The violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia the weekend of August 12-13 forced the nation to reconsider its history and what aspects of it have been promoted at the expense of others. White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and others gathered in Charlottesville to protest the announced removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the campus of the University of Virginia. Counter-protestors showed up to challenge them. Many have argued about the right of freedom of speech and others have said that all symbols of the confederacy must be abolished or removed because they commemorate an ugly portion of American history or that some were constructed in the period of Jim Crow to intimidate immigrants and African-Americans. These are complicated times indeed.

Unbeknownst to many Americans Cuba is having a similar internal dialogue. Located in a beautiful rotunda on Havana’s famous Avenida de los Presidentes (Avenue of the Presidents) lies an imposing yet beautiful monument to a man forgotten by Americans, but remembered by Cubans. Featuring many Roman columns and a resplendent and large statue, this monument is an homage to José Miguel Gómez, former president of Cuba from 1909-1913.

However, there is a controversy surrounding the very existence of this memorial (pictured above). In 1912 José Miguel Gómez ordered the massacre of over 2,000 (some claim as many as 3,000) members of the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC), an all Afro-Cuban party committed to defending its right to promote the cause and interests of blacks in Cuba, protesting a discriminatory law (la ley de Morúa). This tragedy is not discussed in Cuban history books and mirrors the current polemic in which the US is currently enmeshed. In Cuba many people are not aware of the May 1912 massacre while in the US many do not realize that most of the Confederate statues and symbols that appear in public places throughout the South were built in the 20th century as a form or resistance against the federal government, immigration and blacks.

As we know passion, uninformed by history, can transmogrify into hysteria and this is what we saw coming from the white supremacists, et al, in Charlottesville. Noted historian Jon Meacham, observed in a recent article that, “If we don’t face them [facts] forthrightly, we risk living in worlds of fantasy and fable, subject not to reason, the greatest of gifts, but susceptible to passion, the most dangerous of forces.”[1]  In the US reason has been overtly challenged by passion regarding the symbols of the Confederacy, while in Cuba no one knows the dark history of the man commemorated by the shrine on Avenida de los Presidentes, although the hip-hop group Obsesión has led the charge demanding that the monument be torn down.

Lord Bolingbroke once wrote that “History is philosophy taught with examples.”  We have to ask ourselves what kind of example we are teaching these days.


[1] Meacham stumbles, however, when he equates Andrew Jackson as a visionary of the caliber of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He writes that all three of them “believed in the transcendent significance of the nation, and each was committed to the journey toward ‘a more perfect Union’”. He seems to have forgotten the brutality that Jackson (known as “Old Hickory” by Caucasian Americans and “Sharp Knife” by Native American Indians) displayed toward the indigenous Americans. Jackson certainly believed in a “more perfect Union” but this was built on the genocide of the Native American Indians. Interestingly enough, Jackson has two statues that feature prominently on US public spaces. Meacham, unfortunately, did not address this in his article).