Interview with Devyn Spence Benson 

What did revolutionary Cuba represent to African Americans in the 1960s?

I think in some ways revolutionary Cuba represented hope...African Americans have a long history of looking globally for partners and allies and collaborators in the anti-racist struggle. It is not like the 1960s was the first time. Frank Guridy has done excellent work in his book Forging Diaspora on the different moments of interaction between African-Americans and Afro-Cubans. In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and many other African Americans had a global vision, as they were looking for other strategies on how to deal with racism and how to collaborate in the fight against racial discrimination.

By the time you get to the 1960s where there is already this long history of global interlocutors, African Americans look to the Cuban Revolution and think this is a real moment of radical change. Cuba was a country that had a social revolution with mass participation and mass enthusiasm, and this included lots of people of African descent who participated in the anti-Batista coalition. Cuban revolutionary leaders claim, “We are going to make racial discrimination a part of our national agenda. Fighting racial discrimination is one of the things we want our revolution to do.” The U.S. government was not saying this in the 1960s.

African Americans looked to Cuba for hope, allyship, and inspiration given what was going on in the U.S. at that time. African Americans would use Cuba as a foil to pressure the U.S. government to give them more opportunities.You get the sense that Cuba was positioning itself as a counter to race relations in the U.S. If the U.S. was a place of brutal and savage police brutality and fierce discrimination, then Cuba was going to be the counter to that. Often the U.S. would say, “90 miles from us is communism.” Well Cuba would come back and say, “90 miles from us is racial discrimination.” I found political cartoons that said democracia (democracy) and they would spell it with three k’s, demokkkracia.

How did revolutionary Cuba seek to engage African American visitors and tourists? Were these strategies successful? What impressions did these strategies leave on African American visitors?

After the 1959 Revolution, many of the mainstream routes of tourism to Cuba started drying up because of fear of communism, because there had been a guerilla war, and because U.S. businesses were saying that it was not safe to travel there. By mainstream, I am talking about white tourists. White tourists were not going to Cuba as much in 1959, 1960, and 1961 as they had in the 1950s. The new National Institute of Tourism (INIT) decided to reach out to a different type of tourist. They started a direct campaign to encourage African Americans to visit because they thought that African Americans were going to see something in the Revolution that maybe mainstream tourists were not interested in. INIT’s campaign to facilitate travel begins with the boxer Joe Louis, who they invite to Cuba, along with other African American leaders, to celebrate the one-year anniversary (January 1, 1960) of the Revolution with Fidel and other revolutionary leaders.  

To engage African American tourists, INIT offers to pay an African American public relations firm, with Louis as the figurehead, a certain amount of money to promote travel to Cuba in African American newspaper advertisements and through direct mail. These advertisements show people with a variety of skin tones, beautiful women, and people playing golf. The advertising campaign used slogans like, “Come to Cuba for first class treatment as a first class citizen” or “Come to Cuba where [...] we will treat you better than the United States treats you.” The Cuban tourist industry pointed out in these ads that, if you are in the U.S. and are black, you would not be able to stay at a hotel in Miami Beach or visit a nice tourist area in the southern part of the country.

After INIT and the Louis PR firm begin writing advertisements in January of 1960, groups of African American tourists start traveling to Cuba. By the summer of that same year, there had already been a group of African American visitors to Havana including Robert Williams, Julian Mayfield, and other high profile African Americans. There was not a singular response to these campaigns. One of the things that I talk about in the book are the moments when Joe Louis says, “Look, there is no discrimination in Cuba.” He comments that in Cuba people were hospitable and that there were no problems. A lot of African Americans have similar views about race in Cuba after those early visits. On the other hand, you also have someone like Robert Williams who later lived in exile in Cuba for years and said, “Yes, I did face discrimination while in Cuba. They were not as interested in supporting the black struggle or the Black Panther Party.” I think the strategies by the INIT left the impression, if nothing else, that there was a national government that was willing to reach out to African Americans which was not something that any other government had done.

How did Afro-Cubans engage in local resistance as the Cuban National Tourist Institute encouraged temporary transnational relationships between African Americans and Cubans?

Cubans become very aware of the problematic, brutal, and violent race relations in the U.S. in the 1960s. On one hand, you have invitations for African Americans to come to Cuba and Cubans aware of why African Americans may want to leave the violence and brutality in the U.S. At the same time, you have Cuban revolutionary leaders saying they that will eliminate racial discrimination, open up social clubs, beaches and privates schools to everyone, but in practice, this desegregation does not happen as quickly as Afro-Cuban activists may have wanted. Afro-Cuban activists start pointing out these contradictions between what the government said it was going to do and what they did, and one area in which they illuminated these contradictions was in the tourist industry. For example, I found letters to the editor of the newspapers from Afro-Cubans who would try to eat lunch at or enter into one of these tourist hotels in the 1960s. When they could not get in or were told it was for members only, they would write a letter to the editors saying, “How come these new tourist venues that are publicized as being open to African Americans, are not open to us?” Cubans were aware that the revolutionary leadership was reaching out to African Americans, and they were asking for Afro-Cubans to be let into these spaces as well.

In the current moment of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, how are transnational relations between African Americans and Afro-Cubans being shaped through travel?

When President Obama visited Cuba in March of 2016, one of the things that he said in his speech to Cubans was that he hoped that continued exchange with the U.S. would “help uplift people of African descent.” I found this to be a fascinating moment for our president, our first black president, to acknowledge that Cuba has people of African descent and to show interest in how these new exchanges and business opportunities will benefit black and darker-skinned Cubans. While Obama was there, a video emerged of him walking down the streets of Central Havana and visiting a black-owned paladar [privately owned restaurant]. There was a sense that he had an awareness that including Afro-Cubans in any new emerging economy in Cuba was critical. Because of this, I think other African Americans are also very interested in this moment in Cuba.

Since the 1990s and the opening of the tourism industry, Afro-Cubans have not had the same opportunities as other Cubans. They do not get the front house jobs in hotel. You can see them as cooks or janitors, but they are not working at the front desk or as tour guides. It has been rare to see a person of African descent as a tour guide, but we know it is these positions in the tourist industry that make the most money. They get paid in hard currency and receive tips in foreign currency, [and]...people have said that you have to have to a certain type of look, buena presencia, to get those jobs. That has been code for “we do not want you to be too dark and we do not want you to have curly hair”...We also know that to own paladares and casas particulares, small business ventures in the private sector, you need capital to start off. Most of these business owners are also lighter-skinned or white Cubans. Many people are getting the necessary capital from family members who live outside of Cuba, and many of the people who left Cuba, especially in the earlier waves but also in the later waves, have been predominantly lighter-skinned and white Cubans. This has meant that there are groups in Cuba that are not getting remittances, or the amount of remittances, sent back, to open a paladar or casa particular. Nor do they have the support networks to help them during troubled times.  

What does Cuba represent to black Americans now?

I meet so many different African Americans here in the U.S. who talk about going to Cuba and feeling at home; they talk about feeling comfortable. They talk about being in a place that accepts them and their blackness in a way that they never have in the U.S. One part of that is just demographics. Cuba has a larger population of African descent than the U.S. ever will. If you are an African American walking down the streets of Havana or Santiago, you are going to feel like there are so many more people who look and feel like you. Cuba also has a strong influence of religions and cultural practices of African descent, including santería and palo monte. African Americans go to different Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, hear Afro-Cuban rhythms, and see dance performances. Each and every one of those things makes them feel like they have a connection to a type of culture that they do not always feel is available in the U.S.

On the other hand, there are many African Americans who have traveled to Cuba recently who have had challenging experiences with the tourist industry. Until the last couple of years, there was a policy where Cubans were not allowed to go into tourist hotels. When Cuba first begins opening up its emerging tourist sector in the 1990s, you get the sense that they do so sort of unwillingly: “We don’t want tourism and the entrance of foreigners to impact negatively the cultural conditions of our Revolution,” which they thought was a good reason to keep Cubans out of tourist hotels. But what ended up happening is that when the government said “Cubans” cannot come into tourist hotels, that meant Cubans of African descent, darker skin Cubans, or Cubans who look a particular way. If you are an African American visitor, you could also be turned away from that hotel because they thought you were Cuban. This is something that I have experienced. They question you, “Do you have your passport? Do you have your ID?” For African Americans who have those experiences, there is a real clash between the hope they feel being included in Cuba and the excitement they feel for Afro-Cuban cultural practices with the type of racial discrimination based solely on skin color...What is interesting is that although Cuba has fully gotten rid of this legislation that Cubans cannot enter tourist hotels, it does not mean this practice has completely been erased. It still continues because the security guards who are making sure tourist hotels are “secure” are still in the habit of practicing the policy; they don’t want undesirables entering, and this has always been connected to skin color and about targeting a type of blackness in Cuba.

What has your experience been researching race in revolutionary Cuba?

Most of my book is about the 1960s, and yet, both in the introduction and the epilogue, I talk a about my own personal experiences because I realize that they can work as a way to describe some of the themes and phenomena that I discuss.

One of the things that I talk about with my own experience is how people read me in Cuba. I am a light-skinned, African American woman with curly hair; I usually have an Afro. When I am in Cuba, people usually spend a lot of time asking me what I am. I always say the same thing, that I am black. During my longest trip to Cuba in 2007, I was the director of a study abroad program and we were going to be there six months, and so I got a temporary carnet because I was there longer than three months. I went to fill out the form and there was a place where it asks you for race. I put negra because I identify as black, my parents identify as black, and this is something I wanted the card to represent. I go to the woman taking the form from me, and she looks at me and says, “There is no way you are black. There is no way that is going to fly.” I thought, “Excuse me. This is what I chose to identify as and that is what I would like my card to say.” She responded, “No. You are mestiza.” In my mind, mestiza is lighter than I am and implies straighter hair than I have, and so I thought maybe I could be mulata because that is what most Cubans identify me as and that would be a compromise. I agree to mulata and turn in my form, but three weeks later when I get my carnet, it says mestizo and I am floored. How is it that I can want to be one thing but someone else can identify me as something else?

I think that example shows that race is not only a social construction, but that it also depends on where you are at that moment and who is going to identify you. In the U.S. racial system, I am black; I am African American. I am light-skinned, and sometimes my family may call me “high yellow or redbone.” In Cuba, I can be mulato or mestizo depending on if people know if I am a professor, know that I have my doctorate, know my class status, or if I straighten my hair that day. It is really interesting to think about how, even though I use terms in this interview and in the book, many of these are in flux and are fluid. At the same time, we know there is both a history and a presence of discrimination against people based on skin color. We do not have to agree on the terms but we do need to talk about the discrimination and the lack of social opportunities that happen both in the U.S. and Cuba based on being of African descent.


Photo 1: Joe Louis with Fidel Castro (January 1960). Taken from Antiracism in Cuba​.