Black Anarchists and Pan-Africanists: An Interview with Philip A. Howard

Dr. Philip A. Howard is a historian who researches the Afro-Cuban and African influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Chair of the Department of History at the University of Houston, Howard is the author two books: Changing History: The Afro-Cuban Cabildos and Societies of Color in the Nineteenth Century (LSU Press, 1998) and the recently published, Black Labor, White Sugar:  The Caribbean Braceros Struggle for Power in the Cuban Sugar Industry, 1910-1935 (LSU Press, 2015). Black Labor, White Sugar examines the migration of the thousands of Haitian and Jamaican laborers who came to Cuba in the early twentieth century to work on U.S. controlled sugar plantations. For Howard, the story of these Black migrants is one of abuse and subjugation by the racialized, corporate structures of the sugar industry. It is also a story of survival and resistance. The Haitian and Jamaican braceros, as they were called, drew on Caribbean cultural identities and spiritual worldviews for sustenance and strength. And they turned to both Pan-Africanism and anarcho-syndicalism for political organization and ideological grounding.

The Public Archive: Could you start by saying something about your own intellectual lineage and the Caribbean texts that have shaped your thinking about the region? Additionally, what is it that first brought you to Cuba – to the study of Black populations in Cuba –and how did you move from your research on the nineteenth century cabildos to twentieth century braceros?

Philip A. Howard: I received both my M.A, and Ph.D. degrees from Indiana University (Bloomington). Latin American History was my primary field of graduate study. African American History and African History were my secondary fields of study. With the guidance of my professors John V. Lombardi, William Harris, Phyllis Martin and later Richard J. Blackett, I designed a graduate program so that I could examine African slavery, culture, and resistance as well as the role race, ethnicity and color played in the Americas.

The monographs that have influenced my approach and thoughts about the experience of blacks in the Caribbean include Roger Bastide’s The African Religions of Brazil, Edward Brathwaite’s The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, Lydia Cabrera’s El Monte, Jorge and Isabela Castellanos’ Cultura afrocubana, Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, Franklin Knight’s and Margaret Crahan’s edited study Africa and the Caribbean, Rebecca Scott’s Slave Emancipation in Cuba, and Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. I could mention many more historians and cultural anthropologists that have helped me understand better the experience of people of African descent in the Caribbean.

Rebecca Scott’s guidance played a critical role in my decision to become a Cuban historian. In brief, John Lombardi sent Prof. Scott my research seminar paper on the abolition of slavery in Cuba. The paper underlined the role played by the cabildos de naciones de afrocubanos and societies of color in the abolition process. When she sent it back to me, she recommended that the topic of my dissertation should be about these black Cuban benevolent organizations since no book-length study existed. The “Cold War” between Cuba and the U.S., however, meant that I had to use colonial documents from the Spanish archives to write the dissertation. It was not until after Prof. Louis Pérez Jr. introduced me to Dr. Oscar Zanetti of the Instituto de Historia de Cuba that I was invited by officials and members of the Cuban academy to come to Cuba so that I could use the archives and libraries to revise the dissertation into Changing History: Afrocuban cabildos and Societies of Color in the Nineteenth Century.

Because Changing History ended in 1895 and after black Cubans had used the judicial system to compel Spanish colonial officials to end racial segregation in the schools, transportation and the public spaces of the island, I wanted to examine the socioeconomic and political experiences of black Cubans during the first decades of the Republic. The monographs written by Aline Helg, Ada Ferrer, Alejandra Bronfman and later Alejandro de la Fuente were all excellent contributions to our knowledge about black Cubans. Since my first book argued that the resistance of the cabildos and later the societies of color to slavery, colonialism and their marginalized status could be described as expressions of pan-African nationalism, with the help of Prof. Tony Martin’s work on Marcus Garvey, I decided to examine how Garvey’s ideology influenced black Cubans. After doing archival research in Cuba for three summers, I discovered that black Cubans found Garvey’s ideology irrelevant to their experiences. But that was not the case among the thousands of black Haitian and Jamaican braceros that were recruited by Cuban and North American sugar cane companies to cut and haul sugar cane.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the story of Black labor in Cuba in the first quarter of the twentieth century, can provide a historical and demographic outline describing who they were and from whence they came?

The black Caribbean workers that arrived after 1910 to labor on the sugar cane enclaves left their homes after realizing that they simply could not make a living wage to support their families. The political, and economic characteristics of the post-emancipation societies of the British, Dutch, and Spanish islands marginalized and exploited the workers. They were denied access to land by the plantocracy that believed that if they could prevent blacks from owning land, then they had to work for them on the estates or plantations as they had done as slaves before the abolition of slavery. Although, some British islands saw the emergence of a reconstituted peasantry, demographic pressures or growth resulted in fewer blacks having the opportunity to own land. The school system was underfunded as the political and commercial elites often sent their children to England for their education. Finally, black workers from the British islands also equated being free with emigrating throughout the Caribbean. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many left their respective islands for Central America, especially Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica to find work.

Workers from the French Caribbean, specifically from Haiti, immigrated to Cuba for many of the same reasons as those who left from the British Caribbean islands. The opportunity to own or even rent land became more difficult as the Haitian population continued to increase. In addition, the concepts of race, ethnicity and color tended to subjugate and exploit dark-skin Haitians. Color became such a divisive factor that the country’s political culture became characterized by intra-racial violence. Light-skin blacks fought dark-skin blacks for power at the national level throughout the nineteenth century. And this political instability led to the immiseration of the workers.

Although thousands of workers throughout the Caribbean found their way to the sugar cane producing regions of Cuba, the close geographical proximity of both Jamaica and Haiti meant that the majority of braceros that arrived did so from these two countries.

In The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931), George Padmore described the labor migration of Haitians and Jamaicans to Cuba as a “slave trade” and the Haitians and Jamaicans as “black slaves.” How accurate was that description? What was the nature of the conditions that they lived and worked under?

Padmore’s description is correct up to a certain point. The recruitment of Haitian and Jamaican workers never entailed some type capture and march to a port to be sold to representatives of the sugar cane companies. In fact, many Haitians, paid labor agents or brokers a great deal of money to take them to Cuba. Meanwhile, Jamaican braceros purchased their travel documents and passage to Cuba. Nonetheless, once they arrived, they tended to undergo similar experiences as their enslaved ancestors. For example, upon landing they underwent physical examinations to check their general health. It seems that the brokers who accompanied the workers to Cuba selected the finest specimens in Haiti and elsewhere, according to the Cuban immigration officials who admitted them. After they had passed their physicals, the workers boarded that took them into the sugar producing regions of the island. It is interesting that these trains usually carried the harvested cut cane to the ports. The managers and foremen of the mill companies met them and gave the braceros a number to were or hold. The officials of the mills addressed the workers by their numbers. Some mills had established sites in nearby towns or used the estates bateyes or main plazas to select and hire a gang of braceros who had been physically pushed around and ordered to line up. The eyewitness testimony of s few officials led me to conclude that these images resembled a slave market of the nineteenth century.

The daily grind of cutting and hauling cane sugar also resembled slavery. Accompanied by a group of foremen on horseback, the braceros marched into thousand of acres of cane to cut and haul. The companies expected that their field workers to cut and haul three to four tons a cane daily. They did so from sun up to sun down. In exchange the workers were paid a little more than a dollar for each ton of cane that they cut or between $3.50-$4.50 per day. They performed such work for approximate 150 days or from January until June. It is important to note that many of the Haitians who paid a broker a fee to take them to Cuba usually had to work 125 days to earn enough to repay their debt to the labor agent. It was this type of labor arrangement that Padmore may have been referring to when he suggested that the braceros’ lives resemble slavery.

The economic impact of the returns and remittances of the West Indian “Silver Men” who travelled to Panama to build the canal are well known. Was there a comparable impact on Haiti and Jamaica of labor returning from Cuba?

The reasons why thousands of Caribbean workers arrived to Cuba were to obtain and save enough wages to remit to their families and communities in which they left. They hoped to make to send their children to school, or to buy a small piece of land to build a home. The Haitians who left Les Cayes returned home with enough money to help refurbish the town’s infrastructure and roads that connected it with Port-au-Prince, according to a U.S. diplomatic official. More importantly, the braceros returned home with enough of their wages to convince the other members of their families and friends to go to Cuba. The wages that the mill companies paid also encouraged thousands of West Indians living in Panama to leave for Cuba.

You assert a relationship between the rise in Cuba of both anarchist and pan-Africanist politics in Cuba in the 1920s. Can you say a little about the importance of each and how they came together? What appeal did anarcho-syndicalism have for Haitians and British West Indians that Garveyism, for instance, did not?

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anarcho-syndicalism had been an important ideology among white and black Cuban workers. The most important principle was universalism. This notion underlined that all workers, regardless of ethnicity, race color and nationality were exploited by capitalism. Between 1900-1912, it had guided workers’ activism and protest, particularly in the sugar and railroad industries. After a number of strikes failed in the sugar industry during WWI and as the sugar industry expanded to meet the demand of the allied nations, anarcho-syndicalist leaders took the lead in mobilizing and organizing sugar cane workers. Guided by “universalism,” they would include the braceros in their recruitment efforts.

It was in this context that Marcus M. Garvey arrived in Havana to turn his pan-Africanist movement into a transnational one. Garvey did not realize, however, that because black Cubans had interpreted their history and identity in a different manner than blacks had in America, black middle and professional Cubans saw themselves as Cuban rather than as members of the diaspora, Garvey’s ideology was not relevant. As a result, they welcomed and thanked him for coming. The rebuff of black Cubans allowed Garvey to travel to the sugar producing regions to meet the braceros. They greeted him warmly. As subjugated and exploited workers, Haitians and Jamaicans interpreted Garveyism not only in racial terms, but also in economic terms. The braceros obtained a class analysis of their circumstances and status in Cuba from Garveyism. They added it to the anarcho-syndicalism to create a radical worker consciousness. These black immigrant workers then participated in a number of strikes that challenged the power of the sugar companies owned predominately by Americans and Cubans.

Can a line be drawn between the state violence directed at Haitians and Jamaicans in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s and that directed towards Haitians in the Dominican Republic in the 1930s – in particular during the 1937 Parsley Massacre?

I do not think so. It is clear, however, that the rhetoric of difference, based upon the race, ethnicity and color of the Haitians was employed to transform them into undesirable migrant workers in Cuba and after they arrived in the DR. In fact, the light-skinned leaders of the Dominican Republic had historically used rhetoric of difference to portray Haitians as uncivilized heathens, criminals and carriers of infectious diseases.

By the end of the 1920s, the prolonged crisis of the Cuban sugar industry had sparked a wave of nativism, xenophobia, and racism directed at Blacks, especially at Black migrant labor. Was Cuba able to recover from that moment? Can lessons be drawn for the present from the Cuban experience of the twenties and thirties?

It was not until after the revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro, that Cuba was able to reject these concepts that had become elements of Cuban nationalism. This was reflective in Castro being named leader of the non-aligned movement of developing nations.

As I witnessed the campaign for the U.S. presidency, I was surprised to see the Republican Party candidate, his surrogates and supporters use the same rhetoric of difference to make immigrants from Mexico, Central American as well as Muslims from different nations of the Near and Middle East into the undesirable ones. In Cuba, it resulted in not only state sponsored violence again black Haitians and Jamaicans but some private Cubans took it upon themselves to use violence toward these workers to show them that they were not welcome. The braceros’ race, ethnicity and color disqualified them from being considered as citizens of Cuba. Many confronted nativism, xenophobia and racism after have lived in Cuba for ten to fifteen years. They had married a Cuban and had started a family. They had learned to speak Spanish also. Some had purchased some land to farm or had started a small business. When the global depression of the 1930s reached Cuba, these braceros were asked to leave or were deported. Those who supported this immigration policy cried out “Cuba is for Cubans.” I am worried that what happened Cuba could take place in the U.S.


Prior interviews on The Public Archive can be found here.

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