HAVANA—The Cuban Revolution's universal healthcare and tuition-free education have created a more inclusive society where Afro-Cubans were given a chance to become doctors, engineers, and other professionals who helped build a new nation.
But vanquishing racism hasn't been so easy. Despite the many advances by Afro-Cubans over the past 50 years, implicit and explicit anti-black racism continues to permeate Cuban society.
One group is trying to fix that.
“The Cuban Revolution brought a lot of positive changes for black women in Cuba in education and with access to resources, but the racial problem in Cuba is not necessarily a state problem or an institutional problem," says Lucila Insua Brindis, the 67-year-old founder of Havana's Afro-Descendent Organization for Women.
Brindis says racism in Cuba is "personal and exists culturally" and is something that's "transmitted through the family in most cases.” In other words, she says, racism doesn't exist as much on the structural level as it does in day-to-day interpersonal relationships.
Brindis' group, founded in 2012 with the government's blessing, is working to combat the negative stigmas faced by Afro-Cuban women while addressing broader societal issues stemming from anti-black racism.
With the help of other Afro-Cuban advocates, the organization grew into a network of approximately 40 members who are trying to visibilize issues that affect afro-descendants in a way similar to Black Lives Matter—a U.S. movement with which many Afro-Cubans feel a strong kinship.
Brindis says it's her group's mission to lead educational workshops that advocate for more expressions of Afro-descendent beauty in the media and in Cuban pop culture.
“We write to newspapers, and if we watch a show that we don’t like, we write to the producers and ask why all the black characters were the criminals in the show?" she says. "In addition, we use our platform to teach Afro-Cuban women to love their natural curly and kinky hair and their dark skin, which all comes from Africa.”
Cuba, similar to Brazil, prides itself on the romantic notion of racial democracy due to high rates of interracial mixing and a complex system of classification based on physical features, hair texture, and skin tone. Brindis says that her organization teachers women “to feel proud of their black heritage and their blackness.”
And although civil society is a rare thing in communist Cuba, Brindis says the government has always supported the Red de Mujeres Afro-desciendentes, as her group is known in Spanish.
“We have a lot of support from the state because the government dedicates themselves to education and the state has always prioritized education,” she said. “So there’s no tension and we don’t foresee any future issues.”
As Cuba continues to re-establish diplomatic ties with the United States and increasingly connect to the internet, Brindis hopes that Afro-Cuban advocates and organizations can connect with international groups such as Black Lives Matter to have a broader conversation about blackness and race, both in Cuba and in the U.S.
“We support our brothers and sisters in the U.S. and we are connecting with other networks around Latin America because we are all fighting for the same thing: racial equality and to shatter negative stereotypes about black people.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.