Antiracism in Cuba and the Road Ahead
Dr. Lisa Pinley Covert, Department of History
On April 19, 2018, the world witnessed a momentous political event. The island nation of Cuba would not be governed by a Castro for the first time in almost sixty years after a peaceful transition of power. This beginning of a new chapter in Cuban history was a fitting end to the College of Charleston’s semester-long interdisciplinary program “Cuba en el Horizonte” (Cuba on the Horizon). The programming included a wide range of Cuba-related course offerings, art exhibits, performances, film series, and lectures designed to provide multiple perspectives on Cuba’s past, present, and future. One guest scholar, Dr. Devyn Spence Benson, Assistant Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies at Davidson College, visited campus in February to meet with various classes and talk about her book Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Her talk offered many insights about Cuba’s past struggles with racism and some prescient observations about Cuba in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Benson opened her talk by juxtaposing the words of Barack Obama and Fidel Castro. During Obama’s historic 2016 visit to Cuba, he shared optimism that efforts to normalize relations between the two countries would help uplift all Cubans, and particularly Afro-Cubans. Fidel Castro challenged this assessment, claiming instead that there were no specific barriers for Afro-Cubans to overcome since the Cuban Revolution eliminated racism. Benson argued that the revolution did create an opening for significant gains for the Afro-Cuban population, particularly in terms of education and access to health care. However, as her research demonstrates, the efforts to combat racism resulted from demands from within Cuba, especially from Afro-Cubans, that the revolutionary government live up to its rhetoric. Even then, racism was never fully eliminated, and therefore she claims, the revolution remains unfinished.
It is impossible to tell what the future holds for Cuba and whether this recent political transition represents continuity or change. But observers noted that one change was already evident with the announcement of the new political leadership that would serve under the new president Miguel Díaz-Canel. As the New York Times reported, the Council of State will have an unprecedented number of Afro-Cubans, a gesture toward the growing influence of Afro-Cuban artists and activists that have brought Cuba’s continuing racial disparities to the fore. Indeed, as Benson concluded in her talk, much work remains, but Afro-Cubans, and especially women, are taking advantage of new opportunities to have their voices heard. Thanks to the generous support of CLAW, the First Year Experience Program, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, and the History Department, our campus community can take part in these important conversations.