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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): An Antiracist Revolution?

by Bonnie A. Lucero

An Antiracist Revolution?

By the 1980s, a small number of black Cuban intellectuals began to cry foul on the official narrative of a romantic, antiracist revolution. Carlos Moore, the son of Jamaican immigrants to Cuba, published a series of books in which he used his life experiences to vehemently decry racism in revolutionary Cuba. His work Castro, the Blacks, and Africa denounced the revolution for opportunistically exploiting so-called solidarity interventions in African nations to send black Cuban troops to their deaths in foreign wars. The book was heavily criticized for levying claims of racism without sufficient evidence as, for example, in Lisa Brock and Otis Cunningham’s book review, “Race and the Cuban Revolution,” in the journal Cuban Studies. Moore’s subsequent Pichón: A Memoir: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba charts his return to revolutionary Cuba after a period in exile in New York, and his discovery that racism still thrived there despite claims that the revolution had solved it.

While Carlos Moore certainly found ample reasons to be critical of Cuba’s revolutionary involvement in African countries, more recent studies have framed Cuban cooperation with liberation movements in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique as more antiracist and anticolonial than conspiratorially racist. After all, Cuba maintained a high profile in collaboration with countries of the global South, as Christine Hatzky shows in Cubans in Angola: South-South Cooperation and Transfer of Knowledge, 1976-1991. Certainly, the victories of black troops from Cuba and Africa over European armies on a continent formerly carved up by Europeans had symbolic value, as Piero Gleijeses points out in Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. The evolving legacies and popular imaginations of Africa continue to reverberate in contemporary Cuba. Paul Ryer’s recent Beyond Cuban Waters: Africa, La Yuma, and the Island’s Global Imagination examines the everyday experiences of Cubans as they navigate two conceptual geographies—one the politicized notion of Africa, and another the commercially oriented notion of the United States. Just as Cubans imagine Africa, Afro-Cubans residing in Africa construct and maintain unique visions of their homeland, as Solimar Otero suggests in Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World.

More moderate approaches to the revolution’s racial credentials have emphasized the achievement of certain incremental gains while admitting that the larger structures of racism remain intact. In Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality, Esteban Morales Domínguez, one of Cuba’s leading experts on race, explains that the triumph of the revolution offered much hope for ameliorating racial inequality, but ultimately silenced racial dissent by declaring racism resolved. He admits that racism still exists in Cuba, and that discussion of race should not be considered to be counterrevolutionary. In Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba, Mark Q. Sawyer argues that the revolution has been characterized by patterns of opening and closing, depending on the state need for mobilizing black Cubans in support of particular projects. Likewise, Devyn Spence Benson, in Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, contends that racial discrimination has survived in Cuba and South Florida despite revolutionary policies aimed at promoting social equality. Several essays collected in Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba, edited by Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs, examine the lived experiences of race, charting both the limitations of the revolution’s racial agenda and the concrete strategies black Cubans have taken to address the persisting exclusions, including reimagining the past.

Some scholars have asked, implicitly, how the revolution managed to craft an image of racelessness even as racism persisted. Narrating the story of the revolution from within, Lillian Guerra’s Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971, suggests that the radical reframing of the past into a single grand narrative of revolutionary redemption gave rise to a “grassroots dictatorship” in which previously marginalized sectors, including black activists, were folded into the state on the promise of material change.