The Cuban Revolution and the Myth of Racial Inclusivity

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

Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement, 1959 (Raúl Corrales Forno/Wikimedia Commons).

Devyn Spence Benson’s Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, is a detailed, and powerful examination of the limits of revolution. Delving into an array of sources, Benson is relentless in her willingness to expose and explain why the Cuban Revolution was never able to “solve” the problems of race, despite endless promises and assurances. Benson effortlessly maneuvers countless contradictions, nationalist discourses on racial denial and invisibility, and Cuba’s own version of a post-revolutionary racial democracy. She is keenly adept at asking to what extent does the revolutionary government’s refusal or perhaps, even inability to fully address anti-blackness and racism render the Cuban Revolution unfinished? This is a bold claim, one that deserves full attention and analysis.

Benson begins her book by reminding us that as soon as Batista was ousted and Fidel Castro rode into Havana, Afro-Cubans expected the revolution to end “the awful situation faced by the ‘black race’” (p. 1). Racism was intrinsically tied to poverty, lack of education, political exclusion, and limited resources. Ending racism meant that Afro-Cubans would finally be on equal footing with whites. Similar to the different wars for independence, Afro-Cubans played a large and important role in the Cuban Revolution. Their participation and sacrifice would surely be rewarded. The M 26-7 leadership and Fidel Castro himself, made a point to reassure Afro-Cubans that a central aim of the revolution was to accomplish what past revolutions could not: eradicate racism in Cuba once and for all.

To explain the history of such contradictions, Benson looks to the enduring nineteenth century myths of racial inclusivity and nationalist belonging. As a historian who examines nineteenth and early twentieth century Afro-Cuban diasporic history, it was fascinating for me to learn how Castro and the revolutionary government continued to posit nineteenth century figures, José Martí and Antonio Maceo, as examples of Cuban racial unity. Partly conceived in the diaspora, Martí’s writings as well as the Partido Revolucionario Cubano’s (PRC) constant calls for Afro-Cuban enfranchisement and integration into the imagined nation, was never fully fleshed out. There were no concrete details on how to effectively enfranchise and empower Afro-Cubans once Cuba gained its independence from Spain. For white Cuban revolutionaries focused on ending Spanish colonial rule, the details did not matter.  What mattered was that the nationalist discourse be vague enough to attract as many Cubans as possible, while at the same time, conveying exclusivity. As Lillian Guerra has written, it was the ambiguity and lack of detail that ultimately gave these myths their lasting power.

Benson astutely picks up on this point when she argues that the uses of Martí and Maceo are not only familiar tropes, recognizable and comfortable to all Cubans, but also effective transmitters of the racial politics and work of the Communist Revolution. As Benson writes, “In a sense, the ideas of Martí and Maceo were more popular in 1959 than they had been in the 1890s because fifty years had given many Cubans the opportunity to construct ambivalent images of what they stood for.” This, as Benson rightly notes, “limited the potential for change” (p. 62).

Memorial service march for victims of the La Coubre explosion. Far left: Fidel Castro, center: Che Guevara. Havana, Cuba 1960 (Wikimedia Commons).

One of Benson’s many contributions is her examination of why and how M 26-7 leaders continually sought to both point out and blunt post-1959 racism in Cuba.  A case in point is a quote by Jorge Risquet, a representative of the revolutionary army that vividly captures such seemingly disparate gestures. “The revolution does not have color. Rather it is the olive green of the revolutionary army, the pure white of valor, and the combination of all colors because it is a revolution of the people” (p. 63). On the one hand, M 26-7 leaders clearly departed from the past by challenging racism and promoting Afro-Cuban rights, while at the same time, making sure to not threaten white Cuban revolutionaries.

And there is the rub.

How do M 26-7 leaders effectively challenge decades of ingrained racism and anti-blackness, without alienating white Cuban revolutionaries? How do the M 26-7 leaders make real and lasting change, especially when the politics and rhetoric of anti-blackness were a hallmark of the revolution? And finally, how do M 26-7 leaders and the Cuban public, reconcile the calls to end racism with the persistent racial antagonism and exclusions that continued to mar revolutionary Cuba?

In reading Benson’s book, I was struck by several key points. One was the rhetorical impossibility, and yet determined use of discourse to make change. Benson provides a thorough reading of multiple cultural and knowledge productions, including newspapers, cartoons, advertisements, murals, etc. to show on the one hand, what the revolution was up against before taking power, and on the other, their efforts to combat racism.  At times, the messaging was profoundly simplistic, as though simply readjusting Afro-Cuban images and portrayals was enough to change ingrained policies, thinking, and systems. There was also, as Benson demonstrates, a revisiting of racial denial and invisibility through racial mixing (mestizaje) and the privileging of nation, as exemplified in Castro’s idea of “Not Blacks, but Citizens.”

By 1961, the revolutionary government declared “the successful elimination of racism and invited African Americans and other people of African descent to the island to see the new ‘racial paradise’” (p. 120).  The revolutionary government’s bold and undeserved assertion that racism in Cuba had ended marked the beginning of the revolution’s silence concerning race, making it extremely difficult for individuals and organizations to name and challenge racism. This, as Benson correctly notes, was not the first time that in Cuban history government officials embarked on a nationalist driven and sanctioned public discourse silencing race.  It had worked in the past, and was proving to be quite successful in the period following the M 26-7’s control of the government. As a result, Afro-Cubans were left with little choice but to devise innovative and powerful strategies for exposing post-revolutionary racism during a period when such actions could be considered counter-revolutionary. This was most apparent in the ways Afro-Cuban intellectuals, writers, artists, filmmakers, and journalists depicted and interpreted post-revolutionary racism.

Second, I was struck by how easily white Cubans were let off the hook. As Benson demonstrates, it was up to Afro-Cubans to do the revolutionary work of ending racism and creating a racially unified Cuba. Afro-Cubans were expected to assuage racial anxieties and fears, and to remind white Cubans why it was in their interest to end racism. The burden was on them.

After carefully reading Benson’s book, I am left with wondering to what extent did the Cuban revolutionary government’s refusal to dismantle racism reify whiteness as normative? I am reminded here of the discourse on El nuevo hombre, (the new man), which privileged masculinity and patriarchy, leading to a wide-spread acceptance of homophobia, and a measured response to sexism. In closing, I agree with Benson that the revolution’s inability to eradicate racism renders it unfinished, especially since it was a central tenant. There is much work to do.  My final question is whether there is still time to make change, or have the missed opportunities, silencing, and unwillingness to combat racism become a defining factor of the Cuban Revolution?

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Nancy Mirabal

Nancy Raquel Mirabal is Associate Professor in the American Studies Department and U.S. Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She currently directs the U.S. Latina/o Studies Program, and serves on the Advisory Board for the Center for the History of the New America. She is the author of Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957 (New York University Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @nrmirabal.