NOLA.com | By James Varney
As the balance of power in trade partnerships go, the Louisiana/Cuba connection has been a see-saw affair. With an official visit expected to begin Tuesday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco arrives as a potentate from a region and a nation incalculably better off than the island dictatorship she hopes to do business with.
But there was a time when Louisiana was the backwater, and power—including the decrees of the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana, of which New Orleans was a remote part—flowed from the island.
In the centuries since then, many an adventurer has slipped across the Gulf waters separating New Orleans from Cuba, some of them with designs on Cuban turf, others fleeing persecution or the fear of it, as did the generation of refugees who flocked to New Orleans to escape the Castro revolution beginning in 1959.
“The historical, cultural, demographic, economic and cultural ties between Cuba and Louisiana are firm and deep,” said Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian and distinguished research fellow with the Southern University system.
Ties that bind
At the beginning of the 19th century, trade, primarily in coffee, sugar and slaves, meant heavy travel between Cuba and Louisiana. There were periodic exoduses from one place or another, part of a churning of populations between Haiti, Cuba and New Orleans, according to Ariana Hall, the executive director of CubaNola, an arts organization that seeks to expand cultural ties between the island and the city. In 1809, a huge influx of plantation owners and free black people who had fled the Haitian revolution passed through Cuba and doubled the population of New Orleans when it hit the docks, she said.
Traffic remained steady after the slave trade ceased. On maps of fin de siecle shipping routes, whorls emanating from New Orleans and Havana reflect the two ports’ power and their domination of trade moving through the Caribbean or headed to Europe. And, in at least the first half of the 1900s, the mercantile activity continued to hum.
“In the middle part of (the 20th) century, over one-third of the trade from the Port of New Orleans was destined for Havana and over 6,000 people in the city were employed in areas directly related to trade with Cuba,” according to Tulane University’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute.
Prior to Castro’s revolution, the old ties continued to bind, Hall said.
“A lot of family, commercial and cultural connections were in place from the 19th century, and many people were definitely still going back and forth between Cuba and Louisiana,” she said.
Relics of lost trade
But the boom died not long after Castro and his guerrillas marched into Havana on New Year’s Eve 1959 and kicked over the last, rotten props of the brutal Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Today, hulks and relics along the south Louisiana waterfront attest in ghostly silence to the thriving trade the Blanco delegation hopes to rekindle. Perhaps the largest of them is the Seatrain loader in Belle Chase still visible from Highway 23: between 1929 and 1964, railroad cars destined for Cuba were hoisted aboard freighters by the loader’s massive cranes, according to local historians of the New Orleans Lower Coast Railroad.
The Seatrain loader is but one thread in an intricate tapestry that for centuries bound Cuba and New Orleans together. For example, during Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain in the late 1890s, the rebel movement’s exiled military general, Antonio Maceo, took up residence in Treme, a home he shared briefly with Jose Marti, the grand statesman of Cuban independence, after Marti followed Maceo into exile in 1894.
Marti’s statue adorns a stretch of neutral ground along Jefferson Davis Parkway, a gathering place to this day for anti-Castro demonstrations by members of the exile community who fled Cuba for Miami and New Orleans after 1959.
The New Orleans-Cuba link was reasserted infamously in the early 1960s when, shortly before assassinating President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald opened up a pro-Castro office on Camp Street and handed out recruiting handbills. History shows Oswald’s effort inspired fistfights but no surge in recruits to his cause.
In musical matters, too, the cities are integrally connected. The first performance of a Cuban musical troupe in New Orleans appears to have been in 1824. There is a school of thought that holds that members of New Orleans’ early brass bands, recruited to fight in the Spanish-American War, went AWOL at night and jammed with their Cuban brethren. The Reliance Brass Band contained Cuban members as early as 1900, and the cross-pollination in styles, some say, contributed to the emergence of jazz.
Whatever the truth of the wartime interaction, the bond between New Orleans and Cuban musicians in the first half of the 20th century is indisputable, and some emerging stars of the modern Cuban music scene—the group Cubanismo is a case in point—have collaborated on recordings with New Orleans artists, declaring them a source of continuing inspiration.
In a spiritual vein, even New Orleans voodoo appears to have gotten a boost through Cuba.
“In 1809 many Haitians who had migrated to Cuba during the Haitian revolution found themselves cast out and came to New Orleans,” according to a Web site called “New Orleans Voodoo Crossroads.” “They brought with them their slaves who fused their rites and beliefs with those of the stateside slave population. Voodoo in Louisiana was enriched and revitalized.”
Anna Lopez, director of Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, said it’s not surprising that elements of Cuba’s smoldering revolutionary movements and exotic rituals would crop up in New Orleans.
“In the 19th century, most of the free people of color came here from either Haiti or Cuba, and in the various plans to annex Cuba to the U.S. many of the insurgents were recruited here as well,” she said.
Then, too, there was the Roman Catholic Church that built a strong bond between the Spanish empire’s tropical capital in the Caribbean and its foothold in the then largely unexplored Americas. In 1762, Louisiana became a Spanish colony and the fledgling church jurisdiction was transferred first to Santiago de Cuba and then to Havana, according to church history. The diocese in Havana continued to control ecclesiastical matters here until Louisiana earned its own stripe and Luis Penalver y Cardenas, a Havana native, arrived in the city in 1795 as the first bishop of the sprawling Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas.
In particular, the Ursuline order, which still has a building in Havana, found itself bound up with Cuba and its politics. Ursuline Academy in New Orleans had more than a score of Cuban borders who returned at Christmas 1958, jubilant over the prospects of Batista’s demise, said Sister Joan Marie Aycock, the archivist there. But after Castro’s victory they found themselves stranded, setting off a mad scramble to get a jet to Havana and return them, she said.