of AfroCuban racism but as a direct result of white Cubans ignoring the ideals of Cuban racial harmony stressed by many and perhaps most famously by José Martí.
The PIC was formed during the second U.S. occupation of Cuba (the American provisional governor at the time of the second occupation was then-Secretary of War and future President William Taft). The following year Martin Morúa Delgado, a conservative Cuban of color, is elected Speaker in Cuba's Senate. The year after that, Morúa introduces legislation that becomes known as the Morúa Amendment and it outlaws the PIC because is based on race and, according to the bill's supporters, racism did not exist in Cuba anymore.
Interesting to note that, just before the vote was taken to enact this bill into law, Estenoz and other PIC leaders were imprisoned and were kept in jail until after the law was passed.
Shortly after Estenoz was jailed, Morúa himself died. He was given a full state honors, no doubt to demonstrate to Black Cubans the benefits of supporting the status quo versus trying to rehabilitate it.
"Everybody has seen the succes achieved by our party [the PIC] in all the republic and [our] last brilliant tour of Oriente, and everybody could evaluate the electoral victory awaiting us. In order to oppose it, they have resorted to the bad means of depicting us as 'cannibals of whites'."
- Evaristo Estenoz, "La Discusión" (from Our Rightful Share)
A continuation and escalation of repression of Blacks that began during the first administration of Cuba's first president, Tomás Estrada Palma was one reaction to the formation of the PIC. Among the tactics employed was ignoring the blatant portrayal of AfroCubans in negative lights in the Cuban press as well as attempts to stamp out any evidence of African culture and heritage including trying to do away with the Abakúa brotherhood. This was done in much the same fashion by which Spain outlawed Freemasonry in Cuba in 1895 (many respected leaders in the Independence movement such as Antonio Maceo and Martí were Masons).
By spring of 1912, the inevitable decision to protest this repression had arrived.
On 20 May, 1912, PIC party members - many of whom were veterans of the War of Independence - assembled in protest in Oriente Province. A statement was made via an interview the following day that the movement was not racist - it sought only to redress the grievances of PIC.
American government officials, upon hearing of the protest, sent 700 servicemen and 2 warships from Philadelphia on 23 May.
Also on that day, a Cuban government official sent off a telegraph to The New York Timesstating the majority of the Cuban people were on the side of the government. Debate on the "insurrection" began in the Cuban House of Representatives and a Spaniard was captured by government forces claiming that he was forcibly conscripted by the "rebels of the PIC."
The Cuban Legation in Washington, D.C. received an urgent telegraph stating that the government is in complete control of the situation.
Volunteers to help existing Cuban government forces fight against PIC came forward en masse.
The Government declared its intention not to negotiate with PIC. The Cabinet authorized the use of whatever recourse is necessary to crush the "rebellion. " On 25 May, Cuban coast guard boat El Hatuey was sent to Oriente Province with a caché of arms and other war materiel.
The Cuban government was then informed that Washington had ordered two battleships in the area to rendezevous at Key West for the possibility of engagement. The following day, Cuban President José Miguel Goméz cabled Washington asking them to please refrain from intervening for the sake of Cuba's natural sovereign rights.
On 27 May, Cuban Army General Monteagudo was dispatched to Oriente.
U.S. President Taft replied to Goméz by stating that he understood concerns for Cuban sovereignty and then proceeded to explain the rationale behind the movement of American military forces.
A newspaper in London stated that the British opinion of the events was that the U.S. would annex Cuba outright.
On 5 June, constitutional guarantees were suspended in Oriente as martial law was declared. A war credit of a million pesos was granted to the Cuban army and 450 American servicemen arrived in Cuba. A day later, Goméz called for a national struggle against "rebels."
The following is taken from Aline Helg's Our Rightful Share:
By May 1912, there was still no sign that the independientes would be allowed to participate in the November elections.
By showing their willingness to resort to armed protest, [so as to compel the Cuban congress to repeal the "Morua Amendment" outlawing PIC] however, the independientes prompted an outbrust of racism that swept the entire country. Although the independientes actually demonstrated only in Oriente, white repression was nationwide, indiscriminate, and unopposed.
..the government rallied immediate cross-party support for a policy of merciless repression; throughout the island, thousands of whites organized themselves into local "self-defense" militias and volunteered to go fight in Oriente.
The US government dispatched Marines to protect US lives and properties.
In the face of President Gómez' inflexibility and the army's increasing antiblack violence, on 31 May and 1 June the independientes performed limited sabotage and burned some buildings. Instantly magnified, this act provoked a new escalation of repression of AfroCubans in the provinces of Havana, Santa Clara, and elsewhere. Moreover, it justified the suspension of constitutional guarantees on 5 June in Oriente, where the bloodiest violence took place.
Thousands of AfroCubans, including Evaristo Estenoz, Pedro Ivonnet, and hundreds of other independientes, were killed by the Cuban army and voluntarios. This massacre achieved what Morúa's amendment and the trial against the party in 1910 had been unable to do: it put a definitive end to the Partido Independiente de Color and made it clear to all AfroCubans that any further attempt to challenge the social order would be crushed with bloodshed.
Journalists had a predilection for reporting false rumors of rapes of white women. In a population in which the ideals of virginity and pureza de sangre ["pure blood"] still ran high and in which white men continued to outnumber white women, the image of Blacks raping white women fit in with the overall representation of race war. The idea had been so deeply rooted in white Cuban culture since the time of slavery that it did not need the support of evidence.
"The Uprising of the Black Independents
Alarms and Rumors Everywhere - The Official Version"
Moreover, newspapers claimed that the real leader of the movement was not Estenoz or Ivonnet but, rather, Eugenio Lacoste, "the Wizard of Guantánamo." The son of a Haitian immigrant, light-skinned, and educated in oriental French schools, Lacoste had been struck down by paralysis at the age of twenty-one and since then had been confined to a wheel chair. In 1912, he was a fifty-one year old coffee grower and the head of the PIC in Guantánamo; he was rumored to dominate his "fanatical" followers by spritualism and brujería [witchcraft]. This explanation allowed commentators to enhance the image of the Black brujo with that of the Haitian voodoo priest [bokor].
The racialization of the independiente movement and the ensuing mobilization of whites against Blacks rendered the Cuban myth of racial equality ideologically useless.
[One Cuban newspaper] advocated that Cuba should emulate the United States in matter of race relations. In that country, an editorialist noted, there were ten million Blacks, but they did not rebel. Why? Because U.S. whites, unlike Cuban whites, mistreated Blacks: they burned them alive, they lynched them, they kept them completely segregated, and they did not let them vote. He concluded: "Objective lessons are terrible: Dominated races do submit."
[Prior to May 1912] whites were ready to interpret any movement of Blacks as an uprising.
Local rumors...were propogated at the national level by mainstream newspapers, which gave the impression that the supposed race war raged not only in Oriente but everywhere on the island. Fears rose nationwide. In the province of Havana, though no protest group had been observed, the alarm ran high. Black seasonal workers journeying home at the end of the zafra [sugar cane harvest] were the subjects of numerous rumors about attempted Black uprisings.
The independiente leaders were well informed about the chasm between newspaper descriptions of the alleged race war and the reality of thier armed protest. On several occasions, the formally denied to Cuban journalists and to U.S. officials that they had launched a war against whites: their aim was simply to obtain a repeal of Morúa's amendment, Estenoz and Ivonnet declared to El Cubano Libre's correspondent. In addition, they asserted that their followers would not commit rapes, and that if rapes did take place, the culprits would be executed.
The orgy of murder that ensued was unilateral.
...Repression preceded Independiente actions.
Frustrated at not having the chance to fight rebels ["rebels" refers to independientes who did not surrender to the army - Ivonnet did and he was shot in the back, "trying to escape"], Cuban officers began to attack peaceful peasants [guajiros] indiscriminately in order to show military activity. One particularly bloody incident was the artillery campaign that Gen. Carlos Mendieta conducted in the area of La Maya. On 31 May, Mendieta invited journalists to witness the efficiency of the army's new machine guns against an alleged encampment of rebels in Hatillo. His forces then simulated a battle. As a result, 150 peaceful AfroCuban peasants, among them women and children, were killed or wounded. Entire families were machine-gunned in their bohíos. According to one witness, the cries of the wounded resonated in the distance, and for days vultures circled over the area, attracted by the corpses.
...Whites were permitted to carry arms without license.
Government forces suspected the entire AfroCuban population of collaborating with the rebels. Blacks and mulattoes found in the fields were considered rebels, unarmed peasants were believed to have hidden their guns, and all were treated without mercy. Military rule facilitated both arrests withouth evidence and executions for alleged attempts to escape. The requirement that individuals have military passes to enter and leave cities considerably restrained AfroCubans' movements: "No suspects or culprits are able to ask for passes," one journalist reported, "because they are well aware that such boldness would surely cost them their lives...."
Mass killings multiplied after the suspension of the constitutional guarantees. The bodies of hanged men began to appear in close proximity to towns....
By 10 June, it was public knowledge that those shot or hanged were seldom rebels. According to the U.S. Consul in Santiago de Cuba, "many innocent and defenseless Negroe in the country are being butchered." Bohíos were set on fire, and peasant families trying to run away were hunted down and shot. Alleged rebels who surrendered or were taken prisoner were often killed, and their bodies were often multilated.
The British consulate at Santiago reported that whites would come into town with a packet of Negroes' ears cut off prisoners who had been shot.
...Commander of the Cuban Army General Monteagudo carried out such "carnage in the hills" that "it was impossible to estimate the number of dead."
Estonez was shot at point-blank range, together with fifty men.... His body, covered with flies, was displayed in Santiago de Cuba before being buried in a common grave....
...The exact balance of the racist massacre of 1912 will never be known. Official Cuban sources put the number of dead rebels [no mention of innocent "civilians" murdered] at more than 2,000. U.S. citizens living in Oriente estimated it at 5,000 to 6,000. Guillermo Lara, an indepiente fighting with Estonez, spoke of 5,000 dead. In contrast, the official figure for the total dead in the armed forces was sixteen, including eight AfroCubans murdered by their white mates and some men shot by friendly fire.
In all likelihood, Estonez and Ivonnet never expected the racist outcry that followed the launching for their armed protest. Several sources even indicate that the independientes had made an argreement with President Gómez.
The deal that appears to have been was that the PIC would protest, Gómez would use the "threat" for leverage to compel Congress to repeal the Morúa amendment and he would get credit for "saving the day." In turn, the PIC would support the president and his candidates in November. This was not a big secret to the point where even the French ambassador was aware of it and the British consulate in Santiago had noticed that, as some independientes were being arrested, the leaders of the PIC, Estonez and Ivonnet, walked about undisturbed by authorities without having to "hide."
However, it appears that the president was selling worthless tickets of deceit to PIC as evidenced by the following from Our Rightful Share:
Mainstream white Cuban reaction to the 1910 ... repression of the PIC ... had shown [that Gómez had more to gain from just the opposite of what he promised to the PIC].
On this basis, a more Machiavellian version of the thesis of an independiente agreement with Gómez cannot be excluded: that President Gómez hoped to be reelected in November 1912 not through independientes' support but through a broad white support - transcending party allegiance - gained in the
military repression of an independiente armed protest he himself would've induced.
Since I first attempted to tell this story in 2000 it has become known to some as the "Cuban Rosewood." Because the telling of this story involved forces much more complex and deep-seeded than what one would expect, there is no way that this journal entry could ever fully tell the story. If anything, it is my sincere hope that this will motivate the reader to seek out additional truthes not only about this tragedy (I strongly recommend purchasing copies of Ms. Helg's important historical testimony, Our Rightful Share) but also other tragic stories such as Tulsa and its Black Wall Street, Rwanda, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the eviction and liquidation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and so many others (if you dont know about Ida B. Wells, do learn about her - soon!).
The presence of a Black dot on the psuedowhiteness of our sociopolitical floor was cleverly used to delude the Black masses into believing that they were respected and taken into account.
-Alberto Arredondo, El Negro en Cuba
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**Other helpful sources: