by Orissa Arend
“Not blacks, not whites, only Cubans.” That was Fidel Castro’s revolutionary claim of racial transcendence. The forces of his 26th of July movement in 1959 had ousted US- backed Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, and the revolution needed a unifying national narrative.
Unity across race lines was not a new idea. The Cuban intellectual and nationalist Jose Marti, son of Spanish parents, injected Cuba’s 1895 War of Independence with the rhetoric of “racelessness” thereby pacifying white fears about black rebellion and promising blacks equality in the new republic. It was a masterstroke in the post-slavery, post-colonial aspiring nation. Racial unity, it was thought, could erase the sins and resentments of slave and slave-master — fresh, after all, because slavery did not legally end in Cuba until 1886.
Castro built on that strategic masterstroke. Sweeping social reform and policy changes were about to occur. During its first 30 months in power, the new government passed over 1,500 pieces of legislation delivering land redistribution, free health care, and educational programs. What was needed was a revolutionary version of the national myth. “Not black, not white, only Cubans,” the legacy of colorblindness, could be updated to meet the needs of the revolution.
Louisiana State University historian Devyn Spence Benson in her Antiracism in Cuba, the Unfinished Revolution gives us a rare, impressively researched study of Cuban racial politics in the post 1959 era. The book is based on Cuban and US archival studies, political cartoons, cultural artifacts, and face-to-face interviews.
How does racism persist and adjust even after the successful removal of historic barriers imposed by skin color and other revolutionary reforms? Benson examines both the myth and reality of race in post-revolutionary Cuba and the subtle ways that racism and antiracism learned to co-exist.
The thinking of revolutionary leaders went like this: The agrarian reform will eliminate unemployment. The Literacy Campaign will eliminate ignorance. Racial discrimination is a product of ignorance and poverty, so it will be gone, too. The campaign to eliminate racial discrimination was announced by Castro in April of 1959. In September of 1960 he proclaimed, “in 19 months the revolution has terminated racial discrimination.”
In 1961 revolutionary leaders closed the official conversation about racism. Mission accomplished. Racism was counterrevolutionary. Good revolutionaries could not be racist. The exile community, the overwhelming majority of which were white, was definitely racist. This was a convenient story line, given the fact that Castro’s leadership was largely of European descent and could easily be pegged as racist. It also helped silence upper-class alarm and distaste for perceived changes in the social hierarchy. But of course centuries of white superiority didn’t just vanish.
Benson points out the ironies. Antiracist social reforms were accompanied by racist narratives and images that devalued blackness. For instance, cartoons in Havana’s newspapers depicted Afro-Cubans as infantile, comical, animal-like, or as savages and buffoons. According to Benson, “Revolutionary leaders imagined that Afro-Cubans required salvation – and what they needed to be saved from was their blackness.” Reform and assimilation were requirements for citizenship. Honored black martyrs highlighted black loyalty. Blacks were safest when they were dead and their stories could be manipulated. They were cast as loyal and grateful clients of the state. The new rhetoric also had to consider lingering white anxieties about mixed-race partnerships. It was ok for a black Cuban to be a revolutionary “brother” but not a “brother-in-law.”
Blacks were still not trusted to organize on their own. In 1912 over 2000 Afro-Cubans had been slaughtered by government forces for doing just that as part of the all-black Independent Party of Color. Even Afro-Cuban social clubs were mostly closed down by 1961. They were considered irrelevant in a raceless society.
There was little room for conversations attacking white privilege. Black labor leaders had to become clients of their revolutionary patrons in order to stay in the fold. And Negrismo, a Cuban version of black consciousness which paralleled Black is Beautiful and Black Power in the US in the 1960s was discouraged.
1961, the year that the anti-discrimination project was declared a success was also the year that the revolution claimed that it was Marxist-Leninist in nature. It was the year Cuba defeated US backed exile forces in the Bay of Pigs invasion. And it was the beginning of the Literacy Campaign. Illiteracy on the island dropped from 23.6% to 3.9% with the help of some 270,000 literacy teachers, half of them youth. 18-year-old, Conrado Benityz was assassinated outside of his schoolhouse because he was “poor, black, and a teacher.” He was elevated to the status of “a martyr whose blood will erase ignorance,” compared to Christ and credited not only with allowing Cubans to achieve literacy, but also for fighting imperialism and helping Cubans become a better people.
The Literacy Campaign was linked brilliantly to battles against imperialism and racism. Graciela Chailoux, an Afro-Cuban who is now a professor at the University of Havana was just 11 years old when she joined the Literacy Campaign and spent 8 months in the countryside away from home teaching black and white Cubans to read. She sees the campaign as one of the revolution’s greatest achievements. “It was a special moment and everyone’s strength was put into it,” she told an interviewer.
Anti-US sentiments were woven in. Here was a math problem: “There have been 3,000 lynchings in the US in the last 20 years. What has been the average number of lynchings per year in that country?” In fact racism played a key role in US/Cuba relations. When it was lamented in the US Congress that 90 miles from the US is a communist regime, Cubans retorted, “Well, 90 miles from Cuba there is racial discrimination,” so how can the US claim to be a democracy? Afro-Cubans made common cause with US Civil Rights workers and encouraged them to come to the island for a sunny vacation from segregation.
The focus on battling international racial injustices gave the revolutionary leaders a lasting critique about the character of US democracy and a way of not talking about domestic racism. Yet Benson chronicles the always present resistance to white supremacy in Cuba in decision-making, in personal and social spaces, and in the formulation of the national identity myth. Walterio Carbonell, an Afro-Cuban intellectual who had supported Castro’s rebellion against Batista wanted to reform the revolution. He wanted whites to understand blackness so that they would not “continue to be prisoners not only of racial prejudices but also of racism as a historical vision.” For that his work was banned and he was sent into forced labor and psychiatric hospitals. Benson cites many other examples of artistic and political resistance.
Black resistance, though short-lived in the 1960s, planted the seeds for future Afro-Cuban activists who would remain on the island and use their unique understandings to construct a revolution inside of the revolution. They inserted black history and African culture into revolutionary nationalism. Though racism has persisted throughout the revolution in subtle but lasting ways Benson assures us that today “Cubans of color, like many before them, refuse to allow others to deny their race or define their revolution.” This would, therefore, be a great time for all Cubans to be reading the New Orleans Tribune.
Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist. She is author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.