Ladies in Black, An Ignored Antecedent / Dimas Castellano

Berta Soler,leaders of the Ladies in White, speaks with a group of reporters after her meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. (Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo 7 June 2012)

In 1915, the wives of the members of the Independent Party of Color managed something the Ladies in White have been denied in the 21st century. Article originally published in Diario de Cuba.

Marking the 100th anniversary of the crime committed against black Cubans in 1912, data and facts previously relegated to history have come to light. These information — in addition to showing how the conflict was mishandled — offer evidence of various similarities with the present, such as the chapter in which black women played a starring role, which allows me to nominate them as the Ladies in Black.

The story of the massive rebellion of blacks in Cuba started with the uprising of the slaves in the El Cobre copper mine in 1677, repeated in the same place in 1731, manifested in the insurrection led by Jose Antonio Aponte in 1812, and in the Ladder Conspiracy of 1844. Later, blacks fought in the Ten Years War in 1868, in the Little War in 1879, and the War of Independence in 1895. Nevertheless, in the Republic, this group continued to be the victim of social injustice and racial discrimination.

With peaceful roads closed to them, blacks chose violence. They participated in the Little War of 1906 against the reelection of Tomas Estrada Palma, and in 1907 founded the Independent Party of Color (PIC). The reasons for its founding were expressed in Prévision (Forecast), its official organ, with the following words: “Cubans of color can expect nothing from the procedures used to date by the political parties because nothing significant has been done for us… We are going to show that an election in which all the candidates are people of color, outside the political parties, no one will be able to deny that however small the minority may be the result will always be better than what has been achieved until now…”

In 1910 the Congress of the Republic adopted an amendment to the constitution, according to which, “In no case will any association made up exclusively by individuals of one race or color, nor by individuals of one class with regards to birth, wealth or professional title, be considered as a political party or independent group.”

In response to this the PIC developed a campaign directed at repealing the Law, which came to a head in an armed uprising on May 20, 1912. The response of the government was to mobilize the Rural Guard, the Standing Army, and paramilitary forces, united under the command of General Jose de Jesus Monteagudo.

A little over a month after the start of the uprising, on June 27, Evaristo Estenoz, its principal leader, died. From that moment the movement, already weakened, lost control to the government forces. The Constitutional Guarantees, which had been suspended, were reestablished on July 15. On July 17, the mambí (War of Independence) General Pedro Ivonnet, another of the most important figures in the uprising, was captured and killed, which put an end to the insurrection. According to Cubano Libre, of the 6,000 insurgents, 3,500 had fallen in the conflict and 1,500 were put to death by the public forces in ambushes and along the roads.

The Ladies in Black

Once the movement had been suppressed, the civil struggle began for the release of those imprisoned who, indiscriminately, had been detained because of their relationships with a rebel, had taken up arms, or had been captured during armed encounters. At this time the women’s movement, arising in Europe at the end of the 19th century, had been felt in Cuba, where women, despite having participated in the political processes — as shown by their presence in the War of Independence where some 25 achieved military rank, among them one general, three colonels, and more than 20 captains — where they were almost always subordinates in roles defined and planned by men.

Thus, consistent with the patriarchal and macho culture, the PIC’s program did not contemplate issues of gender, but many black women identified with the aspirations of their peers, which was expressed through the establishment of women’s committees of women in all provinces. These committees, like the women’s clubs of the Cuban Revolutionary Party of the late nineteenth century, had a male president of honor, which was no impediment to their meetings and rallies, women pronounced themselves in favor of women’s rights such as the vote and divorce, which places them within the feminist movement in Cuba.

In September 1912, these black women, relatives of the rebels, including some who had faced legal charges, began a campaign for the adoption of an amnesty law, that is, extinction of the liability incurred in the uprising. This initiative had at least two antecedents in Cuba: one, when in 1861 the Spanish government granted amnesty to the conspirators and allowed the return of exiles to Cuba; two, when in the amnesty after the Pact of Zanjon Cuban exiles were allowed to return to Cuba, including key figures such as José Martí, Juan Gualberto Gómez, Antonio Maceo and Calixto Garcia.

One of those women, Rosa Brioso Tejera, wrote to the special judge of Santiago de Cuba denouncing the mistreatment of prisoners in the Moncada Barracks, appealed to the Attorney General, and chaired a committee of women who requested that Governor Rafael Manduley, mediate before Congress for the issuance of an amnesty for the prisoners and prisoners. Rosa traveled to Havana, where she met with several representatives of the Senate. The amnesty was not approved until March 10, 1915, but it was approved (!), something that has not yet been achieved for the current political prisoners.

The Ladies in White

Similarly, possibly without knowing these antecedents, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts of the 75 prisoners imprisoned in March 2003 — not for taking up arms, but for exercising the right to freedom of expression — immediately after the arrests, still in the 20th century, began to denounce the conditions of confinement, and the impoverishment suffered by their relatives, in the interrogations and trials without due process. These women have emerged as the Ladies in White.

The main difference between the scenarios that led to the actions of black women at the beginning of the century, and the Ladies in White (of all races) at the end of the century, is that civil liberties in Cuba have suffered a considerable setback during that period. Now the Ladies in White, plus their families have not been granted amnesty, they are victims of acts of repudiation, something that — at least to date — historical research into the massacre of 1912, has produced no evidence of.

14 June 2012