The U.S. and the slave trade in Cuba

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“Across the United States, museums, monuments and historical sites devoted to slavery have become flashpoints in a national dialogue on issues of race and inequality. Cuba should be a part of this conversation, because Cuban slavery and the illegal slave trade helped to create the United States.”


This is the proposal of historian Stephen Chambers, author of the book No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States (Verso, September 8, 2015).


In the early Republic, American statesmen including every U.S. president from Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams, worked doggedly to protect the existence of slavery. They made Cuban slavery and the outlawed slave trade, a foundation for national development and expansion of the United States. This set the stage for a boom in cotton production and decades of interdependent, ultimately fractious, economic growth that would trigger the U.S. Civil War.


According to Chambers, now that the U.S. and Cuba have reestablished diplomatic relations and are working toward the normalization of their ties “shining a light on this shared legacy can help both nations begin again.”


Today, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, so many of slavery’s scars are still visible, particularly in the South. We must also remember America’s all-but-forgotten ties to slavery in a deeper south – Cuba. It is time to acknowledge the U.S. role in Cuba’s slave trade and the Monroe Doctrine’s real purpose.


There were more than 300 years of horrors that slavery and the slave trade brought to Cuba, described Chambers.


The life expectancy of enslaved Africans from the time of their arrival in Cuba was often calculated in single digits. These catastrophic mortality rates meant that Cuban slavery depended on the slave trade.


Although the U.S. and England banned the slave trade in 1808, fully 85 percent (759,669) of the slaves to be transported to Cuba were brought after the U.S. ban. By this time, Americans had decided that Cuban slavery made good economic sense and were actively intensifying their participation in the regime.


After the American Revolution, the young United States was deeply in debt and on the verge of a rapid expansion of the cotton frontier. But the U.S. merchants who ran the nation’s banks and insurance companies could only provide agricultural loans with a reliable source of specie (gold and silver), and sugar and coffee to back their notes and offset trade deficits with the financial centers of Europe.


If coffee, sugar and specie unlocked the doors of European and Asian markets for U.S. investors, slave ships were their key.


This is why, despite the spread of anti-slavery sentiment and abolitionism on both sides of the Atlantic, despite numerous laws and treaties passed to curb the slave trade, and despite the dispatch of naval squadrons to patrol the coasts of Africa and the Americas, the slave trade did not end in 1808.


In fact, in many later years it intensified, and economic policies of free trade often worked in tandem with the expansion of slavery. The dismantling of trade restrictions –often framed as striking a blow for emancipation– actually strengthened slavery in Cuba and throughout the hemisphere.


U.S. foreign policy protected the expansion of Cuban slavery. The famous declaration of President James Monroe in 1823 –known as the Monroe Doctrine– purported to ban Europeans from the hemisphere and would later be heralded as a cornerstone in U.S. diplomacy for generations. At the time of its formulation, however, it was intended to prevent British meddling in the illegal slave trade by Americans with personal interests in the massive expansion of Cuban slavery.


By the 1820s, Cuba had become the second-largest trading partner of the United States and the largest sugar producer in the world. American investors, policymakers and merchants –including many from the U.S. North– were involved in every aspect of this development. Some Americans even became expatriate owners and operators of Cuban plantations themselves. Many others were linked in various ways to businesses based on slavery in Cuba, asserts Stephen Chambers.


October 10, 2015.


- Manuel E. Yepe


A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.
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