Rhetoric and Reality During Cuba’s Antiracism Campaign

This post is part of our online roundtable on Devyn Spence Benson’s Antiracism In Cuba.

Fidel Castro and Malcolm X (Photo: Carl Nesfield)

In July 1960, thousands of people from all over Cuba and the world traveled to the island’s Sierra Maestra mountain range to commemorate the revolutionary actions of the 26th of July Movement.1 In addition to celebrating the group that had overthrown Fulgencio Batista, this international gathering was an opportunity for Fidel Castro’s young government to show off its accomplishments. Prominent African American and Puerto Rican leaders such as Ana Livia Cordero, Juan Antonio Corretjer, Harold Cruse, José Luis González, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Juan Mari Bras, Julian Mayfield, and Robert Williams, were exposed to—and inspired by—the state’s rhetoric on a variety of issues, including antiracism. The Cuban state and many of the people who visited the island that summer were interested in developing and deepening strategic alliances that would undermine the United States’ imperialism.

However, less than a week before this celebration of the revolution, an Afro-Cuban journalist named Reynaldo Peñalver published an article in a Havana newspaper that described a much less joyful reality that Cubans of color encountered on a daily basis. As documented in Devyn Spence Benson’s book, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, Peñalver and his Black comrades were denied service at a public eatery, a practice representative of the informal race-based segregation that existed throughout the island at the time. Peñalver reminded the establishment’s owners of the government’s campaign to do away with such discrimination, and he promptly reported the incident. Stories in the press describing racist encounters spiked during the first nine months of 1960, after the Cuban government had begun marketing the island as a destination where African Americans could receive “first class treatment—as a first class citizen” (154) in an effort to increase tourism. Benson successfully demonstrates how Afro-Cubans used “state rhetoric to demand additional reforms” by publicizing their exclusion from the spaces enthusiastically advertised to African American visitors.

Peñalver’s story is one of many in Benson’s book that depicts the tension between “Afro-Cuban expectations and state rhetoric” (2) in the years following the revolution. Castro announced the beginning of Cuba’s antiracism campaign in March of 1959, and by 1961, he had declared it a success. Benson’s book is a nuanced exploration of the ways that racism continued to permeate Cuban society despite the state’s ambitious efforts to eliminate discrimination, and she also documents on-the-ground struggles of Afro-Cubans who worked to uphold the revolution’s promises. Benson identifies continuities between how people of color were represented and treated before and after the revolution, providing examples of the ways that various governments reproduced discourse and imagery that portrayed Blacks as loyal, grateful, and passive.

Benson insightfully contextualizes and analyzes these racist practices, reaching back to Cuba’s nineteenth century independence wars to demonstrate the longstanding power of the ideology of a “raceless and unified Cuba” (2), promoted by leaders such as Jose Martí. This ideology was so powerful that many Cubans, including some Afro-Cubans, interpreted the Partido Independiente de Color (Independent Party of Color) as a threat to unity, and in 1912, the army killed over two thousand people affiliated with the party. This state-sponsored massacre was a grim reminder for generations of Afro-Cubans negotiating how, or even whether, to organize around their black identity.

The José Martí Memorial on Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba (Photo: Library of Congress)

Benson discusses the variety of organizing strategies that Afro-Cubans pursued in the decades preceding and following the revolution. Some chose to work from within the Cuban Communist Party, a party founded in 1925 that boasted a large number of members of color and included antiracism on its agenda. However, the party’s focus on the unity between workers sidelined the issue of racial inequality. Other activists made gains working within Afro-Cuban social clubs. However, one of the paradoxes of the post-1959 antiracism campaign was the closure of these powerful organizations, based on the revolutionary state’s belief that they were no longer necessary. Benson also considers the defiant speeches and writings of activist-intellectuals such as Juan René Betancourt, Walterio Carbonell, and Carlos Moore, who challenged raceless ideologies and “promoted negrismo (a Cuban version of Black consciousness)” (75). These activists faced exile and censorship because they were considered counterrevolutionary. Amidst this repression, Benson discusses the ways that Castro continued to push the idea of Cuba as a racial paradise, at one point claiming that “everyone live[d] together without problems” (154).

By late 1960, as the United States became more critical of Castro’s government, Benson argues that Cuban citizens muted their local, public conversations about discrimination, focusing instead on the failures of United States democracy and the global systems of racism and imperialism. When comparing the island to the United States, Cuban leaders and the general public made reference to material improvements in the lives of Afro-Cubans, including the racial integration of private schools and beaches, as well as increased employment, health, and housing opportunities. Benson acknowledges that by the 1980s, these advancements were impressive when analyzed alongside the experiences of Black people in the United States and Brazil. Still, she concludes that the government’s top-down ideologies and proclamations during its antiracism campaign “failed to dismantle racial prejudices” (247).

In the book’s epilogue, Benson offers the stories of Afro-Cubans, especially women and artists, who continued to find ways and spaces to challenge racial discrimination after the end of the government’s campaign in 1961. She discusses P.M., a 1961 documentary about nightlife in Havana that was banned because Afro-Cubans in the film did not “fit into the parameters of appropriate revolutionary blackness” (232). Benson especially highlights the work of the Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez, who worked on several documentaries between 1964 and 1969 that focused on everyday Black life, and featured critiques of the government.

Afro-Cuban Singer Celia Cruz in Paris, France, on April 11, 1980. (Photo: Lionel Decoster, Wikicommons)

Indeed, it was presumptuous for Castro to say that Cuba achieved racial harmony in under two years, overcoming hurdles that were the result of a system of global racial capitalism hundreds of years old. Benson’s book provides an excellent historical foundation for a deeper investigation into the ways that Afro-Cubans expressed opinions that would have challenged the state after 1961. Benson describes the efforts of intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers; however, an analysis of music and performers such as Celia Cruz, Graciela, and La Lupe offers an opening to consider the creative ways that the Afro-Cuban experience was documented and validated in both public and private. Afro-Cuban spiritual practices and embodied practices such as dancing and joke-telling would be other arenas within which to discern Afro-Cuban political activity.

Racist acts occurred outside the state’s purview, but so did many of the ways that Afro-Cubans responded to that racism. Sara Gómez captured this sentiment in an assertion she made in her film, En la otra isla (On the Other Island): “The Revolution can’t do everything for you. You have to make it, the Revolution, yourself” (238). Benson’s book is a reminder to acknowledge Afro-Cubans as vital participants in the ongoing Cuban revolution. They made and make complex, daily calculations about how to navigate and claim their space, intersectionality, and rights within an island and a world that continues to systematically silence, exploit, and punish Black people.

  1.  The 26th of July Movement, led by Fidel Castro, was the group that attempted to topple the dictator Fulgencio Batista on July 26, 1953, eventually succeeding on January 1, 1959.
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Sandy Placido

Sandy Placido is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Oberlin College. She completed a PhD in American Studies at Harvard University. Her dissertation, “A Global Vision: Dr. Ana Livia Cordero and the Puerto Rican Liberation Struggle, 1931-1992,” is the first, in-depth study of Ana Livia Cordero, a Puerto Rican female physician and anti-imperialist activist. Follow her on Twitter @LaSandyPlacido.