Liza Gross, Miami Herald, December 29, 2008
Known in Spanish as sociedades de color, these and similar clubs fell victim to Fidel Castro’s drive, shortly after he seized power, to eliminate any aspect of Cuban society that emphasized racial exclusivity. But their spirit and mission have been enjoying a renaissance over the past decade. And the same revolutionary government that once opposed them now seems to welcome their comeback.
In prerevolutionary Cuba, where blacks and poor, uneducated whites were denied access to good jobs and ritzy outings, the clubs served as centers to socialize and promote black racial progress. Many had libraries and offered night classes and sports instruction.
Above all, the sociedades sought to dispel any negative stereotypes of blacks.
Author and activist Carlos Moore says that members of Amantes del Progreso (Lovers of Progress), the club in his hometown of Lugareño, went as far as forbidding dances that they felt demeaned blacks.
Cuba boasted more than 200 Afro-Cuban sociedades in 1949. Most had inspirational names, like Fraternal Union, Progress or New Era.
Castro’s revolution moved quickly to force integration, opening up private clubs and other facilities to all races and socioeconomic classes. It also dismantled the sociedades, both black and white, decreeing them obsolete in the new class-color-blind Cuba. Some survived into the first years of the revolution but were eventually disbanded.
LOSS OF AUTONOMY
While Afro-Cubans enjoyed unprecedented opportunities in education and social advancement after 1959, with the disappearance of the sociedades they lost “an autonomous position in Cuban society and politics, given that the revolutionary government took control of everything,” said Frank Guridy, who teaches history at the University of Texas.
The regime’s actions not only deprived Afro-Cubans of a unique platform to air grievances but also erased a significant part of their heritage.
According to de la Fuente, the reputation of many sociedades had become tarnished because of their association with pre-Castro governments. The Club Atenas of Havana, for example, had built its headquarters on land given by President Ramón Machado, and some clubs had been close to the Batista regime.
Still, in 1959 and 1960, a group of black leaders defended sociedades “as the best form to advance their interests. But others said they had outlived their usefulness,” de la Fuente said.
Their abolition was a blow to Afro-Cubans because the sociedades “played an important role in keeping race in the middle of Cuban life,” he said.
With the sociedades closed, their records destroyed by the state or lost and many of their buildings repurposed, Afro-Cubans lacked an organized voice to dissent from the official position that the revolution had solved the country’s racial problems.
The government’s policy was to deny the existence of racism, arguing that communism’s egalitarianism made discrimination based on race an impossibility. Any contrary opinion was considered counterrevolutionary and slanderous.
In reality, more than 1.2 million Afro-Cubans remained underrepresented in the circles of power and overrepresented among prisoners. They were also clustered in the more dilapidated sections of urban areas and continued to face discrimination in the workplace.
The economic meltdown after the fall of the Soviet Union and a growing interest by Cubans in getting back in touch with their roots led to a resurgence of the sociedades. And not just for blacks. Groups for whites and Chinese are back, too.
OPPOSITION TO RACISM
In 1998, a group of Afro-Cuban activists founded the Cofradía de la Negritud (Fraternity of Blackness).
The fraternity’s goal is to focus on the condition of Afro-Cubans because “the government has not managed to solve the race problem,” said Mesa Carbonell, an engineer.
The fraternity’s manifesto includes calls to narrow the income gap between whites and blacks, to give more visibility to Afro-Cuban achievements, and to respect the rights of Afro-Cubans. It also tells black Cubans that advocating for progress should start with them.
Mesa Carbonell said the government first pressured him to give up his efforts.
But the fraternity persisted, and it now participates openly in government-sponsored events. Recently, Mesa Carbonell spoke at the ceremony to observe the 100th anniversary of the first black political party in Cuba.
Mesa Carbonell said the sociedades were instrumental in fighting discrimination against Afro-Cubans and should not have been abolished.
“If the revolution had allowed them to continue operating,” he said, “we would have made more progress on the issue of race.”