U.S. Academics Hope to Find Gold in Cuba's Dusty Past


From marriage and dowry records to cargo inventories and sales of slaves, the daily details of centuries of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba lie buried amid millions of pages of aging legal documents in its National Archives.

Now, in a sign that hostile political relations between Washington and Havana do not have to get in the way of academic zeal, Cuban and U.S. archivists are launching a joint project to delve into the dusty, handwritten notarized records, preserve them electronically and make them more accessible to academics and a wider public.

"We hope it will be a treasure trove . . . I think time will tell how much gold is in it," said John Ingram, who is leading the University of Florida's side of the project. "For my colleagues in Latin American studies, these records will truly open a window in time."

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, was crucial as Spain established dominance in the New World, serving both as a port and as a crossroads for ships--some laden with treasure and frequently attacked by pirates--going to and from Spain.

The university in Gainesville, Fla., and the Cuban National Archives signed an agreement in March to undertake the multimillion-dollar project, which could take years.

They will seek support from universities and libraries in the United States and Spain. The aim is to put the so-called Notary Protocols on microfilm, then transfer them to digital formats that can be put on the Internet, taking centuries-old documents into the cyber age.


In a pilot phase, which will not get underway until the university has secured funding from individuals and foundations, Cuban and U.S. specialists would take about a year making a digital record of a sample 70,000 pages, Ingram said.

The documents, stored in four large rooms in the National Archives in Old Havana, consist of some 6,658 tomes of about 1,400 handwritten pages each, wrapped in brown paper, or about 10 million pages. They span from 1578--about 60 years after Spain began colonizing Cuba--to 1900, two years after Madrid lost its Pearl of Antilles in the Spanish-American War.

Some show signs of vermin damage and ink deterioration. The rooms where they are stored, though not air-conditioned, are dry and sealed, said Ingram, the director of library collections at the University of Florida's George A. Smathers Libraries.

The United States and Cuba have no diplomatic relations, and Washington, seeking to isolate President Fidel Castro, has maintained an economic embargo on the Communist-run island since soon after the Cuban leader took power in 1959.

But for nearly a decade, although the policy has hit bumps along the way on both the U.S. and Cuban sides, Washington has encouraged what it terms "people-to-people" contacts and cultural and academic exchanges. Washington restricts travel to Cuba, but it does permit visits by academics or other groups it sees as meeting that goal.


Academics say wider access to the documents, a vital chronicle of Spain's colonization of the New World, could open the door to far more detailed knowledge of the period. "The documents are very similar to what we have notarized today," said Ingram. "They would be deeds, wills, inventories of possessions . . . ships' bills of lading, lists of possessions, including slaves."

That means, for example, that it might eventually be possible for a Cuban of African descent to trace when his or her forefathers first arrived on a slave ship from Africa, and what tribe and region they were from.

Official letters--for example correspondence from a governor to his monarch--are more likely to have been the key primary source for historians until now, said Bruce Chapell, a University of Florida archivist who is working with Ingram on a project he describes as a "dream."

A mirror, albeit smaller, of Havana's notary records exists in the southern Spanish port of Cadiz, ground zero for Spain's New World forays from the time when Christopher Columbus set sail on his celebrated voyage of discovery in 1492.

Chapell, a specialist in the Caribbean basin, said such notary records existed for other Spanish colonial cities such as Mexico City and Puebla, Lima, Quito and Bogota, but not for other Caribbean colonial ports such as Cartagena or San Juan.

"It's a miracle these things survived," he said of the Havana records. Chapell tried to get a similar project going 20 years ago, but it faltered, partly because of a different political climate. Both he and Ingram have traveled to Cuba several times in connection with the archives project.


"Some of them [Cuban specialists] are very revolutionary, some more moderate; they're all very professional," Chapell said, adding that politics was not an issue in discussions.

For Damien Fernandez, chair of the International Relations Department and a Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami, the archives project is an example of a joint project that can benefit both nations.

Fernandez said Cuba was essentially "out of bounds" to Americans during the Cold War and while Havana was closely allied to the former Soviet Union. But this changed after the collapse of Soviet bloc communism and the shift in U.S. policy with the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act that sought to combine the stick of the embargo with the carrot of increased contacts.

The policy has seen setbacks. Cuba, aware that Washington seeks increased contacts to try to bring about political change, has sometimes put the brakes on what it may see as a Trojan horse. And there was a big chill after Cuba shot down two exile-crewed light aircraft near the island in 1996. But Pope John Paul II's visit to the island in 1998 was an impetus to a big increase in people-to-people contacts. Though such exchanges help people from both sides understand each other, Fernandez said, they are not problem-free, not least because "they can make Cuba appear normal."

"We can't forget Cuba is not totally normal. It has one party and has had one man in power for four decades."

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