"Haitian Culture in Cuba" by Grete Viddal

Viddal is a doctoral candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She has published articles about Cuba’s Haitian heritage in New West Indian Guide (2012) and Making Caribbean Dance (2010).

The eastern provinces of Cuba hosted two major waves of migration from what is today Haiti. From 1791 to 1804, as instability and violence consumed the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the years leading up to the Haitian Revolution, tens of thousands of refugees—including planters, their household slaves, and free people of color—fled to eastern Cuba, giving the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo their reputed "French" flavor. Slaves who worked on the coffee estates established by the planters formed Tumba Francesa or "French Drum" associations, performing salon dances set to African-style drumming. Three such socieites are still active today in Cuba today and were declared "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO in 2003: La Caridad del Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, La Pompadour in Guantánamo, and La Tumba Francesa de Bejuco in rural Holguín province.

During the initial decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Antillean workers—the majority Haitians—arrived in Cuba seeking employment in the expanding sugar industry of the newly independent Cuban republic. While some returned to Haiti, many settled permanently in Cuba. Authorities, politicans, and the press often scapegoated Haitian cane cutters, calling their spiritual practices diabolical, their social mores primitive, and triggering several witchcraft panics in the early 1900s. When economic conditions in Cuba worsened during the Depression of the 1930s, Haitians were targeted for deportation, and many retreated into isolated mountain communities.

After Cuban Revolution of 1959, development projects improved rural communities and Haitians residing in Cuba were given citizenship. However, the continuation of Haitian spiritual beliefs, music, dance, language, and farming and culinary customs were still associated with rural isolation and poverty. In recent decades, however, people of Haitian descent in Cuba have increasingly begun to valorize their contribution to Cuba’s ethnic mix by forming folkloric troupes, inagurating heritage festivals, and launching arts projects. Events that feature haitiano-cubanos include the Festival del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba, the Festival Eva Gaspar en Memorium in Ciego de Ávila province, the Encuentro Bwa Kayiman in San German, Holguín, and the Bannzil Kiba Kiba Kreyol project in Havana. A collective of artists inspired by Vodú, Taller Experimental Ennegro, are founding an ecologically sustainable arts colony in Palma Soriano in Santiago province. Publications featuring Cuba’s Haitian legacy include the ethnographic monograph "Caidije" by Guanche and Moreno (1988), the documentary film "Huellas" directed by Roberto Román (1986), and the book "el Vodú en Cuba" by James, Millet and Alarcón (1998). The Casa del Caribe, a cultural research institute in Santiago de Cuba, actively sponsors performance of local Haitian tradition.