Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture

Exploring Black Women's Impact in Early 20th-Century Cuba with Dr. Takkara Brunson

September 20, 2023 Alexandria Miller Episode 67
Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture
Exploring Black Women's Impact in Early 20th-Century Cuba with Dr. Takkara Brunson
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Have you ever wondered what Cuba was like before the 1959 Revolution? This fascinating episode promises to take you there. Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with us as we are joined by Dr. Takkara Brunson for a riveting exploration of the Republic of Cuba period (1902-1958) through the lens of Black Cuban women. We unravel their significant contributions to the independence movement despite the racialized and gendered dynamics that pervaded their society.

The evolution of Black women's activism in this era is a narrative of transformative power. Learn how their discourse gradually shifted from respectability to a critique of racism, sexism, and classism. Understand how they leveraged their political clout to form independent organizations and, surprisingly, how Black civic clubs became their gateway to patronage networks. We also highlight inspiring figures like  María Dámasa Jova Baró authored a and Inocencia Valdés’s commit, who used their voices and actions to make a tangible difference in their communities. This episode is a testament to the resilience and undying spirit of Black women in Cuba.

Takkara Brunson is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on political and cultural traditions of the African Diaspora, with emphasis on how Black women have shaped Latin American and Caribbean societies after slave abolition. She is the author of Black Women, Citizenship, and the Making of Modern Cuba, which was co-awarded the Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize for African American Women's History. Brunson’s research has appeared in Gender & History, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, and Cuban Studies, among other places. Her research has been supported by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation), University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Institute, Ford Foundation, and UNCF/Mellon Programs.  She received her Ph.D. in Latin American History at the University of Texas at Austin and B.A. in Comparative Women’s Studies at Spelman College. Follow Dr. Brunson on Twitter.

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to Strictly Facts, a guide to Caribbean history and culture, hosted by me, alexandra Miller. Strictly Facts teaches the history, politics and activism of the Caribbean and connects these themes to contemporary music and popular culture. Waguán everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Strictly Facts a guide to Caribbean history and culture, with me, alexandra Miller, here to wish everyone a happy Hispanic Heritage Month. In celebration, we're traveling back to a place we've been before in this episode as well as our next episode, to 20th century Cuba.

Speaker 1:

One aspect of history, or really the historiography which is how history is written, is that, you know, sometimes these stories or these histories are written about a particular set of people, or oftentimes those who are in power or have power when we consider the dynamics of race, gender, class, lots of other things, as you all very well know.

Speaker 1:

And so in this episode we're changing that a bit, especially for a place like Cuba, which I think oftentimes gets talked about in the post revolution, so that 1959 on Castro regime period, but we're shifting that a little bit, talking about early Cuba, early 20th century Cuba, rather. And our next guest on Strictly Facts is Dr Takara Brunson, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and the author of a book I really enjoyed reading Black Women, citizenship and the Making of Modern Cuba. Who will be helping me tease out these stories of early 20th century Cuba from a perspective of black women, change makers on the island. So, dr Brunson, thank you so much for joining us for Strictly Facts. Why don't we get started a little bit with an introduction of yourself? What inspired your research and your connection to the Caribbean?

Speaker 2:

Yes, well, thank you for having me, first and foremost. So I came to this project through my undergraduate courses at Spelman College in African diaspora history. It's really the first time that I thought about black populations beyond the United States, understanding that there were places, like Jamaica, for instance, that also had black populations with their own dynamic history, but not really knowing that the Spanish speaking world also had large black populations with their own histories of enslavement and movements for racial equality. So I decided to become a women's studies major, always being interested in black feminist traditions but really thinking about histories of black feminism. I first stayed abroad, in the Dominican Republic, and then spent the fall of my junior year in Cuba, studying at the University of Havana, and it was then that I decided I wanted to devote more time to understanding how black women's experiences compared in a Cuban context, thinking about their activism first during the Cuban Revolution, but then, as I moved into a graduate program, trying to understand that history that existed during the pre-revolutionary period or the Republican era that took place prior to 1959.

Speaker 1:

I had a few conversations on Strictly Facts already about Cuba, but that was primarily focusing on the independence movements of the 19th century and so for those who either you know it's been a while or you know need a little refresher. So amidst the time of the 19th century there are obviously events like the Spanish-American War, through which Cuba was briefly a protector of the United States until May 20th 1902, when it finally became the focus of our conversation today, the Republic of Cuba, and this is obviously well before 1959, the revolution. But before diving into a little bit about the crux of your book, could you share a little bit with us about the new government that comes up in this 1902 on period of the Republic and what maybe some of the social demography was of the time and how it played a part in the racialized and gender dynamics of the New Republic?

Speaker 2:

Yes, and I'll just briefly jump back into the 19th century to highlight that when the United States intervenes in Cuba, they are joining the last year of a 30-year movement for independence that began in 1868, and that this was a movement that relied heavily on the contributions of persons of African descent and absolutely black men as soldiers, who became high-ranking leaders within the movement, who comprised an estimated 40 to 60% of the Liberation Army soldiers, despite being less than 30% of the island's population, and in the results of this, cubans formulated an ideology in which they imagined or they set the intention of creating a nation in which all men would be equal, regardless of their racial identifications.

Speaker 2:

When they wrote the 1902 Constitution, they made sure to grant suffrage rights to men of all races, honoring the promises and the goals of the 19th century movement for independence right and at the beginning of the Republic in 1902, which lasted until 1958, you have a political system in which all men are granted the right to vote.

Speaker 2:

It also means that because black men could vote, women would not gain the right to vote until 1934, when they wrote a new Constitution, but because black men had the right to vote alongside white men, it ensured that political parties recognize the value of the black vote, and so black men were courted and granted access to resources, government employment and exchange for their vote, and then also ran for office at all levels of government, holding positions from mayors in some regions to the state and national Congress, and so, on the surface level, there seem to be these gains that persons of African descent were making right, especially in terms of the goals of the 19th century movement.

Speaker 2:

Now, at the same time, what ended up happening was that many high ranking political figures, especially white Cubans, asserted that, because they had granted the right to vote and recognize racial equality in this new Constitution, that there was no need to talk about black men and women. And yet, in the everyday lives of black men, women and children, they continue to confront discrimination, whether it be through employment and seeking access to housing, in some cases just socially trying to access social clubs or civic clubs, entering into different environments and houses, moving into particular neighborhoods. And so Cubans of African descent quickly realized the need to continue some of these strategies to integrate themselves into modern institutions as they pursued socio economic mobility.

Speaker 1:

I think that point is really poignant that you're bringing up, because this period was also, as we're continuing on, characterized by tremendous activism on that part of you know primarily not solely, but you know, for the sake of our conversation Afro Cuban population, especially as it's transitioning to the modern society, as some may call it, of the 20th century. And so what were some of Black women's most? You know imperative points of activism and, just you know, thinking about what their political agenda or aims were, and how did this really come to be part of what you call citizenship practices in your book?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, yeah. So they employed various strategies based on their personal backgrounds, often being tied to class differences, and the book I focus on a primarily elite and upwardly mobile population of Black women living throughout the island, and so I'll just start with the findings there. The book actually starts in the late 19th century, after abolition. Which I found important was because, during the final years of the colonial period, cubans of African descent and Cubans more broadly really began to publish an array of newspapers and magazines outlining their visions of what a modern, independent society would look like, and that especially outlined the role of women and Black peoples in building a modern society. And for Black women, this included publishing articles that encouraged them to form what they would describe as like the moral and legal family unit, or married households waiting to have children until you were already married, and included embracing Catholicism for them pursuing formal schooling as a way to not just achieve socioeconomic mobility but also to really follow these ideas of respectability, to properly train yourselves and your children according to these middle class ideas of how you should behave in terms of music you should listen to, the dances you should partake in, and so forth. And also, during the late 19th century, many Black women challenged ideas of white superiority, emphasizing that slavery was the fault of white Cubans who had placed them in a position where they were not able to prosper or advance themselves.

Speaker 2:

Right Now, I highlight that to note that when I noticed and looking at the same population of Black women who were writing, who were helping to establish social clubs during the late 19th century, suddenly, following the establishment of the Republic, stop talking about race publicly.

Speaker 2:

Right, men of African descent on occasion would talk about racism, would call out individual instances of discrimination that they might experience, but women of African descent, at least publicly, would not talk about these ideas.

Speaker 2:

And I found some letters in which they might privately appeal, to, say, senator Juan Alberto Gomez and seek his help in navigating discrimination in the job market or educational system. And so they continue to talk about these ideas of advancement through education, through the family, to eventually articulate a feminist discourse that still relied on these more traditional ideas of femininity without identifying racism. And so, in the book, what I conclude is that one the shift towards promoting racial unity following the passage of the 1902 Constitution, in which Cubans suddenly recognize that they have quote achieved racial equality, exist alongside racial discrimination, but also limits their options for being able to challenge racism publicly, because they don't want to receive any sort of pushback or accusations that they're being divisive, and also that, within that context, the strategy for elite women of African descent will be to emphasize the respectability as these women, who are great mothers and caretakers, who are becoming educated, who dress well and who are helping to build their citizens for modern life as well as entering into professions- I definitely read that as a tactic, in a sense right.

Speaker 1:

There are ways that, particularly when you know, considering the fact that there's this false understanding of you know, a society, in a sense right, where race doesn't matter, but then we also have, you know, sexism, patriarchy, etc. Colorism. That was in a sense what, at least I read it as a definite strategy on the behalf of these elite black women, and that wasn't necessarily the case for all of those who are participating in this. You know feminist and national, you know Republic movement at the time, right, and so for those who maybe didn't follow suit with that degree or that approach to their activism, what did that look like in terms of other women's strategies?

Speaker 2:

Yes, thank you. So in 1908, a group of black veterans who had fought in the independence movement had become disillusioned with how the mainstream political parties operated, emphasizing the ways that they failed to address the particular significance of black citizens, and so they established what translates to the independent colored party, or the PIC, which became the first black political party right that really presented or became a threat to the power of these established black women, because it received so much support from black men throughout the island. As I note in the book, many black women embraced the mission of the PIC because they recognized how empowering black men as subjects also sought to benefit them, and that's where I found that the greatest contributions to this party was one through forming women's branches of local chapters of the PIC, which allowed them to help recruit both men and women to support the organization. They were also able to help raise funds for the organization. But then, second, many of these women wrote letters that they submitted to editors of the PIC newspapers that then helped to shape the discourses that taking place in terms of presenting PIC members and supporters as Cuban patriots and calling out and here we see some of the rare instances in which black women like publicly called out instances of discrimination, noting, for instance, that black women who were the mother's wife, sisters, of veterans did not benefit from relying on those connections to give them access to employment, but how, on the other hand, white women who were the daughters, wives, sisters of veterans received privileged access to positions, say in teaching, and so that highlighted one of many instances in which the Republican era government was failing to realize its principles of racial equality.

Speaker 2:

Women also promoted the historical legacies of black men, like Antonio Maseo, who participated in the movement for independence and called upon other men to join the movement and supported that group as well.

Speaker 2:

And in 1912, when, after the PIC had been made illegal through the law passed in Congress, the members continued to push back against the ban on the organization and to organize to push the government to recognize their demands. Ultimately, white humans responded by forming militias that came to target these members and supporters that had included black women, asserting that they were going to start a race war right. And these confrontations with black members, supporters, as well as those just believed to be affiliated with the group, resulted in the massacre of an estimated three to 6,000 persons of African descent, who especially lived in the eastern part of the island, and so, again in the book, I highlight the ways that these women relied on letter writing to intervene in public politics, presenting a rare case in which black women are challenging racism, and then I also note how that served as a way to do so, while affirming their respectability. Yet none of that offers them any protection. During the 1912 massacre, with many women being killed and others being jailed, right.

Speaker 1:

I just was continuously struck by the levels of the different activism, right, and so we've got letter writing, we've got the activism that you just spoke about in terms of 1912, but there was also significant activism in terms of constitutional reform, right, and so you did talk about briefly how women were eventually granted suffrage in the 1930s. But there were so many more aims in terms of this constitutional reform that you outline, and so could you just tease out a little bit for us what that looked like, particularly at that juncture in Cuban history?

Speaker 2:

Yes, yes, so I'll highlight the buildup to the 1940 constitution. One of the major transformations in black women's activism that I identified during the Republican era involves the evolution of black feminist thought right. So, as I mentioned a couple of moments ago, there are black women who engage in feminist thought, promoting women's roles and building a modern society, without really talking about race right. And so in the book I cite the example of Minerva, a black magazine that is published between 1910 and 1915, which we know is edited by persons of African descent, most of whom are men, but it includes a feminist column.

Speaker 2:

Right by the late 1920s and into the 1930s there is a shift that takes place in terms of how black women are talking about race right, and in part this is a reflection just of transformations among black Cuban activists, in which a younger generation recognizes the limitations of respectability discourses in which they focus on, especially for women, these domestic roles, respectability over critiquing race right, and they see that that doesn't do much to address their particular concerns with racial discrimination.

Speaker 2:

But it also leads to black women formulating a particular intersectional critique of racism, sexism and classism in Cuban society, highlighting the failures again of the nation to realize its principles, but then also calling for women's expanded role in the public sphere, and so this is a period in which we see them again publishing in magazines focusing on the particular experiences of black women. They also begin to establish their own independent organizations outside of male headed civic associations or political groups. They enter into mainstream feminist organizations that have been established by middle class, needly white women, and as they do so they form alliances that help to grow women's presence just in Cuba as their own political constituency, and then they push those elite women to gradually incorporate new goals into their political platform. Right that include the recognition of racism in Cuban society than proposing ways to address racism, through curricular reform, for instance, but then, most importantly, integrating an anti-discrimination clause into the Cuban constitution, which takes place when they write the 1940 constitution. Right that effectively bans a discrimination on the basis of race, color and sex.

Speaker 1:

The civic organization is what you brought up. We're really integral at this ladder, I guess, sort of like tail end of the Republic period, especially right. I remember reading about the National Women's Congress and just thinking about how organization from that perspective became really central to these women's black feminist activism at the time. And so you know, including the National Women's Congresses or any others you feel like just sharing a little bit. What was the work of these organizations in terms of not only organizing for like a black feminist politic or agenda, but also done across class lines?

Speaker 2:

So Cubans of African descent first began to form these mutual aid societies during the 19th century, especially during the late 19th century. That allowed them opportunities to socialize, to raise funds, to cover for, say, medical care, to cover funeral expenses. Many of these organizations continued to exist following the establishment of the Republic in 1902, and their political missions evolved right, with additional civic clubs being established as well. What those groups did was under the leadership of black men. They operated in parallel to white civic associations and then provided opportunities to socialize. In many cases they established like night schools to educate other Cubans in their local communities. Many of them established libraries, they published their own newspapers or magazines, and women's roles within these societies was primarily to help organize the social activities of the associations, right? I'll also argue that what becomes important in terms of black civic clubs is that they help members tap into patronage networks, right? So there are, say, many of the black elected officials are high ranking members of the civic clubs, and then they can help their members gain access to jobs, state resources and social opportunities. And what have you and black women also benefit from that. Now, what I found interesting about this is, again, women who participated in these organizations tended to embrace more conservative politics that limited the ways they engaged the broader political system. And yet I emphasize how their position in these organizations again reflected their goals of integration by affirming their respectable femininity. By the 1920s, and especially moving into the 1930s, black women began to expand their political activism beyond black civic clubs to include distinct organizations they've established amongst each other, for each other also, with them taking on more roles as professionals and to advocate for social welfare reforms at the government level and, in this case, becoming what Melina Papademos describes as black brokers.

Speaker 2:

Right, I'll give you an example. One of the women who I opened the book with Maria Dama Sohova and who I talk about later on in the book is a person who establishes her own schools. She lives in the town of Santa Clara in central Cuba. She establishes her own schools to educate children. She founds her own newspapers One is a literary magazine, another is a children's magazine.

Speaker 2:

During the 1920s and 1930s she begins to attend international conferences that focus on the rights of Cubans, including within the field of education, and they're emphasizing the importance of education for building a modern constituency. And she also appears at the 1939 Third National Women's Congress, during which she gives a speech on the black Cuban women's experience right and so she, I think, best reflects the varied nature of black women's activism during this period the ways that, by the 1920s, a younger generation of black women breaks away from respectability discourses, not to say that they no longer value that, but that they also recognize the need to address the material concerns of poor black Cubans and to call out racial discrimination in Cuban society. And then, finally, how black women move beyond these male-headed institutions to form alliances with working class women as well as elite white feminists, in pursuing legal reforms at a national level.

Speaker 1:

I really enjoyed reading those personal anecdotes, or, you know, it made me feel like I wanted to also read like biographies of, like you know, inocencia Valdez and several others who you mentioned. Across the book, it painted a very vivid picture of what the activism and Black women's lives were like at the time, and so, in that vein, I think it really helped to elucidate rather the unique efforts of individuals like Valdez and many others who were part of this sort of communist politic that's also going on at the time as well, and so could you tease out for us what that communist politic was like and what can we draw from some of the major influences that these women had due to their alignment with both feminism Obviously there's a racial politic that's going on or activism, and as well as this communist agenda as well.

Speaker 2:

Yes, yes. So inocencia Valdez. I've recently been writing a separate chapter highlighting the political world that she occupied, and she's just a really fascinating subject. She is born in Cuba around the time that the independence movement breaks out in 1868. Her father, who was a supporter of the independence cause, flees the island and comes to the United States. She, as a young child, emigrates with her mother and sisters to Florida to reunite with her father, settling in Key West in Tampa. Her father is a tobacco worker. She will later become a tobacco worker and by the late 19th century, as she becomes a young adult, she helps to establish and becomes a leader in independence organizations and then enters into the tobacco labor activist movement.

Speaker 2:

Now, of course, there's a lot of backstory before I even get to the communist piece, but what I just think is so important in highlighting her activism is to show the variations in black women's traditions during this period. So she returns to the island in 1917, settling in Havana. She quickly becomes one of the most prominent labor leaders by organizing tobacco stemmers, which is a sector occupied primarily by Cuban women because it is a multiracial population or sector. I believe that she chose to emphasize the just bread and butter concerns of this group right making sure that they improve their working conditions, raise wages, try to push their employers to guarantee their jobs rather than just quickly removing them and shipping them abroad to back to the United States, and helping to ensure stability and employment.

Speaker 2:

By the 19, mid 1920s and 1925, the first Cuban Communist Party is established, and they continue to expand their influence in the labor movement during the 1920s and especially in the 1930s.

Speaker 2:

It is the result of their expanding influence, this and their strategies and teaching them about Marxism and helping them to develop a critical analysis of their position in a capitalist society, that women like Baldess come to embrace a Communist, marxist political perspective by the late 1920s and especially moving into the 1930s. And so you have figures like Baldess, but also including women like Esperanza Sanchez, who I talk about in the book, who take on more prominent roles in building a Communist movement that really peaked during the early 1940s following the election of President Fulgencio Batista. And so Batista recognizes the right of Communist Party leaders and members to help push for labor reforms, including raising the wages. But it also includes women like Baldess and Sanchez who continue to, as well as Teresa Garcia, who continue to lead strikes throughout the period, helping to improve the conditions of a much broader population than even the women who I talk about in other parts of the book.

Speaker 1:

Returning back to my earlier point on the perspective of how historiography is sometimes deemed, I think especially when we were talking about nationalist movements right, we often get the big picture, the leaders, which have tended to be male, less often so people of color, depending on where you're talking about, etc. But one thing I really enjoy throughout reading your book is this perspective of nationalist movements, of the building of the nation, from the perspective of women who are working at the junctures or intersections of race, gender, class, etc. And so what is there to really be gained when we're looking at and studying histories from these intersections, as opposed to just a single narrative perspective?

Speaker 2:

So there's so much. One of the pieces that I kept coming back to as I was writing the book was recognizing how many of the strategies that Black women employed reflected, racialized and gendered of what was even appropriate right. It shaped the tools that were even available to them. So that's why I talk about how, again, elite women took up approaches that were perhaps more conservative, but really that was their way of receiving or trying to achieve or receive validation in a society that they did not see them as proper women and that relied on these ideas of them being inferior as black women to marginalize them Right. At the same time, you had women like Valdez, who was not a part of that elite and upwardly mobile community, so she wasn't as concerned with those kind of like gender and sexual politics and therefore focused on addressing what was most important to her in terms of, just like everyday labor issues, and then doing so really played a major role in helping to shape the direction of the labor movement right. So she's got this piece in terms of strategies that women took up, but then also recuperating the stories to acknowledge the major contributions that they've made to political and even social movements in Cuba.

Speaker 2:

And then there's this third piece that I think about moving into the last two chapters of the book, where one chapter looks at the story of Ana Chagoyne, who was an educator.

Speaker 2:

She became the first black woman to serve as a professor at the University of Havana, and she continued this more conservative tradition of pushing for reform, emphasizing democracy, women's rights.

Speaker 2:

And then, in the final chapter, I juxtaposed that with the story of Esperanza Sanchez, emphasizing her more radical politics. Yet what I note is that in both cases, these women who hold prominent national and even international roles, are primarily pushing for reform, or representing communities of women who, primarily, are able to push for reform through women's branches of major political communities, right. So certainly that's not all of what they do, but if you look at most of the women in their circles, most are either organizing through women specific organizations or, like a women's branch of, say, the Communist Party, and so that allows them entry again into the political sphere. Yet they're not able to dismantle patriarchy, right, because their activism relies on these ideas about what a woman can even do, and so focusing on this history that concentrates black women and that acknowledges the types of strategies that they're taking up highlights some of the limitations in adapting particular political strategies even as they continue to evolve right.

Speaker 1:

And so that's definitely in helping sort of change that narrative or maybe deepen the narrative of what activist movements, time periods, labor histories etc were like at the time. And we'll even continue this on in our next episode, which will focus on domestic women's at the time. So be sure to tune in for that. All my strictly facts, fam Alrighty. So final question for our episode. I really enjoyed this book so I will obviously pub all of our listeners checking out black women's citizenship and the making of modern Cuba by Dr Brunson in terms of just deepening your understanding of Cuban history at the time. But do you have any other suggestions for the ways that this history has shown up in popular culture, through music, through novels, documentaries etc.

Speaker 2:

Hmm, yes, oh my gosh, there's so much so I'm not sure if this is who you're speaking to next time, but I would recommend the Risa book of a NASA Hicks that focuses on domestic workers during the same period and really helps to expand our thinking about black women's history. So Devin spent Benson has translated the Afro Cubanos anthology that was first published in Cuba by black Cuban women who wanted to help document this history and examines their thinking, activism, cultural, all angles, and then, of course, check out some of the biographies that have been done on black women, like Celia Cruz, and really help to fill out this, this historical understanding of black women's lives within a Cuban context.

Speaker 1:

Definitely Dr Hicks is will be on our next episode, so thank you for alluding to that. I also add for our listeners, just because I enjoy reading novels, to have women and salt by Gabriella Garcia, which I have found to be just a really cool intergenerational perspective on a daughter, a mother and her grandmother and their different perspectives through Cuba over time and as a result of also migration and movements, etc. So feel free to check out all of these. I will include them on our strictly facts website and things of that nature for all of you all to look at. And again, please do be sure to check out Dr Brunson's black women's citizenship and the making of modern Cuba. It's a great read and I personally learned so much in terms of just organizing how we think of Cuba during this time and, as well, black women's roles in movements that are oftentimes erased. So definitely be sure to check it out strictly facts. Thank you so much, dr Brunson, again for joining me for this episode and to all of our, of course, and to all of our listeners.

Speaker 1:

We hope you enjoyed little more.

Black Women's Perspective on Early 20th Century Cuba
Evolution of Black Women's Activism
Black Women's Political Activism in Cuba

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