New Book— Gerald Horne’s “Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow”


T.P. Wilkinson reviews Gerald Horne’s new book Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow, which underlines the importance of Africans and Afro-Cubans “in creating the culture upon which the Cuban independence movement was established.” Wilkinson begins speaking about Esteban Montejo—a former slave, who commented on the US invasion of Cuba in 1898—to introduce varying perspectives of the United States, and Cuba’s trajectory from slave trade to revolution.

Following Negro Comrades of the Crown and The Counter-Revolution of 1776, both also reviewed by this author, Gerald Horne has written a book about the bête noir of US foreign policy for more than 50 years.2 Professor Horne’s most important contribution to US historical literature has been to explicitly rewrite and thus relocate US history within the history of the African diaspora. In another earlier book, The End of Empires, Horne illustrates that one of the greatest fears of the US ruling class has always been “other Africans”. Beginning with the cordon sanitaire erected against Haiti—the precursor to the Cuba embargo—US domestic and foreign policy have been consistently, even fanatically, driven by the imperative to keep its African slave labour force isolated from the rest of the world.3 The US regime has pursued a wide range of tactics to prevent its Africans from gaining or maintaining access to the outside world—especially to all the struggles against slavery or for political and economic independence.

Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow examines a central theatre in the white-settler regime’s race wars: Cuba. While many benign treatments of the Cuban Revolution consider it to be a mere reaction to US policy failures—implying that the US regime had/has the capacity to pursue other policies than those it chose—Professor Horne describes the importance of Africans and Afro-Cubans in creating the culture upon which the Cuban independence movement was established. Here it is important to distinguish two ideas of independence that developed in the Spanish colony. One version is comparable to the settler-colonialist ideology that created the United States. After the French were expelled from Hispaniola (Saint Dominique) and the Republic of Haiti was founded, there was a stream of French slaveholders who fled across the strait to Cuba.

The abolition of slavery in the British West Indies forced immigration of slaveholders either to the US or to Cuba, the last outpost of plantation slavery and the slave trade in the Caribbean basin. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Spain and Portugal became vassals to the British—who had driven Napoleon out of the peninsula. This, of course, increased the British pressure on Spain to abolish slavery too. While slavery and the slave trade were not suppressed in Cuba before the end of the 19th century, the Ministerio de Ultramar in Madrid knew that US and Spanish slaveholders in Cuba were promoting “independence” from Spain but in favour of North American annexation or suzerainty. To combat this tendency among the plantation elite, concentrated in Western Cuba and Havana, the Spanish crown regularly threatened to abolish slavery—well aware that Cuba’s enormous African population would resist absorption by the mainland slavocracy—and pose no small threat to the island’s plantation class.

The other version of Cuban independence was arguably more complex. It was shaped not only by the Haitian Revolution but also by the Bolivar revolution in South America. Moreover Cuba’s independence was influenced by the anti-slavery struggle in the US itself. Prior to its absorption into the Union, Spanish Florida had been a base from which free Africans waged war against the US slave regimes in Georgia and the Carolinas. Florida was closely linked to Cuba while still a Spanish colony and remained so even when it was ceded to Britain. The long tradition of Africans serving under arms—something inconceivable in the US—helped to create not only a military capacity in the Afro-Cuban population but established an early basis by which former slaves enjoyed social mobility in Cuba unheard of in North America. In other words there was not only the capacity to fight for independence but a class of Afro-Cubans who sustained a nationalist vision of that independence. This vision has been captured in the work of José Marti and Nicholas Guillén—both writing long before January 1959.

Until the US slavocracy was ended in 1865, Cuba continued as a staging ground for the North American slave trade, especially smuggling of slaves into Louisiana and Texas after importation had been formally prohibited. Slavery continued on the island after abolition in the US (as it did in Brazil). The ultimate defeat of Spain, when Admiral Dewey in Manila destroyed its Pacific fleet, permitted the US to dictate the terms of Cuban independence. That might have been the perfect moment for annexation had it not been for the importance of race in the US. There was no question of making Cuba a state with its coloured majority. Spaniards were traditionally seen by the US “whites” as tainted by Africa and not really white. So the first thing for the North American regime to do was to import its race regime into the island. [. . .]

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