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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Postcolonial Cuba: The Promises and the Limitations of Colorblind Nationalism

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Postcolonial Cuba: The Promises and the Limitations of Colorblind Nationalism

The centrality of race to Cuban national identity persisted not only through the wars of independence, but also though US military rule and after the inauguration of the Cuban republic in 1902. Though contending with the complexities of US military intervention (1898) and subsequent occupation (1899–1902), work on Cuba’s transition toward independence likewise illustrates the persistence of both inclusionary and exclusionary tendencies of colorblind Cuban nationalism. Lillian Guerra shows how similar contradictions between inclusive discourse and exclusionary practice persisted in the very premise of Cuban nationalism after 1898 in The Myth of José Martí: Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Twentieth-Century Cuba. Historians have vacillated on whether the exclusionary or the inclusionary currents of Cuban nationalism were more influential in the lives of black Cubans. Alejandro de la Fuente, though recognizing the limitations of Cuban raceless nationalism in the twentieth century, errs on the side of optimism, foregrounding the gains Afro-Cubans have achieved in A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. His book highlights significant advances in racial equality, including universal manhood suffrage and the expansion of education in the twentieth century.

Other historians, however, emphasize the limitations of Cuban colorblind nationalism. Reinaldo L. Román, for example, illustrates how banishing supposed superstitions associated with black religious practices became central to Cuban (and Puerto Rican) government in Governing Spirits: Religion, Miracles, and Spectacles in Cuba and Puerto Rico, 1898-1956. Other scholars frame their narratives in terms of the strategies Afro-Cubans employed to overcome exclusion and marginalization. Alejandra Bronfman, in turn, examines the ways the emergence of social science in Cuba helped offer intellectual validation for exclusionary policies in early-twentieth-century Cuba. In Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940, she shows how black Cubans appropriated these emerging scientific discourses to claim citizenship. Similarly, Melina Pappademos emphasizes the challenges posed by Cuba’s periodic political crises to black Cuban struggles for inclusion in the early republic in Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic. She shows how black Cuban activists harnessed cultural and identity politics within black communities themselves to challenge their exclusion.

Another group of scholars has approached the shortcomings in Cuba’s inclusive nationalism by showing how economic imperialism influenced the parameters of belonging. April Merleaux builds on previous economic studies of sugar’s centrality to the US empire in Cuba in Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness. Therein, she argues that racially tinged ideas about civilization impacted sugar markets, particularly through the management of a largely black labor force. These works on the transition from colony to republic allude to a central paradox: whereas Cuba’s colorblind nationalism promised a raceless republic “for all and for the good of all,” racial inequality and discrimination persisted well beyond the establishment of the republic.