Danielle Pilar Clealand. Souls. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2019.
“The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
In the mid 1970s, a young militant joined a group of friends in their twenties to create a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Cuba. The party in the United States, as well as the knowledge and contact they had with Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson led them to want to engage in similar activism and protest. Their story is one that few are familiar with because they were quickly detained by the government’s security apparatus. Although they did not experience significant punishment, the man shared with me that he will never forget when the security officer told him, “you wanna create the Black Panthers here? The only Black Panther in Cuba is Fidel Castro!” Those familiar with racial politics in Cuba should not be surprised that a Black Panther Party was not welcome in Cuba. Despite the Cuban government’s early support of black activism in the United States, they prohibited the same kind of organizing on the island. Nonetheless, the boundary that the officer delineated after they let him go was telling: “You can grow your afro to the top of the city if you want to, but the next time you do something in the street, you will be back here.”
Scholars argue that at different moments during the revolution there have been openings and retrenchment for anti-racist activists. For the past two decades, Cuba has experienced such an opening where activist organizations, academics, art and hip hop within state institutions show that indeed black folks can express messages of black affirmation and bring attention to racism within the public sphere in ways that they could not before. This debate and the actors consistently dedicated to anti-racist activism throughout these two decades seem to have inspired a further opening on the part of the state: in November of 2019, President Diaz-Canel announced that the government would create a National Program against racism and racial discrimination. While many received this news with optimism and relief, it remains to be seen what the scope of the program will be. Until this announcement, it is crucial to emphasize that the past opening following the economic crisis in the 1990s has maintained certain boundaries where an activist who aligns with the revolution can suddenly be thrust into its opposition.
To be a black revolutionary, defined as someone who fights for black equality, progress, and power, has always involved a contentious relationship with the Cuban state. Nonetheless, the term itself, black revolutionary, is often connected to those that fight within the system and align themselves with the Cuban Revolution. These positions, however, can put activists at risk of being considered counterrevolutionary if certain boundaries are crossed. Moreover, there are many both in and outside of Cuba that align with leftist politics, but are left out of the public sphere because 1) they are banned due to a critical view of the revolution’s relationship with racial equality and structural racism and/or 2) they are private citizens who are not given a space to express their views about anti-black racism in Cuba. The young militant that I refer to in the opening paragraph and most of the people that joined him to build a Black Panther party in Cuba are currently living outside of Cuba for these reasons.
The tension between Black Power and the Cuban state necessitates a wider definition of what it means to be a black revolutionary: a wider ideological space and a wider net to include those outside of Cuba as well as Cubans that remain in private spaces, outside of the public sphere. To be a black revolutionary now and throughout the life of the Cuban Revolution includes an assessment of the revolutionary project that is very different from the dominant narrative. It requires this contentious relationship; it requires risk. This essay not only asks who are Cuba’s black revolutionaries, but what have been the boundaries since 1959 in which they have had to live, act and dialogue? Generations of black revolutionaries since the start of the revolution, because of their support of black power, have resisted the boundaries of the state but this has not come without retribution. Cuba provides us then with the lesson that a socialist state in the Western hemisphere will not yield a black liberation movement any more than a capitalist one.
I argue that the state has left little option in particular for fighting structural racism in Cuba—racism that manifests institutionally within the various sectors of the Cuban government, economy and society such as housing, media, employment, political representation and the criminal justice system. This is primarily due to the fact that attitudinal forms of racism, or racial prejudice, continue to be the kind of racism that the state will acknowledge and permit for public dialogue. Even the unprecedented November 2019 announcement identifies racism not in politics, but in the “culture of a group of people.” Racism can be found in “jokes, certain attitudes at the societal level, for example, in the nonstate sector with certain employment announcements that specify skin color.” There is no doubt that the government’s announcement has the potential to signal a new, further opening on the discussion of racism in Cuba. The government, however, will have to acknowledge their role in perpetuating and/or maintaining structural racism in Cuba, which until now and through the recent announcement, has not been the case. The presence of structural inequities, racial discrimination and uneven access to the new economy affects the lives of many black people in Cuba. While some may argue that the rise of black exclusion can be found primarily within the private sector as a result of the introduction of capitalism, the public sector is not egalitarian. Employment discrimination, unequal treatment from the police, black representation both within politics and the media are present within the public sector. Despite these realities, there is a limited discursive space for those that are critical. For this reason, including Cubans in private spaces that make up the racial micro-politics of the nation is essential to understand narratives within black communities.
Black activists collide with the Cuban government particularly when articulations of blackness and equality move beyond affirmation. This is the boundary for black revolutionaries: if black expression focuses on black pride and recognition, rather than structural inequities, it is permitted. Promoting black pride, black gratitude, black success or even black inclusion is treated much differently than any discourse that places racism within the country’s institutions and thus requires government accountability and a systematic restructuring. The afro that the security officer was willing to allow is a benign display of black affirmation that does not threaten the existing racial order or white hegemony. Conversely, those that have tried to cross this boundary without state consent, have either left Cuba or experienced silencing or retribution. The boundaries that the state has created to limit the diversity in which black revolutionaries have been able to express their visions have remained consistent throughout the life of the revolution. The state has one vision for what the black revolutionary should be: adherent to the dominant narrative of racial democracy and in support of the state, its policies and its silence regarding structural inequities. Consequently, black support of the revolution has required self-censorship among many. What is the way in which one can critique racism within Cuba without being punished for it? This article will examine 1) notions of black activism in private spaces, 2) the boundaries that those in the public sphere face by highlighting current examples of black activism both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the state and 3) new forms of activism that use social media to challenge dominant racial narratives in Cuba.
Racism and the Boundaries to Challenge it
Although the initial years of the revolution did much to equalize levels of education and employment opportunities in the public sector, progress toward full racial equality was halted after initial desegregation, universalization of education and the opening of certain fields to blacks and mulatos. Access to healthcare, education and housing for nonwhites became the foundation that sustained the government’s commitment to black and mulato Cubans. Structural racism however has continued to plague the revolution, sometimes as a legacy of white supremacy prior to 1959, but also as a result of government policies during the revolution. Housing patterns were not restructured and black people continued to be more likely to live in marginal housing and neighborhoods. Media representation for black people was largely absent outside of stereotypical roles and police departments are known to profile black citizens. The moment in 1961 when Castro announced that racial discrimination had been eliminated is well known and from that moment, the public sphere was closed off to discussions regarding racism that could address these enduring issues. As Roberto Zurbano argues, while some black Cubans had the foresight and resources to take advantage of the new avenues that opened up, the government never implemented a strategy that took into account the historical disadvantages of the black population. Solutions to racism were seen in terms of class and the privilege that white Cubans had before the revolution continued beyond 1959. This was not only because this privilege was never addressed, but because being a revolutionary meant that you did not possess any racist attitudes and living within the revolution meant that racial privilege had disappeared. Nonetheless, those close to the government continued to challenge the freeze on racial politics. Scholars in the late 1960s, students in the 1970s and people affiliated with the government at various points have tried to organize movements or present government officials with a plan to address racism directly. All were either redirected, silenced, repressed, or detained.
Racism today has changed and increased since the fall of the Soviet Union brought on an economic crisis in Cuba. Economic measures to sustain Cuba without the trade and subsidies from the USSR led to deeper class and racial inequalities. Tourism became one of the most lucrative sectors for employment and black people have experienced high levels of job discrimination when trying to gain employment in tourism as well as other posts within the emergent sector or mixed economy. Concierges, waiters, bellhops, taxi drivers, hotel managers and cashiers are predominantly white. Those that have access to apartments that can be rented or turned into paladares (privately owned restaurants) are owned largely by whites, a fact that points to the continued racialization of neighborhoods, particularly in Havana. The start of the revolution and the subsequent exodus of the upper class led to a restructuring of the housing patterns in Cuba. Nonetheless, as we look at Havana today, particularly marginalized neighborhoods with less resources and poorer housing conditions are mainly occupied by black folks. Neighborhoods such as Buena Vista, the poorer areas of el Cerro and Centro Habana for example, are primarily black neighborhoods and privileged areas such as Miramar and Vedado are primarily occupied by whites. This has consequences for equity of resources. Employment within both the public and private sector at the managerial levels also remain underrepresented by nonwhites. Although there are no definitive data that can show this, prisons are majority black and mulato and police attention, harassment and surveillance overwhelmingly target black Cubans as well. The government has, during the past decade, appointed more black and brown faces to national posts but these symbolic gestures do not bring change if these new officials cannot or would not argue for policies to combat institutional racism. Considering all of this, how can those on the ground and even those within the government, bring attention to the structural inequities in Cuba—some of which are a legacy of racism before 1959 and some of which have been maintained by the revolution or exacerbated by its policies?
Scholars have debated the boundaries of expression and the influence that both individuals and groups have on the government. Sujatha Fernandes argues that the state is not a “repressive centralized apparatus that enforces its dictates on citizens from the top down, but a permeable entity that both shapes and is constituted by the activities of various social actors.” What is not delineated here is that social actors have precise limits if they will be tolerated by the state. Organizations that have participated in debate and public engagement have originated out of membership in larger state organizations and likewise, artists that are given the most public exposure are those that are part of the institutions that the state has created. Certainly, if the state acknowledges anti-racist organizations or forms of expression there is some give and take between the state and citizens. Mere acknowledgment of the problem does not lead to policy nor has it shown to produce anything beyond a concession to contain grievances. Moreover, groups that are too critical of the state are not permitted to join these state institutions and they may not wish to as their freedom of expression or principles could be compromised.
During my field work in Cuba in the last two decades, I spent time with many of the folks on the ground that were trying to move beyond internal dialogue and engage the state. Color Cubano was an organization that debated issues surrounding race and racism in Cuba during the 2000s. Its leadership and the bulk of its membership was made up of members of UNEAC, the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. Because of that association, they had the ear of state officials, who would communicate with them and attend some of their meetings. Nonetheless, that interaction was not one of mutual exchange. At meetings I attended in 2005 and 2008, the vice minister of culture that was present at the meetings made no commitment to the organization, nor did the official acknowledge the racism that those in the group identified and debated. Color Cubano has since dissipated but many of the members have created new organizations and continue to engage in important discussion and hold events and meetings to assert their space as black activists. In response, the state has created a parallel organization, the Aponte Commission, that appears to coopt the movement and maintain a rhetoric that denies the presence of structural racism lamenting only attitudinal racism.
If we use the hip-hop community as another example, those that receive space to perform, visas to tour internationally and state resources are affiliated with the Cuban Rap Agency, a state-led organization under the Cuban Institute of Music. Some have expressed messages of black affirmation and the presence of racism in Cuba in the music and artists within the Agency have aligned themselves with the revolution. Ironically, the agency has expanded to support reggaeton artists who communicate messages that laud capitalism and materialism. Rap music that is less concerned with materialism, is closer to the social values of the revolution but is critical of the state, does not receive support from the agency. Thus, social values such as capitalism and materialism that do not threaten the social or racial order but were once seen as a major threat are now tolerated with the advent of capitalist reforms. On the contrary, those that critique the government, but may operate from a leftist or anti-capitalist perspective are subject to scrutiny and cannot operate within state institutions.
Affirmation becomes the way in which black activist spaces have been able to flourish in Cuba, particularly in the 21st century. Black affirmation and racial debate have been a critical part of anti-racist activism in Cuba. In the 1990s and 2000s when voices began to discuss the black condition in Cuba, a long silenced and crucial dialogue finally resurfaced. The political opening that allowed for these voices was a key step in identifying inequalities that worsened after the fall of the Soviet Union and the introduction of semi-capitalist reforms. Yet much of the dialogue was not only about the advent of capitalism, but the racism that existed within the socialist system during the first three decades of the revolution. The voices were permitted because Cuba had gone through a crisis and transformation, but anti-black racism existed before the crisis, a fact that the leadership is reluctant to concede. During the past two decades then we have seen the birth of activist groups that have reinvigorated black voices. In Cuba today, there are events that honor the Independent Party of Color in Cuba, celebrations of afro-descendance, debates regarding the presence of racism in Cuba, and community events that center blackness and black pride. Organizations such as El Club del Espendrú hold such events that promote black consciousness and self-appreciation among black Cubans. These spaces, along with the music, books, and art installations that have surfaced to celebrate blackness and interrogate racism are vital. They are vital because for decades the voices of white superiority over blackness permeated society. In a taxicab in 2010, a white driver told me, “black people do not know how to do business. They don’t understand this is a white country.” He told me this, I surmised, characterizing me as a foreigner and not as a black person that would be part of that community. Black activism, then serves as a way to show that Cuba is not in fact, a white country, but a racially mixed country with a proud black population. A black population that is often left out of spaces of power and whose voices have been overlooked and ignored. It also challenges the dominant narrative that suggests blackness should not be celebrated.
Black affirmation then is necessary, but it also must fall within the boundaries of what the state will allow. To be sure, racial activism in Cuba has moved beyond Martí’s notion of black affirmation as detrimental to national unity. Nonetheless, what are the consequences of taking that affirmation and using it to push the state to act on behalf of its black citizens and acknowledge institutional racism? As an activist shared with me in an interview,
We are seeing racist acts even more after the Special Period. This has become a problem and now people are saying that we have to denounce this. We have to organize to address these racial conflicts; but it’s very hard for someone to address a singular racial incident and also address the practice that institutionalized. It’s also very hard to participate in an act of social activism without being accused of something else. So, we have to organize in an open space. We have to organize together.
Black activists must continuously navigate these boundaries and are always at risk of going too far and being accused of counter-revolutionary acts. Various actors have been asked to leave their posts, have had meetings infiltrated or have, as in the case of some of the black activists that are now exiles, asked to leave the country.
Spaces of Black Consciousness: Highlighting the Private
Although racial ideology argues for the irrelevance of racial difference in Cuban society and the limits to speech and association prohibit any mass-based action that would challenge this official rhetoric, there is acute awareness of the role of race in Cuba, particularly among black people. This awareness has produced a dialogue among ordinary Cubans that not only communicates a distinct black experience, but also communicates the need for racial activism and dialogue on a larger scale. Empirical evidence of interest in both black organizing and raising awareness of racism in Cuba among everyday citizens suggests that the state’s limits are discouraging a larger black movement, rather than apathy regarding race and racism among black people. In my book, The Power of Race in Cuba, I show that in Havana, 60% of a sample of 410 black Cubans thought that there should be a black organization. This is juxtaposed to the fact that half of the sample had experiences with discrimination in Cuba, many of them owed to structural racism such as employment discrimination and racial profiling by the police. These private spaces of public opinion are what I refer to when I call for a wider definition of who are Cuba’s black revolutionaries.
Scholarship on racial politics in Cuba has often focused on the government’s rhetoric of racial democracy, negating racism on the island, and the inequalities that continue to be visible despite this rhetoric. But research on the pockets of racial activism that are present in Cuba, the state’s tolerance of these critiques and the presence of black consciousness among blacks and mulattoes in Cuba are all crucial to determine the scope of what it means to be black in Cuba. In previous work I have considered the dual space of the public and the private in that both make up black political thought in Cuba. The above-ground critique of racism in Cuba is the political activity that we can see and follow—it is the organizations, the writings, the activism and the artistic expression that gives the black reality a voice. The underground consists of everyday experience and discourse that occurs outside of the public sphere, in private spaces. However, although we cannot see or hear what happens in these spaces, within them are many black revolutionaries who may not fall into the boundaries of what the Cuban state allows requiring an examination of the discourse that exists underground.
My emphasis on ordinary folks as black revolutionaries within their private spaces seeks to privilege the every day, however there are clear consequences to these dialogues being hidden. During a conversation about experiences with racism in Cuba, a graduate student expressed frustration with the ways in which a lack of public discussion about racism leads to unawareness among some.
There are so many experiences that we go through and they don’t always produce consciousness. Incredible! People around me actually say that they never had an experience with discrimination. That just gets me! I have seen it happen to them. How is it possible that so many things, so many things happen to us and it doesn’t always click? The police pass seven white people and they ask you for your ID and it is highly discriminatory. What’s happening is that we need to discuss the issue. But it’s only discussed in closed circles, while generations of Cubans continue to grow around this idea that we are all equal in this society, there’s education for everyone, we all have the same opportunities. If the police only ask you for your ID, it’s not a remnant of the past.
Racial ideology from above continues to be powerful in providing alternative explanations for racism or legitimizing the narrative that racism is incompatible with the revolution.
On the other hand, while racial activism is limited to elite, namely public activists connected to institutions, their positions regarding racism are similar to many positions found on the ground. The difference is that those on the ground are not afforded the same space that elites are afforded to make these issues public. Moreover, they are not aware of much of the activism that is happening largely because the state keeps these two spaces separate. For this reason, it is important to include ordinary citizens in our definitions of black revolutionaries and in any discussion of what the goals are of black Cuba. It is also imperative to bring to light what ordinary Cubans on the ground see and want for their own futures as black people within the revolution. This is critical if we are analyzing black activism in Cuba because 1) it has the potential to grow into something larger than a group of elites and 2) the desires of black activists are not elite desires, but match the many visions of an anti-racist Cuba and set of government policies that exist among ordinary folks that are not connected to these circles. It highlights the dual legitimacy of black activist work while at the same time emphasizing the legitimacy of those who do not do this work but live with race as a limitation to their success and ability to live in the raceless context that the dominant government narrative has painted for Cuba.
This informal critique is central despite it being couched in everyday experience rather than a sustained public critique. Private conversations among those that are not connected to state organizations that allow for debate vary and include discussions on the lack of black representation on television, stories of experiences with discrimination, complaints about obstacles that impede black progress and many other issues that uniquely face black Cubans. They remain under the radar yet the informality of this form of expression does not undercut its importance. These underground conversations are the foundation of racial micro-politics and are the foundation of what it means to be black within the revolution.
In 2010, I asked a female interviewee about the position of blackness within a narrative that discourages racial differentiation:
The first thing is that we are all human beings. The second is that I am a black woman. The third is that I am Cuban. And that is changeable, it could be that I go somewhere else and become a citizen. And that is a feeling, a position that you take in life. I can’t take off my skin; they haven’t invented anything to be able to do that. No matter where I go, I am a black woman. And if there is a project to promote me as a woman and as black, I can’t feel offended or reject it. If I feel offended, my self-esteem is very low. And my social conscious is messed up. I look in the mirror and what am I? A black woman. Whether that makes me happy or not is another thing. If black families do not assume their blackness, there is a conflict. And no one in the party is going to use me either, that depends on me. If I don’t have strong legs I’m going to be, I don’t know, whoever, a Condoleezza.
Her positionality as a black woman is transnational simply as skin color, but it is also political. Black activism is seen as antithetical to national unity and that narrative is a powerful one in claiming that one should be offended, as she says, by a project to promote black women. To be steadfast in one’s blackness and simultaneously understand that doing so is a political act that cannot be coopted by the government is a radical position in Cuba.
It is also necessary to project a steadfast position regarding blackness for one’s own survival and success within a society that projects black inferiority. Racial humor, stereotypical black representations on state television, the association of blackness and criminality, among others contribute to negative opinions regarding blackness. To be professional is “to act white”, to be successful is “to think like a white person” and to misbehave or embarrass one’s self in public means that “he/she had to be black.” Within these colloquial contexts that batter black self-esteem, black radicalism is crucial to oppose these norms. As an undergraduate student shared,
It is education. I’m not talking about education from a school point of view; it’s familial education. My family, my mother, my father always taught me to have black consciousness because black pride influences a lot. Family teaches you that. The images, the stereotypes, what is taught, mass media, what people see and the ideas that people formulate all go against that and often it’s those things that define what a black person is in our society. So I am able to think the way I do, but maybe someone who is similar to me does not think in the same way. I try to be better every day and I’m conscious of the role that I represent in my society, there are few blacks that are where I am.
The lack of black representation in particular is felt in these private spaces and although there is no national dialogue that can argue for black leaders, conversations are clear on these issues.
All of our presidents have been white, why doesn’t a black person have the right to be president? I was so happy, we were so happy here in Cuba with Obama. Maybe other black people that are full of it weren’t, but many, many were because black people have a right to be president. I feel proud, not only because of what he can bring to the country, but to have a black man in that position is very important. The way he speaks, the way he acts, the man is marvelous.
These discussions constitute knowledge sharing and creating networks of ideas among black folks that remain underground, but ubiquitous. Knowledge sharing can be done within these conversations or via music that projects black pride or books that recapture black history that has been lost. Translations of books written outside of Cuba that detail the histories of black revolutionaries and black radicalism have circulated through black communities as well to created shared awareness.
Black Activism and Black Power
Black activists, intellectuals and members of the Communist party sometimes with government positions have challenged state management of racial inequality since 1959. Early on in the revolution, prominent black figures tried to push Fidel Castro and the new government to focus on racial issues. Although the silencing of these voices showed others with similar plans that the government’s racial policy was not to be challenged, there were others that came after the late 1960s with similar concerns. These concerns came from the lack of attention to the structural and institutional inequities that remained after 1959. Poverty, substandard housing, low wage or low-level jobs continued to be experienced by blacks more than whites in Cuba. As referenced at the start of this piece, groups of people began to meet in the 1970s to discuss the possibility of a black power movement. In the 1980s, black and mulato government officials pursued policy and/or organizations that sought to pursue racial equity. These officials, much like those of the 1960s and 1970s approached the government as revolutionaries, later realizing that there was no room for a black revolutionary in Cuba. These individuals were met with informants, threats from the government and detainment.
While the Cuban government supported the Black Panther movement in the United States, it discouraged similar activism domestically. The black liberation movements in the United States, the Caribbean and Africa inspired Cuban activists. They came into contact with leaders of these movements as Cuba became a place where those who were in exile from their own countries, were embraced in Cuba. They were embraced however, because of their critique of the United States, and the same support was not given to those who were inspired by their agenda within Cuba. Black U.S. revolutionaries were used as part of a geopolitical game between Cuba and the United States and Cuba’s support of black exiles was not based on support of black power. On the contrary, once within Cuba’s borders, black exiles were not encouraged to support their own politics among Cubans on the island.
The transnationality of white supremacy means that black power constitutes a threat to white power throughout the world. Cuba as a socialist society is no different from those that are capitalist in silencing agendas and voices of black power and supporting blackness that never challenges white leadership or its commitment to the racial status quo. The Cuban revolution was an economic revolution that brought economic equality to Cuba with access to education and healthcare. But it was not a racial revolution; it was not a black revolution. Those that silenced the black voice and saw that voice as a danger led the movement. As a result, activists throughout the history of the revolution, thinking that they were inside the revolution, realized that they were outside of it when they began to express themselves as black people or in defense of black people.
Race, Revolution, and Social Media
In February of 2019, Cuba ratified a new constitution which culminated a fraught process of public assessment of the revolution, its new president and its future. Although a large majority of the populace approved the new constitution, there was an I Vote No campaign, or #YoVotoNo that protested the process. The campaign emphasized the lack of freedoms that still exist in Cuba, the lack of attention to marginalized groups, and is part of what looks to be a changing tide in Cuba where public protest is beginning to escalate at a level not seen previously during the Revolution. The advent of Wi-Fi spots and internet access through smart phones has facilitated these protests by connecting people and building awareness through social media and communication applications such as Whatsapp. Although the campaign rejecting the vote on the constitution and other protests have not yet focused on issues of racism in particular, there have been voices that have articulated an anti-racist platform. These voices have argued for awareness regarding the continued racism on the island.
A rap group, 340 MS, is made up of artists that have occupied the hip-hop scene for quite a few years. They are not affiliated with the Cuban Rap Agency and their musical content centers on a radical black politics. They serve as a key example of groups on the left who are critical of the state and are continuously surveilled and unsupported by state resources. The group uses their music and social media to communicate messages of black liberation and criticize the boundaries outlined in the essay for those who want to organize regarding racism in Cuba. 340 MS recently put out a video as part of the #YoVotoNo campaign that condemns the lack of freedoms in Cuba and the presence of racist structures and practices. In the video they say the following:
Revolución no es opresión ni amargura
Revolución no es censura
Revolución es cambio constante
Yo Voto No a la dictadura
Revolution isn’t oppression or bitterness
Revolution isn’t censorship
Revolution is constant change
I vote no to the dictatorship
Mas negros en el gobierno pa’ rizar la vainilla
Y una policía racista en cuidad maravilla
Yo voto no. Mi único poder: mi voto.
More black people in the government to add a little chocolate to the vanilla
And a racist police force in the city of wonder
I vote no. My only power: my vote
340 MS is a prime example of expression that has moved beyond the state’s boundaries of black affirmation and thus the group has received push back from the government. The rhetoric also challenges the notion that black people should be grateful for the revolution and the openings granted to black people early on. 340 MS has not benefited from a so-called exchange between the public sphere and the state and show that when one lives within the space of black power, they are at risk. In a different song and video titled, Como Los Mau Mau, also uploaded on YouTube and other social media platforms, they say:
La diáspora africana, eleva la conciencia.
Conciencia negra: universal, progresista, ahí transcultural
Negros y mestizos revolucionando.
Pueblos caribeños y africanos en un solo bando.
No mas explotación, colonialismo interno
No mas confusión, supremacía blanca en el Babilón
Soy rojo, negro y verde, afro-liberación
Mientras mas negro mas represión.
Somos creadores, recupera tu visión.
The African Diaspora elevates its consciousness.
Black consciousness: universal, progressive, transcultural
Black and mixed people revolutionizing
Caribbean and African people in one group
No more exploitation, internal colonialism
No more confusion, white supremacy in Babylon
I’m red, black and green, Afro-liberation!
The blacker you are, the more repression
We are creators, recuperate your vision.
This song in particular takes its inspiration from the African nationalist movement that resisted British domination in Kenya. The chorus sings, “We are Resistant like the Mau Mau.” The Mau Mau were banned by the British colonial leadership in the 1950s and thousands were killed in the fighting and others were detained. The parallels that the group makes with the movement suggests that the Cuban government represents this same kind of internal colonialism experienced in Kenya and many other African states. It also connects the group to anti-colonial struggles and the dissatisfaction with communism’s attention to black liberation that black writers in the early to mid 1900s wrote about. Scholars have often compared black and Latino communities in the United States as victims of internal colonialism as well due to the institutional racism and racial inequalities that affect these communities. The ideas that this group brings to the hip-hop scene are both radical and daring. Questions of white supremacy, internal colonialism and black consciousness are continuously affecting black lives in Cuba, but are rarely being debated in public forums. Moreover, 340 MS’s recent performance of this song at the 2019 Hip Hop Symposium (an event sponsored by the Cuban Rap Agency) shows that the rap community supports their message. This is also evidenced in the collaborations that 340 MS has with groups that are part of the state institutions. In other words, while groups within the Cuban Rap Agency may not be pushing the same boundaries as groups like 340 MS, they are not in opposition to their message and radicalism. Support for a group such as this is worth noting. As years go by where activists come up against continuous obstacles when it comes to policy creation to fight racism, those that operate within safe spaces may become increasingly frustrated with the limits of those spaces.
The arrival, albeit slow, of the internet in Cuba has fueled dialogue such as the one above and continues to challenge the dominant narrative about race in Cuba. There has been less discussion about how anti-racist activism has benefited from the introduction of the internet into people’s daily lives. In 2015, Cuba opened various Wi-Fi spots throughout the country allowing people to connect to the internet via smart phones and laptops. While owning a smart phone continues to be cost prohibitive in Cuba, a growing number of people have gained access and thus, are able to join the world of social media. Internet cards in Cuba are exclusively purchased through ETECSA, the state communications entity, and can also make it difficult for Cubans to connect to the internet on a regular basis. Cards are one dollar for one hour of connection or two or three times the price on the black market. Despite the cost and lack of widespread access, thousands are able to connect to WIFI spots and a small percentage are able to afford 4 G service, which allows for constant connections.
With these new developments, there are various ways in which social media has provided a way for people to have much wider access both to existing anti-racist networks and to share their own content. Cuban presence on popular social media sites has grown and information regarding racism, everyday experiences with discrimination and opinions are shared through these channels. Videos such as the ones uploaded by 340 MS in addition to blogs and/or anti-racist and pro-black messages have changed the informational spaces available to nonwhite Cubans. Groups that are affiliated with the state, independent organizations, and even those outside of Cuba are all able to communicate messages about racism and blackness that were not available before. These separate networks then, provide connections between Cuba and its diaspora that cultivate new dialogs and can perhaps go further in creating support for anti-racist activism.
The boundaries that the state has created, largely around affirmation versus movement formation around institutional racism, has remained consistent throughout the life of the revolution. One of the key differences between black revolutionaries within and out of Cuba’s borders, largely lies in how these boundaries were navigated. Those within Cuba’s borders have been able to express their critiques without enough push back from the government that would require them to leave. Others that live on the outside have gone further than the state would allow, thus placing them in a position where they could no longer stay in Cuba. The political agendas of both groups are not vastly different, both are interested in black liberation from a leftist position. One could say the same of black revolutionaries from the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. Those that had to leave the U.S. crossed the limits of the state to the point where they could no longer live freely in this country. Those that stayed were able to navigate a different future or abandoned some of their radical associations.
Definitions of who is a black revolutionary should not only include those who are working in the public sphere to maintain debate about race and messages of black pride, but also those that criticize the state, ordinary citizens engaged in critique and those that live abroad. In private spaces, knowledge, critique, connecting experiences and solidarity are all shared away from the gaze of the state. Blackness as a political stance as well as dialogues on racial micro-politics live within these spaces as well and serve to challenge the dominant narrative of white supremacy and black inferiority. I have argued in other works that these spaces serve as the foundation to a black movement in which all black citizens are given the freedom to organize. The growth of social media and increased networks coupled with the worsening of racial inequalities due to economic reforms suggest that the state is at a critical juncture. Black progress will not come without resistance from the ground and it remains to be seen how the state’s new National Program will react to these emerging voices.
This essay argues for recognition of the Cuban revolution as a radical leftist movement that deeply and directly addressed class inequality and brought universal education and healthcare to the masses. At the same time, I argue that the Cuban Revolution was not one that served all black people. Rather, it purported to serve black people so that black people would in turn, serve the revolution. As Aime Cesaire wrote when resigning from the Communist Party in 1956 as quoted in Black Marxism, “A doctrine is of value only if it is conceived by us and for us, and revised through us.” Although black people experienced social mobility that was unprecedented in Cuba during the early decades of the revolution, the government has determined the reach, direction and strategy of that mobility. Black people did not have a say in their own liberation. This then means that to be a black revolutionary, you must have a contentious relationship with the state.