Contemporary Afro-Cuban artists and activists are challenging the persisting racial inequalities and stereotypes on the island nation. World Policy Journal spoke with Devyn Spence Benson, assistant professor of history and African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University, about racial discrimination in Cuba, both past and present. Her article in the spring issue of World Policy Journal, “‘Not Blacks, but Citizens’: Race and Revolution in Cuba,” is adapted from her forthcoming book Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (UNC Press, 2016).
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you briefly describe former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s 1959 anti-discrimination campaign, as well as some of the problematic legacies of the campaign that remain today?
DEVYN SPENCE BENSON: Amid all the other revolutionary changes happening in Cuba, in March of 1959, Fidel Castro announced a national anti-discrimination campaign. It was in front of a large crowd, and he announced that one of the things that the revolution would do is tackle what he calls “the hated injustice of racial discrimination.” And he also called discrimination one of the four battles of the revolution. The ways they went about tackling racial discrimination was through a national integration campaign, so it helps to understand a little bit about the background of Cuba’s previous race relations. Cuba never had formal segregation, like the Jim Crow South. Since the 1940 constitution, racial discrimination had been illegal; they don’t have any legal discrimination or segregation laws. What they had were informal practices. In 1959, you would have seen private beaches segregated by race, and all private clubs segregated by class and race. There were courtship practices where men and women walked on different sides of the park. They could meet in the middle and talk to one another, but blacks and whites had to walk on different sides in that ritual. There were a lot of informal practices of segregation, especially at social clubs, recreational facilities, and so on.
What Castro does in March of 1959 is call for those public places to be integrated: parks, beaches, pools, etc. Along with social reform, agrarian reform, urban reform (reducing rent prices), and providing scholarships for rural and urban students to go to school or university, you’ve got an anti-discrimination campaign that opens doors for blacks, mulatos, or Afro-Cubans to become a part of the nation and to have access to all of these public spaces. This is really what the campaign looked like, and in my book I talk about the different themes that are a part of the campaign—how, on one hand, it ends up making the idea that a revolutionary could be racist impossible; racism was only a counter-revolutionary offense. It also had a component that was transnational, which involved Cubans participating in other global anti-racist struggles. They support the civil rights movement, they welcomed Black Panthers to the island, and later they supported the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. When I give talks on university campuses, I talk about the legacies of campaign that were really positive. By the time that the 1980s came around, Afro-Cubans had the same life expectancy, high school education rates, and percentage of professional positions as white Cubans. This is something that you don’t see in the U.S., in Brazil, or in any other places in the Americas, so there was a lot of progress. Afro-Cubans were professionals working in racially integrated places as doctors, lawyers, and university professors, so this campaign did have a positive effect on Afro-Cuban lives, especially in terms of social mobility.
When we talk about problematic legacies, though, what we are talking about is the ways that the campaign was not a campaign that tried to break down negative stereotypes about blacks that existed since the colonial period. I often say it was a campaign to build a new Cuba, but using old packaging. Since the colonial period, cartoonists represented Afro-Cubans in political cartoons using sketches that looked like minstrel figures, with exaggerated features, images that looked comical and infantile. Those representations of blackness continued in political cartoons after 1959 as well. When you talk to activists today, they talk about the fact that there aren’t as many black Cubans on TV shows or in high positions of authority, or the ways people joke that “one white woman is more valuable than 20 black women.” There is still a negative association with blackness and a devaluation of blacks. Even as social opportunities opened up for black people, they weren’t able to undo those stereotypes. I think a lot of those problems come out of the fact that the campaign was declared complete in 1961. After that year, Cuban leaders began celebrating the elimination of racial discrimination, and that really closed the spaces to talk about discrimination. By the mid to late 60s, you couldn’t say that the revolution hadn’t dealt with racial discrimination, or that there was continued racism, because it was counterrevolutionary to be a racist. Once you close the door on public discussions, once you stop listening to black activists because you are so busy telling the world you have achieved a society free of racism, there isn’t much space to continue to talk about negative stereotypes of blacks. And of course, you can’t eliminate racism in three short years.
WPJ: In your book, you discuss the ways in which black and mixed-race Cubans have pushed to eliminate racial discrimination and make equal citizenship a reality for Cubans of color through the 1960s. Why and to what extent has space opened up in recent years for increased activism and public discussion about racial inequality?
DSB: I try to build on the work of the many scholars and historians who have studied black and mulato activists throughout the early years of the Cuban republic. From 1902 all the way to 1959, activists had been working in a variety of spaces, whether that was through political parties, through Afro-Cuban social clubs, or through the Communist Party. They worked to try to end racial discrimination and provide more opportunities for citizenship. That didn’t change in 1959. Of course Afro-Cubans were going to continue to work toward equal rights, and activists saw the 1959 revolution as the perfect opportunity to realize the dream that Cuba had had in the late 19th century of creating a unified, and in some ways a "raceless" Cuba where they would not be blacks and whites, but all Cubans. In the early 1960s, Afro-Cubans continued to push for equality, and they came at this from three ideological places. On the one hand, you had Afro-Cuban social club leaders, who were really pushing the government in a particular way, and asking for equal rights within the government. You have Afro-Cuban Communist leaders who wanted to put Afro-Cubans at the top of employment lists and were thinking about re-distributing jobs after the revolution, because they felt that blacks should have first access. You also had Afro-Cuban, sometimes I call them radicals, or black consciousness thinkers. These were Afro-Cubans who in the 1960s wanted to dismantle the negative stereotypes about blacks, and reinsert stories and narratives about blacks into Cuban history and culture. By the time we get to the late 1960s, most of these activists had been, in some ways, either incorporated into the revolution, or left to go into exile. This story of black inclusion and exclusion from revolutionary power, which I tell in the book, demonstrates how interactions between Afro-Cuban leaders and the new government allowed for the coexistence of racism and anti-racism in 1960s Cuba.
After the government ended the campaign in 1961, you aren’t allowed to talk about racial discrimination as openly as you would have been before. By the 1970s, you see Afro-Cubans continuing to do a lot of activist work in literature and art, so they never drop the fight for racial equality and they never give up on the fight for inserting Afro-Cuban culture and history into the national narrative of Cuba, but they have to find new ways of doing so once the campaign is over—many shift to working in the arts and film.
In the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba lost its main trading partner and the economy went into financial crisis, Cuba had to begin to open up in all sorts of ways. Revolutionary leaders started trading and doing joint business ventures with other countries. They did that with European countries, Canadian countries, and more recently with Latin American countries like Venezuela. And as soon as they started opening up economically to other countries, they were also opening up the country to debates about what course the revolution will take, how to maintain the social reforms and progress they had made despite the difficulties the island faced in the 90s. That allowed there to be more space for Cubans on the island—scholars, intellectuals, and regular people—to start talking about what challenges they still face. As a result, there was an explosion of discussions about discrimination in Cuba, as residents, public intellectuals, and scholars began to debate what numerous people have called the “return of racism” in the 1990s. You start getting rappers and hip-hop artists holding concerts. They were critiquing the government, talking about how difficult it was as a black person to get a job in the newly-emerging tourist industry. This is what people are doing now through new organizations, in addition to using new technology. There were new anti-racist blogs like Negra cubana tenía que ser (Black Woman I had to be) by Sandra Álvarez, a blogger, who talks about her experience as a black woman, and as a black lesbian. She is constantly bringing these new ideas to the table through interviews and articles. These are the ways that you are seeing more people at the table. Anti-racism is something that is still unfinished, and is something that Cubans are continuing to debate how to accomplish.
WPJ: In the excerpt of your book in the spring issue of the World Policy Journal, you say that both Fidel and Raúl Castro have “recognized publicly that racism still exists in Cuba and is one of the most pressing concerns on the island today.” What has the government been doing to combat racism, aside from acknowledging its existence?
DSB: This is a really interesting question because in some ways we have to think about how many Cuban political, social, and economic organizations have ties to the state. So, for example, when I talk about hip-hop and rap artists holding public concerts where they rap about episodes where they experience racial discrimination, or the lack of opportunities for Afro-Cubans in the service sphere, what is outstanding to most Americans is that those rappers are supported by the government. They work at the National Rap Agency, they get paid by the government, and they perform in state-owned venues. In some ways, when you ask, “what is the government doing?” the government is providing the spaces that so many people are working in. Another example would be the work being done in the main Union of Artists and Writers, a state organization. Most Cuban intellectuals belong to this union, including many black intellectuals; and they hold meetings, conferences, and workshops where they talk about racism. Those things aren’t separated from the state. So it becomes really interesting to think about people who are doing this anti-racist work in government places, because those things aren’t separated. So I think that’s how the revolutionary government continues to support this work. Even if sometimes they might disagree with the opinions of the activists, they aren’t going to take away those opportunities.
WPJ: Where, then, does the role of the government end and that of grassroots movements begin in bringing about this kind of societal change?
DSB: That’s a fascinating question because I think we have to examine carefully the pros and cons of state-led antiracist work. I often talk about the steps and missteps that the revolutionary government made in the early 1960s. One of the missteps was oftentimes not listening to the Afro-Cuban activists, telling them that now wasn’t the right time to push anti-racism further, but rather they should wait for time to change the racial prejudices and stereotypes that Cubans held. Revolutionary leaders did not actually attack all the issues head on, which is what some Afro-Cuban activists wanted them to do. When we think about where does the government end and the grassroots organizing begin, there has to be a kind of collaboration that really involves listening to Afro-Cuban activists about what they want. Cuba, or anywhere for that matter, couldn’t eliminate the racial prejudices and inequity that came from the colonial period and centuries of racial discrimination, along with negative stereotypes about blacks—you can’t change those things in three short years through government mandates. So I think it’s more about collaboration between the two (grassroots and government), but that means having a government that listens to activists, looks to communities, and recognized that it actually have to tackle stereotypes and prejudices, along with structural inequities, head on, no matter how uncomfortable that makes people.
WPJ: You emphasize the often-overshadowed activism of Afro-Cuban women, highlighting the Afrocubanas Project as a contemporary example of such activism. What is this organization doing to promote the recognition of Afro-Cuban women’s voices and contributions, and to change public perceptions regarding race and gender?
DSB: The Afrocubanas organization really started off as a collective of women, who, through their scholarship, their professional careers, and their daily experiences had been living anti-racist lives. So you have this group of blacks and mulatas who initially were just meeting at each other’s houses and talking about the problems they faced, providing support for each other, and then that eventually evolved into an organization. They published a book in 2012 compiling essays and articles written by members. They also support each other in other ways—for instance, if one of them is a theater director who is staging a play about increasing awareness about an element of Afro-Cuban history, the others go out to support her. At the same time, they talk about how they want to be able to raise money to do public service announcements. They want to be able to have a marketing campaign. That’s something they haven’t been able to achieve, but they talk about how they want to be able to dismantle the negative stereotypes about black women that continue to exist, and the only way that they can do that is if they can raise money.
WPJ: In addition to the Afrocubanas project, what other groups or movements are working to address issues related to racism in Cuba?
DSB: There are lots of contemporary anti-racist groups, some of them like I mentioned before in the state agencies. The Color of Cuba (Color Cubano), which was formed out of the Union of Artists and Writers, is a group that does work in low-income communities. They go into communities and talk to people about what types of problems they were facing or what needs they have. Remember, as the economy was diversifying, one of the things you see more in Cuba is the return of a type of class distinction. Some people can make a lot more money in the tourist industry by owning a bed and breakfast or having a private restaurant in their homes. But if you are in a black community, even if you might own your home now, most Afro-Cubans still live in the same buildings they lived in before the 1960s. And if those homes aren’t as big, don’t have the infrastructure, or you haven’t been able to maintain them or renovate them because you don’t get money for remittances from family members in exile, then you can’t turn your small apartment into a bed and breakfast in the same way that a family who has a home in Vedado, a middle class neighborhood in Havana, and gets a lot of money from their white family in exile can. One of the things that Color of Cuba does is go into many of these communities and they ask what they need. Do they need resources? Do they need supplies? Do they need clothes? Do they need job opportunities? They are doing that on-the-ground work as the economy changes.
Another community organization, Proyecto Espiral, run by a number of young Afro-Cuban teachers works with students to help prepare them for their exams so they can apply to university. They are helping parents who need extra childcare, tutoring, etc. They often talk about environmental organizing and what do we need to do to be aware of the environment and climate change. So discussions aren’t always about race, it’s more about community organizing among people of color to try to meet the needs of those communities.
WPJ: Will the normalization process in U.S.-Cuban relations have an effect on the potential for dialogue or exchange between Cuban groups and American groups such as Black Lives Matter?
DSB: On one hand, the restoring of diplomatic relations with the United States will make it easier for black activist groups in the diaspora to come together and collaborate. I think it’s really important for people to remember that Cuba hasn’t been isolated from the rest of the world, just the U.S. because of U.S. policy, and Cuba is not always oriented toward the United States. Many of the people I’ve worked with in Cuba have already been forming collaborations with Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Ecuadorians, and with scholars throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. They are already doing this sort of diasporic transnational work around anti-racism. Cubans travel to conferences to Latin America and Latin Americans travel to Cuba, so you already see the spread of these ideas. It’s just that the United States hasn’t always been involved. That said, I think that restoring the diplomatic relations is going to allow for more conversation with groups in the United States and that will be something that will build on long and historic standing relationships between African Americans and Afro-Cubans that comes from the late 19th century and early 20th century. In the early 1900s Afro-Cubans went to the Tuskegee Institute, one of the most famous historically black colleges and universities, and there have always been collaborations between black authors in the U.S. and Cuba—like Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes in the 1930s. So it’s not like we haven’t had relationships—African Americans have had relationships with Afro-Cubans for a long time, but I think that the restoration of diplomatic relations will allow for those exchanges to begin again.
WPJ: Those working to dismantle structures of racism in Cuba must also navigate the framework set out by Cuba’s 1959 revolution. You thus termed this movement "a revolution inside of the revolution." As Cuba’s leaders age, will this type of grassroots change help to keep the country’s revolutionary spirit alive?
DSB: Definitely. I think, in some ways, it is important for everyone to remember that, even after the period immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba faced intense economic trials, neither the population nor the revolutionary government were about to walk away from the ideals of the revolution. When I say the ideals of the revolution, I mean a commitment to social justice, a commitment to equity and equality—some of the things that Cubans dreamed that they would be able to create in 1959. And even if they haven’t always been able to meet those goals, I do feel that, as a country—at least the people that I work with—remain committed to trying to achieve those goals. So yes, things are changing every day, every day Cuba is different, but at the same time there are some fundamental things about what the revolution has been and what it will be that will continue, even as revolutionary leaders age. The mantle of the revolution will be carried out by a new generation and this time I have no doubt is will be a more anti-racist revolution than before.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Image courtesy of Oriente]