Caribbean project seeks to remember slavery past
May. 29, 2006 12:00 AM
HAVANA - There's hardly a spot on Cuba untouched by its slavery past,
not unlike most Caribbean islands.
Ports where African slaves were brought in or taken away, fortresses
built with their sweat and tears and sugar mills where they labored to
fuel the economy dot the island. Later came the caves where runaway
slaves found refuge and plazas that hosted rebellions.
An international effort sponsored by UNESCO aims to identify and
preserve these sites in such places as Cuba, Jamaica, Aruba, Haiti and
the Dominican Republic. The project, called "Sites of Memory on the
Slave Route," hopes to turn the sites into cultural tourism destinations
and show the world the influence Africans and their descendants have had
in the region.
"The African mark is the one that defines Cuban culture," said Miguel
Barnet, a renowned Cuban writer and ethnographer. "Of course we have a
significant Spanish influence with the language and all, but what really
characterizes us, what really makes us different, is, without a doubt,
the presence of the African element."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
project "tries to recognize the history of the 20 million Africans who
contributed their culture even though they came (to the Americas) as
hostages," Barnet said.
Slavery sites have been identified across the Caribbean, nearly 800 in
Cuba alone. Each country, however, must ultimately select just five
sites for development.
Cemeteries, caves, temples and fortresses are on Cuba's preliminary list
of 25 sites, as is the island's southern Valley of the Sugar Mills.
Festivals and other Afro-Cuban traditions have also been included.
Cuba became the main Caribbean destination for slaves after the Haitian
Revolution, the period from 1791 to 1804 when a half-million slaves in
what was then the French colony of Haiti rose up against their White owners.
Fear of a similar revolt in Cuba caused Creole elites to try to
strengthen ties with Spain at a time when other colonies were trying to
break free from their European rulers. Slavery was officially abolished
in Cuba in 1845, though the trade continued illegally until about 1870.
The Cuban economy was driven by slaves, who provided the manual labor
for the sugar industry, as well as on coffee and tobacco plantations.
"The Slave Routes project is truly a recognition of this heritage, which
is such an inseparable part of us as Cubans," said Nilson Acosta, an
official with the island's Cultural Patrimony office. "Talk of monuments
usually glorifies the great, grand works of art ... but this is an
opportunity for sites associated with our slavery past to be integrated