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The History of Arab-Cubans: When Did They Arrive?

posted on: Mar 3, 2021

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

The history of Cuba has always been a complex and multi-ethnic one where stories have played out between indigenous people, the Spanish, and Afro-Cubans. However, did you know that there was another group that has had an impact on the country’s history and culture? If you guessed they were Arab-Cubans, you are absolutely correct.

History of First Arabs Who Migrated To Cuba

Los Jardines de Tropical
Image by arcgis.org

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and lies right off the coast of Florida. Its culture is a part of the Spanish Caribbean along with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  One key aspect that Cuba shares with the rest of the Spanish Caribbean is the influence that the Arab community historically has on the island, and the impact they continue to have today. 

Similar to other places in the Caribbean, the beginning of Arab migration to Cuba began at the start of Spanish colonization.  Many Arabs were able to migrate to Cuba during colonial times because they were part of the historical Arab population that formed a major part of the inhabitants of Islamic Spain, known as Al-Andalus. This region of Al-Andalus would soon be conquered by the precursors of modern-day Spain and Portugal, as they absorbed the remnants of the once-powerful Caliphate of Cordoba.  

When the Spanish founded the New World and began colonizing, there were many Arabs who would then be able to settle in Cuba, either by converting to Catholicism or by keeping their religion a secret because Muslims, as well as Jews, Gypsies, Protestants, and other religions, were prohibited from making the journey to the New World.  The reason the Arabs converted or kept their religion secret was that the Spanish monarchy feared possible new conversions in their New World dominions by these non-Catholic religions, according to Aramco News. 

Arabs who came willingly or unwillingly to the island during the colonial era were assimilated into the Spanish, Taíno, and African cultures. 

Along with Arabs who came willingly, there were also Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East whom the Spanish brought as slaves to work for the colonial regime, according to mvslim.com, who talked about how some of these slaves also landed in Puerto Rico.  In short, these two different colonial migration roots are nearly identical to that of Puerto Rico’s, as the Arabs who came willingly or unwillingly to the island during the colonial era were assimilated into the Spanish, Taíno, and African cultures. 

However, the Arabs who originally settled in Cuba during the colonial era also left many buildings in the Arab architectural style. According to arcgis.com, a few of these buildings with Arab design includes the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Palacio de las Ursulinas, and the Jardines de la Tropical.  Some signs of Arab influence on these buildings are their facades, as well as the Arabic calligraphy placed on the walls of the interior, as in the Los Jardines de Tropical where there is a saying written in Arabic that translates to, “There is no winner but God.”   Even though there has been a presence of Arabs moving to Cuba during colonial times that were responsible for some architectural achievements, it was not until the modern era that Arabs would reach their present-day numbers of population.  

Modern Migration and the Influence of Arab Cubans on the Island

The Arab Community of Cuba and their Impact
Colonial Map of Cuba by Wikimedia Commons

The modern migration of Arabs started in the late 19th century.  Many of the Arabs who arrived in Cuba during these times, according to arcgis.com, came from the region of the Levant which includes the modern Arab countries of Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon during the time of the Ottoman Empire. These Arabs fled to Cuba during the end of the 19th century due to economic opportunities, as well as negative mishaps in their homeland such as famine and civil unrest. This early migration during the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century resulted in hundreds of Arabs migrating to Cuba.  A much larger migration wave would start in the aftermath of the First World War after the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the areas of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine transferred from Ottoman into British and French hands.

The Arab community in Cuba has had a long history on the island, and no doubt plays a large role in its culture and identity.

The post-World War I migration of Arabs to Cuba soon reached its peak during the 1920s and then slowly dropped as the Arab states achieved their independence after the Second World War.  Many of these modern Arab immigrants, once they arrived in Cuba, would most likely move to urban areas, and especially to the Cuban capital of Havana.  It was also during the interwar years that the immigration authorities of Cuba finally recognized the Arabs as their own ethnic group distinct from the Turkish one, which wasn’t the case for the Arab immigrants who arrived before the First World War.  The result of this modern migration of Arabs resulted in a population numbering around 50,000 people who created many organizations, businesses, and places of worship in Cuba.

The Arab community in Cuba has had a long history on the island, and no doubt plays a large role in its culture and identity. Today, thousands of Arabs make their home on the island, and despite the unfortunate circumstances leading to their immigration to the island, such as famines and enslavement, they will always be a noticeable part in the multi-ethnic fabric of Cuba.

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