50 YEARS | REVOLUTION AND EXILE
Race-based clubs see revival in Cuba
Clubs based on racial exclusivity, for Afro-Cubans as well as other
groups, are making a comeback in Cuba.
BY LIZA GROSS
More than 50 years have passed, but Afro-Cuban author Pedro Pérez Sarduy
still remembers the dances.
He and his friends would dress smartly in white linen guayaberas and
black bow ties to attend balls at La Bella Unión (Beautiful Union), a
social club in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. At these matinés, they
danced cha-cha-cha and flirted with girls.
''The matiné went from 1 until 5 with a local orchestra for the kids,''
Pérez Sarduy said. ``After that, the dance for adults had a good
orchestra because this was important for the prestige of the club.''
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
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.
''Dancing huahuancó was not allowed because whites considered it a
savage dance,'' Moore said.
The clubs patterned themselves after similar organizations catering to
other communities, such as Spaniards and Chinese. They also existed
alongside institutions reserved for affluent white Cubans, like the
Havana Yacht Club.
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.
''The cultural history of Afro-Cubans was lost, too,'' Guridy added.
``The folkloric representations are well-known. But the younger
generations have no idea of the existence of these clubs.''
In the euphoria that followed dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster, many
blacks supported doing away with the sociedades in exchange for the
promise of a better future, said Alejandro de la Fuente, author of Race,
Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba and a history professor at
the University of Pittsburgh.
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
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.
For Moore, his local sociedad was crucial to his childhood. ''I grew up
in that club,'' Moore said. ``I went there after school, and black
instructors helped us with our homework. They also taught us the history
of blacks, something we did not get at school.''
''It was a place of pride for black people,'' he added.``Destroying them
was a monstrosity.''
The best-known and most elite sociedad was Club Atenas in Havana,
founded in 1917.
Among its 68 founding members were lawyers, engineers, civil servants
and teachers. In addition to dances and cultural activities, it
organized trips around the island and abroad, including one in 1954 to
the Roosevelt estate to present former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with
a bust of Cuban patriot Antonio Maceo. The club also honored writer
Langston Hughes and other black Americans.
In 1961, Club Atenas was taken over by the government and the building
became a children's center.
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
``The issue was not part of the discourse because they were not hearing
this, and they were not hearing this because they had closed the
sociedades,'' de la Fuente said.
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.
''After 40-plus years of trying to homogenize the society, we see groups
trying to assert their uniqueness and the state allowing it,'' Guridy said.
The government also needed the revenue from tourism.
''Groups want to see a santería ceremony or a cultural experience, and
the government needs the money and it is more tolerant,'' Guridy said,
pointing to the success of the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club.
OPPOSITION TO RACISM
In 1998, a group of Afro-Cuban activists founded the Cofradía de la
Negritud (Fraternity of Blackness).
''We pick up the purpose of the sociedades, but we are going further,''
said Norberto Mesa Carbonell, one of the founders. ``We meet not only to
carry out activities specific to the society of color, but to actively
fight against racism.''
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
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.
The organization has 50 members in Havana and recently opened a branch
in Pinar del Río, which now has 16 members.
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.''