Hereditary Cuban Cacique, Francisco Ramirez, Receives Canadian Ambassador: Unique diplomatic gesture signals breakthrough for Indigenous Cuba
In early December, 2023, Geoff Gartshore, the Canadian Ambassador to Cuba, took his well-heeled jeep up the stone and dirt roads of the island’s eastern mountain, intent on visiting theCuban Native people in their communities.
The Ambassador’s expressed purpose was to be formally received by Cuban Native cacique, Francisco Ramirez Rojas, the respected “Cacique Panchito,” along with other leaders of la Gran Familia. He invited along Anne Lamaistre, director of UNESCO’s Regional Cultural for Cuba and the Latin Caribbean.
The specific request to meet the cacique by an ambassador from a major country such as Canada, offering to travel the relatively isolated Taino-guajiro enclaves of the high eastern mountains, surprised for its directness and impetus. The visit was most unusual – perhaps unique; international ambassadors and other high officials visit rarely, if at all, those remote areas. Assuredly, for Cuba’s predominant Native clan, the Ramirez-Rojas families of the Gran Familia, it marked a significant breakthrough.
The Ambassador’s request and formal visit was accompanied by an expressed respect for Indigenous people that impressed everyone, and caused some wonderment, including among governmental authorities, nationally and in this core Municipality of Yateras, that is home to a thousand or more Native families. This is where Cacique Panchito and a large contingent of his next generation family leaders decided to receive the Canadian delegation.
Cuba’s notable kinship population of Indigenous Taino descendants was overlooked for nearly two centuries. The remote mountain communities kept to themselves and helped create and blended in the general campesino (guajiro) culture of the country. The accepted notion by historians became that the Native Taino of Cuba had become extinct.
Cacique Panchito since the 1980s pursued a campaign to regather the Cuban Native families. As a hereditary cacique from the pueblo of Caridad de los Indios, he traveled the island to seek his people in numerous home visits, as well as larger reunions of whole areas and municipalities. A resource team formed around him, including this writer, which challenged the extinction dictumin the national discourse, journalistically and academically. Important documentation was surfaced detailing the numerous Native multi-family mountain enclaves – “caserios”— that sustained in the mountains, while many families had also migrated into urban barrios.
The Gran Familia Taina of Cuba now fields its network of family leaders from throughout the Cuban “Oriente” (“the Wild East”). In a quiet process of community strengthening, in agriculture and traditional medicines and some self-representation in national events, the leadership group and numerous other relatives have made the Gran Familia’s presence increasingly known in recent years.
The Cacique Panchito and the circle of next generation leaders from the Gran Familia core communities, found the ambassador pleasant and highly interested.
In September, via our partner, historian Alejandro Hartmann, the ambassador had invited a delegation from the Gran Familia to visit him at his embassy residence in Havana. Thatinvitation extended to a representation from Plenty Canada’s Cuba Indigeneity Project, including director, Jóse Barreiro and Plenty Canada Executive Director Larry McDermott. The embassy hoped for the participation of Cacique Panchito, but advanced age would not allow the cacique to travel that far. The cacique’s assigned “delegada,” his daughter, Idalis Ramirez, represented the Gran Familia.
After a brief formal greeting, hosted in a local traditional caney, or roundhouse, a fire was lit and a ceremony circle was formed; the Cacique and other elders offered singing prayers in a Macuyo (tobacco) Ceremony. All preparations and officiating fell to Gran familia leaders, who introduced local officials for governmental greetings.
Ambassador Gartshore offered remarks, recalling the meeting at the embassy, where the discussion had been partly about the richness of Canadian Indigenous peoples’ cultures, and “what I did not know, of the richness of Indigenous Cuba, of your lives.”
We decided then (at the embassy), he said, that “this Indigenous part will be a great bond between Canada and Cuba in the future.”
(“Esto va a ser un gran vinculo entre Canada y Cuba en el futuro, esta parte indigena.”)
Making reference to the notion of extinction for Indigenous people within Cuba, he said, “It is little known that you are still very present… [but] … you are not only part of the past, you a real so part of the present and of the future of the country.”
(“Es poco conocido que ustedes estan muy presente.
… no son parte del pasado, si no tambien parte del presente y del futuro de su pais.)
The Cuban Native crowd cheered him. The local traditional “changüi” music was played, elders took to dancing and soon the ambassador was yanked off his chair by a woman elder. The Ambassador smiled and gave the rhythmic changüi dancing his best shot. “Long live diversity in Cuba,” he told the group. “And long live diversity in Canada.”
Seriously, if less exuberantly, the ambassador and the UNESCO director met with Gran Familia leaders and provincial officials for a promising discussion on community economic issues and some of the needs for basic services among these remote communities. The cacique expressed the need for repairs and improvements to their mountain roads, and also called for solar power units and technical training. This was a fruitful discussion, according to the cacique’s delegate, Idalis Ramirez.
“The ambassador was liked by the folks,” she said. “He was personable and enjoyed himself in our people’s company. He came to the cacique and offered friendship. We appreciate the potential of his gesture with us.”
— Jóse Barreiro