Juan Almeida overcame racism and poverty to become one of the most important revolutionaries in Cuba.
Racism is entrenched in Cuba— Jim Crow-esque, institutional racism. The island has been so removed from the United States that Americans don’t hear about the struggles for black Cubans. Black Cubans experience longer waits for health care, poorer neighborhoods, exclusion from managerial positions, and exclusion from tourism-related jobs (which provide cash in the form of tips). These struggles were all too real for Juan Almeida Bosque.
Juan Almeida was born in Havana, Cuba in 1927. He dropped out of school at 11 to become a bricklayer. At the time of his death, he was the third ranking Cuban in the government.
Almeida studied law at the University of Havana, where he befriended a young Fidel Castro. He soon joined Castro’s band of rebels. On July 26, 1953, Almeida took part in the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks. He was captured and imprisoned along with the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul. They were released and moved to Mexico two years later.
The Castro brothers and Almeida returned to Cuba in 1956. This time, they brought Che Guevara and 78 other rebels. Cuban government forces killed 70 of the rebels. As the battle continued, Almeida shouted over the noise: “Here, nobody surrenders”. The twelve surviving rebels were dispersed into the Sierra Maestra mountains. Eventually, the rebels found each other with the help of a network of sympathetic locals.
In 1958, Almeida was promoted to Commander and placed in charge of a column of soldiers. To the black Cubans living under the yoke of racism, a black man in a leadership position became a symbol.
After the revolution, Juan Almeida worked his way up to General in the Cuban army. He also became first vice-president of the Cuban Council of State, the third highest position in the Cuban government.
Almeida died in 2009. He was given a military funeral. Memorial services occurred all over Cuba, and a national day of mourning was declared.
Why he should be remembered: This is not about Juan Almeida’s politics. This is about the presence of black people who are marginalized and disenfranchised. The Civil Rights Movement missed them due to the totalitarian nature of Castro’s Cuba. In the early days of his presidency, Castro made some reforms that improved conditions for black people in Cuba, but they were much too small. So, you should remember that a black man who had to drop out of school at age eleven rose to the third-highest position in a country that systemically discriminates against people like him.
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