By Kimberly Miller
In the days following the death of one of the most significant and polarizing political and cultural figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Fidel Castro created dichotomous reactions amongst the people. The death of the controversial leader was met with jubilant cheers amongst Miami, Florida’s largely white exile community, to earth shattering heartbreak and tears from Cuba’s mixed and African descended populations, filling a Havana esplanade. The stark racial contrast affecting post-Fidel performativity, center race around questions of civic formation, complex identities, and Latin American racial politics. This article synthesizes topics around race, state power, citizenship, belonging, capitalism, and marginality, to create a discursive construction around evolving Afro-Cuban subjectivity. Themes explored are black internationalist resistance, relationality, revolt, and capitalism.
Colonization and Afro-Cuban Identity
In anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, black Otherization helps frame Afro-Cuban subjugation, conveying systemic racism seared into centuries of enslavement. Racial degradation marks colonized flesh, resulting in symbolic captivity and cultural capture. Moreover, marked bodies of difference are important for conceptualizing the social stigma racism thrives on. For marked bodies the skin is humanizing, while colonization dehumanizes, and seeks to separate bodies from their humanity. Racialization reduces the skin to “merely a covering of a body already trapped in the symbolic order” making the body of color a continual target (Skins Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Performer, 2014). It creates a symbolic marking that is communicated to the world from colonized black skin.
The stripping of humanity, identity, and consequential alienation, is crucial to the process of colonization. Afro-Cuban dehumanization was so ontological, the word “Bozal” (a term related to a “muzzle,” an animalizing slave contraption), was a descriptor for black Cuban dialect. However Afro-Cuban cultural expression disrupted this colonizing agenda.
Cultural Suppression and Tenuous Racialized Citizenship
Much like abolitionist discourse in the United States that questioned the practicality of African-Americans assimilating into dominant white culture, many white Cuban abolitionists did not see Afro-Cubans as part of the nation that emerged post slavery. Afro-Cuban integration into white Cuban society was met with backlash, fearing liberated black people would take over the island. Invoking Fanon’s sense of the fear that comes to shape outside perception of the black body, dominant white society feared the racialized “other.”
This fear was conveyed through Afro-Cuban cultural suppression of religious traditions and the arts. For example, Afro-Cuban artistic and religious representation was denounced and perceived as “cosa de Negros,” a pejorative signification of “something blacks do” (“Discovering the African Heartbeat in Cuba” 2016). The Cuban state even issued decrees that restricted African musical practices like drumming, while colonial police targeted “ñáñigos” or Afro-Cuban ritual societies. Afro-Cuban religious traditions like “Santería” were banned, and caricaturized as demonic and vile. Santería combines Catholicism with West African spirituality to create a colorful infusion of cultures and rituals. But in enforcing Euro-dominant cultural suppression, this religious tradition was falsely associated with kidnapping of white children and voodoo violence. Afro-Cuban gatherings were characterized as salacious or morally depraved, and were also targeted by state officials.
Despite black Cubans fighting in their nation’s wars of independence and national sovereignty, Cuba’s white elites still did not envision Afro-Cubans as citizens, or a part of their nation. Cultural suppression aimed to dissociate Afro-Cubans from their national identity. Fanon helps frame the robust black participation in Cuba’s independence struggle stating in “Concerning Violence” that colonized subjects understand who they are in relation to colonialism because of history. Fanon ponders when are colonies ripe for a national liberation movement? When “the starving peasant has everything to gain and nothing to lose” and when “the colonial apparatus must be destroyed” (“Concerning Violence,” 1961).
“Afrocubanismo” was a movement in the 1920’s that aimed to promote African-influenced culture and incorporate multi-dimensional black identity into Cuba’s national consciousness (“Discovering the African Heartbeat in Cuba” 2016). Through art and music, Afro-Cubans challenged a homogenous Cuban civic identity at the expense of racial diversity and convergent cultures. Also during the 1920’s, the presidency of Gerardo Machado centered Cuba’s tourist trade providing it legitimacy and notoriety. Havana becomes an international hotspot for casinos, clubs, hotels, and elite private industries for cosmopolitan social classes (“Living the Havana High Life,” 2014). Furthermore, “Socialites, debutantes…and American mobsters [came] to play in the Cuban paradise” (“Living the Havana High Life,” 2014). However, some of these “hotspots” in Havana excluded Afro-Cuban patrons, only preferring them as dancers and entertainers.
Yet despite rampant economic inequality and suppression, Afro-Cuban cultural contributions were still a major component to the island which informed its national consciousness. A hybrid of African and indigenous socio-cultural exchanges, while embracing the unique vestiges of Africanness within colonialism, is resistance.
Race and Communism
By the mid-twentieth century Afro-Cuban communists were a major force in Cuba’s political landscape, and even a reformist president like Fulgencio Batista could not ignore them. The Communist party’s aggressively anti-racist platform attracted many black Cubans to its ideology. Similarly by the twentieth-century, the Communist International recognized that black people in the United States were an oppressed nation with self-determination. The Comintern recognized that black struggle was part of a worldwide anti-colonial struggle and expressed support for every black movement that undermined capitalism.
In Cuba, the Communist party under leadership of Fidel Castro initiated anti-racist policy proposals by radically transforming property relations through expropriating the bourgeoisie’s land, increasing access to education, healthcare, and social mobility for the racially marginalized. Castro boldly announced in 1960 that “the Cuban state guarantee[d] the right of the Negro and Indian to full dignity of man” (“Cuba: Racism and Revolution in the Afro-Cuban Experience”). Also that “the duty of peasants, intellectuals, workers, Negroes, Indians, and women [was] to fight for their economic, social, and political rights.”
Additionally, by the 1970’s, Cuban foreign policy stressed black internationalism, engaging militarily in several anti-colonial struggles and missions in Africa, from the Congo, Angola, Guinea Bissau, to Mozambique, Zambia, and anti-apartheid South Africa. De-colonial missions signified the importance of black diasporic internationalism. Cuba’s internationalist mission was to liberate oppressed nations, uphold the theory of self-determination, and align with values of black internationalism in revolutionary movements.
Today many Afro-Cubans feel Americans are too focused on race, and that “black Cubans…benefit from the socialist revolution’s decree that Cubans prioritize national identity over racial identity” (“Black Cubans: Restoring US Ties is Cool, but America, Keep Your Hang Ups About Race at Bay” 2015). I believe communities of color however are undoubtedly affected by policies that do or do not center their specific racial and classed positionalities. Cuba’s evolving political climate offer unique insight into historic and state influencing identity formation for Cuba’s vibrant black population.
Kimberly Miller is a Marxist-Leninist researcher studying black aesthetic consumer choices, and the impact on global political economy and geopolitics.