This Is What Happened When Black People Did Business With Cuba

Joe Louis/Ivan Busatt/Wikimedia/Public Domain

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It’s 1959 and Fidel Castro has just overthrown Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Castro drove out the American gangsters and closed down the casinos where sex work ran rampantly.

A seemingly positive move for Cuba, it suddenly created major problems. Not only were thousands unemployed as a result of this action, but Cuba’s $60 million tourism sector dried up.

For the new leader of Cuba, there was pressure to fix the problem. Castro found his answer is an unlikely person: boxer Joe Louis.

Castro thought that he could use Louis’ celebrity to entice Black Americans to vacation in Cuba.

Louis was down with the plan.

Because of Jim Crow, it was difficult for middle class Black people to travel, in the U.S. and resorts in the Caribbean. This was a win-win for everyone.

This was the deal: $282,000 to help promote Cuba in Black print media. In exchange, Louis received a 15% commission from Cuba tourism.

Louis assembled a commission of Black newspaper editors and Black leaders. They began promotion, praising Cuba as a racially tolerant place.

The U.S. was not happy about it.

As the U.S.-Cuba relationship crumbled, the U.S. saw Louis’ relationship with Cuba as an affront to America. White media ran stories discrediting Louis’ commission. TIME even suggested that Black people might take up arms against the U.S. just as Castro did against Batista.

Louis was confused by the reception. He only saw this as a business move, but the pressure became too intense. Louis was forced to end the commission.

Cuba’s tourism picked up when the country invited Canadians and Europeans to the country. Soon after, Cuba promoted itself as a Latin/white country, while Afro-Cubans suffered from racial discrimination. The irony.

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