HAVANA — “From the contributions of our ancestors in the 1800s down to this time, Chinese Cubans have been an integral part of each and every stage of Cuban history,” said Gen. Gustavo Chui. “We continue to contribute today.”
Chui was speaking at the Feb. 6 presentation of a new edition of Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution during the Havana International Book Fair. The book, published by Pathfinder Press in Spanish and English, is based on interviews with Revolutionary Armed Forces Generals Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui and Moisés Sío Wong. More than 100 presentations of the book have taken place in the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Mideast, since 2006.
The event was one of hundreds of book launchings, poetry readings, panels, films, art exhibits, children’s plays and concerts during the annual literary festival here. Over 11 days the fair drew some 450,000 workers, youth and others. In coming weeks it will travel to every province before closing May 13 in Santiago de Cuba. This year the fair was dedicated to Eusebio Leal, the longtime Historian of the City of Havana.
Fair highlights Chinese culture
China was the book fair’s 2018 country of honor. A delegation of more than 130 took part in dozens of events at the fair, in Havana’s Chinatown and across the city highlighting Chinese culture — from book presentations to music, dance, acrobatics and Chinese opera. The Artistic Ensemble from China’s Shandong province performed twice at the Alicia Alonso National Theater. The large China pavilion included books by Chinese authors translated to Spanish, an exhibit on the invention of paper and printing in ancient China, documentaries and a stand where throngs of Cubans got their names written in Chinese calligraphy.
The fair’s daily program included books on the history of the Chinese in Cuba and panels organized by Chinese Cuban associations based in Chinatown. One was a 90th anniversary tribute to Kwong Wah Po, the longest-running Chinese-language newspaper in Cuba. Originally a daily, it is now a monthly with a page in Chinese and several in Spanish.
The presentation of Our History Is Still Being Written drew a standing-room-only audience who came to hear the story told by the three generals. Among the more than 100 present were combatants who had fought alongside Choy, Chui, and Sío Wong in Cuba’s 1956-58 revolutionary war and are now members of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution. Also attending were Caridad Diego, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and president of the Cuba-China Friendship Society, and a delegation representing the 13 Chinese associations long established here.
The speakers were Gen. Chui, Gen. Harry Villegas, and Mary-Alice Waters, Pathfinder president and editor of the book. Also on the platform were Gen. Choy and Iraida Aguirrechu, editor of the Cuban edition published by Editora Política.
“Above all, this is a book about the Cuban Revolution,” said chairperson Martín Koppel, who was responsible for Pathfinder’s Spanish-language edition, in opening the event. Noting that it was first published 12 years ago, he called attention to the added photos and footnotes, updated glossary, and new foreword by Wang Lusha, translator of the 2008 Chinese edition.
Choy, Chui, and Sío Wong recount how as youth in the mid-1950s they joined the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army, which, led by Fidel Castro, spearheaded the revolutionary struggle that overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959. Their victory opened the door to the first socialist revolution in the Americas.
The generals describe their experiences in Cuba’s internationalist mission in Angola from 1975 to 1991, which helped defeat invasions by South Africa’s white-supremacist regime. They explain how the Cuban people and revolutionary leadership met the challenges of the economic crisis of the 1990s, when Cuba abruptly lost most foreign trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When the book first appeared, Chui was part of the national leadership of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution; today he is president of the Casino Chung Wah, the umbrella organization of Chinese associations in Cuba. Choy, now retired, organized the administration of the port of Havana. Sío Wong, who died in 2010, was president of the National Institute of State Reserves and of the Cuba-China Friendship Association.
Example for workers worldwide
Mary-Alice Waters, a National Committee member of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., focused on the worldwide impact of the book, as communist workers have organized to make it available in some two dozen countries. She highlighted the wide circulation of the Farsi-language translation of Our History Is Still Being Written in Iran and Afghanistan.
How can we explain this broad interest? Waters asked. “Above all, the explanation is the Cuban Revolution itself.”
This is especially true, she said, given the political awakening among working people everywhere today “whose lives have been shattered by economic and social devastation, by the cumulative consequences, of capitalism’s deepening world crisis. And this includes the United States.” They are searching for answers, for alternatives to this capitalist world order. “That is the source of the interest in this book,” Waters said, “and why it is needed by those on the front lines of the class struggle, wherever they may be.”
As recounted in the book, “Cuba’s socialist revolution stands as the practical lesson for our class of how to fight and, most importantly, of the only course that can win against the immense power and brutality of our class enemy.”
Cuba’s unique history
Chui highlighted the historical significance of Chinese immigration to Cuba. More than 140,000 were brought as indentured labor in the 19th century, as the Spanish colonial rulers sought to augment the dwindling supply of African slaves and boost output on Cuba’s vast sugar plantations. The Chinese were a weighty component in forging the Cuban nation, he said.
During Cuba’s 30-year war for independence from Spain, the liberation army, which also fought to abolish slavery and bonded labor, included all-Chinese battalions. It had military leaders such as José Tolón and José Bu, who due to their outstanding record were among only four foreign-born Cubans who earned the right to be eligible to run for president of Cuba in the 1901 elections, Chui said.
During the fair, many visitors to the Pathfinder stand who saw Our History Is Still Being Writtenexpressed pride in their Chinese roots. They were interested in reading the three generals’ firsthand accounts of the conditions Chinese and blacks faced in capitalist Cuba, and how, through a socialist revolution, the new workers and farmers government took decisive steps to uproot racist discrimination and superexploitation.
Chui, who grew up in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, described how he and others came to join the Rebel Army led by Fidel Castro.
‘Didn’t start as revolutionaries’
“Were we Marxists? Were we revolutionaries?” Chui asked. “No. In reality we were illiterate — culturally, politically, and ideologically.” It wasn’t until we went up to the Sierra Maestra mountains and joined the struggle, he said, that this began to change. It was Fidel and other leaders “who taught us to be revolutionaries.”
Chui said it was Gen. Harry Villegas, known by his nom de guerre Pombo, who, as executive secretary of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, arranged the interviews that led to Our History Is Still Being Written. Like Chui, Choy, and Sío Wong, Villegas fought in Cuba’s revolutionary war and served in Angola.
Villegas paid tribute to Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida for his “vision,” as president of the Combatants Association at the time, to encourage publication of such firsthand accounts. Almeida saw it as a way “to help those outside Cuba understand the revolution,” Pombo said.
Villegas said that he, like Chui, was astounded by how widely the book has circulated worldwide, a realization of Almeida’s vision far beyond their expectations. Another such account is Villegas’ Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom, published by Pathfinder in 2017.
These books are important in Cuba too, Villegas said. “There are many young Cubans who aren’t familiar with these events, with how humble people, normal people — which is what we all were — made the revolution.”
Before then, “Chinese and blacks faced particular discrimination,” Villegas said. “It was even greater against blacks. When a people rebel, all those who are part of the people become involved. So you had Chinese, you had blacks, you had those whose ancestors came from Spain.
“Together they made the revolution.”