Having Cuba as a friend

Cuba is Jamaica’s nearest neighbor, at just about 90 miles or 140 kilometers at the closest point between both islands. Each is the largest and third largest island, respectively, in the Caribbean.

Despite the discordant intervention of the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, Jamaica and Cuba have maintained, for much of the two islands’ histories, cordial relationships. The arrival of the Europeans negatively affected this bond, but it has not been undone, despite their and the United States’ best efforts.

maypole dancing in Cuba
Jamaican descendants do maypole dancing in Cuba

To maintain relations, Jamaicans and Cubans have had to defy international politics. As colonies of erstwhile rival powers England and Spain in the 16th century, and with the Tainos displaced, replaced and finally, wiped out, there have been deep fissures, compounded by differences in language and culture. As Cold War politics determined international alliances for much of the second half of the 20th century, pressure was put on Jamaica to sever its relationship with its Spanish-speaking neighbor.

But, as both islands have had such strong historical links, beginning with the Tainos and perhaps with whoever came before, Jamaica and Cuba found ways to communicate with and be in touch with each other, in the same way close friends with rival patrons defy their patrons to maintain a relationship, to the extent they can.

The two island nations were especially close in the 1970s, with formal diplomatic relations established in 1972, at the height of the Cold War. In that decade, Cuba gifted Jamaica three high schools and a college that trains teachers in physical education, as well as a few health clinics in rural areas. The college has played a significant role in Jamaica’s current dominance in regional track and field, netball and other sports.  There were also Cuban technical, economic, and medical personnel in Jamaica while Jamaicans studied medicine, science and engineering in Cuba.

Initial migration to Cuba
Jamaican migration to Cuba seemed to have begun in earnest early in the 20th century. Tracey Graham, in a 2013 doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago, wrote that before turning to Cuba, Jamaicans had previously sought opportunities in Central America:

Increasing population pressure on the land, a series of natural disasters, few economic opportunities, and ineligibility for political participation prompted Jamaicans to look outside of their homeland for socioeconomic improvement by the late 1800s. Travelers emigrated in significant numbers to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Graham pointed out that “as work on the Panama Canal ended by the 1910s, Jamaicans turned their sights back to the Caribbean,” including Cuba:

The seasonal sugar cane harvest attracted foreign workers from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean seeking better wages than what they could find at home; between 1912 and 1920, thousands of British West Indians traveled to Cuba to labor in the agricultural industry or to occupy niches in the service industry.

The first set of Jamaican workers, about 300 skilled in various trades, were hired in 1907 by the United Fruit Company to work in sugar production and in the construction of railroads, aqueducts and other facilities in Cuba. Many of these workers were already in the employ of the company, which had sugar and banana plantations in Jamaica.

Kofi Boukman Barima of the University of Tennessee, writing in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2013, said “Afro-Jamaicans typically went to Cuba in search of employment in a number of U.S. enterprises ranging from cane cutters to tobacco workers, others worked as carpenters, independent shop keepers, and farmers.”

José Eloy Richards, Jamaican descendant and a journalist with the Cuban Television Information System, asserted that the United Fruit Company reneged on its promise that, “as soon as the Jamaicans should fulfill their commitments in the future sugar production crop and its requirements, they were to be sent back to their country.” This did not happen as “that agreement was violated time and time again. … There was a constant movement of Jamaican workers (illegally) between the two islands, due to their proximity.”

Between 1912 and 1925, more than 110,000 Jamaicans left the island to work on United Fruit Company plantations. Barima reported that the Commission on Cuban Affairs put “the estimated number of Jamaicans that arrived legally into Cuba between 1921 and 1933 … at 38,856.” A University of the West Indies investigation suggests that 150,000 English-speaking Caribbean islanders had traveled to Cuba around this era.

The Jamaicans tried to make life normal. Labor leader, William Stoute, who did advocacy work among English speaking Caribbean workers in Panama as well, helped to form the Social Club to, among other things, promote cultural activities and to put in place formal educational programs for the English-speaking immigrants.

The Jamaicans established places of worship. For example, in one of the areas they settled, a Salvation Army church as well as a Christian Mission congregation were founded in 1917, an Episcopal in 1921, a Pentecostal in 1923 and a Seventh Day Adventist in 1932.

Graham noted that the Jamaicans who went to Cuba did not fare well:

However, Cubans scrutinized and discriminated against them for being black, for being foreign, for driving down wages, or some combination thereof. Though Cubans claimed to live in a color-blind society, racial discrimination persisted and the white elite supported a policy of “whitening” the island through selective immigration from Spain and miscegenation; these racial and cultural prejudices were particularly divisive given that a significant percentage of Cubans were of African descent. Furthermore, the general population was frustrated by the lack of Cuban sovereignty and saw foreign workers as complicit in the US intervention. As a result, calls for nationalism tended to veer into xenophobia and racism during economic downturns in the early 1920s and 1930s.

Graham’s explanation helps me understand a hazy fact in my own family history. My maternal grandfather, Robert Brown, migrated to Cuba in the 1920s and was never heard from again.

Most Jamaicans eventually returned home. Repatriation of Jamaicans began and accelerated during the depression era in the 1930s when United Fruit Company’s sugar output and export from Cuba experienced steep decline.

Well known and accomplished Jamaicans such as Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s widow) and author and dramatist, Sylvia Wynter, were born in Cuba.

The remaining Jamaican community in Cuba is estimated to be some 5,000. Very few, if any, are first generation as those who went to Cuba from Jamaica have largely died out. The Jamaican and other English-speaking descendants live in places such as Pueblo Nuevo in La Guira, Las Tunas in the east, Guantanamo, right on the very eastern tip, and Baragua, on the central south coast of the island. The Jamaican Quarter in Baragua also includes descendants from the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Saint Vincent and Nevis.

A 2012 BBC report states that cricket is commonly played in these towns and is a passion of younger English-Caribbean-descendant residents. Maypole dancing, brought over by their ancestors, is also practiced.

Celebrations were held on August 1 to mark Jamaican emancipation. Christmastime was very special with Jamaican Good Night running from noon on December 25, Christmas Day, until dawn the next.

In more recent times, attempts by Jamaican descendants to organize themselves have been thwarted. One such effort began in 1998 but did not last, allegedly due to government action.

Cubans in Jamaica

Cuban teachers in Jamaica - 2016
Cuban teachers in Jamaica in 2016

There’s also a Cuban community in Jamaica. “Cultural differences…have not prevented Cubans from regularly migrating to Jamaica and managing to establish themselves,” wrote Maria Sanchez and Iris Mútiz of Jamaica’s Northern Caribbean University.

Cubans fled to Jamaica during the island’s three Wars for Independence, the first from 1868-1878, the second from 1879-1880 and the third from 1895-1898. The first known ship arrived in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, from Santiago de Cuba, on November 5, 1868, with some 100 passengers onboard fleeing disturbances on the island.

Even though most returned to Cuba after 1898, one of the legacies of these exiles, says Howard Johnson in a 2011 paper, was the Cubans’ role in the modernization of the Jamaica sugar industry and establishing tobacco as a viable export crop. Among the families that remained prominent in Jamaica’s tobacco industry for decades were the Palomino, the Machado and Chacon families.

“The regular publication of advertisements indicates that several companies established by Cuban nationals were conducting business in Kingston, Jamaica,” said Sanchez and Mútiz. Jean Stubbs, in a 1995 Cuban Studies journal article, suggested that Cuban exiles in Jamaica who established economic enterprises provided financial support to the Cuban independence movement.

A few Cubans went to Jamaica in the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Some may have fled the communist takeover, but others migrated simply to work, as there was concord between the then self-governing government of the Peoples National Party (PNP) in Jamaica and the new Cuban revolutionary government.

Travel between the two continues into the 21st century. Jamaican immigration authorities reported that more than 400 Cuban immigrants and their descendants sought Jamaican citizenship in 2016, the third highest of all immigrant groups. More than 230 Cuban nationals, including some 150 health workers, about 32 of them doctors, as well as several dozen school teachers, worked in the country in that year. This is the continuation of a longstanding arrangement between both countries.

There is the Association of Cuban Residents in Jamaica, aimed at “preserving the culture, values and national identity” of Cubans living in Jamaica so that “its members may project a better image in the eyes of Jamaican society.” Among the association’s initiatives is a partnership with the José Martí Technical School, one of the schools built by Cubans in the 1970s and named after one of Cuba’s national heroes.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the state of relationship between both Jamaica and Cuba depended much on which Jamaican political party was in power. The Peoples National Party has been on far friendlier terms while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) oscillated between hostility and testiness. There were periods of closeness and times of estrangement.

The height of the relationship between the neighboring islands was in the 1970s when the PNP was in power. When the JLP (which was strongly pro-American at the time) won the 1980 General Elections, it immediately declared Cuba’s ambassador, Ulises Estrada, persona non grata, expelling him without ceremony and cutting off ties with the communist country. Frosty relations continued until the PNP returned to power in 1989.

Another less well known, sometimes forgotten issue that tested relations occurred in 1996 when about 60 Cubans sought asylum upon arriving in Jamaica. The issue divided the country and exercised much public debate. The PNP government, based on the recommendation of a committee it established to examine the matter, made the controversial decision to return 57 of the Cubans to their country.

In more recent times, things have calmed down somewhat, and even the JLP, which now governs the country, has been less strident in its rhetoric and posture.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel


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