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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Race, Sex, and Tourism since the Special Period

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Race, Sex, and Tourism since the Special Period

While scholarship on the first decades after 1959 asks how successful the revolution was in dismantling existing racism, work on post-1990 Cuba hints at a retrenchment of racial inequality. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the decline of Soviet subsidies to Cuba sent the island’s economy into a downward spiral that lasted more than a decade. In 1993, the revolutionary government inaugurated the so-called Special Period in Times of Peace in an effort to address the scarcities of basic necessities. Special Period reforms, including abandoning atheism, inviting foreign investment, and introducing some market reforms, exacerbated existing racial disparities in revolutionary Cuba in some ways while opening avenues for dissent and activism in other ways. The severe economic hardship of the 1990s and the differential impact of the reforms, some argue, prompted the Cuban revolutionary leadership to renege on the promise of forging a Cuba for Cubans.

The rising reliance on tourism to keep the Cuban economy afloat since the 1990s reinvigorated existing racial discrimination while also facilitating the exploitation of foreigners’ racialized and sexed notions of the Cuban people. Several recent studies have examined the racialized experiences of Cuban engagement with tourism. Just as Christine Skwiot’s The Purpose of Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Cuba and Hawai’i shows how Cubans associated prerevolutionary tourism with racism, L. Kaifa Roland highlights how the resurgence of the tourist economy during the Special Period reinvigorated racism. In Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha: An Ethnography of Racial Meanings, Roland shows how the increasing reliance on tourism for economic survival since the 1990s has reinforced racial segregation in Cuba, for example, by privileging lighter-skinned Cubans in high-earning jobs in tourism. Similarly, Amalia Cabezas’s excellent study of sex tourism, Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, also underscores how intimate economies are inherently racialized, often rendering Cubans of African descent more desirable to foreign tourists. In From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century, Megan Daigle explores state violence against women suspected of intimate involvement with foreigners, foregrounding the particularly raced and gendered dimensions of the tourist economy. In Conceiving Cuba: Reproduction, Women, and the State in the Post-Soviet Era, Elise Andaya examines the family and reproductive strategies in Cuba following the economic collapse against a backdrop of racial and gender hierarchies.

At the same time as tourism reinvigorated existing racial hierarchies, racelessness remained a core tenet of the Cuban Revolution. Nadine T. Fernandez reveals the persisting salience of race in her study of interracial intimacy during the years following the economic collapse, Revolutionizing Romance: Interracial Couples in Contemporary Cuba. This book established an important foundation for the study of the raced and gendered experiences of the Special Period, particularly the ways ordinary Cubans engaged with the upsurge in tourism—the site of intense interracial intimacy.

While most of the scholarship has examined how race inflected heterosexual intimacies, a small but growing body of scholarship addresses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality among LGBTQ Cubans. Noelle M. Stout’s After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba offers an excellent bridge between the body of work on sex tourism and the emerging literature on queer Cuba. Although not focusing explicitly on race, she foregrounds the implicit racialization of gay sex tourism, anticipating the need for more explicit treatment of the intersections between race and sexuality in Cuba’s inherently raced tourism sector.

Tourism certainly has shaped many aspects of sexual and racial relations between Cubans and foreigners, but Jafari S. Allen suggests that black Cuban men and women have formed their racial, gendered, and sexed identities not only through their interactions with foreigners and global structures, but also as individual and collective quests for freedom. Through the concept of erotic subjectivity, ¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba elucidates the ways in which non-gender conforming black men and women navigate and challenge state projects of racialized heteronormativity. A few other studies of sexuality in postrevolutionary Cuba offer insights about race, gender, and sexuality. Emilio Bejel, for example, briefly notes the racial undertones of male same-sex encounters in Cuban literature in Gay Cuban Nation, and Carrie Hamilton explores the ways specifically racialized notions of homosexuality and homophobia operate within the context of Afro-Cuban religiosity in Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory.