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African Americans and Cuba's First Experiment in Tourism: The Joe Louis Commission in Post Revolutionary Havana, 1959-1960

In the article below University of California, Riverside historian Ralph Crowder describes this fascinating but little known attempt by Joe Louis and Fidel Castro to encourage middle class African American tourism to Cuba  in the first year of the new regime.

When Fidel Castro successfully toppled Fulgencio Batista’s regime in January 1959, he and his fellow Cuban revolutionaries closed the gambling casinos and forced American gangsters to leave the island.  This action was enthusiastically supported by working-class and peasant Cubans since the casino world was one of the best examples of American imperialism and the prostitution of Cuban women who staffed brothels financed and managed by foreign gangsters. Castro and his advisors quickly realized that this popular initiative created serious economic problems for Cuba’s tourist industry.   Large hotels stood empty, jobs that supported Cuban households disappeared, and the island nation lost a $60 million dollar industry that could have been used to reconstruct Cuba’s economic infrastructure.  

Nearly ten months after Castro’s government had consolidated power, unrest had become widespread.  Unemployment, a persistent problem in Cuba, had been exacerbated by the discharge of soldiers and former civil servants associated with Batista’s rule, and dislocations of landowners and businessmen. Nonetheless, Castro’s personal popularity remained high and the “overwhelming majority of Cubans continued to support Fidel Castro and his regime.”  One strategy that Castro employed in the early years of Cuba’s post revolutionary government was to take personal supervision of new ventures.  This enlarged his personal powers and involved him directly in the administration of all new government programs. As president of the National Tourist Institute, Castro launched a campaign to revive Cuba’s tourist industry.      

During the spring of 1959, Castro contacted former boxing champion Joe Louis through Rowe-Louis-Fischer-Lockhart, Inc., an advertising firm based in New York

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