“Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution” by author and professor Devyn Benson is an impressive study on the history of racism and Black organizing in Cuba prior to the 1959 revolution and right after it. This book is very important because there are very few that I have come across in the U.S. that document Black history on the island as well as exchanges between the Afro-Cuban and U.S. Black communities.
The historical narrative and the current day government of Cuba propagates an image of the island as a mixed race nation. That’s different from the U.S. historical narrative, which propagates that if you have a drop of Black blood, you are Black. I talked with author Devyn Benson about these racial nuances as we discussed Black Cuban history. Check her out in her own words in this exclusive interview.
M.O.I. JR: Although both nations were birthed from slave societies, what is the difference between the paradigm of being Black in Cuba and Black in the USA, socially and institutionally?
Devyn Benson: Cuba was the second to last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1886. But the end of slavery on the island also coincided with the wars for independence.
Many Cubans of color, including former slaves and free Blacks, fought in these wars in hopes that military service would lead to full citizenship. During the wars, Cuban patriots Jose Martí and Antonio Maceo were most well-known for bringing together former plantation owners, freed slaves and Cuba’s many other constituencies in 1895 for the final war of independence.
Martí and Maceo symbolized the power of Black and white cooperation that nearly defeated Spain before the U.S. intervention and coined the national ideology of racelessness – or not Black, not white, only Cuban – that became central to all conversations about equality in the Cuban republic that began in 1902.
On one hand, this ideology meant that Cuban politicians had to publically ascribe to racial equality, reach out to Black voters and that the nation imagined itself – from the very beginning – as a mixed race space. On the other hand, racelessness also allowed Cuban leaders throughout the republic (1902-1958) to discourage and even violently suppress autonomous Black political mobilizations, saying parties based on race, i.e. all-Black political parties, were racist and therefore anti-Cuban.
It is also important to remember that unlike the United States, Cuba never implemented formal segregation laws. Rather, informal practices existed throughout the early 20th century, including racially and class exclusive private schools, that isolated Black neighborhoods on the edge of town, and accepted norms of white Cubans walking on one side of the park and Blacks on the other in some rural provinces. The 1959 government’s anti-discrimination campaign targeted these informal practices in particular along with Black unemployment and access to education.
M.O.I. JR: Why did you title your book “Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution”? What did you want the reader to get out of it?
Devyn Benson: The title and the cover image of the book represent the contradictions of talking about race in revolutionary Cuba. I began this research by asking how could racism persist in Cuba despite unprecedented social reforms. In 1959, the new government passed over 1,500 pieces of legislation during its first 30 months in power, including laws delivering land redistribution, free health care and educational scholarship programs.
On top of this, revolutionary leaders undertook a national integration campaign to eliminate racial discrimination in employment, social clubs and other informal practices. By the 1980s, these reforms had made great strides: Black and mulatto Cubans had virtually the same life expectancy, high school education rates and percentage of professional positions as white Cubans – in contrast to the United States and Brazil, where disparities existed between whites and Blacks in each of these markers.
Today, large numbers of Afro-Cuban professors, doctors and other professionals – working in racially integrated public spaces – attest to the ways revolutionary actions brought about change and opened doors for Cuba’s citizens of African descent.
Yet, the 1959 campaign against discrimination was a program full of contradictions, consisting both of real social change and national myth-making about a government’s – even a revolutionary government’s – ability to eliminate racism from above in three short years. The persistence of racism in Cuba, especially after the opening of the economy in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, made it abundantly clear that these reforms were not enough – they were unfinished.
I want readers to understand how racism and antiracism can exist at the same time even in a revolutionary setting.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the way that Blacks organized against discrimination prior to the 1959 revolution? Can you talk a little about the massacre of 1912?
Devyn Benson: The lack of employment opportunities after independence in 1898 frustrated Black veterans who had risked their lives for Cuba. By 1908 a group of Black activists, disillusioned with existing electoral options, formed a political party focused on progressive social reforms called the Independent Party of Color (Partido Independiente de Color, or PIC).
Many Cubans, white and Black, interpreted the PIC as a racist threat to national unity despite its general platform demands, which included an eight-hour work day and employment for all. In the eyes of these critics, organizing a political group based on race was anti-Cuban and violated the tenets of Jose Martí’s raceless ideologies.
As a result, the army massacred over 2,000 members and supporters of the PIC in what has become known as the “race war” of 1912. Rather than being a race war, this event was a government-sponsored massacre of Black PIC members and some nonaffiliated Afro-Cubans that revealed the limits of racial equality and white tolerance for Black-led politics in the new republic.
By the time 1959 arrived, Afro-Cuban activists, who had used a variety of tactics to fight for racial equality in the Cuban republic, interacted with the new government from three primary physical and/or other ideological spaces: Black and mulatto social clubs, Black Communists or labor leaders, and activists who used a Black consciousness approach.
In the book, I take a close look at what happened to Black activists after 1959 to answer the question of why revolutionary leaders incorporated some Afro-Cubans – and their ideas – like famous national poet and Communist Nicolas Guillen into the “official” revolutionary fold, while others were labeled counterrevolutionary and forced into exile. This story of Black inclusion and exclusion from revolutionary power demonstrates how interactions between Afro-Cuban leaders and the new government allowed for the coexistence of racism and antiracism in 1960s Cuba.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about how some political cartoons in the media organs of the revolution, after 1959, preached revolutionary ideals while still portraying Blacks as ugly and childlike?
Devyn Benson: The book includes 25 images from 1960s Cuba that demonstrate the contradictions that I described before. These political cartoons sought to illustrate the new government’s embrace of Afro-Cubans and they often included white and Black figures hugging or standing in solidarity.
But the drawings did so using familiar colonial tropes to distinguish Black caricatures from white ones. Cartoonists marked Afro-Cubans as infantile, comical and animal-like by drawing them with exaggerated features or as children because Cuban audiences equated these representations with Blackness both before and after 1959.
Ironically, Revolución, the official newspaper of Castro’s 26th of July movement, published many of these cartoons on the same page as speeches claiming that Afro-Cubans were worthy citizens who should receive employment and educational opportunities in the new nation. The distance between antiracist proclamations and cartoons laden with pre-1959 racist imagery is one of the ways that revolutionary racial rhetoric fell short of its goal.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about the history and work of Carbonell, Moore and Betancourt? Some have said that Moore was a U.S. government agent. Have you found any evidence of that?
Devyn Benson: By the early 1960s, some Black activists had begun to call for a new type of politics – one that rejected Martí’s vision of a raceless Cuba, critiqued white revolutionaries, both of the 1895 variety and Castro’s 1959 movement, and pursued a national identity that valued African history and culture. I am calling this 1960s ideology Cuban Black Consciousness. Carbonell, Moore and Betancourt were advocates of this trans-Caribbean ideology.
Interpretations of Cuban history played a large role in Black consciousness thinking after 1959, especially the relationships to Afro-Cubans’ contributions to the island’s independence struggles. Betancourt argued that while most white Cubans believed that Blacks gained emancipation from Cuban independence, this was a false claim because slavery was already on the decline throughout the Americas and Cuban slaves had already organized several nearly successful rebellions against the institution when the wars began.
Betancourt also rejected white Cuban claims that the descendants of slaves should be grateful for their freedom and took the opposite position arguing that it was white Cubans who should be appreciative of Blacks for initiating a revolutionary attitude in the loyal colony. By positing Afro-Cubans as the ideal revolutionaries and theorizing about the special understanding that slavery and resistance to slavery gave the descendants of Africans, Cuban Black Consciousness contested emerging ideologies of Che Guevara’s New Man as the model Cuban citizen.
Unfortunately, the home that some Afro-Cubans found in the works of Carbonell, Betancourt and other regional Black Consciousness thinkers was fleeting because revolutionary leaders moved quickly to dismantle this strand of Black activism and its challenge to revolutionary raceless nationalism by labeling it as anti-Cuban. M 26-7 leaders banned Betancourt’s book, calling it racist.
After it became clear that there was no place for autonomous negrista organizations in revolutionary Cuba, Betancourt moved his family into exile – he moved to New York, rather than Miami, to try and escape the racism in both the U.S. South and the Cuban exile community in the 1960s, but that is another story. Similarly, Carbonell’s work was also banned and revolutionary leaders placed him in a type of “internal exile” that included forced labor camps and psychiatric hospitals and a limited role as a public intellectual.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about how Harlem welcomed the all-white Cuban contingency to the U.N. and the story behind this situation?
Devyn Benson: The book examines two different exchanges between Cubans and African Americans. The first is the tourist venture between boxer Joe Louis and the National Tourist Institute in Cuba. Cuba contracted Joe Louis to try and encourage African American tourism to the island, when the normal routes of tourism dried up because of the war against Batista and the fear of communism. This is an interesting episode because even though Louis’s business didn’t last long it provided a moment for Afro-Cubans to demand entrance into the same tourist hotels that were being promoted to African Americans.
The second event explored in the book is when Fidel Castro moves the whole Cuban delegation to the September 1960 United Nations meeting in New York to a Black hotel in Harlem. The Cubans were unhappy with the treatment they received in their Manhattan hotel and moved to Harlem in solidarity with the U.S. Black struggle.
There Castro met with Malcolm X and other leaders of the newly independent African countries who were attending the U.N. meeting for the first time. These two events had their own internal contradictions and the book illuminates the benefits and limits of third world solidarity.
M.O.I. JR: Where can people view and purchase “Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution”?
Devyn Benson: The book is available through the UNC press website. It is also being sold on Amazon.com.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’“ and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2“ and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe“ and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.