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Vol. 76/No. 12      March 26, 2012

Caribbean’s shared legacy of
slavery, resistance, revolution
Pathfinder book presentation in Havana discusses lessons:
from Grenada Revolution to U.S. class struggle
(feature article)
HAVANA—The countries and peoples of the Caribbean, including the U.S. Gulf Coast region, are bound by a shared history of “slavery, its legacy, the dashed expectations of the emancipated slaves”—and the resulting struggles, said Graciela Chailloux. She was speaking at a Feb. 15 presentation during this year’s Havana International Book Fair of four Pathfinder Press titles related to the history of the Caribbean. Chailloux teaches at the University of Havana’s Fernando Ortiz Advanced Studies Program.

The featured books were Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes; a new Spanish-language edition of The Second Assassination of Maurice Bishop by Steve Clark, published in English as an article in issue 6 of the Marxist magazine New International; La revolución granadina, 1979-83 (The Grenada Revolution, 1979-83), with speeches by Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro; and Puerto Rico: Independence Is a Necessity by Rafael Cancel Miranda.

Forty people attended the lively event, one of dozens connected to the theme of this year’s book fair: “The cultures of the peoples of the Greater Caribbean.” Among the youthful audience were half a dozen students from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and from Princeton, N.J., who are currently studying in Cuba. Like many others in the audience, they attended the presentation after stopping at the Pathfinder stand at the fair and learning something about the class struggle in the Americas of which they had known little before.

Grenada Revolution

Joining Chailloux on the panel were Jorge Luna, the Caribbean correspondent for Prensa Latina at the time of the Grenada Revolution and author of Granada: La nueva joya del Caribe (Grenada: New jewel of the Caribbean), and Martín Koppel of Pathfinder Press. The panel was chaired by Jonathan Silberman, director of Pathfinder Books in London.

Luna described the popular revolution that opened in Grenada in March 1979 with the overthrow of the Eric Gairy dictatorship and the establishment of a workers and farmers government whose central leader was Maurice Bishop. Grenada, a former British colony, is a Caribbean island nation north of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Grenada Revolution, “little known today,” Luna said, was “very deep-going.” He pointed to the “nearly weekly, sometimes daily” mobilizations of thousands of people—in a country of 110,000 inhabitants—and the establishment of popular militias, as workers and farmers pressed their interests against the local capitalist magnates and their imperialist backers. “There was a new spirit of dignity among the Grenadian people,” he said.

The revolution had an international impact well beyond the country’s size, Luna said, the more so in the United States and the United Kingdom as Grenada is an English-speaking country with an overwhelmingly Black population. He paraphrased Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s remark that—together with Cuba and Nicaragua where a popular insurrection triumphed in July 1979—Grenada was one of “three giants” in the Caribbean rising “on the very doorstep of imperialism.” Revolutionary Cuba lent its internationalist solidarity, sending dozens of volunteers to serve in Grenada as teachers, doctors, and construction workers helping to build a new international airport.

The Grenada Revolution was overthrown when Maurice Bishop and other central leaders of the New Jewel Movement were murdered in a counterrevolutionary coup led by another of the NJM leaders, Bernard Coard. Coard’s faction, which looked to Moscow, handed Washington the opportunity to invade “on a silver platter,” Luna said. When 5,000 U.S. troops landed on Grenadian soil in October 1983, Fidel Castro said they had “invaded a corpse,” he noted.

“I had the good fortune to get to know Bishop well,” Luna said. Encouraging the audience to read The Second Assassination of Maurice Bishop, he explained how, after the overthrow of the revolution, Coard’s supporters in the Caribbean and elsewhere had organized a self-serving campaign of lies and slanders against Bishop—his “second assassination.”

In her remarks, Chailloux said she appreciated the explanation in The Second Assassination of Maurice Bishop that “the betrayal that occurred among Grenadian revolutionaries was not unique.” There are “similarities with what happened in Cuba in 1962 and 1968 with the microfaction, a grouping within the leadership of the revolution that tried to make it follow a different road [that] could have aborted it.”*

Record of class struggle in U.S.

Chailloux focused her remarks on Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, which she encouraged everyone to read. She said the book helps readers understand “the connection that exists between the social processes in the world.” She pointed to what she had learned about the “continuity of struggle” by Blacks in the United States going back to the Civil War, Radical Reconstruction, and resistance to Jim Crow segregation. She noted that the author explains the place of Malcolm X’s political trajectory within this history, and “what it takes to make a revolution.”

This question was taken up by Koppel, both at the Pathfinder presentation and at a Caribbean Forum, at which he was a panelist. “It took a revolutionary war and decade of Radical Reconstruction to eradicate slavery in the United States,” Koppel said. “But by 1877, popular governments in Louisiana and elsewhere, some majority Black, had been drowned in blood” by armed counterrevolutionary vigilantes unleashed by a rising industrial bourgeoisie that feared the nascent alliance of emancipated Blacks, free farmers and a developing proletariat.

Workers who are Black have played and will continue to play a vanguard role in struggles by working people in the U.S., Koppel said. This 150-year-long record “is one of the things that give us confidence in the capacity of working people to make a socialist revolution in the United States.”

Speaking about Puerto Rico: Independence Is a Necessity, Koppel, who interviewed Rafael Cancel Miranda for the booklet, underscored the fact that the fight for Puerto Rican independence is central to a revolutionary working-class perspective in the United States. Cancel Miranda, who spent 27 years in U.S. prisons for his pro-independence actions, carried out political work from behind prison bars in much the same way as the five imprisoned Cuban revolutionaries are doing today.

Cancel Miranda’s identification with the Cuban Revolution is an expression of his proletarian internationalism, placing the independence struggle “as part of a world struggle,” Koppel concluded.

Following the presentations, spirited discussion continued informally. Participants snapped up 40 copies of the four books on offer, including 15 on Grenada and 18 copies of Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power in Spanish, English or French. Hundreds of copies of this title have circulated in Cuba since the English-language edition was first made available here at the 2010 book fair. Again this year, it was one of the top-selling Pathfinder titles, with 34 purchased from the Pathfinder stand in hard currency.

Blacks in Cuba’s history of struggle

The book fair organizers tied commemorations of two events in Cuban history into the Greater Caribbean theme. One was a seminar on “200 years since the Aponte plot: black Cubans in the fight for emancipation.” It discussed the 1812 pro-independence and antislavery rebellion by enslaved Africans and free Blacks in Cuba led by José Antonio Aponte, a free mestizo carpenter who sought to link up with revolutionaries in the newly independent republic of Haiti. Spanish colonial authorities crushed the revolt and hanged Aponte.

The other commemoration was of the 100th anniversary of the 1912 armed protest by the Independent Party of Color, a political party founded by veterans of Cuba’s independence wars who were black and mestizo. The party opposed racist discrimination and championed broader social demands. The neocolonial government in Havana suppressed the 1912 protest, unleashing a massacre of more than 3,000 Cubans who were black.

The history of the Independent Party of Color and the massacre of its members remains little known in Cuba. “It has taken 100 years since the great slaughter [of 1912] to rescue it from oblivion,” commented historian Fernando Martínez Heredia at the commemoration. A film on the party by Cuban director Gloria Rolando was also part of the fair program, and several thousand copies of a special 32-page tabloid bulletin with articles on the 1912 revolt were distributed at the fair and at public newsstands around the country.

In addition, Cuban publishers printed 15 titles on these and other topics related to the role of men and women of African descent in the history of Cuba, the Americas, and beyond. Among them were Por la identidad del negro cubano (For the identity of black Cubans) and Afrocubanas: Historia, pensamiento y prácticas (Afro-Cuban women: History, thought, and practice), two collections of essays by several authors; and Durban, diez años después: La batalla cubana por la plena equidad racial (Durban: 10 years later: The Cuban battle for full racial equality), by Pedro de la Hoz. They also included new Spanish-language editions of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Guyanese anti-imperialist fighter Walter Rodney and Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams of Trinidad, as well as a raft of fiction and poetry titles.

Panels included writers from across the English-, Spanish-, French-, and Dutch-speaking Caribbean, such as Norman Girvan from Jamaica and Chiqui Vicioso from the Dominican Republic. Well-known salsa musician and pro-independence figure Danny Rivera was among dozens from Puerto Rico who took part in fair events. Casa de las Américas, one of the leading cultural institutions in Cuba, organized a three-day Caribbean Forum in which many of these writers participated.

Addressing challenges today

An article in the Jan. 7-13 edition of La Jiribilla, an online publication promoted by the Ministry of Culture, noted that these events were intended to encourage a fresh look “at the contributions—in terms of ideas, willingness to struggle, and political action—by the black population of Cuba, subjected to conditions of exploitation and lacking equal rights” in prerevolutionary Cuba.

The article featured an interview with Zuleica Romay, president of the Cuban Book Institute. She noted that this broad effort, which began in 2011 with events organized around the International Year of Afro-Descendants, will continue throughout the coming year. Events include a conference in March to discuss the history of the Independent Party of Color, “a very relevant process in our history that until recently had been silenced,” Romay said.

In April the Nicolás Guillén Foundation in Havana is sponsoring a conference here entitled “I Came on a Slave Ship.” In addition to music and poetry, it will take up questions such as the Aponte rebellion, the Independent Party of Color, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and “the struggle against discrimination and exclusion in different societies and periods,” the conference call states.

These discussions indicate the growing recognition here of the need to address what is often referred to as the “racial question.” The legacy of discrimination and prejudice against Cubans who are black, and its class roots, has from the early years of the Cuban Revolution’s triumph in 1959 been treated by many government and party functionaries as a taboo subject. Discussion was largely silenced with the argument that raising this issue was “divisive,” a threat to the unity needed by Cuba’s working people to stand up to imperialist threats to the revolution.

Cubans who are black and mestizo have from the start been one of the strongest bastions of active support for the revolution. Following the 1959 victory, workers and farmers in Cuba used their new state power to advance their class interests, uprooting capitalist economic and social relations. Among the very first acts of the revolutionary government was the outlawing of racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, and all public services and activities. “Your consistent commitment to the eradication of racism is unparalleled,” Nelson Mandela told the Cuban people at a mass rally in Cuba in 1991.

With the sharp economic and social crisis in Cuba that began in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s increased exposure to the world capitalist market, class differentiation has increased and, along with it, social inequalities that disproportionately affect working people who are black. It is in the context of how to address this challenge that the silence has been broken.

The spotlight at the book fair on this history and on the ongoing fight to eradicate the vestiges of racism and prejudice was well received.

* A secret “microfaction,” as it became known in Cuba, attempted twice—in 1962 and again in 1968—to consolidate a hold over the party and state apparatus and implement a political course against the revolutionary leadership headed by Fidel Castro. The faction was headed by Aníbal Escalante, who prior to the revolution’s triumph had been a longtime leader of the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party. “Escalante shared Coard’s contempt for working people,” Steve Clark writes in The Second Assassination of Maurice Bishop. Both were “trained in the political school of Stalinism, which triumphed over Lenin’s course in the Soviet Union, Soviet Communist Party, and Communist International.”

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