The changing role of Cuba’s Arab community

Sunday 26/02/2017
A picture shows buildings that have Moorish-Arab architectural specifics. (Jeffrey Sipe)

Havana - Although there are only 50,000 ethnic Arabs in Cuba — out of a popu­lation of 11.3 million — two highly visible institutions give the island coun­try’s Arab community a presence out of proportion to its numbers: Casa de los Arabes, the country’s first ethnographic museum in Ha­vana’s renovated La Habana Vieja; and Union Arabe de Cuba, which is dedicated to preserving and pro­moting the customs, culture and identity of Cuba’s very assimilated Arab inhabitants.
Internationalism has long been an integral part of Cuban identity and Casa de los Arabes, though apolitical in nature, is an out­growth of that concept, said Jac­queline Diaz, a researcher and administrator of the 34-year-old institution.
“Because of the ethnic mix of Cuban society and certain political developments,” Diaz said, “inter­nationalism is very real to us.”
Not far from the 17th-century mansion that houses the museum is the headquarters of the Union Arabe de Cuba, still presided over by its founder Alfredo Deriche Gut­ierrez, a retired engineer and busi­nessman who in 1956 established the Sociedad Palestino de Cuba, which would later form part of the Union Arabe.
“It was at the time of the Suez Canal crisis that I called the first meeting of the Sociedad Palestino de Cuba when I was just 14 years old,” Gutierrez recalled. “My father was Palestinian and I was keenly interested in the events taking place in that part of the world.”
In 1979, during the sixth sum­mit of the Non-Aligned Nations in Havana, the Sociedad Palestino merged with Sociedad Libanes de Cuba and the Sociedad Centro Ar­abe Cubano to form the Union Ar­abe de Cuba.
Gutierrez said the intention was “to create a union of Arabs that was independent of politics, reli­gion, skin colour and country of origin”. The organisation’s stated intentions involved establishing relations with national liberation movements and supporting the Arab people and “their primary cause: Palestine”.
Times, of course, have changed.
As the only Latin American country to vote against the parti­tion of Palestine in 1947 and to establish early ties with the Pales­tine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Cuba has been closely aligned with the Palestinian cause for decades. Gutierrez was instrumental in teaching young Arab-Cubans the principles of revolution during a period when Cuba’s close alliance with the Soviet Union enabled it to send doctors, public health advis­ers and military trainers to other non-aligned countries in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had a devastating effect on Cuba and the revolutionary zeal of the Fidel Castro regime cooled. Cuba retains strong diplomatic relations with Arab countries — and there are more than 1,000 Cuban doctors practising in Algeria. The days of sending Cuban military trainers to the Middle East are over, however.
Union Arabe de Cuba now is largely a social organisation, or­ganising cultural events and dances — everyone in Cuba seems to dance — aimed at ethnic Arabs, many of whom have intermarried and blended into the multiracial fabric of Cuban society. Neverthe­less, its founder and director still passionately addresses the plight of the Palestinian people, recalling the numerous times that the Israeli government denied him entry to the land of his father’s birth.
Cuba does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, despite the existence of five synagogues in the country, and Gutierrez warmly recounts the one time he was al­lowed entry, finally seeing “the cave where my father and genera­tions before him were born”.
Across the street from Casa de los Arabes is a large, well-main­tained prayer room where Cuba’s Muslim adherents pray on Fridays. The Arabs who show up, explained Diaz, are largely from the diplo­matic community and the small but growing population of Muslim converts in Cuba. It is not unusu­al to encounter young women of all races on the streets of Havana wearing the hijab. Many learned about Islam from North African students studying in Cuba.
In early February, the first stone was laid for Cuba’s first mosque. “The widely circulated story that Turkey’s President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan had promised to build a mosque in Havana just wasn’t accurate,” Diaz said. “The fact is that Saudi Arabia is funding the mosque.”
The majority of Arab immigrants arrived in Cuba between 1870 and the early 1930s, fleeing economic hardship in Lebanon, Syria and Pal­estine. Many distinguished them­selves in the wars of independence from Spain but their presence has gone largely unremarked, partly because of their rapid assimilation.
Unlike Brazil and Colombia where Arab immigrants have been incorporated into the literature of Machado de Assis and Gabriel Gar­cia Marquez, Cuban writers have focused little on the group. Other than references in the poetry of José Martí (Let Us Be Moors!) and his contemporaries, Rigoberto Me­nendez, writer and the director of La Casa de los Árabes, said: “It is possible that the early assimilation of the Arab community in Cuba re­sulted in the lack of focus on this theme in local literature.”
Now, with tour groups regularly entering Casa de los Arabes and the public events sponsored by Union de Arabe de Cuba, the Arab role in Cuban history is getting its due.