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Expert on Race in Cuba Weighs in on Castro Legacy

Fidel Castro, the revolutionary who seized control of Cuba in 1959 and held onto power for nearly a half century, died on Friday at 90. Castro's complicated legacy encompasses the beginning and end of the Cold War, and an episode that nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. While Cuba is often discussed within the context of its relationship to the world, Castro's legacy at home–in particular his treatment of Cubans of African descent–deserves close consideration, especially as the United States confronts issues of racial injustice and inequality.

Afro-Cubans are highly visible in Cuba, by some estimates accounting for more than half of the island's 11 million residents. But, despite government efforts to generate social equality, Afro-Cubans continue to experience racism.

Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Latin American Studies Devyn Spence Benson's recent book, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, examines this issue closely.

Q&A with Prof. Devyn Spence Benson

How large is the population of Cubans of African descent?
This is a hard question to answer. The total population of the island is about 11 million and the percentage of Afro-Cubans ranges from 33 to 60 percent based on how people self-identity. Many Afro-Cuban intellectuals have called for a new count of people of African descent because they are sure that it is higher than the 1/5 seen in the official census. What we do know is that Afro-Cubans are highly visible in the culture and social framework of Cuba.

How will Afro-Cubans remember Castro?
I imagine that most Afro-Cubans will be aware of the complicated nature of his legacy. This will include an understanding that the revolutionary leaders responded to the demands of Afro-Cuban intellectuals in the 1960s and tried to implement a national integration campaign, and to incorporate black and mulato Cubans into the revolution. At the same time, those reforms did not lead to the disappearance of racism.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1989 and Cuba's economy fell apart with it, Cubans of African descent experienced that crisis more harshly than their white counterparts because of difficulties getting jobs in the new tourist economy; and their white counterparts benefited financially from money they received from the largely white Cuban exile population. Most recently, a variety of Afro-Cuban anti-racist groups have taken the lead in fighting vocally against discrimination in the workforce, media and upper political positions. This group of intellectuals will continue that work no matter who is in power in the United States or Cuba because that is what Afro-Cubans have done since the late 19th century.

Video Clips

  • Historical Roots of Differing Perspectives on Race Between Cubans and Americans

    Prof. Devyn Spence Benson shares insights into notable historical differences between Cuban and American perspectives on race.

  • Events in the United States Continue to Shape Cuba’s Racial Politics and Perspectives

    In the 1960s and today, Cubans take lessons from the American political discourse around race.

  • Emerging Cuban Economic Opportunities Disenfranchise Afro Cubans

    What do renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba mean for Cuban politics, socioeconomics and race relations?

  • Contradictions Between Anti-Racism and Racism in Cuban and American Society

    How do racial politics shape current events in the United States and Cuba, and what do contradictions between racist attitudes and anti-racism efforts indicate for human development in the 21st century?

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Twitter: @BensonDevyn