Skin deep utopia

Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution
Devyn Spence Benson
2016, University of North Carolina Press
311 pages, plates, paperback

IT IS THE historic injustice that dare not speak its name. Racism in Cuba. And it has persisted despite strenuous efforts to eradicate it following the Revolution, according to Devyn Spence Benson’s timely and candid book.

Laudable as the commitment of the revolutionary regime after 1959 to build a raceless society of “Not Blacks, but Citizens” was, the promises of equality sat alongside inconsistent state rhetoric that allowed racism to continue.

Benson argues that despite a raft of antiracism measures that created unprecedented social opportunities for blacks and mixed-race Cubans (mulatos) that had lasting effects on Afro-Cuban lives, “the new Cuban government’s attitude toward blackness was ambivalent and unstable”.

Cuba’s experience reflects the classic dilemmas faced by both post-colonial and socialist societies: requiring individuals who had suffered generations of discrimination because of their colour to abandon their racial identity for a class identity uncritically creates a false dichotomy, leaving little or no space for Afro-Cubans to be both black and citizen.

Benson’s work builds on previous scholarship that established the persistence of racism in Cuba despite revolutionary reforms – especially after the Special Period economic crisis in the 1990s had exposed sharp inequalities in the country – to ask how and why racially discriminatory stereotypes and practices can survive despite strenuous state efforts to erase them. This is an effort to explore the limits of state action – even of a revolutionary state.

It is a question that clearly has resonance elsewhere and is not confined solely to Cuba – witness the oppression that minorities in the US continue to suffer, despite the country’s legal and constitutional framework of rights.

In the Cuban case, the author seeks to answer this question by revisiting the state’s campaigns to eradicate prejudice. Benson argues that the early 1960s revolutionary programmes such as integration plans and education and healthcare reforms frequently negated their own antiracist efforts by reproducing traditional racist images and idioms, especially in the ways blacks were represented in revolutionary propaganda. These contradictions also have their roots in wider problems within the Americas, where political leaders and societies have failed to challenge ideologies of black inferiority.

A second explanation for the persistence of racism, says Benson, lies in the transnational – and ambiguous – conversations and policies about race in 1960s Cuba, not least those that sought to exploit Afro-American ties and to draw black US tourists to the island.

Finally, the author argues that far from being passive recipients of revolutionary reforms, Cubans of African descent often negotiated and challenged official rhetoric about race, refusing to accept a top-down gift of citizenship and seeking to shape their own, diverse forms of participation in gaining this and making it meaningful.

The changes that are occurring in Cuba and the transition to a new phase in its revolutionary history as the Castro era draws finally to an end has opened new spaces for old questions about the relationship between race and revolution. Benson argues that newly published memoirs and oral history collections are revisiting the debates begun by black and mulato intellectuals in the 1960s about the space that can be occupied by blackness within the revolution and the development of a revolutionary national culture that respects Afro-Cuban history: today race and revolution remain inextricably linked in the national imaginary even 60 years after the 26 July Movement marched triumphantly into Havana.

Yet racism persists – the author details disturbing evidence of this in contemporary Cuba in her final chapter, and the defensiveness that appears to now characterise the response of officials to this issue. Antiracism organisations are emerging on the island in which women often play a prominent role, such as the Afrocubanas Project.

Benson writes: “In the end, the campaign to eliminate racial discrimination in the 1960s was a central part of the many dynamic changes happening in Cuba after 1959. Revolutionary leaders literally opened doors for Cubans of African descent by integrating public spaces, opening private beaches, and providing more equitable access to education and employment. Despite these gains, the premature proclamation that the new government had eliminated racism and the uncritical acceptance of nineteenth-century raceless ideologies failed to dismantle racial prejudices. In fact, revolutionary visual materials contradicted themselves by reinforcing ideas of Afro-Cuban immaturity and positioning blacks as clients of the new state.” [p 247]