[Marxism] Distinctive history of Chinese in Cuba

Fred Feldman ffeldman at verizon.net
Sat Aug 13 15:24:05 MDT 2011

The unique history of Chinese
in Cuba: from independence wars
to socialist revolution
Presentation at Guangzhou, China, conference on
150-year continuity of struggle underlying Cuba’s
proletarian revolution and its worldwide example
(feature article)

The following talk was presented by Mary-Alice Waters, president of 
Pathfinder Press, to a June 27, 2011, conference in Guangzhou, China, on 
the history of Chinese in Cuba.

Some 50 people attended the event, hosted by the Overseas Chinese 
Affairs Office of Guangdong province and the Cuban consulate in 
Guangzhou, the city historically known as Canton outside China. The 
meeting was held at the Overseas Chinese Museum of Guangdong, which 
documents worldwide migration of Chinese from that province.

The other speakers were Raúl Rojas, the Cuban consul in Guangzhou, and 
Lin Lin, deputy director of the provincial Overseas Chinese Affairs 
Office. Minghui Wang, director of the Overseas Chinese Museum, welcomed 
participants. An article on the meeting appeared in the July 25 issue of 
the Militant, along with the remarks by Rojas.

Waters is the editor of Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of 
Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution. The book is 
published in Spanish and English by Pathfinder Press and in Chinese by 
the Intellectual Property Publishing House in Beijing. Waters’s remarks 
are copyright © 2011 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. 
Subheadings are by the Militant.

Thank you all for the opportunity to be here today. It is a pleasure and 
an honor.

I especially want to thank Deputy Director Lin Lin of the Overseas 
Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong province, Director Minghui Wang of 
the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum, and Cuban Consul Raúl Rojas, who 
have made this meeting possible.

It is an opportunity not only to exchange views, but for us to learn 
from you about another facet of the history of the 200,000 Chinese—all 
but a handful men—who came to Cuba between 1847, when the first shipload 
of indentured workers arrived, and the early 1950s. Our discussion will 
help all of us better understand what is unique and noteworthy about 
that history.

Havana’s Chinatown transformed
Today one thing above all distinguishes Chinese in Cuba from Chinese who 
settled elsewhere in the world: that is the near-total absence of 
discrimination, or even prejudice, against Cubans of Chinese descent.

Interest in the culture and arts Chinese immigrants brought with them to 
Cuba, and pride in this rich history, are increasing across the island. 
At the same time, Havana’s Barrio Chino—its world-famous Chinatown, once 
the largest in Latin America—bears little resemblance to its former 
self. Outside Cuba it is not unusual to hear people lament this as a 
“great loss.” But these changes are rooted in the progress of Cuban 
working people over the last half century made possible by the socialist 
revolution that tens of thousands of Cubans have given their lives for.

If Havana’s Chinatown has been transformed, it is because there is no 
longer any pressure for Chinese Cubans to live crowded into a restricted 
district. There is no need for the safety of concentrated numbers in 
face of repeated acts of violence, discrimination, and racism. There are 
no longer occupations that are typically “Chinese,” whether as 
shopkeepers and peddlers or working in laundries and restaurants. Cubans 
of Chinese descent are found throughout Cuban society today, in all 
occupations, and at all levels of responsibility. These include the 
Central Committee and Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party, the 
highest ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the leadership of the 
mass organizations of farmers, workers, women, artists, students, and 

These are conquests to celebrate, not mourn, as the unique history and 
proud mestizo culture of the Cuban nationality continue to be enriched. 
On the streets of Cuba it is not unusual to be told that the nation 
itself was forged in battle from three intertwined roots—one African, 
one Chinese, one European. The Chinese heritage can be seen everywhere, 
in faces of every hue.

General Moisés Sío Wong, until his recent death the president of the 
Cuba-China Friendship Association, was the Cuban-born son of parents who 
came from Zengcheng—then a small village—a few miles from where we are 
sitting today. He often joked that if he were a T-shirt, the label on 
his neck would say, “Made of Chinese raw material, manufactured in Cuba.”

Cuba’s revolutionary continuity
The unique experience and trajectory of Chinese in Cuba is born of the 
150-year continuity of revolutionary struggles in which Chinese Cubans 
shouldered weighty responsibilities from the start—interlinked struggles 
for independence, sovereignty, human dignity, the abolition of slavery 
and indentured labor of every form, and an end to all social relations 
built on the exploitation of one human being by another.

As most of you are aware, the largest single wave of Chinese migration 
to Cuba took place during the quarter century between 1847 and 1874. It 
became notorious the world over as the “coolie trade.” Shipping records 
here in China indicate that more than 140,000 Chinese set sail for Cuba 
during those years, the large majority from Guangdong province, with a 
much smaller number from Fujian. They belonged to the first of the great 
waves of global labor migration that have marked the entire capitalist era.

Cuba was then the world’s largest sugar producer. The decision by 
landowners and the Spanish colonial regime to bring tens of thousands of 
Chinese indentured laborers to the island was driven by three factors.

1) The eagerness of the landlords and mill owners to mechanize the 
refining process and expand production to take advantage of the growing 
consumption of sugar in Europe and America. Between 1850 and 1868, Cuban 
sugar production tripled.

2) Fear of what property owners saw as a dangerously large number and 
concentration of African slaves on sugar plantations across the island. 
The specter of “another Haiti” haunted them.

3) The opportunity to drive down labor costs.

Between 1830 and 1855 the price of an adult male slave in Cuba roughly 
tripled, from 300-400 pesos to 1,000 or more. This was largely due to 
the increasing costs—from payoffs to faster sailing ships—of 
circumventing international treaties banning the slave trade.

The contract for an indentured worker from China, on the other hand, 
cost the owner less than 400 pesos on average, with another 384 pesos in 
wages spread out over eight years.

Cuban historian Juan Pérez de la Riva estimates that after 1865, as much 
as 75 percent of the annual labor shortage in the sugarcane fields was 
covered by Chinese indentured workers. The toll in human lives was 
enormous. During the quarter century of the coolie trade, some 16,000 
died before even reaching the shores of Cuba. The best estimates 
indicate that between 50 and 55 percent of the Chinese laborers who 
landed did not live to complete the eight years of their “contract.”

The infamous conditions of servitude they faced are well documented, 
including by the 1874 commission sent by the Chinese imperial government 
to record the testimony of the Chinese laborers themselves.

What I want to emphasize here, however, is not the horrors of the coolie 
trade. Others have done that justice. The important history lies in what 
is usually ignored: the proud record of struggle and resistance to 
exploitation by the Chinese in Cuba, the actions through which they 
asserted their human dignity and worth.

Wars of independence
Two decades after the first shiploads arrived, Chinese plantation 
workers massively joined in the first war of independence against Spain. 
In 1868 Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, revered as the father of the Cuban 
nation, freed his slaves and welcomed them into the ranks of the newly 
formed liberation army. From that moment, the struggle to throw off 
colonial domination was inextricably intertwined with the battle to 
abolish not only slavery but all forms of indentured servitude.

A registry of the Chinese population made by the Spanish colonial regime 
in 1872, four years after the war began, showed that some 20 percent of 
Chinese indentured laborers had fled the plantations to which they were 
bound. Thousands of these “fugitives” joined the mambises, as the 
combatants of the liberation army were called. Accounts of numerous 
battles cite the participation of hundreds of Chinese combatants. By 
1874, it is estimated that some 2,000 of the 7,000 regular forces of the 
liberation army were Chinese, with a similar number in the rear.

Organized in their own units of the revolutionary army, they were among 
the fiercest and most courageous of the fighters—and the best spies 
behind enemy lines.

One famous battle in the first independence war has gone down in history 
as “the Chinese attack.” In 1873, under the command of Antonio Maceo, a 
carefully selected unit that included many Chinese infiltrated the city 
of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba, with orders to attack the Spanish 
garrison. Not only did the Chinese mambises fight with exemplary courage 
and tenacity. They were the ones who led the infiltration of the city, 
breaching the defense lines the Chinese themselves had been forced by 
the Spanish colonial regime to build. No map was needed. They knew those 
fortifications like the back of their hand.

The famous words of independence leader General Gonzalo de Quesada are 
carved on the monument erected in 1946 that stands in the center of 
Havana today honoring these Chinese mambí forces: “There was not one 
Chinese-Cuban traitor, there was not one Chinese-Cuban deserter.” This 
was referred to earlier today by our host, Deputy Director Lin Lin, who 
noted it is part of the proud history of Guangdong province.

Slavery, bonded labor abolished
In 1871 the Spanish government suspended further introduction of Chinese 
contract labor into Cuba. The reason was not humanitarian concern over 
the virtual enslavement the Chinese faced. The Spanish crown was seeking 
to stanch the flow of reinforcements to the liberation army. The 
revolutionary struggle of these toilers themselves decided their future.

When Cuba’s first war of independence ended without victory in 1878, one 
concession wrung from the colonial power was written into the infamous 
Zanjón Pact: a provision granting “freedom for slaves and Asian contract 
laborers today in the ranks of the insurrectional forces.”

It was a recognition of reality. These men and women had conquered their 
freedom. They would never go back.

The two Chinese Cubans best known for their outstanding record in the 
independence struggle were Lieutenant Colonel José Bu Tack and Captain 
José Tolón (Lai Wa). Fighting in all three liberation wars, both bore 
Cuban arms for more than ten years, thus earning the right, inscribed in 
the constitution of 1901, to be eligible to serve as president of the 
newly independent country. That honor was granted to only two other 
combatants born outside Cuba, Generals Máximo Gómez, a Dominican by 
birth, and Carlos Roloff, born in Poland.

Gold Rush and railroads
The second major wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba came by way of the 
United States.

In the quarter century between 1848 and 1873, the number of Chinese who 
immigrated to the United States was roughly equivalent to those who set 
out for Cuba. They were first drawn by the 1848 discovery of gold in the 
mountains on the Pacific coast of the North American continent. Their 
numbers were then augmented by contract laborers brought to build the 
most difficult sections of the new transcontinental railroad through the 
high mountain reaches.

By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the illusion that the Gold Rush would 
bring instant wealth to many was largely exhausted. The epic feat of 
railroad building that foreshadowed the rise of the United States as a 
Pacific power was completed in 1869. With the financial crisis of 1873, 
anti-Chinese discrimination and violence accelerated and anti-Asian 
exclusion laws were being put forward in more states. Increasingly 
virulent racism, directed against Blacks above all, was inseparable from 
the ongoing bloody post-Civil War counterrevolution against Radical 
Reconstruction. This racism was a foundation of rising finance capital, 
as U.S. imperialism emerged on a world scale.

Class differentiation
In response to these changing economic and social conditions, between 
1865 and 1875 some 5,000 Chinese left the United States for Cuba, most 
of them traveling through Mexico or departing from the port of New 
Orleans. The californianos, as they were known in Cuba, were mostly from 
a different class than the peasants, rural laborers, and urban workers 
who made up the vast majority of the indentured workforce in the cane 
fields. These “Californians” originated primarily from Guangdong 
province also, but they were largely traders and merchants, some with 
access to substantial capital in China, Hong Kong, and the United 
States. With their arrival, Havana’s Barrio Chino began to be 
transformed into a center of trade, commerce, and banking that rapidly 
became second in the Americas only to San Francisco’s Chinatown. The 
first Chinese association in Cuba, the Kit Yi Tong, was founded in 1867.

Class differentiation among Chinese in Cuba accelerated rapidly. The 
californianos organized former indentured compatriots into work gangs, 
called cuadrillas, which they contracted out as agricultural laborers, 
stevedores, construction workers, or whatever was demanded. By the end 
of the 1880s, wealthy Chinese were investing capital in sugar. Two mills 
in Las Villas, one in Sagua la Grande and another in Santo Domingo, were 
soon Chinese-owned. The 1899 census records forty-two Chinese plantation 

According to official figures, the Chinese population in Cuba peaked in 
1869 at just under 60,000. With the 1871 cutoff of new contract labor, 
and the deadly toll taken by war, famine, disease, and Spanish 
repression during Cuba’s thirty-year independence struggle, that number 
had fallen to 15,000 by the end of the century.

U.S. imperial dominance in Cuba
The third substantial wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba came with the 
U.S. government’s entry into World War I and Washington’s war-driven 
need to expand sugar production.

When Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1898, the fruits of that 
victory were snatched by the rising imperialist colossus to the north. 
Washington’s military occupation of the island, and the establishment of 
a protectorate in all but name, accompanied the voracious acquisition of 
virtually all capital assets in Cuba by America’s Sixty Families.

With this U.S. domination came stepped-up anti-Chinese discrimination as 

One of the decrees of the U.S. military forces during their first 
occupation of Cuba was Order No. 155, issued May 15, 1902. Modeled on 
Washington’s 1882 exclusion act that applied to the entire United 
States, it banned all Chinese immigration to Cuba. As in the United 
States, the ban remained in effect until World War II, when a change was 
dictated by the diplomatic needs of the allied imperialist powers to 
seal an anti-Japanese accord with the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

In Cuba, however, the ban was set aside for five years in 1917, when 
Washington entered the interimperialist war among the European powers, 
joining the alliance against Germany. An expanded labor force to 
increase wartime sugar production came first, and that’s what the U.S. 
rulers organized.

By 1931 the Chinese population of Cuba had once again grown 
substantially, reaching nearly 25,000. The greatest flowering of Chinese 
arts and culture occurred during these interwar years. Music, theater, 
Cantonese opera, martial arts, Chinese-language newspapers—and the lion 
dance—all were part of life in Havana and across the island.

Fighting Machado dictatorship
These were also the years of world capitalism’s greatest economic crisis 
in the twentieth century, marked in Cuba by the second great wave of 
revolutionary struggle and the fall in 1933 of the dictatorship of 
General Gerardo Machado. The revolutionary upsurge in Cuba was not an 
isolated phenomenon. Among tumultuous struggles by working people 
elsewhere around the world, it coincided with the deepening 
revolutionary movement here in China against Japanese imperialism’s 
invasion and occupation of Manchuria, as well as sharpening class 
battles between workers and peasants and the bourgeois dictatorship of 
the Chiang Kai-shek-led Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. 
Revolutionary-minded Chinese in Cuba saw all these as part of the same 
worldwide struggle.

The outstanding Chinese-Cuban leader of the popular revolutionary 
struggles against the Machado dictatorship was José Wong (Huang Taobai). 
Born in Guangzhou in 1898, he arrived in Cuba in the early 1920s, 
already a product of the revolutionary democratic struggles that in 1911 
put an end to millennia of imperial rule in China. Together with Julio 
Antonio Mella, José Wong founded the Cuban Anti-Imperialist League in 
1925, and soon joined the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba. In 1927 
he helped establish the Revolutionary Alliance for the Protection of 
Chinese Workers and Peasants in Cuba, founded on a platform of 
opposition to the dictatorships of both Machado and Chiang Kai-shek, and 
became the first editor of its paper, the Gunnun Hushen [Workers and 
Peasants Voice].

Arrested in 1930 by the dictatorship, Wong was assassinated on Machado’s 
orders, strangled to death in a cell at Havana’s infamous Castillo del 
Príncipe prison.

The 1930s also registered the high point of the Barrio Chino as a center 
of commerce and capitalist organization. A 1932 study carried out by the 
Chinese Chamber of Commerce recorded nearly 4,000 Chinese-owned 
businesses in Cuba, from laundries to groceries, bakeries, restaurants, 
hotels, fruit stands, and vegetable gardens, just to mention the most 

Three Chinese-Cuban generals
The 1952 military coup of Fulgencio Batista was followed quickly by the 
opening of the third great wave of revolutionary struggle in Cuba under 
the leadership of Fidel Castro. By then the class divide among Chinese 
Cubans was greater than ever.

These class divisions were demonstratively expressed in March 1957 when 
many prominent Chinese businessmen in Havana personally went to the 
presidential palace to cravenly express to Batista their relief that he 
had survived an assassination attempt organized by José Antonio 
Echeverría and other revolutionary-minded students, most of whom were 
killed during the attack or hunted down and murdered in the following days.

Meanwhile, young Chinese-Cuban combatants exemplified by Moisés Sío 
Wong, Armando Choy, and Gustavo Chui—whose stories are told in the 
interviews published as Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of 
Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution—were already deeply 
involved in the mass popular struggle that less than two years later 
brought down the U.S.-backed tyranny and opened the road to proletarian 
revolution in the Americas.

Theirs is the story of three very different individuals—three different 
personalities, with different family backgrounds, from three different 
regions of Cuba. Each of them belongs to the generation of Cubans who 
simply refused to submit to the indignities and brutalities of the 
U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. As other roads of struggle were closed 
to them, they took up arms to put an end to that dictatorship. As 
teenagers, each joined the clandestine July 26 Movement in the cities 
and then the Rebel Army units fighting in eastern and central Cuba.

More than 20,000 Cubans gave their lives in that struggle to overthrow 
the Batista dictatorship, and thousands more have done so in the battles 
of the last fifty years to defend Cuba’s independence and sovereignty 
and extend the hand of proletarian solidarity to anti-imperialist forces 
around the world.

The three Chinese Cubans whose story is told in Our History Is Still 
Being Written all rose to be leaders of that revolutionary struggle and 
generals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. Each has a long 
history of responsibilities shouldered, nationally and internationally, 
at the highest levels of the Cuban government.

Uncompromising popular measures
Like many others of their generation, they didn’t set out to make a 
socialist revolution. With Batista out of the way, they took the steps 
necessary to meet the immediate needs of the toiling millions of Cuba, 
and followed that course without wavering.

Working people and their new revolutionary government carried out a land 
reform. They organized a hundred thousand young people in a drive that 
in one year wiped out illiteracy. They made discrimination against 
Cubans who were black or Chinese illegal—in employment, education, and 
all public activities—and enforced it. They opened the door to women’s 
participation in society. They made access to education and health care 
a right, available to all. When factory owners attempted sabotage, they 
kept production going and took control over the organization of work. By 
their deeds, they made clear their readiness to fight alongside others 
confronting imperialist domination and dictatorial regimes throughout 
Latin America and elsewhere around the world.

It was these uncompromising, popular steps that precipitated a head-on 
confrontation, not only with Cuba’s small capitalist class, but above 
all with the U.S. imperialist ruling-class families who owned or 
controlled the overwhelming majority of productive property in Cuba in 
the 1950s. Ninety percent of the cultivated land, 90 percent of the 
mineral wealth, 80 percent of the utilities, two-thirds of the oil 
production and refineries, and more than 40 percent of the sugar 

As the U.S. property owners’ determination to overturn the new 
government intensified, the Cuban people refused to back down from this 
revolutionary course. They held their ground, despite sabotage, 
invasion, assassination attempts, embargo, and blockade. Each step by 
imperialism and their Cuban allies was not only rebuffed, but met with a 
counterstep by the Cuban people. That is the origin of Washington’s 
implacable hostility to the toilers of Cuba and their government. That 
remains the reason for it to this day. Nothing will satisfy the U.S. 
rulers short of crushing Cuba’s example—for the people of Latin America 
especially, but for others throughout the world as well.

This is why five Cuban revolutionaries are now behind bars in the United 
States, having spent nearly thirteen years in U.S. federal prisons. They 
are being held hostage—to punish the Cuban people for refusing to 
abandon their popular proletarian course, for refusing to adopt whatever 
“democratic changes” the U.S. rulers demand.

The class struggle within the Chinese community of Cuba was no different 
from the struggle that unfolded among the rest of the Cuban population. 
With the victory of the Cuban Revolution, domination of the Chinese 
associations and organizations by the wealthiest capitalist families was 
broken. Their ties with organized crime syndicates, gambling, drugs, and 
prostitution rings were shattered. The Kuomintang political machine was 
unseated. For the first time, the flag of the People’s Republic of China 
flew alongside the flag of Cuba in the streets of Havana. In September 
1960, Cuba became the first country in Latin America to establish 
diplomatic relations with Beijing.

None of this came from outside the Chinese community. It came from 
within, from the Chinese-Cuban workers, farmers, and students who 
organized themselves as the José Wong Brigade of the National 
Revolutionary Militia, from men and women like Armando Choy, Gustavo 
Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong. It was Chinese Cubans who fought and won the 
great majority of their numbers to support Cuba’s revolutionary course 
and leadership.

‘Difference is socialist revolution’
If the story of the Chinese in Cuba is still being written, one thing 
has been settled by the last half century of struggle. This truth has 
been eloquently told by General Moisés Sío Wong.

More than a decade ago, during a Havana conference focused on the 
history of overseas Chinese communities in Latin America, Sío Wong was 
asked, “How is it possible that you, a descendant of Chinese, occupy a 
high government post, are a deputy in the National Assembly, and a 
general of the Revolutionary Armed Forces?” That experience is not 
matched by the descendants of Chinese immigrants elsewhere around the 

Sío Wong responded, “The answer doesn’t lie in the degree of Chinese 
participation in the war of independence. That is worth studying, since 
nothing similar happened in any other country where Chinese indentured 
workers were taken. But here too, before the triumph of the revolution, 
we Chinese were discriminated against… .

“The difference is that here a socialist revolution took place. The 
revolution eliminated discrimination based on the color of a person’s 
skin. Above all, it eliminated the property relations that create not 
only economic but also social inequality between rich and poor.”

And Sío Wong concluded, “To historians and others who want to study the 
question, I say you have to understand that the Chinese community here 
in Cuba is different from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, or Canada. And that 
difference is the triumph of a socialist revolution.”

That record of struggle, told in Our History Is Still Being Written, has 
been met with a deep sense of pride by Chinese youth in the United 
States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world who find themselves 
confronting their own battles against racist discrimination in 
immigration, employment, and education. As each generation fights to 
defend its rights, they draw strength from knowledge of the battles 
fought by those who went before them.

The exchange we are having here today will deepen our understanding of 
the place of the Cuban Revolution in the proud history of the people of 
Guangdong. It will broaden our horizons. We thank you for that opportunity.

More information about the Marxism mailing list