Cuban Project Seeks to Pay Tribute to Slavery

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 as well."

Acosta presented the methodology Cuba is using to select its sites at a three-day conference in Havana last week for Caribbean academics, museum curators and others involved in the project.

Patricia Green, a participant from Jamaica, has been working on the project for several years as a consultant with UNESCO. In the early stages, she helped organize potential sites into categories, such as places of confinement, refuge or burial.

Now the project focuses on selecting and developing the sites. But a primary long-term goal is to turn the sites into tourism destinations, Green said.

"The Caribbean is more than just sand and sea," she said. "This is one way to enhance the tourism, to show the people for who they really are. These sites are a source of pride."