Haitians in pre-Castro Cuba: a film portrait

By Michael Lashley


I had the distinct pleasure of being among the enthusiastic aficionados invited to attend the Canadian premiere of a Cuban documentary, hosted in Toronto recently by A Different Booklist at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).

The documentary was entitled Reembarque/Reshipment and it tells the gripping story of the Haitian presence in Cuba in the early decades of the 20th century, including their forced repatriation to Haiti by boat (hence the French term “reembarque”, which means reshipment).

It is the work of the renowned Cuban documentary filmmaker, Gloria Rolando, a passionate storyteller with a talent for demonstrating the significant value of documentaries for both educational and entertainment purposes.

Blending pain with cultural beauty requires a heavy dose of artistry. Though the research and filming took place in both Cuba and Haiti, the information and film shoots from both countries are integrated into a single narrative. It is one narrative that moves back and forth between the two countries, as did the ships that transported the Haitians.

From start to finish, Rolando, always the history buff, provides a graphic account of the painful experiences of Haitian workers being exploited by Cuba’s sugar and coffee industries.

At the same time, Rolando, also the fan of ethno-cultural sociology, effortlessly weaves into that narrative the rich and colourful texture of the Haitian mosaic that includes singing, drumming and dancing.

That narrative finds its historical meaning in the political and psychological consequences of the Haitian Revolution in which the black slaves earned their liberation by participating in the defeat of the French.

The other historical factor, the relevant prelude to the new wave of migration of Caribbean workers was the completion of the Panama Canal, the massive project that had employed large numbers of those workers. This need to find new work made it feasible for migrant workers from the English-speaking Caribbean and from Haiti to fill the massive demand for agricultural labour in Cuba’s sugar and coffee estates.

The ups and downs of that demand and supply equation as they relate to the Haitian workers, their families and their descendants are the substance of the documentary. Of the 1,000,000 Caribbean migrants who went to work in Cuba between 1910 and 1930, 700,000 were Haitians.

On the more positive side of the story, the documentary shows the satisfaction of the Haitian workers in Cuba who were able to take care of their families’ needs back home in Haiti. There are joyous scenes of pumpkin soup (independence soup), singing and dancing in Haiti. For several years, the workers moved freely back and forth between the two countries, as labour mobility was not a problem at that time. Family separation was generally taken in stride and those who stayed on in Cuba assimilated relatively well.

On the other side of the coin, a rapid series of newspaper clippings with attention-grabbing headlines flashes across the screen highlighting the crisis situation in which the Haitian workers in Cuba eventually found themselves, when a quota of 50 per cent of Cuban workers was imposed on the Cuban sugar industry in 1937.

As a direct result of this measure to protect Cuban workers from low wage foreign labour, the throngs of Haitian workers who had made Cuban sugar profitable in previous years were no longer wanted. Those who remained in the country “illegally” were hunted down and forcefully “reshipped” to Haiti.

Towards the end of the documentary, attention is focused on a particularly meaningful initiative taken decades later by Fidel Castro’s government to provide pensions for the ageing and undocumented Haitians who had survived  that crisis era and were still living in Cuba.

In the discussion that followed the viewing of the documentary, both the members of the audience and the director/producer Gloria Rolando commented on the strong parallel between the naked exploitation of the Haitian workers in Cuba and the still current abusive treatment being meted out to Haitian workers and their families in the Dominican Republic.

In both cases we see the nefarious practice: use their labour, then throw them out.

Glaring examples of man’s inhumanity to man!